Academic researchers need a more reliable career path

Current patterns of recruitment of researchers for Danish universities threaten to undermine the quality of university research in the long run, according to a new report by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR).

An increasing proportion of university researchers – nearly one in every two – have temporary employment; and most research positions are not filled via open calls, and around one in four are filled via open calls but with only one candidate responding, the report says, implying that a high number of universities are simply hiring from their own ranks.

“There has been significant growth in the number of temporary employees without the similar growth in permanent positions,” the report says.

The number of assistant professors and post-docs rose by 94% from 2007 to 2015, with an increase of 2,700 post-doc positions from 2007 to 2017. The number of associate professors rose by 9% from 2007 to 2015. According to DFiR’s estimate, just under 50% of scientific staff in the universities (in 2016) were temporarily employed.

The DFiR’s aim is to increase the attractiveness of research careers and to support career paths to suit the needs of society. In the report, Careers in Research: Context and flexibility in scientific careers, DFiR has identified a number of areas where career perspectives and career paths in research – in industry as well as in universities – could be improved. 

The report is based on a synthesis of background reports undertaken for the project ‘Careers in Research 2017-18’ and on tracking the development of public research careers from 1995 to date, for which two qualitative studies have been undertaken.

One is an interview-based analysis of the view of researchers and research management in universities and businesses in Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark on career paths for researchers. The other is a survey-based analysis of the views of international academics at Danish universities on research careers in Denmark.

These publications* support the DFiR in making two conclusions and six recommendations. The two conclusions are that today far more researchers work in the private sector than in universities; and that some malfunctions have occurred in career paths in universities, which could harm Danish research quality in the long run.

DFiR has made six recommendations:

 

• Make career paths more transparent.
 

• Gear career counselling for young researchers more towards employment in the private sector.
 

• Introduce tenure track programmes.
 

• Recruit broadly, openly and internationally.
 

• Phase out temporary scientific recruitment positions without tenure.
 

• Develop funding that allows the externally funded research to be carried out by permanently employed researchers at Danish universities to a greater extent.


The proportion of a cohort (three years) of PhD graduates who did not obtain permanent employment has risen from 52% to 61% in the 1999-2015 period (without counting the PhD graduates who leave the universities). This indicates that a large number of researchers work in temporary positions in universities for long periods without really moving on in a career, the report notes. 

In addition to more researchers being hired on a temporary basis, the career path from PhD to a permanent position has been extended, the report notes. On average, it took 1.5 years longer to go from a PhD degree to permanent employment in 2017 than in 2008. 

In the period from 1999 to 2012, among post-doc candidates staying at universities, statistically more men without children were tenured compared with men with children and they achieved tenure significantly sooner than women with children, but all experienced a delay in their career path before getting a permanent position compared with the previous decade. 

DFiR says that the trend of university career paths becoming less attractive is worrying for Danish research.

“On average, it takes almost three more years to become a full professor from the time of receiving one’s PhD than was the case 10 years ago. Also, a rise in the proportion of women with children leaving academia and other gender equality indicators underline that the pool of talented female researchers at Danish universities might be diminishing.”

More open recruitment process needed

DFiR in particular is calling for a more open, broad and internationally oriented recruitment process. 

“The Danish position of ‘Professor MSO’ (professor with special responsibilities) is not being used as intended but is reduced to merely a professorship trial and the open competition in Danish research is not sufficiently transparent in the recruitment processes for research positions in the universities. 

“Only 47% of the research positions in Danish universities are filled in genuine open competition; 26% of positions are filled without open calls and 27% are filled with calls but that have one qualified candidate. DFiR therefore calls for changes in the career structures in the Danish universities,” the report says. 

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, the Danish rectors’ conference, commenting on the report, told University World News that the question about open recruitment revolves around two issues: the number of positions filled without open calls and the number of positions with only one qualified candidate. 

“In general, Danish universities are committed to open recruitment in order to recruit the best candidates for a given position – nationally as well as internationally. However, in some cases external funding does play a role in the recruitment process, for example, when a candidate is changing employment after having ensured funding from a public or private research foundation.

“We take the report very seriously and will discuss it further in an upcoming meeting in our research and innovation committee,” Langergaard said.

Source

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