Where is the bright future for young scientists?

It is a hard struggle to move from a temporary to a permanent university position. Firstly, such positions need to be available, secondly one has to apply for them, thirdly one needs enough merits to be selected and called for an interview, and finally one has to get it in the final competition with some of the other applicants. But once one has passed this final stage and has been offered a permanent position, life looks bright.

Many positions at a university are not permanent, only senior lecturer positions, professorships, and a new type called researchers, are termed permanent positions. At the “bottom” of this academic ladder are at present only postdoctoral positions, because the tenure track positions as associate lecturer, and research assistant (forskarassistent), seem to have been effectively removed at most universities due to pressure from the union. The union wants that all positions are made permanent, because the argument is that it is inhuman to have scientists employed on temporary positions, year after year, and when money is short they are laid off, and have no or little possibilities to find a job outside the university. This is a good point, but the union’s argument misses a really crucial point: The possibility for young scientists to gain academic merits through research experience, through teaching experience and through publishing, so that they can prove that their track record is of high quality.

As the situation is now, young scientists only have the possibility to obtain a two plus two-year postdoctoral position after their PhD degree. Two years need to be spent abroad, and two years can be spent in Sweden. In case the young scientists might obtain external funding they might have a chance of being employed as a researcher, but only for a maximum of another two years. After these two years the rules say that they either have to be permanently employed, or they need to move to another university. Departments are of course reluctant to provide a permanent contract, because they may not have the resources to employ the person should the external funding cease, or they do not want to take any risks. The combination of two years abroad and possibly two years in Sweden is however unfortunate. Who knows how well a postdoctoral stay abroad turns out, how well the science project will work out, and how difficult it will be to re-establish back home? These two plus two years are in my opinion far too short to develop a research platform, to publish enough papers, and to be competitive on the academic employment market.

The previous system of offering a four or six year long research assistant position after the PhD was an excellent way for young, promising researchers, who aimed for an academic career. They could gain experience, build up a research network, and could add publications and merits to their scientific curriculum. These types of research positions were made available by different research councils in Sweden, and also by the different universities, and were very successful. Many young researchers built a successful career upon these, but many also fell out of the system because these were not tenure track positions. In this respect it was a tough and also insecure system.

Now these positions are no longer available, and without associate lecturer positions the career paths for young researchers are more uncertain than ever. Instead of helping young scientists into a career, and instead of providing different platforms for young researchers, the union has effectively managed to block science careers. It seems that we are now back to the old system, where one moves from a PhD more or less directly into a permanent senior lecturer position, without having had the possibility to create science networks, and to establish a research profile.

This, of course does not provide us with the highly qualified lecturers, who are wanted by the universities. What it does mean in reality is that we will recruit scientists from outside of Sweden, who have been able to gather an excellent scientific curriculum, because they could move from one non-permanent position to another; what it also means is that our young and promising researchers will be forced to leave Sweden to take up short-term positions at other universities. Otherwise they will never have the possibility to compete for an academic position. Is this what the union wanted to achieve? An effective brain drain? Large disadvantages for female researchers, who because of family obligations may not have the possibility to move from one research position to another? The union probably had a good intention, but this intention was not based on the good of science, and not on the reality of academic life. It seems that the Swedish Research Council is now paying attention to the problem. It has created a special pool of money for young researchers (0-7 years after their PhD exam) in medicine, and in natural and technical sciences. The hope is that young researchers with a good sum of money from the Research Council can convince departments/faculties to create permanent positions for them.

Looking back at my own career, I would not be professor today if I had not had the possibility of obtaining a six-year research assistant (forskarassistent) position, if I had not had the possibility of obtaining soft money and using this to finance myself. These years gave me the time that was necessary to develop as a scientist, allowed me to try my wings, helped me to create research networks and to set up research projects; these years also gave me experience in teaching, made me an independent scientist and really advanced my career. Although I often did not know where my salary would come from a few months ahead and if there would be a new contract, I am convinced that these ten years taught me very much. Of course now I can already hear the familiar voices: “who wants to be like you”, “why should we struggle like that”, “because you did it this way, why should I do it like that”, “I have a right to have a permanent position”, “the university should take care of me”, “it is not human how young researchers are treated”, and so on. My answer is: “sorry, you must have misunderstood what the word career means, it does not mean a safe heaven where you can retire and earn your monthly salary. It means risks, development, experience, networks, visions, knowledge, and much more”.

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