Can you progress in a university career?

Many university employees feel stuck in a career rut. Temporary work prevents long-term planning, teaching takes time away from research, recruitment criteria feel opaque. Is it possible to progress in a university career?

Is there a straight career path ahead, does it twist and turn in unexpected ways, or have you hit an apparent dead end? Progress in one’s own career is important to university workers, as evidenced by the responses Acatiimi received for their career survey this October.

Progressing in one’s career can mean several things. For one person, that is climbing from one job title and challenge level to the next, to someone else it simply means keeping a job, and to yet another individual it’s an opportunity to change up their responsibilities. Of course, progress also involves the feeling of your own skills developing, along with being able to offer your contribution to science and higher education, as well as doing work that matters.

When Acatiimi asked for experiences from researchers and teachers this autumn, over a hundred people responded. Many of the responses made for grim reading. Perhaps the survey was especially attractive to those who have encountered challenges in their careers. The comments from researchers and teachers in this article have been selected from the survey responses.

1. Unclear criteria

“After my dissertation, I was lucky because I received a lengthy personal grant for over three years. But despite this stroke of luck, I feel very uncertain about my ‘career’ prospects. I do too much work to ensure various merits that might not have any effect in the end. The competition is unpredictable, the criteria are not transparent, and it seems nothing is good enough.”

Many of the survey respondents are unsure how to advance their careers. Your professional career is the result of random choices. One respondent feels they have hit a dead end because they studied at one location, finished their dissertation at another and does projects “here and there”, meaning the respondent is not attached to a single department or unit. They feel permanent positions are snatched up by “the chosen few favourites, who have been mentored on projects by the professor since they were students”.

Conscious favouritism or coincidence? Regardless, many consider the criteria for career advancement to be highly variable or unpredictable. Mia Weckman, Director of Advocacy for the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) recognises the problem. The universities have been rapidly developing career systems, but these tend to be unfinished and differ from each other.

“People move between universities a lot, so obviously it will be difficult if you’re in a certain career phase at one university, another phase in another university, and not progressing at all in yet another one. The universities certainly have autonomy, but the lack of correspondence causes problems”, Weckman says. According to Weckman, legal protection for the employee is a worry if no clear advancement criteria have been set. This issue was such a frequent topic in last spring’s collective bargaining negotiations that it is now being looked at more closely. Weckman is part of a working group to specify a situational picture on the university career models and merit systems.

The most straightforward path is the tenure track for professors. Many universities also offer a career path for lecturers. According to Weckman, the four-step model for researcher careers is more vaguely defined as it may simply be a method to categorise staff but is also occasionally seen as an advancement path. “Some universities refer to the career phase of the four-step system as grounds for a fixed-term contract”, Weckman says.

Based on Acatiimi’s inquiries with the universities, the four-step model was also found to have multiple meanings. The University of Eastern Finland explicitly refers to it as an advancement path, whereas in the Aalto University the model is “more in the background”. In some universities, it is both a categorisation method and a career advancement outline and path. The leadership of several universities communicated that the career models are being developed constantly, based on personnel feedback. The criteria for career advancement have also been considered in a recent report concerning professor recruitments. According to the report commissioned by the Finnish Union of University Professors, people applying for professor positions are evaluated differently in different universities. Some universities have outlined specific percentages on the value of different parts of the evaluation, whereas others state the emphasis varies between cases and tasks. Tarja Niemelä, Executive Director of the Finnish Union of University Professors, says some of the universities give groups of third-party evaluators a lot of clout. If the university asks third-party experts to rank the applicants or score them on their merits, the university’s recruitment process becomes less flexible as a result. If the university only asks for an evaluation without a ranking, it keeps more freedom to make decisions.

“I was surprised to see the practices vary that much. We should ask if the recruitment methods should be standardised.”

2. The time window for career advancement

“I am in the exact age group that didn’t got tenure before the tenure track system was established. Very few in their late 40s are chosen for tenure at this point. I know age has been a recruitment factor (40 years old is ideal for tenure, 45 is the maximum). There have been talks about this.”

Another concern for university workers is time slipping away. Many of those struggling in fixed-term positions believed there was a time window on career advancement and age becomes an obstacle. This experience was shared by many despite the fact age must not be a criterion for recruitment. For those enduring one fixed-term contract after another, the time window also means fewer funding opportunities when too many years have passed since their doctorate to participate in certain application processes.

“I’d prefer not to leave the academic world, but I don’t really know what to do next. My current contract is to next summer”, laments a researcher in their third postdoc position.

Professor recruitment has undergone a major shift in approximately five years. The report commissioned by the Finnish Union of University Professors indicates the tenure track, a global import to Finland, has quickly become the most common recruitment method in the country.

According to the report, 189 tenure track positions opened last year, quadruple the number of traditional professor recruitments. The report estimates that the shift in recruitment also changes the community of professors. We can already see the tenure track positions to be more male-dominated and international in terms of applicants than the traditional recruitments. Getting on the tenure track is a stroke of luck for many, but can also lead to feelings of inequality:

“The tenure track is essentially a fast lane to make things happen at the expense of researchers who have advanced further, and clearly shows the impossibility of career planning. A young and ‘promising’ researcher overtakes five older researchers who have shown their scientific potential, earned merits, and invested in their careers, solely by virtue of being young and promising.”

The universities maintain that experts in different phases of their careers are recruited in a diverse manner, using fair criteria. However, Tarja Niemelä from the Finnish Union of University Professors tells us the Union is very frequently contacted by members astonished by the ambiguity regarding recruitments. It is common for both professor and associate professor applications to be ongoing at the same time, and it is not decided until the recruitment which candidate in which career phase is selected. This means less experienced applicants are evaluated directly against highly merited candidates.

“It is quite a task for the evaluation groups. You can consider how fair the evaluation is when one position is contested by people in such different career phases. The decision is very difficult to justify to the applicants”, Niemelä says.

Niemelä points out such a search is also problematic in terms of the Equality Act. The Equality Act requires a consideration of the comparative merits every time both male and female applicants apply for a position. Failure to choose the most merited candidate results in a presumption of discrimination, which can be overturned by the university by proving it had objective grounds to choose a more fitting candidate.

The Union has seen cases in which the chosen individual could have been recruited as a full professor on merit but was placed on the associate level instead, with suggestions of a chance to graduate from associate to full professor in two years — a chance that never comes.

“The universities are struggling with their finances due to major cutbacks. There is a disparity of several thousand euros between the salaries of potential and merited individuals, which makes it more tempting for a department to hire based on potential”, Niemelä ponders.

According to Niemelä, discussions with the universities about their recruitment methods are still ongoing. Cases concerning recruitment legality are also being taken into court.

“These are mega issues affecting university people. Either the practices or the law must change, or both.”

3. Getting stuck teaching

“I am at a dead end. I have to teach so much I may not have time or energy to do research, which means no publications and never earning a docentship or university lectureship. It feels as if university teachers have been completely forgotten when talking about university career models; we’re just cheap labour to toil away for hundreds of teaching hours so that others can do research and thus advance their careers.”

The Acatiimi survey received a particularly large number of responses from people in teaching positions. At the universities, you earn merits through publications. However, there tends not to be enough time or opportunities for research — or even applying for research funding — in positions focused on teaching.

Many teachers are also dissatisfied with the salary progression. Hanna Tanskanen, Special Advisor on the university sector for the Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ), says the universities’ wage systems are not always able to sufficiently consider teaching merits. According to Tanskanen, teaching merits are not always considered in recruitment either. Different applicants’ chances are influenced by whether the teaching merits of all applicants are evaluated at the start of the recruitment process, or the top applicants are chosen based on their research and other merits and teaching experience is only considered in the last phase.

“Teacher of the Year awards are certainly handed out, which is good but in addition there should be systematic methods to determine how the individual is developing at their job. Teachers must be able to get an evaluation on how their earnings have developed”, Tanskanen says.

Many universities either already offer or are working on implementing a lecturer career path or a teaching-focused career path. Tanskanen considers the existence of these career paths a positive development, but the problem is that they are used to justify fixed-term contracts. For example, the Aalto University’s three-step career path for lecturers includes a fixed-term first phase, which is extended to the first two phases at the University of the Arts.

“Our approach, on the other hand, is that you should gain merit in your own permanent position and progress through that. The training job is a legally mandated, permanent job at the university.”

The lecturer career path also easily divides research and teaching into two separate jobs despite the fact higher education is inherently based on research. OAJ and the Union for University Teachers and Researchers in Finland (YLL) support combining the two. Those who spend a lot of time teaching are unable to compete on publication quantity, so their teaching merits must be emphasised. On the other hand, people in teaching positions must also be offered more opportunities to conduct research than there are currently.

According to a survey conducted by OAJ for YLL members, many lecturers are forced to conduct research in their spare time because not enough time is reserved for it in their work plans. Even if time is available, in practice research is not always feasible because the estimated amount of time required for teaching, administrative and other work is unrealistic. On average, 14 per cent of the working hours of teaching staff is reserved for research.

The teaching job career model outlined by OAJ and YLL offers improved chances to advance from teaching to a full professorship when teaching merits and research are considered more equally. Conversely, the ultimate career goal may lie in challenging teaching work, in which the merits of an accomplished university lecturer are reflected by the salary. Unlike the Finnish Union of University Professors, YLL supports opening a starting professor’s challenge level to sufficiently merited university lecturers. According to Tanskanen, it is vital to reserve time for research even in teaching-focused jobs. The Union advocates a research period system, which is in fact in use in some universities and allows teaching staff to focus on conducting research without teaching responsibilities for a period of e.g. one semester or one term.

4. Funding dictates all

“I’ve already spent years in this project hell, which does pay the bills but feels like I’m sinking into a swamp or quicksand. When you work on projects that have nothing to do with your dissertation and spend your evenings writing funding applications, there’s no time or energy left to write the dissertation even though that would be the only way to advance your career. I have even encountered a situation where I’m involved in a project funding application based on my expertise, but I personally can’t get that funding due to my lack of a doctorate. This means others are starting to research subjects I had planned for myself.”

Writing applications and fishing for projects determines career advancement, so any systematic career progression is difficult. Or, to put it more bluntly, “the idea of a university career is a bad joke”, as one respondent to Acatiimi’s survey put it.

For a large number of people at universities, the main problem is not whether they might earn a better title or move to a higher salary bracket one day. The whole university career is dependent on whether more funding is coming, and for how long. Career progression entails moving to the next funding period or out of the university. Not only can funding be required to continue working in the first place, but obtaining funding is a very important factor in professor recruitment, for example. According to Tarja Niemelä from the Finnish Union of University Professors, obtaining external funding has clearly become a major recruitment consideration compared to the past. Niemelä says that in the most blatant cases, what the university considered insufficient external funding has been the main reason for not promoting an individual from associate professor to full professor. Mia Weckman from FUURT states the uncertainty places stress on researchers when conducting research is so fragmented and the research periods so short.

“Applying for funding takes an unbelievable amount of time from research”, she says.

As one researcher commented in their response: “The only significance of a university contract is that you can apply for money in the university’s name to pay your own salary. In this line of work, you are completely on your own, fighting over table scraps with others in the same position.”

University management representatives admit the question is indeed difficult. The universities are at the mercy of the ministry’s funding model and can only hope for sufficiently extensive basic funding to be able to offer more stable employment.

Weckman understands the financial pressure but says the culture of the universities can also be partially blamed for the temporary work.

“Obviously the fragmented nature of the funding affects the universities, but it’s the same for businesses. They also have money coming in from outside, yet people are employed full-time.”

Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Image: Hans Eiskonen
Translation: Marko Saajanaho

Acatiimi 6/2020