Last November, the Helsinki University Association of Researchers and Teachers (HUART) carried out an extensive survey among grant-funded researchers at the University of Helsinki. As many as 260 people responded to the survey. This blog entry will explore whether it’s possible to support a family on a grant-based income. As background information, you should know that a total of 39 % of our survey respondents considered a grant to be an insufficient source of income. Similar results were obtained in Tampere, when the Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers (TATTE) carried out a survey among grant-funded researchers at the University of Tampere.
So how frugal is life when living on a grant? The answer depends on whether the grant recipient has a Doctorate or a Master’s degree. Most of the respondents to our survey were PhD researchers and this text will focus on them. Generally, foundations give PhD researchers grants of EUR 24,000–27,000 per year. Subtracting the taxes paid on the sum that exceeds the annual state artist grant (EUR 23 668.35 in 2021) and the grant recipient’s Mela insurance fees the sum amounts to roughly EUR 20,000–24,000 per year. Dividing this sum by twelve results in a monthly income of about EUR 1,660–2,000 for a demanding full-time job. An expert with a university degree would most likely earn more employed outside the university than on a grant. But what about an expert with a university degree and a family?
Can a researcher on a grant really provide for their family?
The average age of our survey respondents was 36 years, 70% were women, and 80% were PhD researchers. The responses of participants with families raised an issue that deserves more attention in future: too often, a grant-funded researcher seems to be dependent on their partner’s income. The (in this survey usually male) partner with a “real job,” pays the lion’s share of a family’s expenses. The biggest expenditure is housing, which is particularly expensive in the Greater Helsinki Region. A relatively easy way to improve the financial situation of grant-funded researchers with a family would be to introduce a family supplement.
“My partner has to cover most of our housing and other costs. Even as an adult, I’m totally dependent on my partner’s income. I often think about how I’d manage if something happened to my partner because my grant isn’t big enough to cover all of our living costs, even though our living costs are modest.”
“I couldn’t live on the grant only. My husband, who is also a foreigner, works here and his income is our primary source of support.”
The average age at which a woman starts a family in Finland is 30 years and the average age of the women who took part in our survey was 36 years. From this, we can conclude that PhD research often coincides with raising small children. This also means that one would need to provide for a family with a grant. Let’s add to this another finding from our survey: almost 70% of grant recipients had been given a grant for a maximum of one year. This means that (way too) many researchers are carrying out their research while managing tiny streams of income with no certainty about the future. In such precarious circumstances, monthly income can fluctuate a great deal and total annual income may be meagre – especially considering how much an expert with a university degree could earn in employment. Combining family life with intermittent income could seem like a reckless venture. And many of our survey respondents feel this to be true:
“As a grant-funded researcher, I’ve been uncertain about things related to starting a family, as we’re not offered occupational health services and my financial situation is inadequate. The small grants, the fixed-term contracts, falling between the cracks of work networks, and the break from working life during parental leave all worry me.”
“For several years now, I’ve been planning to have a baby. But considering the short grant periods (i.e., uncertainty and relatively low income-related parental KELA compensation), this can never be realised.”
“No one talks about this! This way of working makes it really difficult to even dream of starting a family (–).”
Freedom makes life with small children easier
Many grant-funded researchers with a family, or those considering starting a family, felt that their financial situation is extremely precarious. Despite this, our survey respondents did not see the combination of a grant and family life in a negative light only. On the contrary, several respondents thought it was practical, even ideal, to combine raising small children with grant-funded research.
“Academic freedom and parenting a small child is absolutely the ideal combination, even if uncertainty about future employment is troubling.”
“Carrying out research with a grant has given me the flexibility to coordinate work and family life in a way I can’t imagine would be possible in other situations.”
A grant-funded researcher’s freedom to choose their working hours fits well with a daily schedule determined by the youngest in the family: head colds don’t always come on weekends, visits to the child health clinic are never on weekends. Then again, some respondents complained that responsibility for childcare always falls on the parent whose work is more flexible, i.e., the grant-funded researcher:
“As my partner works a full-time job with fixed hours, it easily ends up being the parent working “more freely” under a grant that takes care of all the day-to-day errands that need to be handled during the daytime, such as looking after sick children, taking them to the dentist, to the child health clinic. Children’s school holidays also cause major problems, as I can’t take a “vacation” on my grant and I cannot afford to take time off.”
“There are problems when the child is sick. Many collective agreements stipulate that an explanation for why one parent was unable to care for a child must be provided upon request in order for the employee to be entitled to pay. The other parent’s gainful employment is an acceptable obstacle but whether PhD or grant-funded research is considered an acceptable obstacle depends on the employer. It’s unfair that if a child gets sick, the grant-funded researcher must always stay home to take care of the child.”
The academic world could be more family-friendly
“Extreme time-management is really not suited to Nordic family life where parents are (understandably) expected to spend evenings and weekends with the family (and taking kids to hobbies). For a grant-funded researcher, the question of how much (self-managed) free time they dare take is a constant gamble. The probability of success in the competition for grants is poor to start with, even if you don’t take any time off.”
Respondents pondered how their flexibility and the time they have invested in family life could impact their academic careers. If I don’t carry out research, or apply for grants, on weekends, during evenings, or while on holiday, will I be thrown out of the race and lose to those who have prioritised things differently? For people who would like to have children, deleting a family of their own from their life plan is an extreme compromise. Besides, family life does not only mean having children. In addition to taking care of children, people also take care of their parents, sick loved ones and other relatives; sometimes people help their siblings, their siblings’ children, and so on. And helping friends is not forbidden either.
All this is called normal life and everyone should not only have the opportunity but the right to a normal life. In other words, family life is not an element that can be disconnected from other aspects of life, it’s not a project to be chopped into sub-objectives and results, it’s just life: from cradle to grave. An academic career and normal life should be a viable equation. However, a fragmented income and performance pressure related to getting ahead in one’s academic career make it a very difficult equation.
Kersti Tainio & HUART Grant researchers’ working group
Are you interested in promoting grant researchers’ rights? Welcome to a panel discussion A Better Future for Grant Researchers: A panel discussion on grant researchers’ rights and prospects on May 18, at 14-16!