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 258 people responded to the survey. Today, May 18, 2021 we organised a panel discussion based on those themes that were highlighted in the survey replies. In the event, there were panelists from universities as well as foundations, and the topic was grant-funded researchers’ wellbeing: occupational health care, academic community, resilience, and different needs for support. Now it is time to publish the survey results!
What did we want to know?
We wanted to learn about grant-funded researchers’ daily life from two vantage points:
1) How the practices and work culture at the University of Helsinki currently take grant-funded researchers into consideration and integrate them into the academic community?
2) What kinds of challenges grant-funded researchers face in relation to societal structures and the safety net?
The survey was carried out in November 2020 and 258 people took part; 209 people responded to the survey in Finnish, 44 in English, and 5 in Swedish. The majority of respondents were women (68%), men represented 29%, and 3% did not define their gender. The average age of respondents was 35.7 years. Most respondents were PhD candidates, the second most represented category was that of postdoctoral researchers. The grant-funded researchers who took part in the survey comprehensively represented the various faculties at the University of Helsinki. However, the highest number of participants came either from the faculty of arts, the faculty of medicine, or the faculty of social sciences.
What worries grant researchers?
Grand-funded researchers worry most about fragmented funding, short funding periods, and uncertainty about future funding. Intermittent funding is not only very stressful but ineffective from the perspective of long-term research. Financial uncertainty is particularly strongly felt in the daily lives of grant-funded researchers that have families, and funding seems to be an insufficient source of income for researchers with families living in the greater Helsinki area. Inadequate and uncertain income also influences researchers’ decisions regarding starting a family (Read more on our blog: Grant + Family = Mission Impossible?).
The study showed that grant-funded researchers are only weakly connected to the academic community (Read more on our blog: Grant-funded researchers at the margins of the community). Many reported that the feeling of being an outsider was accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic but most of the community-related problems mentioned were not caused by the exceptional circumstances (Read more on our blog: Grant-funded researchers & COVID 19). Grant-funded researchers’ ties to their immediate work community often remain weak because the experience of belonging to a community develops only through regular and daily contact with one’s immediate colleagues. Feelings of being an outsider are also fed by various discriminatory practices as well as by the lack of workspaces.
One of the most significant discriminatory practices is that grant-funded researchers do not systematically receive the University’s communications. Feelings of being an outsider are amplified if communications do not specify whether they apply to grant-funded researchers also or if they are aimed only at University employees (Read more on our blog: Communication between the University and grant-funded researchers). According to our study, University support services and even basic infrastructure seem to be inconsistently available to grant-funded researchers.
The good news is that the University of Helsinki will invest in improving grant-funded researchers’ position. Read more on Flamma.
Grant-funded researchers fall between the cracks
Due to their exceptionally unstable position, grant-funded researchers experience significant threats linked to their wellbeing. Central to these are the uncertainties related to funding and thus to unemployment, as grant-funded researchers are currently not entitled to earnings-related unemployment allowance. In addition to the threat of unemployment, grant-funded researchers’ lack of access to occupational healthcare services results in concern about their physical and emotional wellbeing.
In light of the considerable mental strain caused by these factors, it is clear that more help and added measures to support grant-funded researchers’ wellbeing are needed. Our survey also included questions about grant-funded researchers’ experiences with the safety net society is supposed to provide. The responses showed that, in terms of unemployment and social security, grant-funded researchers often fall between the cracks (Read more on our blog: On behalf of unemployed researchers). Respondents said that it is difficult to find or get information from various authorities regarding help that may be available to them. A particularly big problem is that information is scattered, and furthermore, that the information that is available is often so general in nature that it is difficult for grant-funded researchers to apply it to their own, unique situation.
Moreover, the lack of information provided in English makes the position of international grant researchers even more difficult, as it is hard for them to receive help in matters related to, for example, taxation and residence permits, or to apply for support that they are entitled to. For the situation to improve, we need coordination between authorities, reforms to practices, and the political will to revamp unemployment and social security so that they serve grant recipients who have adopted now increasingly common ways of working (multiple job-holding, self-employment).
Grant-funded researchers have a distinctly negative career outlook and difficulties recognising what kind of career they should build for themselves. The grant-funded researchers who took part in our survey are also uncertain whether it is more worthwhile for them to invest in a research career at the university or to focus on networking and seeking merit with an eye to a career outside the university. The four-year target period for completing a doctoral dissertation complicates career considerations because there is not enough time to prepare for two alternative careers.
In spring 2020, the Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers (TATTE) carried out a broad survey among grant-funded researchers at the University of Tampere. The results of the TATTE and HUART surveys show that the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki have similar problems when it comes to grant-funded researchers: entangled experiences of inequality, lack of community, practices that vary across faculties, and poor communications together contribute to the exceptionally precarious position of the grant-funded researcher. That the University of Helsinki and the University of Tampere are having similar problems in this regard suggests that Finnish universities should work together to improve the position of grant-funded researchers. Targets must be set together with grant-funded researchers, progress towards achieving targets must be monitored over the longer term, and successful practices must be actively shared.
HUART’s Grant Researchers’ Working Group