Position of senior grant-funded researchers at universities

FUURT’s policy for good grant practices in universities (published 11 March 2024) contains many welcome proposals for improving the position of grant-funded researchers. However, the policy has been outlined primarily from the perspective of early career researchers. As researchers, we are past the post-doc career stage and, after completing our doctoral degrees, we have worked at the University of Helsinki as fixed-term employees, grant-funded researchers, and leaders of foundation-funded projects. From this position, we want to make a few additional observations on the themes introduced in the policy.

As senior researchers, we constantly run into the assumption that, at this career stage, a researcher should be in a continuous employment relationship. This is the message relayed by both the internal practices of the university and the policies of the financing parties as concern the funding criteria for the forms of funding related to the different stages of research careers. However, the assumption that senior researchers are in permanent employment relationships is a poor reflection of reality. This is particularly clear in the field of humanities and social sciences, where an increasing number of senior researchers also find themselves in an uncertain and changing employment situation, alternating between fixed-term employment relationships and periods of grant funding (and even unemployment).

While research career models show the third step as a stage for researchers to expand their expertise and build their own research team, we, like many other senior researchers, have ran into increasingly fewer options for funding. For example, it is impossible for senior researchers to receive funding from the Academy of Finland, since you cannot apply for academy researcher funding if more than 7 years have passed since the completion of your doctoral degree. Project financing is generally not available either if you are not in an employment relationship with a university or the duration of the relationship is too short. The same employment relationship requirement also applies to several international project financing options.

For many senior researchers, foundation funding has offered a possibility for starting a research team. Based on our experiences, however, the management of foundation funding can be considerably difficult if the project leader is not in an employment relationship with a university. Grant-funded researchers do not have access to all the electronic systems that would be necessary to manage the project funds, for example, to make travel arrangements or pay remuneration. It may also be difficult for a project leader working on a grant or in short-term employment to manage the workspace and equipment issues of the researchers involved in the project. In the jungle of unclear guidelines and practices, a project leader may find themselves in a limbo state where they are responsible for facilitating the realisation of the project as planned but lack any power to demand from the university the required spaces and equipment, even if the project funding includes an overhead share that complies with university guidelines.

The policy published by FUURT contains important observations concerning the possibility to gain work experience and competence by carrying out teaching duties. In the third career stage, the expectations of diverse experience and expertise continue to grow and attention is paid in particular to management experience, international networking, and supervisory experience. Good places to gain management experience would be various positions within a university, such as membership in the management teams of degree programmes. These are not typically available for grant-funded researchers. In addition to the restrictions related to international financing, researchers working on a grant or in temporary employment may have difficulties gaining supervisory experience, since applying for doctoral studies requires that the applicant has at least one supervisor in a long-term employment relationship with the university. This means that our applicable expertise and commitment to a new supervisory relationship is not enough, but the decisive factor is whether we can find a person who meets the employment criterion and can take on a new student to supervise.

Equal and transparent practices at universities are important from an experiential perspective as well. Many grant-funded researchers surely recognise the worry about dropping out of the university community, a fear that is associated with working in an uncertain position. This concern could be alleviated by clear and flexible practices in terms of different funding options on the university side. But the most important thing would be the recognition of grant-funded researchers as members of the university community in practice as well and not just in oratory rhetoric and annual reminders about entering research results into university systems.

Elina Seye and Reetta Mietola


Elina Seye, Doctor of Philosophy, Title of Docent, works as a researcher in the Diversity of Music Heritage in Finland project, funded by Kone Foundation, and is the leader of the World Wide Women project that combines science and art, also funded by Kone Foundation.

Reetta Mietola, Doctor of Philosophy, Title of Docent, works as a university researcher in the RESET research environment of the Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Helsinki, funded by the Academy of Finland, and leads the Vammaisaktivismia tekemässä research project, funded by Kone Foundation.