Beyond the tenure track: there is more than one way to succeed

Have you considered a non-tenured position in academia? Come discover how much potential this non-traditional career path holds, and what are the advantages that it offers to nowadays scientists.

5 min read
Beyond the tenure track: there is more than one way to succeed

There is a sense of unease when discussing the academic job market. We feel that more people are studying for doctoral degrees than can attain life-long academic careers. We fear that we are setting up a generation of PhD students for disappointment when they realise there are no "real jobs" for them within academia. There are two potential solutions. One is to significantly reduce the number of doctoral students we take on, setting us way back on recent advances to promote accessibility and reduce elitism in higher education. The other option is to expand our view of what a successful career can look like.

I work in Sweden, where employment law forbids contract-based work for more than a few years in any one workplace. In Swedish universities, this means that after two years as a postdoc employee, you are given the title of Researcher, and after two years of Researcher contracts, you are either let go or you become a permanent employee.

I hold such a permanent position in a university in Stockholm. My employment contract has no end-date, and I am a functionally independent Principal Investigator – yet I am not a member of the university faculty, nor am I on any kind of tenure track. This may seem like a contradiction or even an impossibility to readers in other parts of the world.

A permanent Researcher position is extremely flexible, varying depending on your interests and abilities, and your funding situation. Some Researchers are educational programme coordinators, others are lab managers or safety coordinators, and some maintain research centre infrastructure. This is the real beauty of the Researcher position – it can be moulded around the talents of an individual, and around the current needs of a department, which don’t always fit the university’s long-term faculty recruitment priorities.

My own Researcher position is more conventionally academic. I currently hold three independent grants from national research councils, and have budgetary responsibility over this money, with discretion to use it for salaries and research costs. I cover my own salary, am independent in postdoc and student recruitment, and the direction of our research is in my hands. I also make significant contributions to teaching lectures and labs, and this teaching brings some salary support from the school, taking some pressure off my project grants. I supervise multiple Master's thesis students every year, and I am co-supervisor to four PhD students who have faculty members as their main supervisor.

All of these are, of course, the tasks we normally think of as being performed by Assistant or Associate Professors, or Lecturers. Indeed, after an assessment process, I was recently appointed as Docent in Biotechnology. Before the tenure system existed in Sweden, this was equivalent to Associate Professor. Nowadays, the title of Docent for a non-faculty staff member like myself is more an acknowledgement of pedagogic ability and service to the school.

One big difference with my role compared to Associate Professor is that I am not obliged to contribute to the institute's administration and governance. I am part of a Division that has two full-time and two part-time faculty members, and they represent our interests at the level of the university. They also run research groups, and there is a great degree of collaboration between the groups in our Division. This helps maintain a collegial atmosphere, aided by the flat hierarchy we strive for in the lab.

The biggest pressure I feel comes from other people’s perception of my position. Faculty friends ask whether there is a prospect of “a real job” for me in the future.

The major distinction between my role and that of the tenure track faculty is that I will not become eligible for promotion to Professor, as there is simply no mechanism within the university for such a move. This is connected with a somewhat lower degree of stability for my own position, which is paid entirely from "soft" grant money. Members of the faculty receive some portion of their salaries from the school, and supportive funds allowing them to maintain a small group, although even full Professors can only build their groups by obtaining specific project grants.

I enjoy my job immensely – my role is flexible, as I can teach, apply for funding for my own ideas, and spend the rest of my time on research and supervision. My job continues to mould itself around me as my interests change and, for as long as I have funding, my trade union membership and the near-unbreakable nature of a permanent employment contract in Sweden mean that I am safe where I am.

The biggest pressure I feel comes from other people’s perception of my position. Faculty friends ask whether there is a prospect of “a real job” for me in the future. They want to push me on to the tenure track – a system that they may not like, but to which they cannot imagine an alternative. They came up believing that the tenure track is the only way to advance – a message that early career researchers are still hearing today, in the “leaky pipeline” discourse.

I am arguing for a cultural shift in the way we perceive academics working outside of the tenure track. What is the alternative? We know that there are way more PhD students and post-docs than can ever become Professors in the current system. And unless there is a radical re-structuring of the academic hierarchy, this will not change. Letting people continue to believe that a tenured position is the only form of success in the academy guarantees that most of us will end up frustrated and disappointed.

The perception of non-tenured academics must change, to show early career researchers that there is more than one way to be successful and to feel fulfilled in academia.

There should be financial and administrative support for more roles like my own – permanent teachers and permanent staff scientists (or combinations of the two, like me) have a lot to offer university departments, where talent and expertise often slip away from a school because competent people are held on short-term postdoc contracts, always looking for something more solid elsewhere. The perception of non-tenured academics must change, to show early career researchers that there is more than one way to be successful and to feel fulfilled in academia.

A huge factor preventing direct recruitment into positions like mine is the way that scientific research is funded, with councils giving awards calibrated to fund one PhD student or postdoc for precisely the duration of one specific project.

The changes required in our funding model mean I do not see support for permanent non-faculty positions becoming a reality in the near future, but I believe it could be transformative. It would allow schools to hold on to expertise, and allow people without administrative ambitions to build careers for themselves within the academic ecosystem.

The Swedish Network of Postdoc Associations brings together postdoc organisations from several universities to advocate for improvements in the working lives of the Swedish postdoctoral community, and this includes the promotion of more diverse career paths. There are several ‘junior faculty’ networks for individuals within the university system who have their PhD but are not yet faculty members, and many of these link up with larger European postdoc advocacy groups. Networks like these and the National Junior Faculty of Sweden (NJF) are vital for promoting the kinds of systemic change needed to support more positions like mine. The NJF will hold a virtual conference in November 2020 where the members will discuss what an ideal academic environment looks like. The first conference session will be called “What is our future?” An important question for all of us to consider, sooner rather than later.

About the author:

Lauren is a Researcher at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. She performs research and teaching in biochemistry, microbiology, and biotechnology. She also writes popular science articles on a freelance basis. Connect with Lauren through her website or on Twitter.

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