Careers outside the tenure track

Universities want to offer clear career paths, including for those who choose something other than the tenure track path. The University of Vaasa, for example, offers two career paths and the Aalto University has two. However, sometimes you can only progress through an open application.

Texti juha merimaa images Outi Kainiemi

In 1986, when Jaana Puskala started as a part-time associate lecturer of the Swedish language at what was then the Vaasa School of Economics, she was given 419 teaching hours per year.

That number was not a coincidence. Had there been 420 hours, the recent master’s degree graduate would have had to be employed full time.

Puskala was an employee in demand. A professor had called her in Umeå during a student exchange and asked her to come to work. Still, one fixed-term contract followed another. In the summer, she was unemployed. The situation was difficult in many ways.

“Especially in the spring, it felt uncomfortable to plan the courses for the next semester when there was no guarantee I would get to teach”, Puskala thinks back.

However, there was always plenty of teaching to do, year after year.

Of course, this also meant certain demands. The School of Economics did not have a dedicated language centre, so the associate lecturers worked in the Swedish language department. Therefore, they were also required to conduct research.

“There was a feeling that if you don’t do research, you might not be employed in the autumn.”

More fixed-term contracts followed despite the Vaasa School of Economics becoming the University of Vaasa. In 1999, Puskala briefly worked outside the university, having graduated as a licentiate. She returned to the university just a year later, this time as a grant-funded researcher to work on her dissertation, which she finished in 2003.

In 2005, she finally received a full-time position working in the university’s language services, which had been introduced in the early 2000s. Prior to that, she had spent over 18 year working fixed-term.

Fixed-term contracts must be justified

Nowadays, chaining fixed-term contracts in this way is no longer possible. Special attention is given to fixed-term employment contracts, according to University of Vaasa HR Director Elina Kaunismäki.

“We regularly monitor fixed-term contracts together with employee representatives. There must always be a reason for such contracts.”

In the current year, fixed-term contracts have once again increased slightly at the university. However, this is something of a statistical anomaly.

These days, the university offers its grant-funded researchers so-called ten percent employment contracts to ensure grant-funded employees also receive occupational health care and similar benefits. These contracts are always fixed-term and, as such, increase the number of fixed-term employees in the statistics.

“The university tries to make fixed-term employment contracts as long as possible”, Kaunismäki says.

Fixed-term contracts under two years have decreased at the University of Vaasa, whereas the proportional share of two to three year fixed-term contracts has increased.

A dedicated path for project researchers

Extending fixed-term employment is one part of the University of Vaasa’s new career path model, which divides academic work between three separate career paths.

One of these is the tenure track. The idea is that a young researcher is hired as a postdoctoral researcher or assistant professor after obtaining their doctorate. From there, they can advance to the position of associate professor or full professor.

The second path is the university lecturer career path, which allows a teacher to advance to the position of lecturer, university lecturer, and eventually senior university lecturer. The criteria for the teaching tasks have been confirmed in the university’s code of professional standards and recruitment guide, but they are not scheduled the same way as the tenure track model. For example, a doctorate is required from a university lecturer.

University of Vaasa Rector Minna Martikainen says the title of docent is not directly related to the career paths.

“You can apply for the title of docent once you have enough publications. However, it is not a requirement for career path advancement and does not directly affect that.”

Other universities offer similar lecturer career paths.

Vaasa also offers a third option – the so-called project researcher career path.

Through the project researcher path, you can advance from a project researcher to a postdoctoral researcher after defending your dissertation. From there, you can move up to senior researcher and eventually research director, which is equivalent to a professor on the career ladder.

The model certainly looks attractive but also raises doubts – are there really research directors in Vaasa without a professor background?

According to Kaunismäki, no one has ascended the project path to a research director position thus far.

“But we do have multiple research directors without a professor background. The research director criteria are strict, but a professor’s competency is not required. An external evaluation is performed for indefinite research director positions. However, as far as merit-based qualification is concerned, this is less strict than a professorship.”

The ability to move from one track to another

A notable part of the Vaasa career path model is the arrows combining the three paths. These mean your career is not tied to one singular path, but instead you can move between them.

In 2022, there were eight such transitions, and five in 2023.

This phenomenon is not new per se. If the career of the University of Vaasa’s Puskala were to be observed according to the current career path model, she would have spent most of her career on the teaching path. However, she has additionally served in an administrative capacity in degree reform and language services. In the first decade of the 2000s, she also substituted for a Finnish language professor during their research leave. At that point, her permanent position was in the department.

From an administrative standpoint, Puskala’s job moved to the University of Jyväskylä after the University of Vaasa relinquished its language degree training to Central Finland. Puskala continued working for the University of Jyväskylä for a years, but when her job began to require relocation to Jyväskylä, she took up a university lecturer position in Vaasa. Therefore, she essentially moved from the researcher path back to the lecturer path in 2016.

Aalto: Professorship only through tenure

Not all universities offer transitions as flexible as those in Vaasa. The Aalto University offers two career paths: the tenure track for professors and the lecturer career system. In addition to these, there are individual academic positions, of which staff scientist and senior scientist are full time.

However, no obvious career path is associated with them.

“Both positions are closely related to research infrastructure here”, says Aalto University Provost Kristiina Mäkelä.

“The idea behind these is that we need a person for a certain job. Such jobs can be found in, for example, Aalto’s micro- and nanotechnology research infrastructure, OtaNano.”

”Sometimes we need a recent doctoral graduate, other times we require someone who already meets the full professor criteria.”

Kristiina Mäkelä, Provost, Aalto University

Otherwise, a professor’s career advances through the tenure system at Aalto.

“If we have professor vacancies, we always open applications for them. For example, if a lecturer or staff scientist wants to apply, they can do so. Many have in fact applied for tenure and attained professorships”, Mäkelä says.

The level at which people are recruited on the tenure track always depends on the needs of the department and the merits of the individual.

“Sometimes we need a recent doctoral graduate, other times we require someone who already meets the full professor criteria.”

There are no fixed-term professors outside the tenure track at Aalto. Mäkelä considers them a thing of the past.

“We have no model in which, for instance, a lecturer would fill in for a professor while they are conducting research. The idea is that we have enough academic people not to need dedicated substitutes.”

This arrangement is also in use in Mäkelä’s own position. When she is busy with her provost work, her professor work is divided between other professors in the department.

Are researchers getting stuck in dead ends?

A career path model built around tenure is certainly clear. However, at the same time, it can feel unsuited to a situation such as a lecturer wishing to become a researcher or someone in a different position looks to pursue a professorship. At Aalto, the only option in these situations is to apply in the open application process and compete with other candidates from Finland and elsewhere.

Both research and teaching merits are weighed in the open application process. The importance of publications may be considered a difficult situation for university lecturers whose job mostly focuses on teaching rather than research.

However, Mäkelä finds it fair that everyone must apply for a professorship through the open application process.

Naturally, Aalto also invites a few professors each year, but according to Mäkelä, these are internationally merited top researchers. She points out that lecturers also have a career path because universities require jobs focusing on teaching as well.

“We have two career paths because they have distinct responsibilities. People are selected for each career path through peer review”, Mäkelä notes.

 “Teaching is one of the university’s most important responsibilities, especially now that the level of education in Finland is supposed to be increased. The entire idea behind the two career paths is that an individual can advance their career in two different ways.”

Senior university lecturer at the end of the lecturer path

At Aalto, the top of the lecturer career path is the position of principal university lecturer. At Vaasa, it is senior university lecturer. Both can be given to a generally merited lecturer with a long career behind them. Puskala, who has spent over 35 years at the University of Vaasa, is yet to hold a title.

“Maybe there is still something to look forward to in my career”, she comments.

FUURT wishes for horizontal flexibility

In 2021, the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers published their own recommendations for developing academic careers and reducing fixed-term contracts.

They suggest alternate career paths which would allow, for example, a university lecturer to advance to the position of professor without an open application process.

On the other hand, they also require open applications for professorships alongside the tenure track path.

The career path section of these recommendations also calls for other changes. These include horizontal sharing of research and teaching responsibilities, including grant-funded researchers as part of the university community, and considering social interaction merits on the career path.   

Mikko Jakonen, a member of the working group creating the recommendation and FUURT Vice President at the time, states the university career path model is a step in the right direction. However, Jakonen finds the career paths outside the tenure track to still be quite disjointed.

“For example, the position of lecturers is still problematic. There may be situations where someone spends a long time as a substitute for a university lecturer, but when the open application process starts for that lecturer’s position, the full-time job is grabbed by some hotshot careerist from outside. This is not particularly motivating”, Jakonen states. According to the Finnish Union of University Professors, recruitment practices should ensure high-level, multifaceted, and diverse scientific and artistic knowledge for professors. The Finnish Union of University Professors states that employees should be hired at the full professor level in a more balanced manner.

Academic career also possible at language centres

In discussions about university careers, language centres often play a special role. Every university needs lecturers for various languages even if no language-related research is conducted there.

Satu Tuomainen, who works as a docent at the University of Eastern Finland’s language centre, tells us the language centre also offers a university career option.

Tuomainen joined what was then the University of Kuopio in 2002 as a teacher.

“I had studied in Jyväskylä, and my idea was to continue my studies by researching Shakespeare’s plays about kings. I wanted to return to my home region in Kuopio, and the university took me on as a full-time teacher. I was in the right place at the right time, and my papers were also good.”

Tuomainen has spent 21 years on that path.

According to her, everything has gone well. She was granted tenure two years later, in 2004.

 At the language centre, Tuomainen worked as a language teaching lecturer for specialised fields. Her interest in research was left on the back burner, but after ten years of teaching she decided to begin work on a doctoral thesis. She studied accreditation of prior studies at the university, which was closely related to her job. Her thesis was completed in 2015.

“My employer was very flexible and encouraging. I received a grant from the faculty, and during the writing process I was able to use five months of leave thanks to external funding.”

Her doctorate meant her job title changed to university lecturer. Tuomainen continued conducting research alongside her teaching duties, and she became a docent in 2023.

Her job description has also changed over the course of her career. In a 2020 reform, Tuomainen became a team supervisor. Nowadays, 30 percent of her working hours are spent on administration work.

“I like to think my career has progressed nicely. Despite the fact I mostly have to do research on my own time, I have been able to attend conferences related to the field and things like that. I have been satisfied with my salary as well.”

The next step, as is the case for other experience colleagues, could be the position of senior university lecturer.

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