Order to Nonsense

The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers’ 2017 survey for early career researchers seeks an answer to the question of whether low-paid intermittent academic work is nonsensical. The results of the survey were published on 15 November 2018, and as the Chair of the Finnish Union of University Professors, I was able to participate in the discussion at the publication event. Thanks are due to the authors of the survey for researching an important matter and to the other panelists and the audience for good discussion.

According to the results, there is some nonsense to our “efforts”, but also some features of a functional work community. Over a third of the respondents feel that there is insufficient time for leave or recovery. It is not healthy either that over 70 % of those who responded are concerned about the uncertainty of their careers. The results strengthen the sense of the scantiness and uncertainty of income. There is also cause for concern when 40 % of both those who do research on a grant and those early-career researchers who are employed feel that they are outside the work community.

Then again, completing a doctoral degree seems to increase the income level significantly. About 70 % of the respondents viewed their career prospects positively or at least neutrally. Universities would be the most favorable workplaces for almost half of the respondents. Universities and doing research, then, still carry a certain magic appeal that inspires and encourages continuing.

In addition to long-term funding and permanence of employment, smooth cooperation between the dissertation researcher and the supervisor is a key precondition for good work. Of the respondents, 32 % said they discuss with their supervisor more often than 2—3 times a month, some weekly or more often. 30 % of the respondents had discussions once a month or at least every other month. The remaining 28 % estimated that they had discussions 1-5 times a year and according to 4 %, less than once a year.

From the point of view of the supervisor, 2—3 meetings a month is 20—30 meetings a year. Easily over a hundred supervision meetings accumulate during the desirable dissertation completion time of four years. If there are, for example, 10 supervisees, there are more than 200 meetings per year and almost 1000 in four years. The example I invented is meant to highlight the asymmetry of experiences. The supervisee works in a goal-oriented way and has a right to supervision that is sufficient and of good quality. Supervisors, for their part, struggle with their own working time by dividing their supervision resource between all the supervisees. Even though both would do their best, the experiences of time spent on supervision may remain different. Clearly weak and inadequate supervision or an unreasonably slow progress of the dissertation work are, of course, situations where a separate solution is needed.

The joint understanding that the supervisor and the dissertation researcher share of the intensity of supervision and mutual commitment is necessary. The same is true of leadership work more generally. It should also be possible to share supervision and leadership work when necessary so that there is time and knowledge for doing the tasks. We can develop these practices ourselves without outside guidance from universities. Early career researchers’ experience of being left outside the work community is also something that everyone can work to reduce. It is, however, too big of a problem to be left to the activity of individual members of the university community. When the objective is the best workplace in Finland as defined by the Vision 2030, systematic measures to correct the problem are required from the university organisation.

We cannot, however, solve all the problems that have emerged with our own measures. Tasks and available funding need to be balanced. We need a new kind of science policy. Alongside performance management, we need space for sustained, free basic research and the innovations it generates. The new tasks of the university, like the promotion of life-long learning, too, require a mental and economic commitment that is stronger than now even from the working life outside universities. We can advance these and many other matters through joint election goals of the Finnish Union of University Professors and The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers.

Jouni Kivistö-Rahnasto
Chair, The Finnish Union of University Professors

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