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Efforts to tackle precarity should focus on PhDs


Making doctoral training more professional and selective would benefit all Europe, says Jürgen Janger

Precarity of research careers touches on questions of systemic efficiency and equity. But while this is widely acknowledged, a coherent, evidence-based picture of the problem and measures to address it have been lacking.

In a European Commission-funded report, my colleagues and I try to fill this void, analysing data from sources including surveys, Eurostat and online job offers, as well as interviews and a workshop with policymakers. 

Precarity means different things in different places. In the EU’s research-intensive nations, it means many junior researchers on fixed-term contracts competing for open-ended contracts. In its emerging R&D nations, the main issues are poor salaries and funding.

There are positive trends: the share of fixed-term contracts is falling, and recruitment is be-coming more transparent and merit-based. But our data still reveal high levels of precarity. 

In 2019, 40 per cent of all researchers in the EU were on fixed-term contracts, compared with just 8 per cent of R&D workers in industry. For under-35s in research-intensive nations, this rises to 86 per cent. In the emerging countries, 28 per cent of PhD trainees lacked formal employment contracts.

Policies aimed at reducing precarity need to consider supply and demand, researchers’ working conditions and how these interact. Recruiting more early career researchers without more funding for permanent positions, for example, would only make things worse.

In particular, reforming the structure and processes of PhD training is vital. PhD candidates should be seen as professional researchers, not indentured apprentices. They need formal contracts and pay, just as their peers in industry would get.

Structured support

Many countries have no or few graduate schools, structured doctoral programmes or other support structures. Such schools can provide a host of support services, including job-market information from the application process onwards, facilitating contact with alumni and training in transferable skills. 

The same goes for postdoc support offices, which are rare in the EU in comparison with the US. Associations of PhDs and postdocs, or even junior faculty, may also make their concerns more visible and contribute to policymaking.

Increased support should come with increased selectivity. Not everyone aspiring to a position in research will be able to obtain one, so career paths need early, reliable and fair selection points during PhD programmes, postdocs and tenure-track positions to avoid protracted phases of uncertainty. 

In some EU countries, anyone with an undergraduate degree can start a PhD course. Increased selectivity may lead to fewer PhD applicants and postdocs, but by reducing dropouts, it ought not to reduce the supply of researchers. 

All fixed-term research positions should come with training in transferable skills and careers advice. Researchers should be able to make informed decisions about their careers as early as possible, and have the skills to take on a broader range of jobs in and outside of research.

This would mean training group leaders in giving feedback and understanding career options to help junior researchers’ career progression, instead of perceiving those who don’t take the traditional academic route as failures. 

Reforms to organisational structures and grant funding may also create more permanent positions. In several countries, tenured researchers’ salaries cannot be funded by grants. Allowing this could free up university money for junior researchers and act as a productivity incentive, much like giving tenured researchers flexible teaching hours. 

The growing complexity and specialisation of science has also created a need for more permanent positions besides principal investigators. This should lead to academic units becoming flatter and more collegiate, rather than hierarchies with one person at the top.

Role for EU

The potential for reform is huge, but it needs to be underpinned by strong and predictable funding—which is needed anyway to address societal challenges and deficits in competitiveness. 

The EU could play a role both directly, by applying best practice to funding schemes such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, and by helping to spread learning and best practice among member states. Recently mooted plans to introduce institutional EU funding would be a welcome additional tool.

Reducing precarity in research would have many other benefits, strengthening emerging nations and reducing risk-aversion in research-intensive systems. And it would make Europe a more attractive place to do research in general, helping it in the global competition for talent. 

Jürgen Janger is a senior economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research in Vienna

This article also appeared in Research Europe