Published 30 March 2016

Young researchers’ career paths

– tenure tracks, equality, researcher mobility and research funding

This report describes how career paths for young researchers have developed in recent years in Denmark, China, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore and the USA. More specifically, the report focuses on how these countries and their universities have used tenure tracks and how they have addressed the issues of gender equality, researcher mobility and research funding with relation to young researchers’ career paths.

In recent years, several countries, such as Denmark and Switzerland, have focused particularly on career paths for young researchers, career paths for female researchers, and international mobility. In some cases, this has involved relaxing terms of employment rules for researchers so as to make tenure tracks possible. For example, Denmark has changed the regulations so that universities can offer tenure tracks where the researchers know in advance that they will be offered a permanent position if their work is evaluated success­fully. Denmark has also made laws that limit the possibility of stringing temporary job contracts one after another.

At the same time, in principle, it is always up to the individual university to decide how they want to use tenure tracks. Today, universities use this form of employment to recruit eminent researchers, this frequently being one of the universities’ strategies to increase their international competitiveness. So tenure tracks are often part of an academic elite investment rather than a way of improving overall employment security for academics. At the University of Copenhagen, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and the National University of Singapore, for example, the introduction of tenure tracks is seen as being a crucial factor which has enabled the universities to improve the quality of research and move up on international ranking lists (see the comparison of some universities in the Appendix, page 54).

Most universities in Europe and Asia have set up tenure tracks similar to those used at American universities. Interestingly, the proportion of tenure tracks in the USA has dropped dramatically in recent decades since a growing number of universities think it is an expensive system that reduces mobility on the academic labour market. Moreover, critics claim that permanent contracts can result in researchers becoming ineffective and developing academic tunnel vision. However, this trend should be viewed in the light of American universities offering unique opportunities for top researchers, even if it does not always imply a tenure track. But in the USA, competition among researchers who are found just under the absolute elite layer is increasing and it is probably here that universi­ties in Europe and Asia will have to compete most for talent.

In the countries studied in this report, the design of tenure tracks is up to the individual universities. In some cases, for instance at EPFL or TU Delft, tenure tracks have been implemented throughout the entire university while at other universities, the faculties choose to what extent they apply this form of employment. In all the cases studied, the tenure track contracts enable young promising researchers, often assistant professors, to conduct research for four to eight years, the aim being that a permanent position at the university will be offered on condition the work is evaluated successfully. However, at certain universities, permanent employment is not guaranteed; all positions are advertised. Irrespective of system, there seems to be consensus that it is important to stipulate in advance how long the process will be, how the researcher will be evaluated and what will happen in the event of a positive or negative evaluation. The study also reveals differences in the composition of evaluation committees, e.g. the number of members, the balance between external and internal members, the proportion of national and international members, and the background and experience of the members. In the evaluations, the universities generally attach most importance to academic competence, then teaching and in certain cases, other beneficial activities such as granted research funding, collaboration with business and industry, and entrepreneurship.

The countries’ research funding systems also play an important role in attracting and retaining talented young researchers. Generally speaking, research funding does not provide a permanent position but funding is an important indication of the quality of both the researcher and the research and in some cases, this is included in the final evaluation. For example, at EPFL in Switzerland, funding from the European Research Council (ERC) is described as a central instrument for the successful implementation of tenure tracks. From 2007 to 2013, this university was the fourth best in Europe with regard to receiving ERC funding and about half of all the professors who have had a tenure track have had ERC funding. In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, calls for proposals have begun to be designed so they improve the recipients’ possibility of being given further funding from the ERC.

In several countries, increased gender equality is a central issue for the development of young researchers’ career paths. Generally speaking, the proportion of men and women is relatively evenly distributed at doctoral student level but women become increasingly under-represented the higher up the career ladder one goes. At many universities, only one of four professors is a woman. In this respect, China sticks out as a country where female researchers are disadvantaged more generally. In several countries, tenure tracks are seen as contributing to increased equality since the selection of candidates for posts is based on academic competence and many universities offer the possibility of extending the contract period for parental leave.

At the same time, criticism is voiced, primarily in the USA where the attitude to parental leave is restrictive. There, it is claimed the tenure track system forces female researchers to give their careers top priority until they get permanent employment. Some countries have taken far-reaching measures to increase the proportion of female professors. In Switzerland and Denmark, for example, calls for proposals directed only at women have been used for a long time and in Switzerland, there is a national platform for equality, equality studies and support for the development of equal career paths within the academic world.

In countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the introduction of tenure tracks has been specifically designed to attract talented foreign researchers and to lure back domestic research talent from abroad. In these countries, the academic systems are becoming increasingly international with more researchers from other countries and more domestic researchers working abroad. In recent decades, many eminent Chinese research­ers have gone abroad and now the Chinese government is trying to attract them back with high salaries and research resources.

Young researchers’ career paths – tenure tracks, equality, researcher mobility and research funding

Serial number
Direct response 2015:21

Reference number

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