Spinning in the Post-Doc Carousel: Lifting Up the Fixed-Term Researcher

At universities, employees are commemorated in many ways. As the years of service and the employee’s age accumulate, anniversary years are celebrated, festschrifts are prepared, and when employees change their workplace, farewell parties are arranged. The retirees receive flowers and a cake, perhaps also a badge or a watch, and a celebratory seminar is organised in honour of those who have established their positions.

We have all heard the warm and appreciative speeches given at farewell parties. A tear or two has escaped from the corner of many listeners’ eyes.

These events are important for the working community. By remembering those who have served for a long time, we want to say that their work was meaningful. At the same time, a positive image of the employer is created, and employees’ commitment to the workplace is also strengthened. All members of the working community understand how valuable and worth remembering long-term work in research and teaching is.

However, the institutional assumption that the most meaningful work is done specifically in long and stable employment relationships also becomes apparent in these occasions. A common characteristic of these solemn commemorations is that the target of celebration is a permanent employee, highlighting a fundamental separation between permanent and temporary employees: When the opportunity arises, a farewell party is organised for a permanent employee, in which the temporary employee can participate. This way, even a fixed-term worker gets cake and coffee, but no flowers or a watch. The fixed-termer can also contribute to the festschrift to honour the permanent, distinguished researcher. However, in accordance with the university’s equality plan, donations from fixed-term workers and permanent workers are not distinguished in the collection for the celebration.

Working on a fixed term undermines the traditional reward methods. Short-term jobs vary in length, from a few weeks to several years. Research projects can take fixed-term workers to different units and universities, from one place to another, and even from one country to another. When leaving one place for another, there is no cake and coffee, unless the job changer prepares it themselves. The failure to be remembered may feel like being ignored and made invisible, and it may cause the feeling that the fixed-term researcher’s work has not been appreciated.

Effects of a chopped career

Fixed-term workers are a precarious people in many ways. Short-term contracts, at different universities, can be links in a chain spanning tens of years.

Most of the time, part-time jobs are carried out from practical necessity. The constant fear of unemployment causes financial problems and stress and reduces well-being at work – thus undermining productivity.

Moreover, it is clear that fixed-term contracts slow down career development: After a dissertation is completed, a researcher can land on a post-doc carousel, which only stops every second year when one project gives way to another. The announced position in a new project may be designed for a freshly graduated doctor and not, for example, for a senior scholar who has worked as a postdoctoral researcher for ten years. In such situations, it is difficult to negotiate a change of title and salary that would take the experience into account.

A chopped career also has an effect on one’s competence profile: It is a different experience to constantly shift to new research topics than it is to be able to delve into a certain topic within a long period of time and specialise.

In addition, sometimes the attitudes among established university workers towards fixed-term workers are pretty old-fashioned, and they simply cannot put themselves into the position of a fixed-term researcher. At a celebration for a person who has served the university for 30 years, the head of the unit puts the responsibility for the sloppy work on the wrong shoulders, stating that young researchers no longer commit to the university. Attitudes can also be seen in the universities’ vague work cultures and a feeling of confusion about how the unit’s practices enable or hinder the career development of part-time workers. The functioning of a temporary researcher, for example, as the main supervisor of a dissertation can be questioned – especially if the supervisor’s period of contract is shorter than that of the doctoral researcher.

On probation forever

Nevertheless, it is very problematic if practices that are basically discriminatory are not identified as such. Moreover, they are hardly examined from the point of view of equal possibilities for career development and labour regulation.

The unions of scientists, however, have tried to make the unequal organizational culture of universities visible and to promote more stable scientific careers. For example, recently, the Finnish campaign “Why not permanent?” underlined the problems related to fixed-term labour and provided guidance to develop better practices. On the campaign’s website, fixed-term employees described their frustration, stress and desperation: “I’m never sure whether my employment will continue or not.” “It feels like I’m on probation forever.” “Twenty years in the same job on a temporary basis.”

Campaigning and councelling can provide facts and information about temporary academic labour and its problems, but structural solutions lie far away as long as the issue is deeply rooted in the academic working culture.

Perhaps exaggeration could work more efficiently than statistical data. Events could be organised in universities where humorously rewarding fixed-term workers who have completed a full year; those who have worked part-time for 15, 20, or even more years; and temporary employees who are retiring. The participants would give each other speeches, and a bouquet of flowers and a watch could be handed over. Participants cover their own travel costs and no daily allowance would be provided. This would be the day of the probationer, modelled after the day of the false king, with the difference being that the probationers would be left alive at the end of the day. Finally, the flowers and the watch could be raffled among the participants.

The text was originally written in Finnish and published as the editorial in the scientific journal Kulttuurintutkimus – Kulturstudier (Cultural Studies), available Open Access: Määräaikaisen tutkijan päivä (40:1). Translation and adoption by Maarit Jaakkola.

Photo: Scott Webb, Unsplash