The invisible achievers

A working place. © Fotolia

Postdocs on temporary contracts are responsible for a large proportion of research in Switzerland. But only ten percent of them manage to get a permanent job at a university. A career in academia has to become more attractive. By Valentin Amrhein

​We’re in a room at the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel. Daniel Berner is feeding long rows of numbers into a computer. He is investigating the genetic diversity of sticklebacks – small fish native to Switzerland that extend their sharp dorsal barbs when they land in the mouth of a larger fish. After his doctorate, Berner went to a Canadian university for two years, and since then has been conducting research in Basel. When his contract runs out in four years, he will have worked as a full-time biologist at different universities for a total of twelve years.

Next to Daniel Berner sits Tobias Roth, whose computer is right now calculating the effect of global warming on the speed at which Swiss plants, birds and butterflies extend their habitat up into the mountains. Roth is working in an ecological consulting office and is researching as a sideline at the University of Basel. These two biologists probably have no chance of a professional career at a Swiss university. Or at least no chance of a future in which they would be paid a wage commensurate with the highly qualified work they do.

They are both ‘postdocs’ – people who do research at universities after completing their doctorate, but who are not professors and only have limited contracts. These research staff and assistants supervise undergraduates and doctoral candidates, and they deliver a major share of Switzerland’s scientific research. They either earn a regular salary like Berner, or are absent from university wage lists because, like Roth, they do their research essentially as a hobby, earning their living by working for other employers or financing their research with scholarships or grants from foundations. All the same, no one can actually say just how big a contribution postdocs make to Swiss research. Because – as astonishing as it may seem – no one knows just how many postdocs there are. The universities usually don’t know because the category of ‘postdoc’ is vague; postdocs work in fields and under circumstances that mean they overlap in part with other professional groups at universities. And different universities and faculties also have different names for their different areas of activity.

Getting a bad deal

At the request of parliament, the Federal Council presented a report last May in which it was assumed that there are currently between 5,000 and 8,000 postdocs. “That’s undoubtedly too small a number”, says the bioinformatician João Martins, who surveyed some 400 Swiss research groups for the SNSF. He reckons that the number of postdocs lies between 12,000 and 14,000. In that case, there would be at least three postdocs for every one of the roughly 4,000 professors in Switzerland.neurologist“Sadly, we don’t have any exact data about the motivation and ambitions of postdocs” says Martins. It is assumed that postdocs want to qualify themselves for higher academic positions. But they have a poor chance of that, for only about ten percent of them reach the level of professor.

Critics of this system fear that an academic career is unattractive, especially for young, home-grown talent. There are too few permanent professorships for too many postdocs. For this reason, a group of young researchers got together in 2012 to present a position paper entitled ‘Vision 2020’, one of the proposals of which was for the creation of a thousand new assistant professorships with the option of a permanent appointment. It is clear that this would only improve the job prospects of postdocs on a temporary basis, namely during the period in which the new positions were created. But this initiative from the young researchers led to a discussion in parliament which itself led the Federal Council to reply. Its recommendation is that “creating more differentiated posts that offer earlier independence and responsibility might promote a greater degree of flexibility in a career structure currently centred on professorial chairs; this could make a contribution to improving the prospects for an academic career”.

The idea is to offer up-and-coming academics more career paths that could lead to a permanent position if they achieve an excellent track record. At the same time, however, the question arises as to whether Swiss universities are in fact producing too many postdocs. One reason for this is surely the fact that the number of doctoral students is increasing every year. In the USA, too, according to a paper published in April in the journal PNAS, there are discussions about whether the ‘hyper-competitive atmosphere’ is in fact homemade, at least in biomedical research. The reasoning for this is that institutes are continually getting bigger, but without more funding becoming available. However, too much competition soaks up time and energy that would be better used for the creative thinking that is needed to explore uncharted scientific territory and to produce reliable results.

Alke Fink, a professor at the University of Fribourg and co-author of ‘Vision 2020’,
also recommends reducing the number of postdocs. “The selective process has to take
place as early as possible. Otherwise, when postdocs leave the university environment, they are too old for the private sector. We have to give them an honest assessment early on as to whether we can recommend an academic career to them”. But honesty surely also means admitting that universities and professors today profit from the large numbers of postdocs. High output, low maintenance Academia profits from postdocs because they have completed a long period of training, they can work on their own, they’re often productive and they require little support. The intense competition among them for the few permanent positions means they are mostly highly motivated. And they’re cheap too. According to the report by the Federal Council, postdocs earn on average fifteen to twenty percent less than people with a doctorate who are working in industry or in the civil service. It is possible that the intense competition among young Swiss researchers acts as a deterrent, but then the numbers are made up by the many foreign postdocs in the country. But do we really still want a mid-level tier of academic staff who remain into middle age on a one-way career track that in 90 percent of cases is actually a dead-end? And if not, what should we change? In an online lecture that is well worth watching, the neurology professor Gregory Petsko analyses the situation of postdocs in the USA, which is clearly similar to the state of things in Switzerland. “Postdocs are the invisible people. We asked institutes how many postdocs they had, and in many cases they couldn’t even give us a rough idea”.

Raising salaries

Petsko makes three recommendations. First, every research institution should
have an administrative post that knows how many postdocs there are, how they are
paid, and what their career ambitions are. Secondly, the universities should be compelled to prepare their postdocs for alternative fields of work, because the usual career trajectory for postdocs takes them outside tertiary education. And thirdly, Petsko has a simple suggestion to reduce the number of postdocs: “In order to reduce their number by half, we should double their salaries. Then I would have to make clear, economic decisions about who I want to keep and who I think has a real future in academia”. In Switzerland, too, a moderate increase in postdoc salaries could lead to a situation in which it is no longer cheaper in every case to appoint a postdoc instead of a permanent member of staff. Furthermore, we could initiate a discussion about reducing the financial support and professional security that is enjoyed by Swiss professors, which is uniquely high in international terms. The money involved could then be reallocated to mid-level academic posts. It is interesting that the Federal Council writes the following about the US university system, which is often praised as being exemplary: “Depending on their respective field and university, it is usual for chairs to have far less facilities and adjunct staff compared to Switzerland (or even none at all). Nor are professors always appointed to a 100% post, but often have to find part of their income from third-party funds. This gives US universities more flexibility, and at the same time it means that professors are subjected to a far greater degree of competitive pressure”.

But who in Switzerland would dare “to reduce the overly cumbersome, weighty
professorial chairs”, as the group of young researchers of ‘Vision 2020’ recommends?
It might well be that the Swiss university system just functions far too well for this to happen – with its few, highly paid permanent posts, lots of competition among younger researchers, and a big influx from abroad.

Valentin Amrhein is Head of Public Relations at the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.

(From "Horizons" No. 102, September 2014)