How can institutions help reduce precarious work conditions among early-career researchers?

I work as a postdoc at the Institute for Urban Research (IUR), a research program at Malmö University that aims to promote interdisciplinary interactions in order to increase our knowledge of the social, environmental, and economic challenges arising from urbanization processes. Despite its young age—the Institute was only formed in 2018—the IUR is a thriving center with more than 45 members working with issues from economics to urban ecology, and sustainability to mobilities. We have recently gone through a mid-term evaluation and the assessment we have received from the committee has been fantastic. The IUR is being successful at producing high quality research, securing external funding, collaborating with non-academic stakeholders, and building bridges across departments and faculties. Where the IUR is being less productive, though, is in its ability to bridge research and education. Facing what the evaluation committee, in their report, call an “administrative stalemate,” the IUR, despite strong efforts, has not been able to contribute to research-based learning as much as it could. This is not only detrimental to students, but also to early-career researchers who face a lack of opportunities to increase their pedagogical expertise and a path to permanent employment. In turn, this is counterproductive to Malmö University’s goals for high-quality education, global engagement, and internationalization. The IUR has been successful in attracting competent researchers with an international background, yet, it might have a hard time retaining them.

This is, of course, not a challenge that only Malmö University is facing. A report from the OECD (2021), Reducing the precarity of academic research careers, defines “postdoctoral researchers holding fixed-term positions without permanent or continuous employment prospects” as the “research precariat.” Conditions of precarity create uncertain work situations with risk of stress-related health problems because of high workloads and fierce competition to obtain permanent positions (Ericson, 2021). In Sweden, the research precariat faces even more challenges because career paths within academia tend to be unclear according to a report from SULF, the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (Besançon et al., 2021). Temporary positions such as “researcher”—which is a term often used to employ postdoctoral academics—are often not part of universities’ employment regulations or appointment rules. This, in turn, brings a sense of uncertainty and muddles the path to a permanent position. SULF (2021, my translation) suggest four concrete steps to tackle this problem:

  • “Take responsibility for creating a national system for career paths in academia”
  • “Create clear career paths with transparent requirements”
  • “Include researchers in the university’s employment regulations. Researchers must be teachers”
  • “Announce employment openly and appoint them transparently in accordance with current regulations”

Transparency and more secure working conditions can only bring benefits to early-careers, but also students, research programs, and universities as a whole.


Featured image: “Reading List” by KJGarbutt is licensed under CC BY 2.0