The rector stands firm in the face of fierce criticism from PhD students

PhD students at AU are intensely critical of the new norms for permanent academic hires, which they fear will make it even more difficult to get a permanent position at the university. The rector defends the norms, while acknowledging that an academic career involves difficult choices for families.

[Translate to English:] Illustration: Louise Thrane Jensen

Earlier this year, the senior management team adopted seven norms for the recruitment of permanent members of academic staff. At the School of Communication and Culture, PhD student Felix Kühn Paulsen fears that these norms could threaten his chances of creating a career at Aarhus University. And he is not alone: Paulsen is the spokesperson for the PhD association AUPA.

One norm in particular is giving AU PhD students sleepless nights – when assessing an applicant’s qualifications, great emphasis is to be placed on long-term stays at one or more internationally recognized research institutions abroad. 

“This shouldn’t be as decisive a factor as the senior management team is dictating here,” Paulsen says. As he sees it, the management’s focus is too narrow: 

“The management sets out a formal requirement for research abroad rather than looking at qualifications and relationships as well. For example, such as co-authoring articles with authors in other countries or participating in an international collaboration in some other way.”

The research abroad requirement means that PhD students at AU will have to apply for positions abroad before they have a realistic shot at a career here. And this is not an option for all PhD students at that point in their lives, Paulsen points out. 

“I have a wife and two kids myself who I can’t just drag abroad for two years. It’s not exclusively my decision, because it’s not just about my career. And it’s not workable, is it, if you have to have a self-sacrificing husband or wife at home to get a permanent job in academia,” he says.

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen acknowledged that an academic career can involve hard choices for families. But he defends the norms nonetheless. He explains that they were introduced to ensure a high quality, diverse pool of applicants, and that appointment committees select the best candidate on the background of a wholistic assessment of the applicant’s qualifications. 

In response to the critique that the focus of the research abroad norms is too narrow, the rector points out that the assessment of candidates also includes their international networks and collaborative relationships. 

“The norms are precisely not rules that are set in stone,” he stresses. 

“They should be understood in the sense that if you don’t follow the norms, you have to account for your reasons. And it’s the deans and the faculty management teams who set the guidelines for what applies at the individual faculty.”

Incompatible with the goal of greater diversity among applicants

But Paulsen disputes the idea that the norms will contribute to the senior management’s goal of ensuring quality – and not least diversity. In his view, the research abroad requirement will make it even more difficult for junior researchers – and perhaps female junior researchers in particular – to get permanent positions at the university.

“On a general level, it’s contradictory to attempt to use norms to introduce more breadth and variation in relation to gender and internationalisation, among other things. As I see it, this can only lead to the opposite effect. It won’t create a broader academic community if everyone has to go abroad. On the contrary, it creates a broader academic community when everyone does something different.”

Imbalance – and progress

Rector Bech Nielsen stresses that the objective of the norms is precisely to ensure that there are women in the applicant pool for academic positions. This is evident, for example, in the requirement that search committees must ensure that the field of applicants is large enough, with regard to external applicants, internal applicants and applicants of both genders.

But here the PhD students think that the research abroad requirement conflicts with the goal of attracting more female applicants, and that AU may loose out on the best candidates because they choose to prioritise family life over a research career...

“I acknowledge that imbalance between the sexes in Denmark still exists, as well as in the way we divide up the tasks in the home and in the workplace. But fortunately, there are a lot of young women who do a postdoc abroad. And in relationship to recruitment, this is important, because it means that the pool of female researchers from which we can recruit is getting larger,” explains the rector.

However, he does admit that the researchers who do research stays abroad are most often young men.  

“But I hope that even more women in the future will see this as an exciting opportunity.”

A different level of competition today

Rector Bech Nielsen explains that he has personal experience of how difficult it can be to balance the demands of a research career and a private life.

“I did two research stays abroad. First a year in Holland and then a year in Sweden. But my wife chose to stay here both times. It was definitely a challenge, and at that point, I would have preferred to have her come with me.”

Did you have children at that point?

“No, we didn’t. And to be honest, I have to admit that young researchers today have to deal with a different level of competition. I fully acknowledge that. There’s tough international competition for the permanent positions at the universities.”

From opponent to proponent of required research abroad 

Rector Bech Nielsen remembers that back when he was a ‘rank and file’ researcher at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, he fiercely opposed the requirement that PhD students had to do research abroad for two months as part of their education. 

But he later changed his mind, among other reasons because he observed the positive development his own daughter experienced during her stay abroad. It is this milieu change that the rector believes is so crucial early in a research career: the experience that you can do things differently than what we do at AU. And not least the opportunity to create a network with international research colleagues.

But it certainly is a different experience to choose to go abroad, well aware that your husband or wife may have to put their own career on standby to go with you – or that he or she has to stay in Denmark and take care of the kids alone. There would probably be some bad conscience connected with those experiences abroad...

“It can certainly be a tough deal for a family – there are some hard considerations and choices that have to be made. And I fully acknowledge the dilemma. But a lot of people do it, and you can combine an academic career with children. And it’s also a dilemma that’s found in a lot of other sectors than academia,” says Bech Nielsen.

The writing on the wall?

But Paulsen has a hard time seeing the norms as anything other than the writing on the wall: AU is not interested in hiring its own PhD students. 

“We don’t fool ourselves that we can get jobs at AU just because we’ve done our PhDs at AU. But if the opposite is the case: that we can’t get jobs here because we’ve done our PhDs here, I would have liked to have known that in advance,” he says, and calls on the management to state their position unequivocally.

Straight talk to PhD students from UCPH

As a case in point, he refers to a statement by Thomas Bjørnholm, the former pro-rector for research and innovation at the University of Copenhagen. In an interview with Uniavisen in connection with his resignation in March, he said:

“After all, fundamentally PhDs and postdocs aren’t here to become associate professors and professors at UCPH. They’re here to bring the knowledge they have acquired and help to create out into society. Obviously, a modern university does not exist in order for PhDs and postdocs to be employed by it. That would be equivalent to a school that hired all its own pupils. So generally speaking, all of our young people in fixed-term positions and hired for specific projects at UCPH must have a fantastic point of departure for a career outside the University of Copenhagen.”

“Is this also the message from AU’s management? That they won’t hire their own PhD students? I’d like to know,” says Paulsen.

Dangerous to only hire homegrown talent

Rector Bech Nielsen’s reply is that he is in complete agreement with Thomas Bjørnholm.

“In the first place, it’s important to emphasise that you don’t get a tenure track position after a PhD. That requires a postdoc position first, followed by an assistant professorship. And you can certainly do your PhD here, then a postdoc at another research institution and then apply for a permanent position at AU afterwards.”  

The rector stresses that a PhD from AU does not disqualify a candidate from getting a permanent position at the university.

“But if we only hire the researchers we’ve trained ourselves, we become less dynamic. And research abroad brings something new back to the institution. As a university, we have to focus on how we can recruit the best qualified employees if we’re going to survive in the international competition. And if you want to become a researcher, the truth is that it’s a tough business in an international reality.”

Education for society, not just the universities

Relative to the approximately 500 PhDs AU grants each year, there aren’t many assistant professor and associate professor positions available at AU. Clearly, PhD students at AU can’t count on getting a permanent position at the university. And that AU produces far more PhD graduates than the university can absorb is not a problem, according to the rector.   

“We don’t just educate for the universities, we educate for society as a whole – there’s a demand for PhDs among many private companies and public institutions, for example the university colleges hire them as teachers.”Nogle gange bliver det anderledes, end man forventer 

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect

But many of them applied for a PhD fellowship with the ambition of becoming researchers and being employed at a university, so it may seem like the second-best solution to have to make a career somewhere else in society.

“I have great respect for having ambitions. But sometimes you also have to realise that while your dream might have been a house with a view of the sea, instead it turned out to be a nice house or a fine flat, but without the view. And then it’s also true that when some doors close, new ones open. You have to realise that sometimes things turn out differently than you originally expected.”

Translated by Lenore Messick