Job security of young researchers depends on academic performance of universities
Submitted to “Wissenschaft_Macht_Nachwuchs” (Uni Graz), November 2014
Revised May 2015
My interest in the job security of young researchers draws on my
personal experience. Until 1998, I had a tenure-track position ("Lecturer in
Psychology of Music and Psychoacoustics") at the Psychology Department, Keele University, UK. I was then offered a professorship
at the University of Graz. As an Australian, I could only be offered a
temporary contract (Vertragsprofessur) for four years, pending EU citizenship. I was offered
a verbal promise of tenure, which I later discovered would depend on
the outcome of a vote at a large future meeting. On 5.8.1998, I wrote
to the then Rektor:
Brief macht mir ernsthafte Sorgen, weil er mir wirklich keine beruflich
Sicherheit anbietet (...) Für einen Ausländer ist berufliche
Sicherheit kritisch. Wenn ich meine Stelle an der Universität Graz
verliere, werde ich Österreich verlassen müssen. Wenn ich
versuche, illegal zu bleiben, werde ich von der Polizei ausgewiesen.
Anschließend würde ich im Normalfall Österreich (evtl.
ganz Europa) nie wieder betreten dürfen. Alles, was ich
während der vier Jahre meines Vertrages im beruflichen bzw.
privaten Leben geschafft hätte, wäre umsonst gewesen.
The background: 1991-1994 I had research and teaching contracts in
Canada; 1990-1991, in Germany; 1989-1990, Sweden. During this time I
applied for about 100 academic positions in 8 countries. I
inadvertently broke immigration laws in Canada and Germany and in both
cases was threatened with deportation. I am now one of the lucky ones,
with high-security tenure.
There is no simple solution to the problem of improving the position of young researchers. In this paper, I will argue that the
best way to improve the employment security of young researchers, and
to reduce the inherent precarity of this career path, is to improve the
academic performance of individual universities, as measured by
peer review, citation frequency, impact factors, and university
rankings. If academic quality is the main aim of any university, these
strategies also mean spending public money more wisely.
At my university, the rector's office, together with a unit called "Performance
and Quality Management", has been making slow and steady progress toward these
goals for several years. But sometimes traditions stand in the way of
progress, and I wonder what the solution might be. Tradition in itself
is a great thing, but when traditions are reducing the ability of the
university to compete globally, they have to go. After all,
universities have always been in a constant state of flux. We have to
look to the future and resist the temptation to
instead glorify 19th-century achievements. Our students will be working in
the future, not the past. We owe it to them to be more future-oriented
without abandoning the secure foundation of tradition.
solution, I will argue, is to promote academic quality – but not “excellence”. We
usually cannot predict or estimate academic quality with enough accuracy to
justify the word "excellence". Research funders may try to objectively distinguish
between “good” and “very good” research, but they freely admit there
are many sources of bias.
The claim that academic quality and career security can be promoted at the same time may seem surprising, given the neoliberal context of both employment insecurity and performance indicators. Neoliberal thinking is
not only problematic, it is even threatening human survival, e.g. by
defending the rising wealth gap, or denying scientific findings
that contradict free-market ideology. In spite of this problematic
context I will argue that
both young researchers and universities as a whole will benefit in the long
term when universities more consistently strive for academic quality.
At the end I will consider more global financial issues, including
how to respond constructively to neoliberalism.
1. Academic quality
a) Expecting student researchers to overtake their supervisors
way to strive for academic quality is to instill a culture in which
young researchers are expected to become superior to their
superiors. As Louis Armstrong sang in What a wonderful world:
"They'll learn much more than I'll every know". This is quite the
opposite of the old cliché of the arrogant, self-important
professor who expects obedience and dedication from his (yes, I am mainly
talking about men here) devoted students and staff. The truth is that
promising young researchers often make up for their lack of experience
with their more up-to-date academic knowledge and skills, more
promising research plans, or more motivation and energy to do the work.
If a university is promoting a general culture in which young
researchers are expected to overtake their superiors, it may at least
be possible to avoid the opposite tendency, which can be quite deadly
for the careers of promising young researchers: they may be perceived
as a threat and suppressed, e.g. by preventing them from submitting a
habilitation thesis. The ample literature on academic harassment
demonstrates the size of the problem. I am not suggesting that older
academics should sit back and let the younger ones do the work; on the
contrary, academic staff of all ages should be under reasonable pressure
to produce good, original work.
b) Transparent, valid/reliable evaluation
In the interest of both young researchers and universities, the
quality of high-level research should be evaluated transparently by the
most valid and reliable means that are currently available. Peer review
is indispensable, because internationally recognized experts in the
same specific discipline are more likely than anyone else to pass a
reasonable judgment on the quality of a piece of written work.
Anonymity for reviewers gives them the freedom to pass negative
judgments without fear of personal consequences. The quality of a
publication medium (journal impact, publisher reputation and so on) is
also relevant because it influences how often a publication is read by
an expert target audience. Citation frequency is relevant because it
measures the opinions of many people. All these measures have their
problems, but decades of experience have shown that the advantages
outweigh the disadvantages, and reliably superior alternatives are
These things should be obvious, but evidently they are not. Standard
bibliometric measures are still often ignored when offering
professorships, allocating funding for research projects or
institutions, or giving junior positions to promising young
researchers. It still seems to be taboo to look people up in Google
Scholar and compare their international performance. The reason for the
taboo is not that these indicators are problematic (which of course
they are, but we don't have better ones), but because colleagues in
powerful positions who are performing poorly in academic citations do
not want to be exposed.
c) Critical thinking
Members of staff selection committees often complain that other
committee members are not thinking clearly. This seems so obvious that
it is hardly worth mentioning, and people often think that it is
inevitable - we cannot do anything about it, because people are like
that. I believe that it is possible to make significant progress toward
a solution of this problem by promoting a long-term, transdisciplinary
culture of critical thinking across the entire university. That includes clear, constructive,
collegial, and caring thinking. (Incidentally, caring about other
people is not a sign of academic inferiority! Good research generally
involves empathic teamwork.)
Just as all university Bachelor's and Master's curricula are now
expected to refer to gender issues, all might include a course that
presents general principles of critical thinking and argumentation
theory, and applies them to current research questions in the specific
discipline. Promoting critical thinking is a fundamental function of
universities, and it has been neglected as the research literature
expanded: teaching committees have been cramming more and more
“knowledge” into curricula, turning students into
sophisticated parrots. In a postmodern information society, students
need the ability to find the information they need and evaluate it so
they can solve problems. Specialist knowledge and critical thinking
skills are equally important.
Diversity is often considered a soft option; we should be fair
to groups that suffer from discrimination, but only after considering
all other criteria. But the main reason for
promoting diversity may be academic quality. To answer interesting
we must consider different perspectives. If that is true, diversity
should be high on the list of criteria - for example, when appointing
Diversity can be promoted at many levels. Candidates for student
places, scholarships, fellowships and teaching/research positions who are "somehow different"
should be systematically preferred:
women in disciplines dominated by men, non-Europeans in disciplines
dominated by Europeans, humanities scholars in interdisciplinary areas
dominated by “hard scientists”. Diversity promotion is an
essential but generally neglected aspect of wise public spending and
fair selection procedures, and its importance should be clarified in a
mission statement and new developments can be inspired by research.
Again, this may seem obvious. I am mentioning it because in many areas
it is still not happening. That is in part because people still fail to
realise that diversity is not primarily about fairness. It is about
Leading international experts can only read an article or
dissertation if it is written in a language that they understand. That
language should be an international language of the discipline in
question - usually English. Students who work in that language can
better compete in a global academic marketplace (e.g. BRIC countries).
Students should receive expert support in that language throughout
their studies, while concurrently maintaining their local language in
research and teaching. Conferences in non-English-speaking countries on
relevant topics should be bilingual, to balance local and global
discourse; otherwise we risk excluding 90% of possible participants,
evaluators, and target listeners/readers – a serious example of
exclusion! – and undermining the careers of young researchers.
Dissertations should be written in the international language of the
discipline in question, otherwise it is impossible to check whether
they have made a significant original contribution to current
international research. Speaking English is not about imitating
American or British universities; it is about being better than them,
so that they will imitate us.
At the risk of repeating myself: I am saying these seemingly obvious
things because they are often still being ignored, and because those who
suffer as a result are primarily young researchers in precarious
2. Special problems of German-speaking universities
English-speaking universities have a host of unique problems,
but it is not my aim to address them here. The main aim of this document is
to improve the career chances of young researchers at German-speaking
universities. To achieve that goal, reforms to the doctorate and
habilitation in German-speaking universities are urgently
needed. To help young researchers compete in the global academic
marketplace, both the doctorate and the habilitation should be adjusted, first to reflect global standards, and after that to exceed them.
Current doctoral curricula, habilitation procedures, and professorial
selection procedures have an interesting point in common. There is a
general tendency to believe that decisions at this high academic level
can be made mainly within a single university. Dissertations are
examined in part by supervisors and internal examiners, and internal
habilitation and selection committees can completely ignore external
reviews, if they want to. But leading international experts on a given
research question are almost always working in different countries, and
they usually do not speak German. Given the obvious importance of the
opinions of international experts, their exclusion from such
procedures, to the detriment of a university's own academic
performance, may be considered a form of xenophobia. The solution, of
course, is to include the international experts -- not only as helpful
additions to the committee, but as people who actually make binding
a) One short doctoral curriculum for the whole university
The main aim of the doctorate in most countries is to make a
“significant original contribution to research”. The only
people in the world who are in a position to recognize a
“significant original contribution” are well
established, internationally recognized, currently active researchers in the same specific area.
To make this evaluation, they don’t need guidelines; they
decide the criteria themselves.
The curricula of doctoral programs
should essentially say and enable just that. Everything else is
secondary, and can be omitted. To guarantee a fair examination, there
should be three independent examiners, so that in case of disagreement
the final decision is by majority vote; to prevent Anglophone
their first languages should generally be different.
The foundation for a fair doctoral examination must be a written
thesis, and nothing else. The supervisor’s additional knowledge of the candidate
is both irrelevant and biased, due to his/her personal relationship. If the supervisor contributes to the examination, the
student will then be under pressure to support the supervisor’s work and
ideas, which contradicts the principle of academic independence. Given
the enormous importance of PhDs for the academic productivity of a
university, the conflation of supervision and examination in
German-speaking countries must be one of the main reasons why they are doing so poorly in university
Administrative and legal hurdles within the PhD curriculum should be
reduced to a minimum, to encourage students to focus creatively on
their main task of making a significant original contribution.
Coursework should be confined to materials that cannot reasonably be
taught in a master’s program - that’s what master’s
programs are for, and two years are enough. PhD coursework should be
confined to practical tips on presenting at conferences, submitting to
journals, applying for grants or university positions, succeeding as a
woman in a male-dominated environment, or working across relevant
disciplines. Since these points are equally true in all disciplines,
there should be only one doctoral curriculum for the entire university.
of these ideas apply to doctorates in any country. The need to remove
coursework from the doctorate is particularly important in US
universities. German-speaking universities should not imitate the US
model if it is even worse than their own.
b) The end of the Habilitation
A quick browse through the rank order of universities according
to Times Higher (etc.) suggests a remarkable negative correlation
between the presence of a strong habilitation tradition and a
university’s academic performance. The relationship may not be
causal, but it is suggestive.
I see two problems:
(i) Habilitation theses at German-speaking universities are often written in German, which excludes most potential examiners.
(ii) Examiners cannot reliably conceal their identity from the candidate, so they do not feel free to give a negative judgment.
International peer-review journals do not suffer from either of these
problems. It follows that a single good publication in a good journal
can be more valuable than an entire Habilitation thesis. This is not a
wild claim; it follows logically from the above two points. That
explains why academics in countries without Habilitation often consider
Beyond that, young researchers should not spend their most productive
years writing a book that few will read. That is true both in the
humanities and the sciences. Both their career and their institution
would be better served if they published articles in leading journals
or books with leading publishers.
In the interest of academic standards, the careers of young
researchers, and the efficient use of public funds, the Habilitation
should be abandoned. The decision at to whether an individual should be
allowed to teach an advanced course or supervise in a given area should
depend on her or his PhD and/or recent publications in that area.
3. The social and political context
The existential threat of unemployment among young researchers
is not confined to academic careers. The threat can be reduced by
fundamental social and economic reforms such as universal basic income (which would enable young researchers to remain academically productive during periods of unemployment) and globally harmonized taxation on wealth,
international transactions, and environmental resources (to finance
basic income, among other things). Political strategies must be
developed to counter the broadening wealth gap, which incidentally is a
predictable consequence of economic globalization (so we should not act
If universities are really interested in promoting the interests
of young researchers, and not just talking about it, they should be considering the social and
political context and actively promoting the necessary political reforms.
Contrary to popular belief, universities can and should do this.
The future of young researchers is also directly threatened by the
unsustainability of global economics and, related to that, global
environmental degradation. Many academic colleagues are in denial about
these problems, which makes them difficult to address. Mainstream
climate science and economic theory suggest that the global economic
collapses of the 21st century will be much worse than both 1929 and
2008. That is a serious threat to individual researchers, entire
universities, and even the human species.
If universities care about
their young researchers, and are prepared to share responsibility for
global problems, they should more aggressively push obvious solutions
such as honoring the universal promise to invest 0.7% GDP on official development assistance
(to sustainably reduce global poverty) and pushing a rapid transition
to 100% sustainable energy (which must incidentally include restrictions on flying to academic conferences).
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