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DEBATE: The career path for research talents must not be a dead end

Denmark’s future depends on researchers who produce and create knowledge and welfare. Business and industry, the universities, funders and politicians must therefore work together to offer attractive conditions, according to Vice-dean Lise Wogensen Bach from Aarhus University.

Being a university researcher has always been regarded as a calling. But things are changing.

We find ourselves in a situation where we risk junior researchers rejecting the universities for reasons that are not based on competences, talent and potential.

But rather based on uncertain employment contracts, a lack of career paths and an inopportune balance between basic funds and external grants, which at the same time favours the employment of junior researchers in short-term positions.

Business and industry is crying out for researchers
A study from the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFIR) shows that business and industry is crying out for researchers.

The majority of people involved in research and development are employed in business and industry – and this is also where the majority of the money for research and development is found. Companies are also looking for junior researchers with a professionally planned career path.

From a university perspective, this sounds like dispiriting news. But what this actually shows is that we must create clear career paths for our junior researchers, regardless of whether they follow the university path or instead turn to the private sector.

Failure to do so is simply not good enough.

Career programme a sensible option
At Aarhus University, we recently took the decision to extend a career programme for junior researchers, the Junior Researcher Development Programme (JPDP).

The primary content of the programme is information and tools for career development, including courses and guidance for those who are considering a career in business and industry.

Our junior researchers can find inspiration in the career tracks: 'Research in industry and the public sector', 'Careers using generic academic skills', 'Entrepreneurship' and 'Stay in academia'.

As well as an introduction to various job possibilities, the career tracks include a constellation of relevant courses at Aarhus University such as e.g. project management and organisational understanding.

Helping to offset criticism
In addition to personal sparring about career paths, the programme helps the junior researchers to realise that a research career can also be pursued in the private sector.

It is intended to address the criticism that the universities have held junior researchers in a career path that is really a dead end – and have done so for far too long.

For example in fixed-term positions which are extended in step with the grants needed to continue the research projects being secured.

That is a very specific and not very desirable problem that the majority of research directors are familiar with.

We risk losing talented researchers
The new situation places demands on us as an organisation.

Not only to create transparent career paths and have some of them lead to business and industry, but also to ensure that research directors assume responsibility for supporting the individual employee’s career development in accordance with individual wishes, ability and potential.

At the same time, we must change a widespread culture of repeated short-term postdoc appointments, which get in the way of optimal development of a researcher’s own research field or the chance to investigate other career paths.

The knowledge which is generated behind the walls of the university and in private sector research and development laboratories benefits all of us.

Without professional career development, clearer career paths and proper employment conditions, both the universities and business and industry run the risk of losing talented researchers.

That is something we cannot afford to do if we hope to maintain our position as an internationally recognised and attractive research country.

This article was published in Altinget February 21.

Vice-dean for Talent Development Lise Wogensen Bach
Aarhus University, Health
Email: lwb@au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 2548 8522