Academic careers are said to be precarious because of their inherent uncertainty especially in the early career stages typically characterized by short and fixed-term work contracts. At the same time, academic work is highly demanding by its nature and requires commitment to the work tasks. In our article “Reciprocal commitment in academic careers? Finnish Implications and international trends”, we studied this rather contradictory setting where employees are typically highly committed to their work and career although their employers’ are not always committed to them.
The employees’ perspective has been studied quite widely in terms of academic work and careers. It has been found out that academics typically find their work very meaningful and they are quite satisfied with it, despite some negative features related to uncertainty, low salary and harmful stress, for instance. However, commitment in the context of academic careers is a complicated research topic, and the commitment can be oriented more towards the local university or towards the scientific community. In our article we pointed out that such commitments are not mutually exclusive; rather, they may be overlapping and directed to both. The focus can also vary during one’s academic career along with different tasks and duties, positions of trust, and other commitments.
The commitment of universities as employers has received much less attention whereas commitment has been studied fairly extensively from the university employees’ point of view. Commitment is also a challenging topic to operationalize. Salary levels and the length of employment contracts can be used as indicators, but they provide only a very narrow picture of the phenomenon. In the context of academic careers, the employer’s commitment to the employee can also be considered as high if the university is giving good resources to an individual researcher or a research group, for example. Also long-term or permanent work contracts and especially the tenure track – recruitments can be seen as an employer’s investment and commitment towards an employee.
In the beginning of the academic career the continuation of one’s work contract is typically rather uncertain. Early career researchers have to struggle a lot to get in, and keep themselves in the academic career path. It calls for persistence and a lot of effort in order to find research funding in a highly competitive environment. After obtaining a PhD early career researchers are expected to try establish their position in university. In our study we found out that in most cases postdoctoral researchers’ perceptions of their work and the continuation of their careers were more negative than those held by many researchers at lower or higher steps on the career ladder. The budget cuts made in European universities and the increasing share of external funding is making the researchers’ career rather unpredictable also in the future.
The precarious situation that is concerning especially early career stage researchers is likely to decrease the perceived attractiveness of university as an employer. In view of regenerating higher education and its ability to produce top researchers for the needs of science, universities and societies, it is essential to establish attractive career paths in academia. What are needed in universities regarding their human resource management are more strategic thinking on recruitments and retaining their academic staff. The employer’s wants and offers should be compatible with the wants and offers of the employees. This would benefit both sides.