Filling the Swedish Recruitment Gap

Sweden's top-heavy universities face a recruitment crisis in the next decade, warns a recent report from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet, SRC). However, a headache for institutions and policy-makers could spell good news for today's PhDs and postdocs.

A large number of Swedish professors and senior lecturers are aged between 55 and 64, and 2400 are due to retire within the next 10 years, says the report. Many of these high-ranking individuals are members of the huge "baby-boom" generation, born in the 1940s. However, another reason for the predicted wave of retirements is that the expansion of Swedish universities and colleges in the 1960s and '70s resulted in an influx of recruits from within a single peer group.

Meanwhile, SRC calculates that the number of recruitable researchers available to fill the coming vacancies, that is, scientists on individual research grants and postdoctoral fellows--forskarassistent--on 4-year research posts at a university, is insufficient. The humanities and social sciences will be hardest hit, with a predicted shortfall of around 440 recruits. But science and technology disciplines also need to close an anticipated recruitment gap of almost 300 between future retirements and recruitable researchers. The only areas SRC expects to remain largely unaffected are new fields such as molecular biology and nanotechnology; having evolved so recently, their senior staff is still quite young.

According to Ulf Heyman, author of the report, there are two ways to solve the looming crisis. To begin with, the recruitment pool could be enlarged both by increasing the number of research grants and by creating new postdoctoral fellowships. Indeed, SRC recently allotted an additional 110 million crowns (almost ?12 million) to create new postdoctoral fellowships and other grants for young researchers. Although a step in the right direction, however, this is not nearly enough to fill the gap, providing only some 30 new fellowships.

Thus, says Heyman, the onus is also on the universities to take action. Government pressure resulted in an increase of more than 20% in the number of graduate students studying for doctorates between 1994 and 1999. Meanwhile many new professorships have been created, to retain brilliant scientists or to open up new fields of research. At the same time, however, universities have seen little real-terms increase in their funding. Cuts have to be made somewhere, and with no other possibilities these have inevitably fallen on the middle ranks. Failing to renew expired university-financed postdoctoral fellowships certainly results in short-term savings, but it turns out to have been a bad strategy in the long run. Now Sweden's universities resemble an hourglass, not just top-heavy, but bottom-heavy too, with very little room for the sand to run in between.

And the sands of time run slowly for the aspiring Swedish academic. At present, the average time from doctorate to senior lecturership is 8 to 10 years. Shortening this to allow someone to progress to a lecturer post via just 2 years of postdoctoral studies and a 4-year postdoctoral fellowship would close the recruitment gap. Swedish PhDs traditionally have not completed their theses until their early 30s (although this is a situation which is changing) so are generally older than their foreign peers, and postdoctoral fellows have more independence than their counterparts in other countries. Thus, although by international standards "quick-processed" senior lecturers and professors might not come out so badly, in comparison to the traditional situation in Sweden such a change is likely to mean a lowering of quality, Heyman worries.

But are increasing opportunities sufficient to keep aspiring academics at home? Salary levels are below those of several other European countries, points out Heyman, an issue raised in another recent report. The percentage of graduates moving abroad within 5 years of graduation has increased from 3.7% of the class of 1990 to 4.7% of the class of 1994, says the study from the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations, Saco. By 10 years postgraduation, 6.2% of those graduating in 1990 had left the country.

Salaries are certainly a factor, but the greater possibility of getting household help abroad may also be an emigration incentive for young Swedish couples starting their careers, says Saco report author Håkan Regnér. In Sweden, the fairly egalitarian wage structure makes nannies and au pairs prohibitively expensive, while the extensive public child-care system is mainly geared for parents keeping office hours--something that doesn't apply to most academics.

Of course an exodus abroad would be no problem if everyone returned home after a couple of years, or if the same number of foreign academics moved to Sweden. Neither of these, however, seem to be the case. So while the job market for Swedish postdocs looks increasingly bright, this small, but in the long run perhaps significant, brain-drain is one of the problems Sweden's nascent government--which seems likely to be a coalition of the Social Democrat, Green, and Left parties--will have to tackle in the coming years.

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