The Reforms in Finland: A Student's Perspective



In Finland children go to school the year they turn 7. Primary and secondary schools lasts for 9 years; and if one wants to go to university to get an academic degree, a 3-year high school is required. So, when young people enter the universities in Finland, they usually are 19 to 20 years old. Graduation from university takes 5 to 7 years depending on the main subject and personal interests. So, when a person can finally start the Ph.D. studies, he or she is 25 to 26 years old.

The requirements for a Ph.D. degree are studies worth 60 European Credit Transfer System credits (ECTS) and four original publications. With this time scale, people tended to get their Ph.D. degrees after they had turned 30, which is a considerably later age than that of Ph.D. recipients in other European countries. Finland's new graduate school system was introduced to lower the age profile of young Ph.D.s, to get it nearer the general age profile of the young Ph.D.s in many other European countries. It was also anticipated that when the large age groups that were born after the Winter War (1939-40) and the Finnish Wars of World War II (1939-45) retire, a huge demand on Ph.D.s will arise. So the new system also aims to train more Ph.D.-level scientists.

Relief from constant search for funding

One advantage of the new graduate school system is that a student in it receives a full salary for 4 years, as well as the opportunity to participate in courses organised by the graduate schools and to attend scientific conferences. Doing research in Finland means constantly applying for funding. Usually, research grants are given for only 1 year at a time. So group leaders, who bear the main responsibility of applying for funding, usually hire graduate students and other scientists for just 1 year. Ph.D. students in graduate school, receiving full salary for 4 years, are relieved from the pressure of finding new funding?or of failing to graduate because no money is available.

This, in principle, is a big advantage. But the system isn't perfect; even if a graduate school position is funded for 4 years, graduate schools may offer contracts for only 1 year at a time. Furthermore, not all students in the graduate schools are funded by these scholarships; ?matching fund students? have the right to attend graduate school courses and seminars, but they do not receive their salary from the graduate school. Instead they usually receive a scholarship, which means that they lack the social benefits of graduate school students on salary.

After the Ph.D. one starts to ask what next? Ideally, one would get a permanent job in a research group or a suitable company. This rarely, if ever, happens. Many new Ph.D.s go abroad to do their postdoc research and then come back to establish their own groups in Finland. This has been the custom for many years because, traditionally, there have been few postdoc positions in Finland. Nowadays, more postdoc positions are available in Finland for those who do not wish to go abroad. For those who prefer research, a postdoc in a research group is a good starting point for a career as a scientist. Yet these are fixed-term appointments, with no dependable future.

Indeed, most postdocs--like many Ph.D. students--receive their pay as scholarships lasting for only 1 year. Postdocs and Ph.D. students on scholarship lack certain social benefits enjoyed by those on full salary. Receiving an employment-based salary entitles a person, among other things, to medical care, workers? compensation, a pension, and access to unemployment benefits. Legislation is about to change this so that a person receiving a scholarship will get pension benefits and workers? compensation, but not the other benefits, since these are attached to taxable income, and no taxes are paid on scholarships.

The Ministry of Finance gave notice in November 2003 that the proportion of temporary posts should decrease within the public administration, including universities. According to the Ministry, anyone carrying out similar work on a regular basis should have a permanent post. It sounds self-evident, but up to now it has not been common in Finnish universities. Since the notice in November 2003, more permanent positions have been created; for instance, at our department, two new lectureships, which have been reopened, are to become permanent posts.

These lectureships do not, however, help many young Ph.D.s, because lectureships are usually granted to experienced researchers with established teaching skills. Even if a young Ph.D. scientist does get a post as a senior lecturer (or university lecturer), a senior lecturer usually will have a heavy teaching load, in addition to active research, so these are not ideal positions for scientists at the beginning of their independent research careers. At the University of Helsinki, there are posts for newly graduated Ph.D.s, but not all departments have established these posts because of lack of funding.

As a woman, I am also concerned about combining motherhood and research. If a female scientist wants to have a child, she will need to leave the scientific world for at least a year if she wants to give her child a good start of life. Yet, though women receiving a full salary receive a maternity allowance of roughly 80% of their salary for 9 months--the official period of maternity leave for women in Finland--mothers on scholarship will not get a cent, because the basic maternity allowance is based on the taxable income of the previous year. Since scholarships are tax free, women lose all their income for the period they spend at home with their baby.

Low-cost Ph.D.s?

Is there employment for Ph.D.s in biotechnology companies? I don't know. When I searched for employment outside universities after getting my master's degree, most of the companies I contacted were having a "recruitment break." The situation might be different for Ph.D.s, but as the funding for biotechnology companies in Finland is now declining, I do not think that the situation will be much better when I have my Ph.D. The question has also arisen whether companies want to hire Ph.D.s. Oftentimes a scientist with an M.Sc. can do the same job as a Ph.D., at a lower cost. Currently only about 3% of the industrial R&D workforce has Ph.D.s.

All in all, graduate schools have improved the situation of young researchers in Finland, who previously fell out of the social security system right from the beginning. Even though there does not seem to be much choice for a young Ph.D. in Finland at the moment, I hope that the situation will improve before I get my degree. I do worry that, despite today's low unemployment rate for Ph.D. scientists, in a few years? time there may be too many young Ph.D.s, some of whom will end up in the unemployment register because there is not enough work for all. The government will have wasted tens of thousands of Euros on the education of each of these scientists, and the scientists themselves will not be happy.

Would I have done the Ph.D. under the old system? Probably. I have learned that basic research is what I want to do. In a university I can teach, which is my other passion. Attending graduate school has made it easier for me to fulfil my dreams, but I do not know what the future holds.


Ministry of Finance

University of Helsinki Personnel Services

Finnish Social Insurance Institution

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