31st May 2023

The unequal, insecure plight of PhD researchers across the EU

  • There are huge variables across the EU: in Sweden and Denmark, working as a researcher is seven to eight times more likely than in Romania, for example (Photo: Unsplash)
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The future of scientific progress and knowledge in the EU looks young but precarious.

At the start of their research careers, Europeans with a bachelor's and master's degree face different forms of insecurity depending on which member state they are in.

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In the EU's less research-intensive countries poor salaries, low public-private investment and a lack of formal contracts prevail, while in those with more research activity there is high competition among candidates for a permanent research contract.

Mostly, but not exclusively, in the latter "PhD students face a succession of fixed-term contracts, without a perspective for an open-ended contract," senior economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) Jürgen Janger explained to EUobserver.

From his analysis Precarious Careers in Research (2022) it is clear that for PhD students, having a formal contract and access to social protection is not always the norm. In countries such as Poland, at this early stage of their research career, three-out-of-four did not have a formal contract before the pandemic.

And Poland is not a unique case. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the figures are also alarming and point to a "lack of structured doctoral training", where PhD students would be employed by the graduate school, according to the report.

"They are basically students, but they should be regarded as professionals," said Janger. As the charter for researchers states, every researcher above master's level should be treated as a professional — and hence receive an employment position with a contract.

Professional status and access to a contract is only one part of reducing the uncertainty and lack of job security that make the profession less attractive. Increased public-private spending and investment in the sector is another.

While in Germany or Belgium the business sectors invest about 70 percent of the total R&D expenditure, in Latvia they put in little more than 20 percent. These differences impact the chances of becoming a researcher in different EU countries. To give another example, in Sweden and Denmark, working as a researcher is seven-to-eight times more likely than in Romania, the WIFO analysis estimates.

Their vision of the future is not much more promising. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that, on average, it takes a doctorate-holder more than a decade to attain the salary of a master's holder.

The organisation also points out that the difficulty in finding a permanent position in academic research is leading young doctorates to pursue alternative employment paths in the commercial sector, public services or self-employment.

"Improving working conditions can increase the supply of researchers, as it makes the profession more attractive," write the WIFO economists, who add further proposals to the list, such as offering fringe benefits like free housing, free childcare or housing subsidies, or creating tax credits to raise researchers' take-home pay.

Jürgen believes that two other important aspects which need addressing are the establishment of a merit-based access procedure to PhD studies, plus more information on the labour market to which a PhD provides access beyond the world of academia.

At the EU level, the economist believes that more comparative studies and a sharing of best practices could help.

And while the problem is not new, the pandemic worsened the situation: closed laboratories and universities, cancelled conferences, shortened experiments. But in addition the increase in care work at home has reduced the availability and prospects of young people to stay in research.

Last year, several platforms and research agencies wrote a manifesto to prevent the brain drain of this early-career research generation.

Their proposal was structured around four pillars: improving research careers, collecting data to monitor the situation in the EU-27, enhancing the presence of researchers in the industrial sector, and including national investment agencies in the plan.

Four pillars, one goal. "Europe cannot afford to let its future workforce be drastically affected at a time when a global battle for talent is raging, with many companies, European and non-European, struggling to attract talented people," said Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, former president of the European Research Council (ERC), at the manifesto presentation.

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