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Postdoctoral fellows at KI must be given better terms

A recent survey reveals that every third postdoctoral fellow at Karolinska Institutet feels that they have been treated badly. "This is inauspicious and does not correspond well with Swedens ambition to be a leading research nation", says Erik Allard, ombudsman at Naturvetarna.

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Karolinska Institutet, KI, is a renowned medical university. The creative ambience attracts scientists from all over the world. However, bad terms for postdoctoral fellows on a scholarship may be chipping away at this good reputation.

A group of postdoctoral fellows stand behind an initiative to start a dialogue with KI:s management regarding the situation for postdoctoral fellows who's research is financed by scholarships.

"Inadequacies in the working environment combined with insufficient support from KI, make many unable to perform at their very best. The infrastructure with the lab, equipment and the latest technology is good, but there is lack of security", says Hiske van Duinen from Netherlands, one of the initiators of the dialogue with KI.

Loretxu Bergouignan from the Basque Country, explains:

"Many come here with a promise of a two-year contract, which later turns out to be a six month scholarship, which is renewed six months at a time. Many feel that they have been fooled. There's no guarantee that you will get another six months, which gives you a feeling of insecurity, even if most people get the six month renewal."

She says that it is up to the research manager if the scholarship is renewed or not.
Nearly half of the 800 plus postdoctoral fellows at KI are financed by scholarships. A recent survey on the web shows that these scholarships can be compared with an average monthly salary of around 20 000 SEK, while employed postdoctoral fellows earn around 23 000 SEK after taxes.

No social safety net

"A large problem is that postdoctoral fellows' scholarships not are covered by the Swedish social security and health care system. In addition, these scholarships are not counted as pensionable income", says Catherine Preston from Great Britain.
In order to compensate for this, the scholarships need to be larger. Furthermore, many feel excluded and are without legal rights.

"KI wants our ideas, expertise and research, but they don't care for us as people", says Loretxu Bergouignan.

She refers to the survey revealing that every third postdoctoral fellow feels ill treated in some way. This is particularly the case with those on a scholarship, but it's also the case for a large proportion of the employees. She continues:
"This is a structural problem. How can you be creative if you don't feel secure?"

All postdoctoral fellows should be employed

What is your goal?

"First of all, we want the scholarships from KI to last for 12 months and include social insurance. We also want a minimum scholarship to equal to the lowest salary for employed postdoctorals. Our next goal is to see all postdoctoral fellows employed and on a salary", says Hiske van Duinen.

It's interesting to note that EU:s Marie Curie Fellowships demand that KI employs their postdoctoral fellows. The Postdoc Association would like other sponsors to follow that example.

Another important thing is that the postdoctoral fellows are informed about all the terms and conditions before they come here.

"As a postdoctoral fellow you find yourself in a legal grey area, since you are neither an employee nor a student. The Swedish Social Insurance Agency and other authorities don't know how to handle this group of people. A colleague had to return to his home country to receive medical attention for his chronic illness", says Loretxu Bergouignan.

Erik Allard, ombudsman at Naturvetarna, emphasizes that their view is crystal clear:
"If you want to see excellent research, the employment conditions must also be excellent. We believe that all postdoctoral fellows should have proper employment with insurance and pensions included, just like everybody else. This will also benefit KI, who will in turn see motivated and self secure scientists willing to spread KI:s good reputation."

A distressed Dean

Dean Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren is in charge of research at KI. He is sad to hear about what is described as discontent, but he does not believe it's a general view.

"I have several postdoctoral fellows in my own research group, and they are all satisfied with their situation."

Nonetheless, he takes the criticism seriously.

"I feel sympathy for all those who have not felt well treated. We want everybody to feel welcome here at KI, and any inaccuracies will be corrected."
He explains that the intent is to have scholarships which equal the employed postdoctoral fellows' salaries.

"Scholarships of 12 - 13 000 SEK per month for postdoctoral fellows are not acceptable. KI:s own rules stipulate a much higher monthly minimum wage. Our postdoctoral fellows should be able to live well and focus on their research. During the autumn, KI intends to review the entire scholarship system."

An important group

How do you feel about the risk of KI jeopardizing its reputation?

"Right now, I don't see that risk, but it's unfortunate if that's the picture people want to spread. It's hard to avoid a few dissatisfied individuals. Postdoctoral fellows are one of our most important research groups and we care about them. We have already begun a constructive dialogue with their spokespersons."

Is it time to abandon the current scholarship system?

"No, because then many of our scientists would not be able to be here at all. The scholarship receivers contribute a lot to KI, and their stay here is valuable for them. These scholarships are an important piece of the puzzle within international exchange. It's an established form of financing for shorter study periods for example, and I am happy that it's available.

The fact that scholarship holders are not protected by the social safety net is, according to him, part of the terms of scholarships.

"They have come here of their own free will, and should be informed of the terms and conditions. Remember that it's a pretty short time, max 24 months, that you can receive a scholarship from KI. After that, the assignment becomes an employment."

He points out that most scientists have themselves been postdoctoral fellows, and wish to take good care of the younger generation of researchers.

More need to jouin the union

The local branch of the Saco Union (Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations) has also viewed the results of the survey.

"The results are not surprising, and some of the problems pointed out are well known. International postdoctoral fellowship holders belong to an exposed group, and they often lack knowledge about their rights and obligations", says Patriq Fagerstedt, head of The Saco Union.

He views it as positive that KI is addressing the critique instead of brushing it away, and that a dialogue has begun.

"One problem is that postdoctoral fellows stay here for such a short time, and they seldom join our union. Therefore, it's hard for us to represent them."
Patriq Fagerstedt agrees that the results of the survey are inauspicious. These are sensitive issues, and many people may not speak their mind in fear of damaging their future career.

A strategy is missing

He reminds us that a scholarship is a grant without a stipulated performance. That means that neither union nor employer can negotiate the amount.
"Legally it's two different things. Employed postdoctoral fellows may be asked to perform a certain job, while scientists on a scholarship are students undergoing education. To clarify the differences, the communication to the scholarship holders needs to be better."

How is KI:s reputation affected?

"The biggest risk is a tarnished reputation. Postdoctoral fellows move in the international world of research and will speak out if they feel that they have been taken advantage of or haven't experienced a positive career development. It would be more difficult for KI to recruit the very best, and as a consequence, the inflow of ideas would decrease. Also, people already here will be less motivated."

Patriq Fagerstedt describes it as being penny wise and pound foolish.

"Scholarships are permitted and financially beneficial for the employer, but of much less value than employment for our postdoctoral fellows. It's unclear when we offer both types of compensation."

He explains that as of yet, there is no definite strategy concerning recruitment and career paths at this level in the research program at KI.


The Prefect decides

Every institution, with the prefect at the top, decides about postdoctoral fellowships. This does not happen on a whim - there are certain rules to the procedure, says Dean Hans Gustaf Ljunggren.

May be extended for several years

A postdoctoral fellow's scholarship from KI lasts for a maximum of 24 months. Together with external scholarships, the time with scholarship funding may be extended with up to seven years.

If you become ill

If you become ill or are on maternity/paternity leave during your postdoctoral period, you keep your scholarship. But you don't receive any compensation for lost time, and there is no guarantee for a continuation after six months.

Palle Liljebäck



Vanina 2013-11-08

As he said: "Another important thing is that the postdoctoral fellows are informed about all the terms and conditions before they come here." All the information SHOULD be already in the "Job oportunity" ADD.