Tenure track: key to attract top talent?

Recruiting and retaining the best researchers is a key challenge for Europe. Talks about introducing an attractive career structures with prospects for advancement, such as a tenure track, are ripe. Well-established in the US and increasingly in the UK, tenure track provides a clear, merit-based system that takes excellent researchers from postdoc to professor. But even if it is desirable, it does not guarantee more time for research given the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the job of university professor.

In a tenure track, good evaluations may lead to a fixed position as associate professor after five or six years and as full professor after a longer period. During this time, the research professors are free to follow their chosen research topic independently of established professors.

Until now, the chance of gaining a full professorship for European scientists had been a matter of emigrating or being prepared to wait. “In my time”, looks back Patrick Aebischer, president of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, “a young researcher could go to the US or wait until a settled professor died or quitted. And after ten years in the US the motivation to come back has to be strong.”

Increased European funding for scientists, such as ERC-grants—at the level of €7.5 billion to 3,400 projects from 2007 to 2013—has done much to counter the trend of US emigration as it offered some prospect to stay in Europe to do high-level research. “If we want to complete the European Research Area, European universities need open, transparent and merit-based recruitment systems that provide stable careers for talented scientists,” says Robert-Jan Smits, EU-director general for research and innovation, based in Brussels, Belgium.

So what exactly would it take to reverse this trend, and prove scientists in Europe with a decent career path? “If we have a good infrastructure for funding a ten year track, the good researchers will stay,” EPFL’s Aebischer says, “and if we want to attract more women in these tracks, it should include measures such as maternity leave.” He adds: “The system also as to include a ‘no’-possibility, in case the work of a researcher isn’t [providing satisfaction].”

EPFL, for example, is a tenure track pioneer in Europe. Aebischer admits that ERC-grants remain the most important instrument for the implementation of such career structure. “Around half of our tenure track professors have an ERC-past,” Aebischer says.

Having tenure tracks does not solve all the issues scientists encounter, however. “Sometimes you can ask what part of her time an independent working professor is really doing research,” says Melanie Blokesch, German citizen and tenure track assistant-professor in molecular microbiology at EPFL since 2009, “She has to be a multi-tasker, establishing a lab, hiring a staff, doing administration and coordination, and writing a long-range plan.” This suggests that tenure track does not necessarily guarantee that a professor would have time ring fenced for research.

Even within a general tenure track system, universities like to retain in their own hands the final choice of candidates. This stems from the academic tradition where independence is a hard gained and very nourished tradition. Some believe that independence is a guarantee to maintain culture and diversity. And after selection and choice of the candidates, there are periodical evalutions. A tenure track is a security net, not a mattress. When a candidate receives a negative evaluation, they won’t become a full professor after his track period.

Some view excellence as needing to be periodically evaluated. “We must offer opportunities to excellent young people,” comments Wolfgang A. Herrmann, president of the Technische Universität München, Germany, “but opportunity is not the same as a safe job. After six years a ‘in or out’-decision has to be taken,” depending on the outcome of the evaluation.

But others do not believe that solving the career structure issue has a single solution. “A simple ‘in or out’ is not a social solution, “Hans van Duijn, rector magnificus of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “We need to dispose a broader variety of solutions to keep people aboard. In my city, we have to compete with Philips,” he adds, “the company offers postdoc-researchers a fixed position after only two years.”

Featured image credit: EuroTech Universities. The photo includes Robert-Jan Smits (left), Hans van Duijn, Wolfgang A. Herrmann (right)

Go back to the Special Issue: Science Career

Koen Mortelmans

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