Researchers want more influence

Published Jan 26, 2018

Researchers and research engineers at KTH have joined forces to improve their conditions. Mireia Altimira and Yolanda Hedberg are particularly keen to boost their influence.

Researchers and research engineers, that is academic staff who are not part of the faculty, need to have more of a say in discussions about what happens at KTH, according to researchers Mireia Altimira and Yolanda Hedberg. They have launched a network that aims to strengthen the group.

“There are a lot of us, but we’re not usually represented anywhere. It means that we’re late getting information and we lack any influence over the decisions that affect us. For example, there was no researcher representative on the committee that was working on KTH’s new school structure,” says Yolanda Hedberg.

Yolanda Hedberg conducts research into surface and corrosion science at the School of Engineering Sciences in Chemistry, Biotechnology and Health. She became permanently employed a year ago and has been working at KTH for the past ten years. Mireia Altimira joined KTH in 2011 as a post doc and went on to become a researcher at the Department of Mechanics, School of Engineering Sciences. She is currently on parental leave and out of work, but is planning to return to KTH.

It was Mireia Altimira who had the idea of creating the network.

“The various schools and departments at KTH have different rules and ways of working. The network will allow us to compile information about how things really work. But its purpose is also to give us a voice and the chance to say we are here, and we’re not happy,” says Mireia Altimira.

Open forum

High staff turnover means many of the contact details of researchers are out of date. But the network still has around 140 members who are part of a Google group.

“We’re really keen to have an open forum that enables us to discuss our conditions and share ideas and suggestions,” explains Mireia Altimira.

KTH’s faculty comprises assistant professors, associate professors and professors. Researchers and research engineers, who together make up a group that is almost as big, are employed as administrative or technical personnel. They are not entitled to research and development funding from KTH and are outside KTH’s main academic career development programme, Tenure Track.

In her first mailing about the network, Mireia Altimira included a survey containing questions about researchers’ and research engineers’ work. It emerged that the 200 who responded together taught for a total of 45,000 hours a year. But they cannot be course coordinators or examiners, despite often taking on these roles in practice.

According to Mireia Altimira, the reason researchers do so much teaching is because there is a considerable shortage of teachers at KTH.

“So it’s simpler to employ a researcher. The recruitment process for an assistant professor can take two years, while researchers can be appointed in a much shorter time.”

Funding – a life insurance policy

Teaching means the researchers have less time to apply for external funding. In some schools, they do not get paid for all the time they teach, but instead they do it during time that should be spent on research.

“We’re aware that many agree to teach because it’s stimulating and gives them experience. But it becomes a vicious circle when after a few years they realise that their finances are in a mess and they have no time to apply for external funding,” says Yolanda Hedberg.

Researchers’ positions are financed by external funding; they may only remain in their position if they generate income corresponding to their salary.

“Some feel it’s enough to do a good job, but external financing is like a life insurance policy,” says Yolanda Hedberg.

Working groups investigating

Many researchers, particularly those who do not come from Sweden, are unclear about what rules apply, explains Yolanda.

“The only information you get is often from your manager, and they might not be completely up-to-date on what rules apply either,” says Yolanda Hedberg.

The network has held meetings with KTH’s Dean of Faculty, Katja Grillner. At the first meeting, it emerged that KTH was already looking into the situation of researchers in a working group of which Mireia Altimira is now a member ( see interview with Katja Grillner).

Despite everything, Yolanda Hedberg believes there are benefits to being a researcher.

“I get to do research into what I want and what I get funding for. My field of research would not have existed otherwise, as it falls between medicine and engineering. If you manage to secure funding, it gives you a huge amount of freedom and time for research.”

Text: Ann Patmalnieks

You can apply to be a member of the network here:

How KTH’s career development programme works:

The academic career system Tenure Track is based on recent PhD graduates completing a period as postdocs at other national or international universities. They can then apply for a position as an assistant professor, which is the first stage on the career programme, followed by associate professor and professor. Researchers can apply to the Tenure Track programme just like anyone else, but their positions cannot progress to professorial positions via promotion. Neither has converting researcher positions to professorial positions been formally possible previously at KTH.

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