According to a report published by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences in 2018, Swiss higher education institutions are failing to provide fledgling academics with sufficient job prospects and long-term professional opportunities, in particular. The report went on to call for a change in culture. “We have to create a wider range of career paths for junior researchers, and they need to have enough time to pursue their academic qualifications,” says Elisabeth Stark, Vice President Research at UZH, agreeing with the findings of the report. Traditionally, academic careers still go from a PhD to postdoctoral work to a professorship. And yet, positions at the highest level in particular are few and far between. Moreover, while many promising young researchers and scholars want to work in academia and stay at university, they don’t necessarily want to become professors.
By introducing new positions for lecturers and senior lecturers from 2023, under Next Generation @ UZH the University of Zurich is creating attractive alternative career paths for highly qualified postdocs. The plan is to introduce a limited number of well-resourced, permanent, independent positions, depending on the departments’ and institutes’ teaching and research needs. People in these new roles will be able to focus entirely either on teaching (lecturers – teaching) or research activities (lecturers – research). The positions will be created and funded by the departments and institutes.
The new positions will enable academics to infuse their expertise into university teaching. In addition, lecturers will also be able to carry some of the teaching load in the more popular subjects, which will improve student-to-instructor ratios. In the field of experimental research, lecturers and senior lecturers will help ensure long-term support for research projects. To keep their teaching research-driven, future teaching lecturers will continue to be involved in research to a small degree, while research lecturers will also perform some teaching tasks.
The new positions allow UZH to tackle the problem that arises when (senior) research assistants leave after their temporary employment ends, and valuable knowledge gets lost. Junior researchers also often decide to leave universities like UZH to join organizations that can offer comparable research opportunities as well as long-term professional prospects. With the newly created research lecturer positions, UZH aims to avoid this brain drain and increase continuity and retain knowledge in research.
UZH also wants to improve research conditions for its teaching and research assistants and PhD candidates by increasing transparency and introducing standard rules across the university. A key part of this concerns protected time, in which junior researchers can focus on their own research projects. “Carrying out tasks for their professors isn’t the only thing assistants should be doing,” says Elisabeth Stark. “After all, the main goal of any position at the level of assistants and PhD candidates is to acquire academic qualifications – junior researchers should be allowed to develop their skills to the best of their ability, and UZH should be an attractive higher education institution for people working toward a PhD.”
In concrete terms, UZH has decided to introduce minimum standards for protected research time. This amounts to 30 percent of a full-time equivalent for assistants and 70 percent for PhD candidates – the same as at ETH Zurich. These new standards are yet another important step in addressing the needs of junior researchers, who already have access to a wide range of services at UZH, including structured PhD programs, support services and employability coaching as well as competitive funding schemes for their own research projects.
The specifics of implementing the new employment model will be elaborated by a university-wide working group, which will start work in the next few days. “We need to keep the best junior academics at UZH, since they’re the ones who play a key role shaping the research of today and tomorrow. As an employer, UZH is committed to supporting and nurturing its young talents,” says Vice President Research Elisabeth Stark.