My thoughts for 7th October 2015

Last week, I sent my first application for additional funding (currently, I have a salaried PhD student position for 12 months only) and visited a potential project consortium member. After talking with my Professor and senior lecturer I highly respect, I’m also more aware of the theoretical field and feel like I might be able to position myself somewhere in scientific theorycrafting. I also had a super active weekend – my past employer celebrated its 15 years in existence, and we had a high school reunion to celebrate my high school turning 100 years!

This week, I’ve been busy and more than eager to finally start the analysis, but more about that perhaps next week. I’ve also visited two seminars, one last week on complexity as arranged by Edistyksellinen tiedeliitto, and the other one a welcome event for new University staff. The first one gave me a few ideas (so wonderful to get an idea or two in a seminarium – makes them worth your while instead of boring you to sleep) and a had the chance to share my mind with the guest speaker film director Jari Halonen.

Now, a little background before moving to the second seminar learnings. I have worked in business for many years. What strikes me as odd here in academia is that in almost every “welcome” type seminar I’ve visited I hear the sentence “we typically work alone/be prepared to be stabbed in the back/people will say bad things about you and your work behind your back”. I do not mind ambition and the pyramid career structure of universities at all. Of course, I knew about its existence from disillusioned PhD students, but also my supervisors and University HR people have been perfectly open about the fact that University is a cut throat environment where only a select few end up as salaried personnel and one in a thousand becomes a professor. To me, this resembles the situation in professions like law and management consulting, where the best partnerships are highly competitive. There, young entrants are groomed to the profession by their more experienced peers, but they also get regular checkpoints to consider their own commitment to the organisation and the profession, and may easily jump out. It’s easy to see how funding application phases are checkpoints like this.

Sadly, the difference is that the lawyer or management consultant who realizes they are not a good fit or don’t want to join the ranks of partners after all, can always join a “normal” business company, for example as a legal advisor or in a similar business position. But at least here in Finland, the opportunities for academic PhD:s seem to be much fewer. As a result, it appears disillusioned PhD:s too often end up unemployed, or work outside of their original discipline. In my view, this is a complete waste, especially in a country like Finland where Universities are public and resources scarce to start with!

Finnish universities are doing their best trying to steer their students towards entrepreneurship, and at least AaltoES seems to be really active and successful supporting undergrad/graduate level startups. But how about doctoral level students?

A week ago, I found myself frantically writing my (first ever) PhD funding application alone at home, glancing at my Facebook feed with messages from others doing the same. It is a real shame that instead of co-operation, all us young-ish researchers are put against each other this way. Applying for funding is one the most important skills to learn in your researcher career (I find even successful professors have to do that). While I personally received more than excellent coaching from my supervisors, what I missed is the feeling of a team: a group to learn from, share experiences with, and even share duties with. I know from experience that best work gets done in a group, not alone. Not everyone should be Antti Rokka; wasn’t Vilho Koskela’s platoon successful too? (Those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, read your Väinö Linna!)

Today, at the University welcome event I took the chance to compliment our good Rector Jukka Kola on how University of Helsinki has really a good groove going on and it is no wonder that it is rising in the university ranks, but also to ask about how the University and especially the funding structures for researchers could support more the feeling of community.

I do believe that if a team of young researchers could work together more amiably during their early career, life could become easier for those who “drop out” the tenure track. Why is that? For example, because it is much easier to start a company with your colleagues, than alone. Three dropouts makes a company. One’s the salesman, one’s the developer, one’s the lead scientist.

I am more than happy that Rector Kola did relieve my worries a bit with his practical considerations! Considering how successful our University already is internationally, I find it very likely our position in all possible rankings could be even higher if research units and people in them didn’t feel like they must compete so ruthlessly with each other. On my part, I decided to invite people who recently started in our PhD program for a lunch, and after our first one it was agreed we will make this into a monthly habit. Looking forward to that.

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