From Mid-Level Academic Staff
— Postdoc, University of Geneva
I experienced a work overload between the end of my SNSF Doc.CH contract and the beginning of my maître-assistante position, a liminal period during which an intensive charge d’enseignements coincided with the preparation of my viva and the organization of a workshop. More jarringly, I was unprepared for the degree of surveillance during my postdoc. I experience my position as precarious not merely due to the fixed-term contract structure, but mostly due to the structural dependence on a professor. Contrary to the promise of increased intellectual freedom in the transition from doctoral student to postdoc, the obligation to defer to a single hierarchical superior in terms of teaching, research, and grants creates a constraining environment rife with the potential for abuse. I experience the university’s hierarchical structure and the dependence on a professor as the main impediments to fulfilling the intellectual and pedagogical tasks of my teaching and research contract.
— PhD student, University of Zurich
Short-term contracts, complete dependency on one’s superior for contract prolongation, part-time contracts and salary but nonetheless confronted with the expectation to work 100% or even more. These are just some of the factors that make our employment precarious. Because these working conditions are the reality for most of us until our late 30s or early 40s, already in my few years in academia, I’ve seen many of the most competent and capable mid-level staff leaving academia in exhaustion and frustration.
— Postdoc, University of Neuchâtel
Like many of us, I finished writing my thesis thanks to unemployment benefits. I then worked part-time on two SNSF-funded projects at two different institutions, during which I helped write two new projects, with no guarantee of being hired on one of them. At the end of my last fixed-term contract, the professor who had hired me had nothing to offer me, apart from a 20% contract for three months… to write another SNSF project application! As I approach my forties, I can no longer settle for so little.
— Maitre-assistante, University of Geneva
J’arrive au terme d’un mandat de maître-assistante et envisage d’interrompre ma carrière universitaire, faute de perspectives suffisamment claires. À la fin de mon mandat, j’aurai passé 14 années à l’Université: j’y ai assumé de nombreux cours et séminaires, pour lesquels j’ai reçu des retours très positifs de la part des étudiant-es, et par ailleurs j’ai atteint chacun des objectifs identifiés lors de mon engagement comme maître assistante (publication de ma thèse, rédaction et publication d’une seconde monographie, organisation de deux colloques internationaux, préparation et publication de deux numéros de revue, publication de nombreux articles dans des revues cotées, participation au comité éditorial d’une revue prestigieuse, etc.). Pour autant, mes chances de trouver un poste stable, dans mon université ou dans une autre université de Suisse romande, restent très faibles, bien que la qualité et le sérieux de mon travail soient reconnus par mes collègues et mes pairs. J’ai ainsi le sentiment qu’un poste stable m’aura échappé non pour des raisons objectives, mais simplement par manque de chance ou parce que je n’ai pas été soutenue suffisamment activement par ma hiérarchie (qui pourtant ne cesse de m’exprimer verbalement son soutien), ma directrice de thèse étant par ailleurs décédée pendant mon postdoctorat. J’éprouve aujourd’hui beaucoup de fatigue et n’ai plus l’énergie nécessaire pour occuper d’autres postes à nouveaux précaires, dans l’espoir qu’un poste stabilisé me soit un jour accessible, ce que personne dans mon entourage professionnel ne peut me garantir.
— Group Leader, University of Zurich
The pressure associated with becoming a group leader has impacted me immensely. I am not only responsible for my own life and career, but have become responsible for other peoples’ livelihoods as well. All without the security of having a permanent position myself. This has led to a lot of worrying, sleepless nights, etc.
— Senior Researcher, University of Fribourg
The most difficult thing in my current professional situation is the uncertainty about my future. It depends to a great extent on decisions that are not mine (acceptance of a research project, renewal of a contract, etc.) and this loss of control over my future makes the development of long-term projects difficult. After several years in this situation, a fatalistic resignation has set in: submission to the market logic seems inevitable. Another unpleasant aspect is the deterioration of employment conditions compared to my situation during my doctoral thesis: the duration of employment contracts has become shorter and competition for each project funding or each mandate has relentlessly increased. I feel like I have to fight more and more for less and less.
— PhD student, University of Zurich
I have been a representative for the Junior Researchers for a number of years. During this time, the required teaching hours have been increased across departments, while at the same time the creditable teaching, for e.g. master student supervision, was reduced. With more permanent teaching positions, this development could be halted, or even reversed.
— PhD student, University of Geneva
Depuis que j’ai commencé mon contrat à l’UNIGE, je suis chaque jour un peu plus sidérée de la manière dont le petit personnel de la recherche est traité. Dans mon département, personne n’a de contrat à durée indéterminée, à part les professeur.e.s qui règnent en maître, parfois en despote, vu que, sans emploi fixe, nous sommes à leur merci. Le petit personnel est quasi entièrement féminin, les professeurs presque tous des hommes, on se croirait cent ans en arrière, ça donne parfois le tournis. Les abus de pouvoir sont légion, les cas de harcèlements sexuels ou moral connus, mais jamais sanctionnés, les ressources humaines ne nous protègent absolument pas.
— Collaboratrice scientifique, Haute Ecole Spécialisée
Au cours des trois années qui ont suivi l’obtention de mon doctorat, j’ai vécu avec pas moins de 3 contrats de recherche différents (5 en tout, car 2 ont été prolongés en cours de route) et 9 charges d’enseignement différentes. Sans compter les travaux de valorisation de la thèse et des autres projets de recherche (ainsi que la rédaction de nouveaux projets), non inclus dans le temps contractualisé. Au-delà des difficultés matérielles, sociales et psychologiques résultant de ces emplois remplis d’incertitude, les postdocs vivent aussi le sentiment de faire la plus grande partie du travail de recherche (écriture des projets, réalisation de la partie empirique, rédaction des analyses et rapports finaux) sans avoir la possibilité statutaire de revendiquer ce travail et de mener leurs propres recherches en leur nom, ce qui serait non seulement une forme de reconnaissance de leur contribution scientifique, mais qui est également indispensable pour compléter leur dossier/CV afin de pouvoir prétendre postuler aux postes professoraux. Cette incohérence profonde du système académique de notre pays a des conséquences néfastes tant sur la qualité scientifique que sur la trajectoire professionnelle des chercheurs et chercheuses.
— Postdoc, University of Zurich
Over the many years as a representative of the junior researchers in various administrative bodies, one of the main problems has been and is always the fact that almost all available positions are on temporary part-time contracts (with the expectation of full time workload). This makes career planning in academia close to impossible, seriously harms private life and family planning, and therefore leads to an immense loss of talent. A larger amount of permanent positions after the doctorate could help considerably with all those problems as they allow to plan on longer terms, making it possible to have a family without having to fear not being able to support them when contracts run out. This way, many promising talents, who now have to make a decision between family or academia, could pursue both of these life goals.
— Former PhD candidate, ETHZ Basel
Permanently employed scientists provide competent advice on methods and larger trends in science, something professors are commonly too short on time. This helps students to get results years earlier, possibly saving thousands of francs in research funding.
An meinem früheren Departement existieren auf hunderte Beschäftigte 2-3 festangestellte, promovierte Wissenschaftler. Die Arbeit in einer Forschungsgruppe ist sowohl technisch als auch von der Problemstellung hochspezialisiert, soll heißen es ist auch für Leute mit gutem, einschlägigem Abschluss nicht offensichtlich, was wie am besten getan werden sollte. Gruppengrößen liegen regelmäßig über 15 Doktorierenden, die alle direkt vom/von der ProfessorIn betreut werden, der/die jedoch ebenfalls hochschulpolitische, repräsentative und administrative Aufgaben zu erledigen hat. Da alle vier bis fünf Jahre mit den Doktorierenden auch Kompetenzen die Gruppe verlassen und DoktorandInnen für ihre Promotion ihre Forschung maßgeblich selbst zu betreiben haben, gibt es niemanden, der bei Fragen zu Methodik und konkreter Forschungsrichtung kompetent, erfahren und verfügbar wäre. Auch PostDocs sind auf Autorenschaften in kurzer Zeit angewiesen und scheiden dadurch oft als Mentor aus. De facto bezahlt so der Steuerzahler pro DoktorandIn 1,5 bis 2 Jahre Irrfahrt, die sich in Promotionszeiten von im Schnitt über 5 Jahren niederschlägt. Der SNF veranschlagt 4 Jahre Maximum.
— PhD candidate, University of Lausanne
In the first months of my thesis, interactions with my research director were very positive. The relationship deteriorated as I progressed with my research. My supervisor did not seem to appreciate me presenting my work independently at conferences or workshops. When I interacted with other researchers (especially advanced researchers or professors), she required a detailed report. Conflicting injunctions were beginning to emerge, as well as judgments that had nothing to do with scientific life (on my personal life in particular).
The relationship deteriorated, I felt very alone, especially since this professor was playing a double game: in front of colleagues, she showed herself to be a considerate woman with progressive ideas, whereas in private, she made sharp judgments and indulged herself in an unhealthy power relationship. Fortunately, by reporting these abuses, I was able to change my thesis director, get out of this toxic relationship and finish my thesis with a much more humane and competent director.
But how many young researchers have to resign in the face of abuses of power?
Moreover, I initially suffered the consequences of this change because this abusive director had publicly attributed the failure of our professional relationship to my « temperament »: a way of sullying my reputation. A few months later, two more of her doctoral students went through the same difficulties as me (and even worse), they also were allowed to finish their thesis with another supervisor; a third doctoral student simply resigned. This did not prevent her from being appointed as an ordinary professor.
— SNSF postdoctoral Visiting Scholar
The current system is trying to normalize the fact that within 4-6 years of getting a PhD it is not possible to get a permanent position in academia. I’m now at PhD+4 and the best I could possibly get would be a tenure-track position – another 5 years of precarious working conditions, at least with the chance of getting tenure. But much more likely is another contract for one or two years.
— PhD candidate, University of Zurich
I always believed that the University is an institution of teaching and research and not the other way around. The only way for a guaranteed continuous excellence in science is to invest in the next generation of researchers. Teaching has always been near to my heart and I have been teaching since my second year of my bachelor’s studies with passion, persistence and patience. However, this is not the usual case. Many PhD students are just too stressed or too busy to care about their teaching hours. They do it as a must, a point on their to do list, without correct preparation and passion, leading to frustration on both sides. I personally think that teaching should be a possibility in any PhD studies but not a must, to guarantee the best possible education for any further generation of scientists generated by this university. Creating fixed positions, among which some could be dedicated to teaching, would ensure a more thorough education for our students.
— PhD candidate, University of Fribourg
I did my thesis under the direction of a director who insulted me several times. Instead of helping me understand my mistakes, he yelled at me and crossed out whole paragraphs of my thesis without giving me the advice I needed to improve. Once, I asked for help from a professor outside my university, whom I had met at an international colloquium. A few days later, when my thesis director decreed that my pages were null and void, I shared with him a suggestion made by the professor I met at the colloquium. Without me knowing why, he starts shouting: “You can go and fuck her, I don’t give a fuck!” This very violent interaction prompted me to report his attitude to the dean. This professor continued to be my thesis supervisor officially even though the bridges had been cut. I wrote my thesis alone in my corner, with the intermittent help of the foreign professor who was supporting me.
During my defense, my pseudo thesis director influenced the jury to give me a grade that, without being eliminatory, reduced my chances of obtaining post-doctoral research funding. This research director also harassed me with personal questions, notably about my religious orientation.
Unfortunately the institution did not support me. Not being in a logic of conflict, I am now trying to move forward in spite of this difficult experience, which has had an impact on me but also on my family.
— PostDoc, University of Neuchâtel
My thesis supervisor was sexist and patriarchal. For him, women don’t belong in University. He told me every day that I’d better find a rich husband who could sustain me. He constantly commented on my physical appearance, questioned me about my love life and called me “darling”. He did this in front of everyone without anyone reacting. He would regularly yell at me or make fun of me by saying that he didn’t understand a word when I talked to him about my thesis.
After my defense, I continued to work with him, but nothing changed. When I reported his behavior to the Dean, I was simply moved to another department and cut off from my colleagues and my work environment. My thesis supervisor never received any warning at all. I felt abandoned and alone. Five years later, I still feel out of place as a woman in academia. The precariousness and dependency on professors puts us in a position of extreme vulnerability to harassment and sexism.
— PhD student, University of Lausanne
In my experience, the dependency from the thesis supervisor is extremely high. My supervisor happens to be a supportive person. However, colleagues of mine were asked to renounce on holiday weeks as entitled by law, to work more. This ended with a burn-out. Lack of mentoring is another recurrent issue. A survey within our institute showed that more than 40% of doctoral students receive very little feedback or none from their thesis.
— PhD student, University of Geneva
Mon directeur de thèse m’a poussé à entamer un doctorat et proposé une place d’assistant, je me sentais très flattée, alors je me suis lancée. Au fil des années, je me rends compte qu’il fait ça avec beaucoup d’étudiant.e.s, comme s’il avait besoin d’une cour nombreuse pour flatter son égo. Ceci est d’autant plus regrettable qu’il ne s’agit pas d’un métier d’avenir. Pour les doctorant.e.s, une fois la thèse achevée, le « contrat » se termine (à moins, comme c’est souvent le cas, que la thèse soit achevée grâce au chômage), les nouveaux docteurs sont lessivés – la plupart ont travaillé le soir et le weekend depuis des années –, sans emploi, sans avenir à l’extérieur (beaucoup recommencent une formation), car les années d’enseignement universitaire ne sont pas reconnues sur le marché du travail. En outre, il ne faut surtout pas compter sur un merci pour le travail accompli, sans même parler d’un apéro d’adieu. Nous sommes les kleenex de la recherche, aussitôt (sur-)utilisé, aussitôt jeté.
— Postdoc, Hes-so
In addition to my three-years post-doc contract, I feel compelled to accept all the academic jobs that are offered to me, with small percentages of work and for limited periods of time, hoping that one of these opportunities will lead to a permanent position. However, I know that the chances are very low, if not non-existent. Moreover, the valorization of research is most of the time not included in the contract times: I take time from my vacations and weekends to do presentations at conferences and write articles. As a single mother, I know why women are less represented in academic position than men… I am frustrated, exhausted and worried.
Postdoc, University of Neuchâtel
My second daughter was born while I was working as a scientific collaborator at a University of Applied Sciences and Arts. It was a part-time and short-term job. During the first year of her existence, the financial stress was permanent – every month 1500 francs were missing to complete the budget. The uncertainty about the future was heavy, and affected my entire family in one way or another. Added to this was a lack of recognition from the people in charge of the project who, once the research began, showed little interest in my knowledge, despite the fact that I had just completed a doctoral thesis on the subject. It was more important to them to count my work hours and micromanage my tasks than my specialized knowledge, well-being, or future in the academic world. Today, I am more than 40 years old, and I have yet to see a permanent contract with my name on it.
— PostDoc, University of Zurich
Eine Festanstellung nach dem Doktorat erlaubt gerechte Familienplanung, ist psychisch gesünder als der Dauerstress bei Kurzanstellungen und macht unabhängiger von Drittmittelanträgen. Diese nehmen nicht nur viel Zeit in Anspruch, sondern selbst im Falle einer Bewilligung werden die Forscher*innen oft nicht genug lange finanziert, um das Forschungsprojekt abzuschliessen. Somit muss man eigentlich immer schon den nächsten Projektantrag schreiben, anstatt diese Energie der Forschung widmen zu können. Und nicht zuletzt würden Festanstellungen auch Freiraum bieten für innovative Forschungsprojekte ausserhalb der Königreiche der Professor*innen.
— Senior Researcher, University of Applied Sciences and Arts
I sincerely love doing my job as a researcher, yet I would not recommend this career path to anyone. The last 9 years I spent in research, I was given a succession of 8 fixed-term contracts in 4 institutions. During that time, I experienced a continuous decrease in the work percentage, an excessive workload accepted as the norm, and a salary that sometimes makes me regret having a PhD. The repercussions are certainly personal (a poor quality of life, a feeling of low competence and self-esteem), but also professional and scientific. The impossibility of planning long term limits partnerships with academic institutions or actors in the field, as the researcher is unable to know whether the conditions will be in place to successfully complete the planned research. The time, work and energy that the different members of a team invest in developing an efficient collaboration are wasted by contract breakdowns. Finally, scientific production is influenced by a climate of insecurity. Oral support is plentiful, but concrete steps are rare. Today, doing research is becoming synonymous with sacrifice, for little professional and financial recognition.
From Professors and MERs
— Julie Billaud, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
The precariousness of higher education and research in Switzerland is systemic in the sense that it is the result of political choices modelled on permanent competition. The resulting uncertainty for researchers, often for a decade or even throughout their entire working lives, is not only harmful from the point of view of mental health but also for the Public good. Many researchers find themselves unemployed in between contracts, continuing their publication work and writing funding applications while searching for their next contract. Unemployment insurance finds itself taking over from research funding agencies without being able to offer sustainable solutions. Moreover, the inflation of doctoral students in relation to the number of positions in universities represents a waste of public money since the funds invested in their training rarely lead to a stable position.
In the name of principles such as efficiency and excellence, the model of permanent competition leads to work and employment rhythms that often do not correspond to the duration and time a good research project would need. Furthermore, by developing entrepreneurial personalities, the ideology of competition hinders true collaboration, which would, however, be crucial for excellent research.
Doctoral students in anthropology – the discipline I teach – who do not benefit from scholarships and who therefore rely on their income as assistants, find themselves having to finance their fields personally. The luckier ones, who receive an SNSF scholarship, are under pressure to complete their thesis in three years, a deadline that is not tenable and forces them to find part-time positions elsewhere, thus not being able to dedicate as much time and energy to their research as they should. Many become discouraged and abandon their projects. In short, research funding policies, far from promoting excellence, are detrimental to excellency and at the moment rather select according to willingness or ability to live precariously.
— Sébastien Chauvin, Associate Professor in Gender Studies, University of Lausanne
The staggering rate of precarious contracts for mid-level academic staff in higher education in Switzerland simply cannot be justified by the temporary nature of the research and teaching tasks carried out. Given that this mid-level workforce is collectively used on a structural basis by academic institutions, keeping individuals on repeated short-term contracts means a deliberate choice of precariousness and dependence. This retention through uncertainty is characteristic of the neoliberal employment model, but the relations of dependence it generates have a longer genealogy: in many respects, the neoliberal model merely renames and recycles a feudal model that preceded it.
Today’s “leaders” and their “teams” are indeed strangely similar to the mandarins of yesteryear and their vassals. Only an increase in independent and perennial funding on all career levels and the development of permanent positions at the intermediate level would make it possible to mitigate the most brutal effects of this neoliberal-feudalism.
Moreover, the latter model is gendered: the over-investment in employment required by the extreme competition for scarce positions and impossible deadlines, including evenings and weekends spent working, mobilizes a male organizational model, well analyzed by sociologists, which assumes that parenting tasks are done by another member of the household, very often a “formidable wife”. In contrast, many women researchers find themselves faced with the impossible choice between not having a career or not having children. This dilemma is further exacerbated by how central the requirement of international mobility is for both recruitment and project funding, a requirement that is at once insensitive to gender inequalities and increasingly at odds with the new climate emergency. Both, our understanding of excellence and the organization of work and careers need to be rethought.
— Professeure, Université de Genève
Je souhaiterais attirer l’attention sur la précarisation actuelle du CCER, qui a tout d’abord un impact social et individuel évident. La recherche de soutien institutionnel et les enjeux de la mobilité de formation impliquent, pendant des années centrales pour les parcours des chercheur.euses, la dispersion d’énergies intellectuelles dans la multiplication des projets de recherche. Cela peut amener à une fragilisation personnelle au niveau des parcours de vie : couple, famille, parentalité, et à des choix imposés par des logiques externes aux motivations individuelles. Les asymétries de genre et les inégalités sociales, elles se voient renforcées. En perspective, je trouve que cela a un impact significatif sur la qualité des recherches portées par les Universités et les Hautes Ecoles en Suisse. Les enjeux actuels et nouveaux de la recherche (défi numérique, collaborations internationales, questions sociétales urgentes) exigent la mise en acte d’une politique scientifique significative et efficace en vue de carrières stables de chercheur.euses enseignant.e.s hautement qualifié.e.s. Cela aurait un retour positif et significatif sur la qualité de l’enseignement et de la recherche, mais cela favoriserait également le processus participatif au sein des Universités et Hautes Ecoles qui sont aujourd’hui au risque d’une hiérarchisation interne excessive du corps professoral.
— Professor, University of Geneva
I see two problems. First. For years I have been training doctoral students, some extremely brilliant, some of Swiss nationality, who cannot find a place in Swiss universities for lack of space. In exchange, my institution recruits by competitive examination almost only people trained in USA-UK. Excellence is fine, but there is a risk of a monopoly of approaches and methods in addition to the problem of making room for doctoral students trained in Switzerland. Second. There is no way to perpetuate these researchers other than through a series of contracts, sometimes with good conditions – in particular those of the SNSF, but precarious. A research team is therefore a teacher + a collection of PhD students or post-docs who come and go. From a professor-entrepreneur point of view, it is difficult to build and maintain a team. It means being constantly on the lookout for research funds and spending more time on management than on actual research. The mechanisms provided for by the SNSF are a partial remedy, but remain insufficient.
— Assistant Professor, ex-University of Geneva
I have lived through hell due to precariousness of my situation at UniGE for 10 years. The list of how many contracts I’ve had is 1.5 pages long (one contract = one line). I went through burnout caused by how time pressure to finish my PhD (contract was ending and couldn’t be renewed), 3 years of recovering from that burnout (during which time I even had 2-month contract and a 12 and 6-month contract, and 40% and 60% and then a 75%… you name it), followed by one year on unemployment when that 75% 12-month contract finished, reduced to partial unemployment when a few months later I got a 20% contract for 6 months. I am now securely employed (CDI) as assistant professor… in France. I earn a bit more than a PhD student in Switzerland but I’m happy this BS chasing after salary is over.
— Ex-PhD and ex-PostDoc, University of Lausanne, Maîtresse de Conférence in France
Before finding a permanent position, I worked for 14 years on precarious contracts in Switzerland. In all, I had nearly 25 different contracts over periods of 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, 10 months, 14 months… when it wasn’t on an hourly basis, it was very part time (10%, 15%, 25%, 40%). The best contracts I had after my PhD were for 55% and 75% respectively. I lived in permanent doubt. Will I have worked enough months to be admissible for unemployment benefits if the next project is not funded? My income has fluctuated sharply; I lived below the poverty line right after achieving my doctoral thesis (less than 2’000 Swiss francs per month) and I only passed the 6’000 francs per month salary bar one single time in my employment trajectory and that only for 6 months. Today, I am 42 years old, I have no children and I can say that I paid the price to finally get a job… far from my family and far from my friends.
— Maître d’enseignement et de recherche (MER), University of Geneva
Unlike most, I have a long term contract and benefit from good working conditions as a senior lecturer and researcher, which I only got after 20 years of uncertainty. But here’s what I see from this position: most of my colleagues are in permanent risk of burn-out, specially young women in precarious post-doc situations, but also my older colleagues who have had to accept ridiculously low part-time positions (20%, 30%) in order to have some security. In the meantime, the university, while advertising its investment in the ‘next generation’, systematically implements budget-cuts at their expense and lowers hiring percentages of the lower income and precarious colleagues. I have seen the best colleagues, most critical and combative voices leave because an implicit condition for promotion is conformity with the university hierarchy. Precarity leaves university memory in ruins, with little possibility for the bottom of the hierarchy to organize and think about necessary changes. I find this dynamic extremely distressing, and I am constantly shocked by the lack of solidarity of the top of the pyramid with the base. All this makes me feel very ambivalent: am I contributing to this perverse logic with my teaching and research?