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Tenure tracks for the elite

If Aarhus University wants to attract the best young researchers in the world, it needs to offer them a tenure track system, say the managers of a number of the university’s basic research centres. The question is when this system should be offered to them.

Foto: Jesper Rais

The best and most talented researchers in the world need special treatment, because this is the only way that Aarhus University can attract them to Denmark. So the tenure track system should be introduced as soon as possible – a system under which young researchers can qualify as associate professors and get their own research groups within five or six years. These are the views of the managers of several basic research centres at AU.
“We can already set up a process similar to the tenure track system by combining different types of position; but these positions have to be advertised every time, which sometimes makes it hard to appoint the people we really want to appoint,” says Niels Haldrup. He is a professor of economics and manager of the CREATES basic research centre.
Professor Leif Østergaard also regards the tenure track system as very important.
“People on a tenure track know exactly what they have to do to pass through the eye of the needle. And this is how we can attract the best researchers to Aarhus,” he explains. Østergaard is the manager of the CFIN neuroscience research centre.
He is also a member of the Danish Council on Research Policy under the Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, which recently advised the Danish universities to incorporate the tenure track system into their strategic HR policies.

An American model?

At Aarhus University the tenure track system has also been mentioned in the ideas about talent development that a special committee is currently working on. But whereas the managers of the Aarhus centres in the scientific field want an American model with a five- or six-year period after completing a postdoc or assistant professorship, Niels Haldrup believes that a flexible postdoc or assistant professorship process should be used as a tenure track system instead.  Joint shop steward Finn Folkmann thinks the same.
“It’s OK to set up a firmer system leading to the position of associate professor. It’s already possible to do this, actually,” he says. But he does not feel that the university should add five or six years on top of a postdoc or assistant professor period.
“These forms of appointment – including appointments abroad – should be included in the overall process so people can be approved for tenure three-six years after gaining their PhD,” says Folkmann.

Win-win situation

The tenure track system involves a well-defined five-year process. Young researchers are assessed after four years, and if the result of this assessment is positive they go on to achieve tenure. If not, they must start looking for other career paths.
“It’s important that we offer young, talented researchers a career package so they get their own laboratories and perhaps a couple of PhD students to assist them as well,” says Professor Poul Nissen from the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre. He believes that the tenure track system is a win-win situation.
“It’s an attractive system for young researchers because it means that their path over the next many years can be clearly mapped out for them. And if things don’t work out after five years – the lack of financing, the inability to produce a good research programme or an inadequate contribution to our teaching activities – then the person concerned is not best served by continuing anyway. It would be better for them to look for other alternatives,” he believes.

Confusion reigns

Professor Torben Heick Jensen believes that tenure tracks should be in everyone’s interest.
“It helps to secure the quality of our appointments, and it means that people can be more certain about what the future holds in store for them,” says the manager of the basic research centre for biogenesis and metabolism.
In his view a perfect tenure track system would give researchers the right to lead their own research groups. And the people whose assessments turn out negative could be appointed as senior researchers with support functions.
In his view, the present Danish system only causes confusion.
“You don’t always know who has their own group and who doesn’t. If our associate professors never get the chance to design their own research programmes, our professors are left with a huge amount of power. The tenure track system makes everything clearer for all concerned,” he concludes.