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Associate professor: The world of research is »vicious«

A career in research — Timing, serendipity, and networking. This was how Jakob Johan Demant — Head of Studies at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen — landed his permanent position in research. You need to know when to apply for jobs outside your network, he says. As you will not be rewarded for loyalty.

»A permanent position at the University of Copenhagen really meant a lot to me. I can remember I came into this empty office at the old department, where I myself had been educated, and thought: Okay, now I have to take care of an associate professorship here and live up to this role. What do I need to do?

At the Department of Sociology, we strive to be at the forefront of international research. I actually find that we communicate this clearly. But there may be circumstances that attach you closely to this city.

If you have been working close with the department and have contributed to the teaching and proven that you are skilled, you would think that you had a better chance of getting one of the permanent positions. But this is not the case.

A career in research

Young researchers’ career paths are characterised by uncertainty and fierce competition. Permanent jobs are few and far between. In this series, current or former researchers talk about the pitfalls, the unwritten rules, and the coincidences, that were decisive for them and their choice to stay in academia or leave.

Jakob Johan Demant

Age: 49

Current position: Associate Professor (permanent staff), Head of Studies at Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen

PhD in sociology at UCPH in 2008

Achieved tenure for the first time as an associate professor of psychology at Aarhus University in 2011 at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug research. He had worked as an assistant professor beforehand.

Before that, he was a research assistant at UCPH. He has lectured at the Danish police academy after his master’s.

The permanent positions are long-term investments. Positions like assistant professor, associate professor and professor are not just job postings. They set the strategic direction of the research environment. It is therefore less important whether you are a good friend, or if you have made a positive contribution to the daily work. Because this is not the most important parameter.

The difference is that if you want postdoc or research assistant positions, it is very much about proximity. People are often hired for shorter periods of time on very detail-specific qualifications. It is mostly the networking that determines whether you get the jobs or not.

The problem is that you then hit a brick wall afterwards. Because you do not have the opportunity to proceed. The loyalty that you have placed will not be rewarded. It may well be that you have been the best colleague in the world, but it’s not enough to be really smart. It is also about being able to fill out some often fairly broad research areas. And about doing it at the right time.

One really important point is that if you can get in and get a good job where you are really happy with the research and teaching that you do, it’s good to be at the university. But you just have to remember that you’re fighting against a reality where, for each step up, there is a very limited number of permanent positions. Because there is always a selection.

For it to be worth taking this direction in your working life, it should be very important for you to be able to do research and to teach.

A very, very stressful environment

I’ve never had a supervisor myself. Not officially, at least.

After my master’s, I had a number of smaller jobs, including some teaching at the Danish police academy. Then I applied for a research assistant job at the University of Copenhagen with a professor that I knew. And I don’t know why I got it. Maybe it was because I had my hair dyed blue at the time.

During the process, my professor realised that I might have some talent. In any case, she contacted some colleagues at Aarhus University’s Centre for Alcohol and Drug research. And even though a PhD was not already a part of this project, they agreed to pay some salary so my research could be transformed into a PhD. I did what they call a ‘self-submission’ of the dissertation to UCPH, even though the project was financed by Aarhus University. I don’t think they do this anymore. Things are much more tightly regulated today.

You have to know how long you should keep knocking on the door.
Jakob Johan Demant

I think it says something about the fact that you are extremely dependent on others. And other people’s networks. You have to dare to ask for the opportunities that you see. To a large degree, it is a hidden course of events taking place. And as I see it, there is a big difference between the way I myself got my career and the way new young talents can get one. And our focus on internationalisation means that we definitely don’t look inside Denmark for candidates as a starting point.

You have to tell yourself that a PhD is not the only thing in the world. Because it is a very, very stressful working environment. It’s also stressful working as a postdoc because you don’t know whether you can get the next job. You have to consider whether you want to go in this direction.

You have to know how long you should keep knocking on the door. You need to know when to leave.

You have to want to take part in this race

Whether the permanent job has been worth it? Gosh. It depends on what day you ask me. Now I’m Head of Studies, and I don’t find it fun to tell a class that they can’t go back to campus anyway, or ask a colleague to put in an extra effort. But on other days, the research all comes together: You complete a research article or get a good idea for a project.

Even when you are in a permanent position, there is a very high performance requirement. I have to write a number of articles of a certain quality and attract external funding. It’s only fun if you do it in an area that you really find exciting to do research in. If the bustle and the performance pressure overshadows the joy and freedom of it, then it is not worth it. I can have that discussion with myself sometimes.

Temporary hires

A calculation by the magazine Akademikerbladet in 2018 showed that 49 per cent of Danish universities’ academic staff are in temporary positions. In 2002, this proportion was only one third. It is quite normal for a permanent position to remain a pipe dream.

I do research on young people and crime. The exciting thing about my job is that I can allow myself to move on when the whole field moves on. From being interested in digital image abuse, I can take on an interest in digital crypto markets or app-based crime. This freedom is absolutely crucial. If you forget that freedom, I no longer think it’s worth it.

You have to seek out the international experience. Because it gives you an international network and a broader perspective on the research. But you are not guaranteed a position in Denmark, just because you have been abroad. You have to want to take part in this race. And it’s draining!

If you’ve got your first postdoc with good colleagues, and there is the opportunity to prolong it and stay in your own city with your friends and family, then it is a huge thing to say no thanks and apply for something in Paris or Massachusetts.

We have become better at consulting on strategic issues. I don’t know whether this is good enough. It is still a vicious world to be a part of. Even if someone helps you, this does not mean you succeed. And then you have to make up your mind about how far you are willing to go for it.«