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»It would be nice to know that the university felt an obligation towards me«

A career in research — Nina Grønlykke Mollerup does research and fieldwork on dictatorships, and so she has to be careful about what she writes and comments on. But as an employee on a temporary contract it is particularly difficult to talk to the university about safety.

»I would like to have a permanent contract. Not so much for my own career’s sake, but because it would give me the stability to be able to do the work that I find important.

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 to leave.

Nina Grønlykke Mollerup

Age: 41

Associate professor at the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

Employed as a postdoc 2018-2020 and as an associate professor 2020-2023. Both of these contracts are temporary

Postdoc at the Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen 2017-2018.

PhD from UCPH in 2016.

I am always very careful about what I speak out about – and there are things you cannot write in this article – because I work with dictatorships. It would, of course, not be any different if I was a permanent employee. But it would be easier for me to have a dialogue with the university about my safety if I was a permanent employee. When I travel, I can get into trouble for work that I did years ago at another department or at another university.

I am a media anthropologist and my research is about the documentation of violence and how this is used to establish narratives and truth in conflict situations. At the moment, I’m doing research on how images from Syria help reconfigure what the country was, is now, and is turning into, based on collective archives. My focus is on Syrian photographers that have documented the war and the revolution, and the people and organisations that work to gather, preserve and verify the images.

I have been at Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen for about two and a half years, and I have about two years left on my current contract. During the first two years I was a postdoc, but was allowed to take the programme in higher education teaching [pædagogikum, ed.], which is needed to be an associate professor. So now I’m employed as a temporary associate professor on a new project that I’ve helped to attract the funding for. I learned that you could be temporarily hired as an associate professor only halfway through my postdoc appointment.

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Never a part of the community

I wish someone told me to start working on what comes afterwards before I submitted my PhD. I was not focused enough on thinking ahead and reaching out to the people that I would subsequently like to work with. I thought that I should just focus on doing the best possible PhD thesis.

I got a very good PhD assessment. It just didn’t mean that a job was waiting for me afterwards. So I did some consultant work and tried to get a postdoc or assistant professor job. But because I didn’t have my foot in the door, it was really hard to get back.

Today, I feel that I myself am solely responsible for my own safety when I travel.
Associate professor at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen

One month before I had to submit my PhD, there was a job posting for a postdoc that sounded interesting. I didn’t apply because I wanted to focus on my dissertation. But I realised subsequently that it would have been worthwhile to have taken time out to apply for it, even if this had meant that I had handed my dissertation in two weeks later.

There are very few opportunities to apply for an individual postdoc. It is therefore essential to collaborate with senior researchers. This has been a really important realisation for me, and it is something that I try to pass on to the junior researchers I work with, to help them find their way through all this uncertainty.

Temporary jobs

The magazine Akademikerbladet showed in 2018 that 49 per cent of Danish universities’ academic staff were temporarily hired. Back in 2002, this proportion was only one third. It is quite normal for permanent positions to remain nothing but wishful thinking.

 

But as a temporary employee, it is very difficult to plan ahead. Because you are constantly working with different ‘maybe’ scenarios. You do not know if you have something in a year’s time or in two year’s time.

You are also in an odd position in your workplace. You are never quite a part of the community when you are a temporary hire, even though you may be at the same place for years. At the same time, temporary employees represent a significant group at the university.

Speaking from an uncertain platform

As a PhD and as a postdoc you often hear that you should not expect to be permanently hired, and that you need to look for work elsewhere. There are events and counselling on how to find a career outside university. This is, of course, good and relevant. But what you actually hear when you get this message is that they are ready to kick you out when your contract expires.

The university is completely dependent on the very large group of temporarily employed researchers and lecturers. It undermines the huge amount of work that we deliver when they say that people have to prepare to do something different. Of course, I don’t think you should stop supporting people in finding other career paths. But I think many of us would feel more appreciated if there was a different discourse around this.

When I took my teaching and learning programme course, virtually all of the people there were postdocs. This means that we were temporary employees financed by external funding. In this way, it is often private foundations that help select who should be qualified to teach at university, because they are the ones that pay. Not the university. I find this problematic.

In terms of the freedom of research and of expression, there is also uncertainty in being temporarily hired. I have sometimes refrained from commenting on issues that are politically explosive. This can, of course, also be a challenge for permanent staff. But you have a better – and safer – platform to speak from as an employee on a permanent contract.

I’ve done some research that was possible because I had a certain safety net in this one appointment at this specific time – and because the security situation in the respective countries was as it was at that time. Today I feel that I myself am responsible for my own safety when I travel, despite the fact that I am only exposed because of my work. This is pretty tough. It would be nice to know that the university felt an obligation towards me in this instance.«

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