Tenure track lures elite researchers, can hinder women

Tenure track develops elite recruitment but does not provide employment security for post-doctoral candidates in general and reduces the mobility of academic staff, according to a new report on the use of the tenure track system – a job classification indicating that an academic is in the running for a permanent position – in Denmark, China, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore and the United States.

A particular concern raised in Europe is that young women scientists under the tenure track system might be forced to give their career top priority until they get permanent employment, putting off having a family until later in their career, which is regarded in many European countries as a step backwards in the quest for gender equality in research.

Some critics also claim that permanent contracts lead to ineffective research, the report says.

The study was published by the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis, or Tillväxtanalys, and found that European and Asian institutions are increasingly using tenure track in recruiting young researchers, US universities – after nearly 50 years of use – are phasing it out.

The report Career Path for Young Researchers: Tenure track, gender equality, research mobility and research funding, Tillväxtanalys (Svar Direct, 2015:21), is the result of investigations carried out in cooperation with the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research.

The report is written by agency representatives in the US (Anna Ledin), Stockholm, Sweden (Sophia Tannergård and Carl Jeding), China (Christer Ljungvall and Linda Westman) and India (Andreas Muryanyi-Scheutz), with Carl Wadell in Stockholm as project head.

The report, when examining how US universities have started to phase out tenure track recruitment, says that a growing number of US universities think that it is an extensive system that reduces mobility in the academic labour market. “Some critics claim that the permanent contract can result in researchers being ineffective and developing academic tunnel vision,” the report says.


Before 2007 there were no tenure track options possible in Denmark. But in 2007 new legislation opened up the option for young researchers to have tenure at an earlier time in their career, and the law blocked options for sequential temporary positions, and in 2012 the law opened up the option of not having to announce all positions internationally.

Universities started to experiment with tenure track models in order to recruit top talent, particularly more women and more international researchers, and the interest was high. For example, a web-page created by Aarhus University in 2011: “Tenure tracks for the elite” had been downloaded more than 2 million times by 2015.

“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,” the report says. “These forms of appointment – including appointments abroad – should be included in the overall process so people can be approved for tenure three to six years after gaining their PhD,” the note argued.

The University of Copenhagen introduced tenure track in January 2013 with the ambition that at least 80% of the recruits should gain tenure later. Copenhagen University has since claimed that the tenure track model has been a significant reason for the university climbing on international rankings.

Copenhagen University has experienced a rise of women professors from 21% to 26% from 2011 to 2013. Tenure track is combined with a prolongation clause for childbirths in order to strengthen the proportion of women tenured at higher academic positions.


China has seen a huge increase in the number of researchers, with a 38% increase from 2005 to 2012, reaching 314,000, and also experienced a comparative expansion in scientific production. The number of new PhD candidates grew from 19,000 in 2005 to more than 50,000 in 2013. The university system has expanded, and the goal of producing high-quality young researchers is given a high national priority.

Since the late 1990s work on tenure track has been undertaken mainly at the universities, without any specific national stimulation. Already in 1985 a system of post-doc positions was introduced and administered by the central government, the ‘China Post-Doctoral Management Association’, authorised to allocate positions to universities.

A bonus system rewarding production of scientific articles has contributed to the rise of a large quantitative production of scientific articles of lower quality, and the system disfavours women.

The competition for post-doc positions has stiffened significantly over the past five years and a great number of scientists have been lured back to Chinese universities from abroad through an attractive funding system, the 'Thousands Talents Program'. It is the established elite universities – Peking, Tsinghua, Renmin, Fudan and Shanghai Jia Tong – that have had positive experiences with tenure track.

The Netherlands

Dutch PhD candidates receive their PhD degree on average at 29.5 years of age, work on average 7.5 years to become associate professor and 16.5 years to become full professor. Some 36% of Dutch doctoral candidates graduating in 2003 were foreign citizens, and in 2011 this had grown to 43%. The major home countries were Germany and China.

Universities are adopting longer and longer time periods for before giving young researchers tenure. Universities have strong autonomy, and tenure track is used in Amsterdam and Leiden universities and TU Delft. The University of Amsterdam has an ambition that half of all academic positions for recruitment should be tenure track.

All young researchers have to go through a qualification period of 4 + 3 years before achieving tenure. The system for employing and qualifying a young researcher is part of the university’s overall strategy and among the best in the world, the report states.

United States

There are approximately 120,000 young academics with a contract for tenure track in the US tenure track system each year, but only one in 10 is elected for tenure each year. On a national basis 55% to 60% receive tenure, but there are great variations between universities and between academic fields.

One reason the tenure track system was introduced in the US was to secure academic freedom so that young researchers could do long-term, high-risk research and be critical to the authorities without the risk of being fired. Another important purpose is to attract and keep excellent researchers.

But due to economic cutbacks, the system of tenure track has been weakened. In 1970 approximately three-quarters of all young American researchers were included in the tenure track system, in 1975 the proportion was 56%, in 1995 42% and in 2007 the proportion had fallen to 30% and was still going down. Today, according to the American Association of University Professors, approximately 70% of academic staff are employed at universities without tenure track.

For internationally excellent researchers, the report says, there are few limits for attractive career paths at US universities. But for people not at the absolute top, there is now increasing competition, notably for tenured positions.


Switzerland has among the highest proportion of foreign researchers in the world; in 2011 57% came from other countries, 37% from Germany. Foreign post-docs account for three-quarters and among full professors 52% are foreign citizens. Between 2000 and 2012 the number of graduated PhDs increased by 29%, and 54% of them did not target academic positions since there are sufficient attractive positions outside academia.

For the past 15 years or so tenure track has been an option and both ETH-Zürich and EPFL-Lausanne today are practising tenure track. At EPFL half of newly recruited young researchers are tenure track, and over the period 2007-13 EPFL was one of the four most successful institutions at landing European Research Council grants, an achievement attributed mainly to the successful introduction of tenure track.


All young researchers have to go through a qualification period of 4 + 3 years before they can apply for tenure. The criteria for obtaining tenure are well defined and documented and a candidate's the application is examined by a number of colleagues from within the university and by external evaluators.

Those candidates that do not fulfil the criteria for tenure after two application rounds have to leave the university. This system for employing young candidates is totally independent from the state.

Universities are autonomous in recruiting academic staff, and the ambition of the foremost Singaporean universities is to be world class. Approximately half of faculty staff at the National University of Singapore are Singaporean; the other half have come in from other countries. New staff are offered high salaries, supported housing costs, relocation support and an attractive starting package of 4-6 post-docs as support personnel for full professors.

Competitiveness strategies

The report concluded that today universities are using tenure track to recruit “eminent researchers”, this frequently being one of the universities’ strategies to increase their international competitiveness. ”So tenure tracks are often part of an academic elite investment rather than a way of improving overall employment security for academics."

In the countries studied in this report, the design of tenure tracks is up to the individual universities and in some cases only operates in certain faculties within the institution.

In all the cases studied, the tenure track contracts enable young promising researchers, often assistant professors, to conduct research for four to eight years, with the aim being that a permanent position at the university will be offered on condition the work is evaluated successfully.

Generally the proportion of men and women is relatively evenly distributed at doctoral student level but women become increasingly under-represented the higher up the ladder one goes. In China female researchers are disadvantaged more generally. But in some countries tenure track contributes to equality since the selection of candidates for posts is based on academic competence and many universities offer the possibility of extending the contract period for parental leave.

While there is criticism in the US over the attitude to parental leave, claiming it forces female researchers to put their career above their family until they get permanent employment, some countries have taken far-reaching measures to increase the proportion of female professors.

“In Switzerland and Denmark, for example, calls for proposals directed only at women have been used for a long time and in Switzerland there is a national platform for equality, equality studies and support for the development of equal career paths within the academic world.”

Foreign talent

Finally, the report notes that in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the introduction of tenure track has been specifically designed to attract talented foreign researchers and to lure back domestic research talent from abroad.

”In these countries, the academic systems are becoming increasingly international with more researchers from other countries and more domestic researchers working abroad.”

China is also trying to lure back its many eminent researchers who have gone abroad by offering high salaries and research resources.