University of Oulu, 2017

A change in environment may be a decisive step in the career development of young researchers

Should I continue a university career after my doctoral dissertation? Should I aim for the world of business or seek work somewhere else? Many think about these things while taking a doctoral degree. 

After a doctorate, the experience that can be gained from research work in a new environment is an academically respected way to develop research expertise. Time windows have also been formed for the stages of a career in research; after the dissertation, one can work as a postdoctoral researcher for a few years then as an independent researcher, after which one can proceed to being a university researcher or even a professor. 

For a young doctor, I think it is vitally important to grow away from one’s ‘home’ group, and to develop one’s own wings and networks. Moving to a new academic environment after the dissertation furthers the development of a researcher’s skills, enables the learning of new approaches and methods, and exposes one’s own ideas to external criticism and comment.

One often sets off for a high-level foreign research environment, which stimulates new learning and teaches one to operate in an international environment.  People coming to do postdoctoral work in the same environment from all around the world often form lifelong connections, their own global network. Many return to their alma mater after a few years with new ideas and ready to develop those that they acquired while being abroad. 

Doing research work requires supplementary funding. Throughout their careers, researchers must compete for funding from various funding sources. In a competitive system, it is easier to get funding for new initiatives than by continuing with the old research topic. Assessment targets not only the quality of the research plan but also the capabilities of the researcher seeking the funding. Particularly for a researcher beginning an independent career, attention is focused on whether there are signs in his/her publication directory of successful work in a variety of research environments, including those in another environment after the doctoral degree. 

For example, in applications for the Academy of Finland, it is evident that some of the young researchers from our university do not possess adequate mobility. It is also worrying that we do not submit as many postdoctoral researcher applications to the Academy as one would like. The enthusiasm for applying might be suffering from the lack of mobility. 

It is clear that post-dissertation mobility, particularly abroad, is not always possible owing to family situations or other reasons. It should therefore be noted that mobility may be a feature of different stages of a researcher’s career. Many do short periods of a few months as a visiting researcher at a university at home or abroad, thus increasing their competence and networks. Experience can also be accumulated in another discipline, in companies and even utilising virtual environments.

It is to be hoped that work in several research environments will be done by most people who continue a career in research. The world around us is changing, digitalisation is making communication increasingly easy, and the coronavirus pandemic is leaving its mark on all kinds of interaction. In spite of this, I believe strongly that doctoral candidates targeting a research career should go and work in a new environment, at least for a while. It is beneficial to be exposed to new kinds of opportunities, and to be faced with new, even surprising alternatives for one’s future career. 

Taina Pihlajaniemi
Vice Rector for Research, University of Oulu

Last updated: 21.12.2020