Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy

After almost 14 mostly dismal years on the academic job market, I find it a consolation to read an opinion piece in Times Higher Education under the headline “Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy“. In my experience this is also true for Denmark, Norway and Finland. In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.

At Scandinavian universities, people who didn’t get their jobs in fair competition are often handing out jobs to their buddies without any fair competition. But I see encouraging signs that the PR disaster that recently befell Gothenburg University’s philosophy department may have put a scare into the whole sad business. At least temporarily. Meanwhile, I’m finishing my sixth archaeological monograph. Never having had a longer contract than 28% of one academic year.


    June 2, 2017

    True report! You will not find diversity and Merit at all in Swedish Universities. They select near and dear ones shamelessly! Many are EIC in known journals and promote and publish their peer papers! Shameless and Corrupt and preach fairness and transparency to the World

  2. #2 janne
    June 2, 2017

    To be honest, no academic area is immune to this. And beyond that, just do a quick search for “Bro culture” to realise this selective evaluation is endemic to any business area.

    Basically, either suck it up, or take your ball and leave, pretty much.

  3. #3 Phillip Helbig
    June 2, 2017

    “In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.”

    OK, but realize that Sweden is an exception here in that there are external referees for job searches; in most countries there aren’t.

    On the whole, the process in Scandinavia and Finland is probably better than elsewhere. I’m not disagreeing with you, merely pointing out that elsewhere it is worse.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    June 2, 2017

    In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself.

    This is considered normal in the US as well. Most of the members of the committee will be in the subfield in which the department is looking to hire (at least in physical science departments; I know essentially nothing about faculty searches in humanities and social science departments). There may be somebody in a different field there to keep the other search committee members reasonably honest.

    This committee does not, in general, make the final hiring decision; that is typically done by the department as a whole and the choice approved by the relevant dean. What the committee does do is select the short list (typically four or five candidates, but I have seen as few as two and as many as six) of candidates who are brought to campus for in-person interviews.

    Things do often get tricky with trailing spouses. It is common, at least in the US, for women with Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences to be married to men who have Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences, leading to the infamous “two-body problem”. The trailing spouse won’t necessarily be offered a tenure track job, but there will be some effort to ensure that (s)he can find employment in the same metropolitan area. A tenure-track position for the trailing spouse becomes more likely as the level of the hire increases, approaching certainty for hires at the dean level or higher.

  5. #5 Martin R
    June 2, 2017

    I don’t know what it’s like outside Scandyland. But Swedish academia certainly doesn’t work as advertised.

  6. #6 Klavs Hansen
    p.t. Indianapolis
    June 4, 2017

    How true! Swedish universities are soaked in nepotism and mafia activities. With my experience from Denmark, Finland, Germany and the US, I can only conclude that the Swedish system is the worst: corrupt through and through. Department heads hire friends or even former PhD students, who can go on to become department heads themselves and hire their friends or people who can do the work for them. And that does not stop a career which can move on to more imortant posts.
    Laws may require public announcements and external experts etc, but if you break the law it is accepted as long as you don’t appear in the news.
    And the result is predictable: in spite of the largest per capita investments in public funded science in the world, Sweden shows slowly but consistently falling grades in science when measured with internationally recognized metrics.
    The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around. Seriously!
    But of course, that certainly makes it easier to move the goalposts.

  7. #7 Martin R
    June 4, 2017

    The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around.

    Huh? Please elaborate!

    60% of Swedish university professors (that is, the tier above lecturer) are employed at the department where they did their PhDs.

  8. #8 Klavs Hansen
    p.t. Indianapolis
    June 5, 2017

    ‘The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around.’

    This is according to the latest newsletter from VR. Happily only a suggestion, but there is no guarantee this will not be implemented.

  9. #9 Martin R
    June 5, 2017

    You mean they might evaluate project proposals without knowledge of the applicant’s qualifications? If this can be done blindly, without knowing anything else about the person either, it would actually be effective against nepotism.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    June 5, 2017

    I don’t see any reasonable way to evaluate somebody’s publication record without having some idea who the person is. If you list the publications (whether they are monographs or journal articles or conference proceedings–whichever the field in question typically uses to evaluate this), then it’s kind of obvious who the person is. If you don’t, then it becomes a counting game, and you encourage the submission of Least Publishable Units. Not to mention that there is no way under this method to distinguish a crank publication from a legitimate publication.

    If the field is small enough, then a truly double blind review becomes impossible, because everybody knows everybody else, and the reviewers can deduce who the authors are. The reverse, authors deducing who the supposedly anonymous reviewers are, is already a problem in my field; it is a common game to “guess the reviewer”.

  11. #11 JustaTech
    June 5, 2017

    I’m not in academia, but from my friends who are, in the US there is a cultural thing that you don’t go to grad school where you did your undergrad, and you don’t post-doc where you did your doc.
    I do know people who are tenure-track at the institution where they got their PhDs, but it’s very unusual. (Physical sciences)

    I don’t think it’s any kind of rule, just one of those cultural things, but it might help a smidge with reducing the “I’ll just hire my student” thing.

  12. #12 Martin R
    June 5, 2017

    Eric, it sounds like Klavs might be suggesting that they evaluate the proposals without reference to anyone’s publication record. Which would of course cause insurmountable problems with blinding, given that everyone in a field knows who usually does what.

    J.A.T., a major personal problem of mine with the Swedish inbreeding system is that I didn’t get along with the powers that were the department when I did my PhD. Which has left me out in the cold.

  13. #13 Phillip Helbig
    June 7, 2017

    “Things do often get tricky with trailing spouses.”

    As much as I sympathize with their predicament (and I did work in academia four years abroad while the family were living in another country, so I know what I am talking about), offering the trailing spouse a job they would otherwise not get is completely wrong. In any other context, getting a job because one has a sexual relationship with the “right” person is considered morally wrong (not because of the sexual relationship, but because employment should not be based on it).

    The justifications are bad, really bad. “Oh, it’s not a permanent job, it’s just a five-year fellowship until I can find something else.” Yeah, right, many struggling junior scientists would like one of those. “I’m not taking a job away from anyone since the position was created especially for me.” The money had to come from somewhere. “It is difficult for my spouse to find a job nearby.” Not compared to other people’s spouses who perhaps cannot even work at all at the new location.

  14. #14 Martin R
    June 7, 2017

    Seems to me that there is more wrong about academic recruitment practices than is right.

  15. #15 Eric Lund
    June 7, 2017

    For trailing spouse hires in the physical sciences in the US, there is at least the option of a research faculty position. This means the position is entirely funded by grant money, and would typically be equivalent to the position (s)he had at the previous institution. The funding agencies typically don’t care whether the work is done in Berkeley, California, or East Podunk, Vermont. The hosting institution is expected to supply an office. Overhead from the grants will typically cover that expense. So that scenario is at worst break-even for the hiring institution.

    Universities are not immune to the prestige factor, either. This is why it may be in their interest to have Mrs. (or Mr., as the case may be) Dr. Bigshot on their payroll along with newly hired Prof. Bigshot. The US system also tends to favor superstars, which also tends to encourage such hiring since superstars can credibly threaten to go somewhere else that will satisfy their demands. Not that this is necessarily defensible, but I do expect institutions to act in what they perceive to be their interest.

    I do know that administrative hires at the dean level or higher invariably include a tenured professorship in the appropriate department for external hires (internal hires will of course already have this). Even when trailing spouses are not an issue, this has been the case. It’s rare for a former administrator to go back into teaching, but I have seen it happen.

    Incidentally, the highest paid state official in every US state works for a state university. Most often it’s either the (American) football coach or the men’s basketball coach; some of these are paid even more than the President of the US. (Which gives you an idea of how warped priorities are in the US, since the legislature can in principle refuse to appropriate money for such salaries.) In some states it’s a university president, or dean of the medical or law school. Private universities also tend to pay their presidents and revenue-sport coaches very well.