Academic Recruitment in Sweden is a Mess

Academic recruitment procedures in Sweden are a mess. There are at least four strong contradictory forces that impact them.

  • Meritocracy. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to find and employ the most qualified person on the job market, even if it’s just for six months. This is after all the public sector.
  • Labour laws. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to give a steady job to anyone who has worked at your uni for a total of four semesters in the past five years, regardless of their qualifications.
  • Funding. As Head of Department you cannot give anyone a steady job unless you know how to pay them long-term. Else you will have to fire someone soon, which will get you into big trouble both with the Dean and with the labour union.
  • Nepotism. As Head of Department you want to employ your buddy Bengt. He can be a recent home-grown PhD whom you want to give a break. Or he can be an old stalwart that you’d be ashamed to meet in the departmental coffee room if you didn’t help him.

This is coming to a head in a big way. Five years ago it became mandatory to advertise even the shortest academic jobs, the ones that were typically quietly given to Bengt before. At least one Swedish university largely ignored this and has now endured official censure and much bad press. Academic leaders currently don’t seem to know what’s best practice. I’ve asked around with just one of the questions involved, and nobody in charge seems to know quite what the answer is.

Remember, as Head of Department, because of funding constraints you generally cannot allow anyone to pass the labour law’s four-semesters-in-five-years threshold and get automatic steady employment. But when you advertise a short contract, chances are high that the most qualified applicant will be so near the limit that the short contract would effectively mean automatic steady employment. How do you deal with this situation, even ignoring any impact of nepotism?

So far I’ve never seen any department say plainly that “We realise that Berit has by far the strongest qualifications, but because of the labour laws we will instead employ Nisse, despite his weak CV”. I have however seen a case where the department suddenly discovered and described many flaws in Berit that made her an unattractive candidate, despite the fact that they had happily employed her on a series of short contracts up until the day when the labour law’s limit came into sight.

University Degrees that Lead to Jobs in Sweden

Five years ago I blogged about a study by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, identifying the higher education degrees that were likely to give you the best chances of a Swedish job in the period 2010-2020. This was because I complain a lot here on the blog about how useless a degree in anything even remotely similar to archaeology is, and I wanted to say something positive for a change. The careers that looked promising in 2010 were in lower-paying positions in healthcare, education and tech.

Now the Swedish Public Employment Service has published a similar study of what degrees they believe will offer the most opportunities in the period 2020-2025. Here’s the new list, with an asterisk for degrees that were on the previous one as well.

  • Day care teacher, Sw. förskollärare *
  • Youth centre leader, Sw. fritidspedagog *
  • Teacher, children aged 7-16, Sw. grundskolelärare
  • High-school teacher of trades such as carpentry and plumbing, Sw. gymnasielärare i yrkesämnen *
  • Teacher for children with special needs, Sw. speciallärare *
  • Doctor, Sw. läkare
  • Nurse, Sw. sjuksköterska
  • Dentist, Sw. tandläkare *

(They also list “IT jobs” and “tech jobs”, but don’t identify specific degrees.)

The future of the Swedish job market still seems to be in healthcare, education and tech. An encouraging thing though is that while the only job on the 2010 list that was likely to make you any reasonable money was the dentist, now the doctor is also on the list. In other words: if you are bright and enjoy working with people, if you’re thinking of starting a degree this year, and if you want to earn a comfortable living in Sweden after graduation, then apply for med school or dentistry school now.

Transparent Recruitment Charade

2009. University of Lund publishes the PhD thesis Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning in Created Agricultural Wetlands, dealing with biological diversity and ecosystem services in ponds in the agricultural landscape (and commented on here).

2013: Same department advertises a post-doc in the field “Biological Diversity and Ecosystem Services in Ponds in the Agricultural Landscape”.

Because in the Scandinavian countries’ public sectors, you always have to go through these elaborate charades to suggest that you’re really looking open-mindedly for the best candidate for a job, not simply for your buddy Herman.