“More people should be sharing the grants”

After your PhD, the clock starts ticking fast. For a young researcher there are no guarantees that you will have a long career in research. Still, you have to give it your all, often while combining it with having small children. There is no time for you to draw up a plan B. In this equation, Pontus Nordenfelt from Future Faculty calls for more honesty and clearer career paths.

Pontus Nordenfelt

Pontus Nordenfelt. Photo: Jonas Andersson

There are extremely few available positions for young researchers at the Faculty of Medicine; only a few have been advertised in the last few years. Last year, the three available posts had 93 applicants, and this year there have been no new vacancies. Those who are forced to change careers are seldom prepared for an alternative working life in, for example, the pharmaceutical industry, where specific skills are often valued higher than the number of research publications. At the same time, maintaining a plan B can make you lose your focus.

“Personally, I felt that the minute I start planning for a life outside academia I’m screwed. You have to give it your all, and still it might not be enough”, says Pontus Nordenfelt, assistant researcher in infection medicine and father of three.

Future Faculty, at the Faculty of Medicine, is an organisation of PhD researchers who have yet to obtain permanent employment. Among other things, they want to increase transparency in the appointment to vacant posts.

“Superiors are often not entirely honest about the fact that there won’t be a place there for you in the long term. Major external funding is basically the only clear way into academia”, says Pontus Nordenfelt.

For many people, their research careers in medicine end five to seven years after obtaining their PhDs. This is the amount of time you have to apply for the major grants and make a name for yourself as a researcher.

“You can manage for a few years, if you have friends and the right connections – someone who has received a lot of research funding and is willing to take you under their wing.”

Pontus Nordenfelt has been fortunate enough to recently receive a major grant. He belongs to one of the research groups, led by researcher Johan Malmström, which have received SEK 16. 5 million from the Wallenberg Foundation to study bacterial infections. His dream of finding out how bacterial infections occur at the cellular level, from the very beginning, is alive. And his family is able to continue their everyday lives, and feel assured that their father has a future as researcher in Lund, at least for a few more years.

“But the major grants are too few and allocated too early, which creates a problem. There’s a risk of moving too fast and that there’s no time to make sure the funds are used in the best possible way. Letting research groups develop organically would be preferable.”

Like many others, he wants more promising young researchers to get a chance. Major scientific discoveries are often rooted in research driven by curiosity. This is clearly demonstrated in the latest Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics. Utility, or seeing the big picture of what to do with new knowledge, comes after the discovery.

“It’s almost impossible to tell which ideas will become huge and important in the future. When all of the focus is placed on a small number of researchers, rather than giving several promising junior researchers the opportunity to test their ideas, we risk missing out on the best ones.”

It is not unusual for the same researcher to receive more than one major grant. The individual researcher then quickly becomes the manager of a large group, with a number of new tasks alongside their research. Pontus Nordenfelt has applied for an ERC grant (European Research Council). He barely managed to publish his last article; if he hadn’t, it would not have been worth applying. He believes that time is even more pressing for those who conduct their postdoc abroad as he did, at a well-renowned lab at Harvard Medical School.

“This was an amazing experience that I would not want to have missed. But doing a postdoc abroad is not an easy option, even though it looks great on paper. Changing environments is a big adjustment, while losing your networks at home.”

He was told that on average it took six to seven years for researchers at the Harvard lab to get an article published. This was too long for him to have a reasonable chance of succeeding back home in Sweden. He decided to not bite off more than he could chew at once, but to take it one step at a time.

“Our third child was born in the United States and in order to be able to spend the evenings with my family and to get quicker research results, I set my alarm for 5:00. I would then work from 5:30 in the morning to 17:00 at night, often with a liquid lunch as my only break.”

Jenny Loftrup

Future Faculty at the Faculty of Medicine:

*wants to strengthen the voice of junior researchers at the Faculty of Medicine

*wants to be influential on all levels and be a constructive force

*promotes professionalism and transparency in the appointment to vacant posts

*wants to promote academic leadership by instituting a prize for the best leader and share good examples of leadership