University should promote doctoral researchers’ access to university's occupational health care

The social policy sector of the TYY has examined the well-being of doctoral students and the need for occupational health care through a short survey distributed via email throughout the university. The survey is part of TYY's action plan project concerning doctoral researchers, aiming to promote their access to university occupational health care whenever possible.

Doctoral researchers constitute a diverse group, generally working on their dissertations either on a grant, as employees at the university, or while working elsewhere or funded by an employer or a grant. Majority of doctoral researchers conduct their dissertation research with a grant, which varies in amount and duration, ranging from a few months to multi-year grants. There are not enough grants for everyone, leading to intense competition among doctoral researchers. Grant-funded researchers do not typically enjoy benefits associated with employment, such as occupational health care. Additionally, doctoral students are not covered by the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS).

A total of 275 doctoral researchers responded to TYY's survey. The survey aimed to determine whether the university's occupational health care were utilized by respondents or obtained from another source, such as an employer other than the university. Responses to the question about the need for occupational health services revealed a general perceived need, with 89% of grant researchers expressing a need for such services.

The need for occupational healthcare and similar services also affects how doctoral researchers perceive their position in relation to those in an employment relationship with the university. Among the survey respondents, 60% of doctoral researchers did not consider their position equal to that of researchers employed by the university. Among grant-funded researchers, a significant 86% of respondents did not feel equal in their position.

Survey respondents also had the opportunity to provide open-ended comments on their current well-being and how the university could better support their well-being in their research work. A total of 178 open responses were received.

From the open responses, it became evident that the lack of benefits associated with employment was perceived as a strongly divisive factor. Several responses emphasized the experience that grant-funded researchers perform critical research and publishing work for the university, which benefits the institution economically.

The responses highlighted the burden of research work and the lack of occupational health services. Doctoral researchers described themselves as being in a "strange intermediate position in the workforce," with responsibilities similar to full-time employment but lacking benefits such as "basic employee rights like occupational health." Issues like the limiting access rights to workproce and staff emails during periods without research funding were also raised. One respondent suggested, "Departments should have the right to decide access rights and workspaces on a case-by-case basis, rather than being categorically tied to funding periods."

TYY brought up the concerns of doctoral researchers in meetings with the university's rectorate and administration. The action plan project for doctoral researchers will continue next year. As the following steps to address this issue, we will meet with organizations representing doctoral researchers and consider how to proceed. TYY's stance is that the position of doctoral researchers must be strengthened, and one way to do so is by providing access to university occupational health services. A model for extending occupational health services to grant-funded researchers exists at the University of Eastern Finland, where grant-funded researchers receive a 10% employment relationship with the university, along with access to occupational health services.

Jimi Salonen
Board Member, Social Affairs