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Published: 11 Mar, 2021

The number of doctoral students is increasing at Umeå University – with a majority being women

NEWS The number of doctoral students is increasing at Umeå University and a majority are women. Also among professors the number of women is increasing. “It’s positive for society to gain new voices and experiences in the academic community and at universities,” says Anna Inez Bergman, one of the newly admitted doctoral students at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

For decades, the number of active doctoral students has dwindled across Sweden. This is partly due to changed requirements on doctoral studies – from being a lifelong project to becoming a more time-limited education – and partly due to changes in funding. Previously, doctoral students received scholarships, or student finance, but according to a decision made by the Swedish Government, doctoral students have the right to a more secure employment with an accompanying salary.

At some point you’re bound to reach rock bottom

Employments have caused higher costs for the universities, which is one reason to why the funding has not covered as many doctoral studentships, another is the choice to instead focus on, for instance, postdoctoral appointments.

“However, at some point you’re bound to reach rock bottom,” says Dieter Müller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for research and doctoral education at Umeå University.

“It became a problem that doctoral student groups became too small. Belonging to a group is important for doctoral students, and I believe that’s an insight that has now been made. That’s also why the number of doctoral students has increased again.”

Highest level in six years

At Umeå University, 200 new doctoral students were admitted in 2020, which is the highest number in six years and an increase by 30 per cent compared to 2016.

The number of active doctoral students also increased in 2020 at practically all faculties and hence broke a trend of reducing numbers over the last five years.

The increase may be a result of the investment into research that the Vice-Chancellor and the faculties agreed upon in April 2020, which among other things involves strategically striving towards increasing the number of doctoral students.

One of the doctoral students who was employed at the Faculty of Social Sciences in autumn 2020 is Anna Inez Bergman.

“Being a doctoral student has been a long-term dream of mine,” says Anna Inez Bergman.

“She discovered a gap in the Swedish historiography of contraceptives when writing her Master’s thesis at Stockholm University. When the thesis was completed, a doctoral studentship at the Unit of Economic History at Umeå University emerged.

“The opportunity was too good to miss,” she says.

Now she spends all her time filling the gap she discovered.

“It’s extremely luxurious to spend every day doing what you enjoy most. It’s truly wonderful.”

What difference does the increasing number of doctoral students make?

“It’s a positive trend for society at large to gain new voices and experiences in the academic community and the universities – to help society grow,” she says emphasising that valuing knowledge and science is important, particularly in times when alternative news – ‘fake news’ – are spreading widely.

“In contrast to such influences, we can invest in science and build a society in which we can trust one another,” says Anna Inez Bergman.

In one way, it’s a matter of being an attractive university with the future in mind.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dieter Müller agrees on the importance of adding people to academia who have new impulses and perspectives and can develop research. He also emphasises the importance of reproducing research, to avoid losing knowledge and years of research.

Additionally, he believes that an increased number of doctoral students is particularly beneficial for Umeå University.

“In one way, it’s a matter of being an attractive university with the future in mind. It’s interesting for our students that we offer an education that goes from undergraduate to doctoral level,” he says.

Number of women increases

The annual report from 2020 shows that the number of women professors has increased for three consecutive years.

Statistics also show that women are in majority among newly admitted doctoral students and active doctoral students (59% and 53% respectively).

“Anything else would have raised eyebrows. It represents the gender distribution we see in undergraduate education, where the proportion of women is increasing,” says Dieter Müller.

“Hopefully, this will lead to a greater proportion of women docents and particularly that of women professors – which is the biggest challenge presently.”

Although 43 per cent of professors that were hired or promoted in 2020 were women, the total number of women professors is still low, 32 per cent compared to 68 per cent men.

“Progress is somewhat slow as several factors play a part. We’re trying to work proactively and we’re trying to understand the situation, but it’s a challenge and there is no quick fix,” says Dieter Müller.

At the same time as it is important to get young people’s new perspectives into research, it is also important to have diversity – in which gender distribution plays an important part.

“We are all shaped by the societies, values and ideas that we grew up in and by the experiences we carry with us. But if certain properties, such as gender, are disqualified, we don’t just pick off one group of people, but also a group that has life experiences and varying perspectives – a group who would ask a whole other range of questions. You limit the diversity that we usually deem enriching,” says Dieter Müller

Dreams of becoming a professor

Doctoral student Anna Inez Bergström’s dream is to become a professor one day, and to devote her life to researching women’s history, technical innovation and merchandise linked to the emancipation of women.

If a student meets women doctoral students in their education, they may also start considering the profession as a potential future.

She has several female role models who have contributed to her dream. During her studies, several women were teaching and encouraged students to take on doctoral studies.

“If a student meets women doctoral students in their education, they may also start considering the profession as a potential future. I believe that women from a historical perspective have wanted to take on doctoral studies, but that it may not have seemed possible. I would love to become a professor,” says Anna Inez Bergman.

The number of women increases

The number of women professors has increased for three consecutive years and has now reached 117. Among recruited/promoted professors in 2020, the proportion is 43 per cent women. The number of women in total has not changed (32 per cent).

This is the gender distribution among newly admitted doctoral students at the various faculties (women/men in %):

Faculty of Arts: 47/53
Faculty of Social Sciences: 66/34
Faculty of Medicine: 68/32
Faculty of Science and Technology: 48/52
Total: 59/41

This is the gender distribution among active doctoral students at the various faculties (women/men in %):

Faculty of Arts: 56/44
Faculty of Social Sciences: 55/45
Faculty of Medicine: 57/63
Faculty of Science and Technology: 44/56
Total: 53/47

Source: The Umeå University Annual Report 2020 (in Swedish)