Tallinn University of Technology

On 1 September, academician Maarja Kruusmaa assumed office as Vice-Rector for Research at Tallinn University of Technology.

Mari Öö Sarv | Photos: Karl-Kristjan Nigesen

Maarja Kruusmaa

What were your thoughts, plans, ideals, when you accepted the post of Vice-Rector for Research?

The primary task of the Vice-Rector for Research is to ensure high quality of research and that is where we face a range of challenges – how can it be ensured?

What is most important is that excellent researchers rally around excellent researchers. There are exceptions, but in most cases, high-quality research does not come out of nowhere. If we look at where excellent PhD students come form, we see that they have been supervised by excellent researchers. The student has been inspired by a role model, has had an excellent supervisor, has done his or her postdoc in a superb laboratory abroad, etc. Unfortunately, I see it too often that a high potential student, who is intelligent, creative and analytical-minded and well-skilled, ends up with a weak supervisor or mediocre research group, where the student is not supported, motivated nor encouraged. The student has nothing to compare it with, which means that he/she is not aware that he/she has joined a mediocre research group.

What would make the university more attractive to excellent researchers and supervisors?

People tend to think that everything is about money, but it is not. Researchers do not carry out research in order to get rich – we are smart enough to work as an analyst at a bank or set up our own business and to make a fortune this way. In most cases, there are other things that motivate a researcher, one of them is definitely the environment, where you are surrounded by other smart people, where you can share your ideas and listen to the ideas of others, where you can do something interesting together.

The good news is that creating such an environment costs nothing, but the bad news is that it is quite difficult to do, because it requires changes in people's attitudes and behaviour. Mid-level managers can do a lot here through creating a positive work culture and building a supportive environment for international professors.

Creating an atmosphere of open communication contributes to the spread of best practices. If you see an excellent and recognized researcher, whose papers are being published in reputed journals and whose research results have been applied in industry, you can always go to the researcher and ask what it is that he/she has done right. Or, if you see that you are not successful in supervising your PhD students, you can always knock on someone else's door and ask what it is you are doing wrong.

If you move around on the campus, you will find many long corridors with closed doors. I wonder if breaking down the walls would contribute to openness in science?

It is a question for architects and interior designers – how to create spaces where people want to come and where accidental, unplanned and unpredictable encounters can take place. The issue of the campus environment is a matter of science, but for me also a matter of research quality. Do people have places to meet and talk, places where they feel comfortable and where they can be alone to think? Can they carry out experiments individually as well as together with others? Can they make work and other parts of their lives fit together with ease or do they have to leave the campus if they want to have a bite, go in for sports, play board games, or read books?

I am very sensitive to the physical environment, the surroundings are very important. Long corridors and closed doors do not facilitate any interaction. Of course, a researcher needs to be alone sometimes to think and focus, but we can improve this dark, sterile and impersonal environment so that it would be suitable also for introverts. Besides, even an introvert wants to talk to someone from time to time, or is glad when someone asks him/her for feedback on his/her ideas.

How to create an environment and atmosphere that would attract talents to TalTech?

We have discussed how to encourage better interaction. One of the options is mentoring of junior researchers: older, more experienced, enthusiastic researchers, who promote the university's values, would encourage and support young people and share the best practices with them.

Another idea stems from the previous management team, who set out the strategic research areas in the Academic Strategic Plan. The goal was to encourage the people and coordination committees to work across disciplines, schools, departments and research groups. It would help ensure that best practices spread from one place to another – people will hopefully monitor and analyse themselves and adopt these best practices.

The third idea is to bring PhD students together through the best PhD courses, where they can communicate with each other more and see that some research groups use methods their supervisor is not aware of, or that their own supervisor employs methods worth sharing with others. The aim is to take a broader critical look and learn how to apply each other's best knowledge and experience.

Are there any other motivators in addition to an inspiring environment and an open atmosphere?

Well-functioning support services are one of them. At the state level, we see that bureaucracy and administrative work are almost invisible.  If this can be done at the state level, it must be possible at the university as well.

There is a major challenge related to support services: in order for a researcher to be able to focus on his/her main job, which includes research, teaching, applying for funding and supervising of PhD students, the researcher should be exempt from the obligation to conduct one-euro public procurements. Support services should cover the entire life span of projects from applying to auditing. A researcher should do only the specific professional part of the project, for which he or she shall be responsible.

According to the Research Group Atlas, we have currently 117 research groups, but fifty per cent of them have never applied for any funding. The head of a research group is responsible for the research group led by him/her and this includes fundraising. I would like to stress that the head of a research group is responsible to the research group for raising funds, supervision of PhD students, a decent publication record in adherence to the principles of academic ethics.

If the head of the research group wants to achieve all those goals, the university can pave way by providing support services – keep track of the calls for proposals, help with applying for grants, provided certainly that the head of the research group comes up with a research idea and writes the research proposal; and if the grant is awarded, help with contracting, drawing up project reports and the final audit report.

All of this should be covered by the support services to a much greater extent than is the case today. This means enhancing both the project management capacity of academic units and the capacity of the Research Administration Office, i.e. financial resources must be provided in order to recruit more people, who would be able to actually pull off the task.

Maarja Kruusmaa

What else can be done with money?

We must water the plants that yield fruit, i.e. invest where people are motivated, where something has already been accomplished and where people want to help themselves.

Does this 'watering' help to 'sprout promising seeds'?

Yes, it does. This is my third big challenge: how to support young promising researchers who have just been awarded a PhD. There is an unpleasant period in an academic career, I call it the "academic death vallley". It is the period right after you have completed your doctoral or post-doctoral studies and before you apply for a tenured post. It is also a period when people start a family and want to settle down, but when they don't have a steady job and, due to a highly competitive environment, have to conclude short-term contracts and travel to where they can find a suitable project.  I know very talented persons who virtually live out of suitcases – when one employment contract ends, the person starts a new project in Australia, when the work is completed there, then off to Canada...

At one point, it starts to interfere with a person's life so much that he/she opts for another field of activity instead of an academic career. This is not a bad thing in and of itself if this is what you have planned.  It is a matter of supporting the people we want to keep. We have discussed that we could create an intermediate stage at our university to help keep these people. The university can help apply for funding, plan a career, find mentors within the university. The issue of junior researchers is crucial to my mind.

Once again, we must water the plants that yield fruit. Researchers who actively apply for research grants should receive support from the university to mitigate risks if their proposal scores just below the threshold in a strong application round. The university could provide a buffer grant for a year, so that one could try again in the next round.

Can such a buffer grant be allocated from the university's budget?

Reallocation of funds is complicated – if someone gets more, someone else gets less. However, people can be motivated also by monetary incentives. If a researcher feels that he/she is being supported, he/she will dare to take more risks in order to receive a large amount of funding.

The university's budget consists of activity support for higher education and baseline funding of R&D, which, however, end up in the same pot, in which case it is not clear any more where the funding comes form and what it is intended for. In my opinion, the funds allocated to studies should be used for studies and the funds allocated to research should be used for research. These funds should not be used to fund weak research groups, who have not been successful in applying for funding.

The number of PhD students is a constant concern for both the university and society: some think there are too few of them, others believe there are too many of them, yet others wonder why we need them at all. What is the current situation and who are we training them for?

People think that a PhD is what makes you a researcher, but this a very limited point of view. International statistics show that 4-6% of people with a PhD get a tenured professor position. So if you intend to complete a PhD programme with an aim to pursue an academic career, you have to be very talented and very confident at the same time.

A PhD simply proves that you can conduct research. It is like an academic driver's license, but it does not per se constitute an obligation to pursue an academic career. We must take a broader look at what a person holding a PhD can do, not just prepare the students for an academic career, but also for industry or the public sector.

A PhD means that a person is able to solve complex real-life problems using scientific methods. This skill can be applied and is required everywhere. If a PhD student defines himself or herself this way, he/she does not narrow down his/her career options to finding a job at a university. 

However, I would like to point out an important thing: the university should teach more general skills to PhD students to help them with their career path after leaving the university. These skills certainly include the ability to communicate outside the academic system, to understand and to make oneself understandable to the general public. We could also take a completely different direction in PhD studies: a PhD student who pursues a career in industry or starts his or her own company needs more knowledge about how to write a business plan, about intellectual property and maturing markets. We need to develop a mindset that it is all right to leave the university with a PhD and start one's own business.

I would even go one step further and say something unpopular: if you drop out of a PhD programme in the second year, because you find that it is not for you, but you have a brilliant business idea and an excellent relationship with your supervisor, you understand how science works, then we have sent off a person, who knows how to add value in industry and thereby the university has fulfilled its obligation to society. It is still possible that the person will return later to complete his/her PhD studies. Brian May from the rock band Queen had completed his PhD in astrophysics when the band’s career ended.

Another matter that needs to be dealt with is that research and studies must be interconnected in a research university.  At the university there are also research groups who are not engaged in teaching and lecturers who are not actively involved in research, and this is unacceptable at a research university. If students are taught by a person, who does not hold a PhD or who has not been engaged in research for 10 years, how can the person tell the students about the forefront of scientific development if he is introducing them 10-year-old methods? We should show the bachelor's and master's level students what science is all about and what researchers are doing, so that they might start thinking about pursuing a PhD. For example, you might hear a researcher giving an interesting talk on his investigations of Drosophila larvae that he has carried out with his research group.  If you have never had such a role model, it might never occur to you that this might be an option of interest to you.

Carrying out research for your bachelor's or master's thesis in a large and successful research group would have enormous implications. The scientific environment will affect you and you will attempt to follow the example of your role models. You may not want to stay in the research group, but it will definitely change you and provide added value.

If a person plans to start a career in business, why commit to studies for a few more years? The added value provided by the ability to solve complex real-life problems using scientific methods is not a familiar idea.

That's right, but it should be.

Needless to say, an engineer with a master's degree certainly provides high added value to industry. However, if you are interested in the world in a larger sense and you want to create something yourself, you have good critical thinking skills, the doctoral studies would be an intellectually stimulating and challenging option for you. Secondly, even if you interrupt your PhD studies, you will still be able to do more to help change the world if you happen to be in the right place.

I could point out quite a few recent examples of people pursuing their career paths in business who, feeling that something is lacking, that they want to develop a broader perspective on the world and get the bigger picture, return to the university.  We should be more flexible as far as PhD students are concerned: industrial doctorate is a currently underexploited form of studies, where we tackle companies' challenges in cooperation with the enterprises by applying science, and there is no need for a PhD student to choose between high salary and research. That of course requires a research-intensive company, where at least an early stage researcher is needed, and unfortunately, there are not many of them in Estonia.

Another option is external PhD studies – an opportunity to perform doctoral studies as a hobby. I have been reluctant to accept the idea that external doctoral candidates are admitted, because I have feared that they are unable to commit to research in research projects, where the university has undertaken fixed-term commitments. Actually, such an option could still be provided, for example, for people who have already built a successful career. They are not interested in getting a bigger house, a better car, more money, establishing another company or climbing the career ladder, they might just want to take the time and develop themselves. In external studies, you are not under time pressure from deadlines and can proceed at your own pace. Another option is part-time studies – the nominal duration of full-time doctoral studies is four years, in part-time doctoral studies it would be eight years.

What is most important in these different forms of PhD studies is that there can be no compromise on quality. Be it an external, industrial or a part-time PhD student, a doctoral thesis must still be based on high-quality publications. In other words, the outcome should be the same for everyone, the only difference is in how long it takes or where you achieve it.

All the PhD students at the university are employed as early stage researchers. This probably helps manage income risks during PhD studies. One does not have to choose between studying and working, because studying is working, the only question is that of the amount of salary.

I am very much aware that people's priority is family and providing income to their family, which is why they need to find a stable job.

In some fields, the potential PhD students, i.e. the outgoing master's students, are so highly paid that the students pursuing doctoral studies are not in fact motivated by money. On the other hand, in the research groups that successfully apply for grants, the salary of PhD students amounts to around a couple thousand euros.

However, as I said before, there are other motivators besides money. A PhD student is eager to join a research group, where the head of the group is enthusiastic, encouraging and inspiring, where there are other PhD students and researchers to discuss great ideas with.

How many such research groups do we currently have?

There is a growing number of research groups where there is good chemistry between group members and a well-functioning environment. Dmitri Vinnikov, for example, has such a cool research team that I would gladly join it if I were a PhD student.  There is a very pleasant atmosphere in Maarja Grossberg's research group; Jaan Raik is a brilliant supervisor, just to mention a couple of examples. There are quite a few who do the work they love and do it well. They ought to be recognized for it.

Maarja Kruusmaa