JUKKA HEINONEN: Life at a Top University

While on researcher exchange at University of California, Berkeley last fall, I was able to follow closely how one of the world’s top universities operates. Since we at Aalto University are busy trying to build ourselves into one, it is especially interesting to make a comparison.
One day my local professor introduced me to another professor of the department. He mentioned that I came from Aalto University, the leading academic institution in Finland. I decided to enjoy the moment and not correct him that at least University of Helsinki still ranks above us in international comparisons I know about.

Later I was inquired how one of the smaller universities in Finland places in our university ranking. The reason behind the question was that visitors from that university were coming there and the person asking the question wondered whether seeing them would be a waste of precious time. Here at UC Berkeley status is, if not all important, at least important.

Is the environment here then so very different from ours at Aalto University? It is rumored that some here have the goal of winning a Nobel Prize which to my knowledge is much less common at home. In any case, it might behoove us to leave such ambitions for the future as we advance toward the top. The clearest difference based on my experience is in attitudes: people at a top university must aim for top performance in order to belong to the elite and stay there.

QUALITY TRUMPS QUANTITY IN SCIENTIFIC ARTICLES

We in Finland do a lot of research that is never published. Having little detailed knowledge of related statistics, I would still wager a guess that even the bulk of the publications deal with research whose academic quality is middling at best. I personally have had the luck of having people encourage me from the beginning of my academic career to publish actively and even strive for publications valued by academia.

Yet, I have also ended up publishing my findings in journals which I assumed might be willing to accept scientifically slightly less polished text. I did that first and foremost because the quality of a publication rarely merits extra points in Finland. On the other hand, it was at one time rumored that quantity might even result in bigger earnings in the form of bonuses, but the rumor never came true.

I have gradually come to realize here that quantity is always trumped by quality. Not to say that quantity is unimportant; it is only considered after high quality has been ensured. Of utmost importance is, however, to invest in quality and aim rather at a single article annually in a highly ranked journal instead of 10 articles in less prestigious ones. Luckily I have some publications that measure up to those standards. They often help establishing new contacts.

THE AIM IS A HIGH QUALITY CO-WRITTEN ARTICLE

One goal I have set for myself here is to establish cooperation that leads to the publication of a co-written article. Related discussions have concretely shown the need to aim high. A published article of high quality on a subject area, a good idea for a work and existing data suffice as a basis for discussion. Yet, before starting anything, one must assess what heights an idea can reach. A while back I even heard how a semifinished publication intended for journals like Science and Nature was completely rejected because someone else had in the meantime published something similar. It was not worthwhile honing the paper and placing second in the competition.

Well, my own project appears promising and should yield results next spring, although I’ll be back home then. It is unlikely to end up in any of the mentioned journals, but will in any case be regarded as a merit also here.

People of the Civil Engineering Department at UC Berkeley boast that they surpass Harvard and Stanford in their field, which have regularly surpassed Berkeley in overall rankings. If what I have seen and heard is representative of the entire university, it is no wonder that Berkeley continuously is in the top ten or close in various rankings.

It wouldn’t necessarily be too difficult to emulate them in this area in Finland. I believe that Finnish research stands up well even in international comparison. Thus, it is largely a question of what we produce for assessment by others and for which fora. The biggest responsibility probably lies with our professors and others supervising doctoral research, and naturally those engaging in postdoctoral research who should reserve most of their working hours specifically for own research and publishing. There is also power in cooperation which can improve productivity, not to speak of quality. And naturally, more international visits particularly to universities renowned for their academic level are needed. They improve command of a foreign language, if nothing else, but are also likely to provide understanding of how high level research is done and success in the world’s publication fora is attained.

WHO SHOULD TEACH?

Finally a look at teaching. An interesting aspect here at Berkeley is that only professors are allowed to teach to ensure the high level of education. If a professor falls ill or goes on travel, lectures are postponed, and no exceptions are allowed. It is true that there are fewer students per professor here than at Aalto University, but the teaching duty seems to pile up a lot of other work for late nights and week-ends, at least on the basis of e-mail receipt times.

Extra-university experts can, however, be invited to give lectures. I personally had the honor to tell a group of doctoral students about my research. That did not, however, ease the schedule pressure on the professors much since a professor had to sit in to ensure that I kept to the subject and appeared credible.

In any case, the professors here are proud of their position and do not complain (at least not aloud) if they sometimes have a hard time teaching, supervising, monitoring and grading students’ accomplishments and ensuring that they meet their own publication quotas. And the bulk of us researchers are probably competent enough to teach, at least theoretically, which suggests that this policy should not at least as such be adopted in Finland.

JUKKA HEINONEN
Postdoctoral Researcher
Aalto University School of Science and Technology

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