Sound working conditions for junior university academics are essential for excellent research and teaching. EPFL is transparent and publishes the salaries, terms and types of contracts it offers to its academic staff.
On January 1st 2022, EPFL employed 3976 academics for its research and teaching activities: according to the Swiss University Information System (SIUS) classification, there were 334 (8%) faculty members, 94 (2%) other lecturers (MER), 1364 (35%) scientific collaborators, and 2184 (55%) doctoral students. At that time, EPFL also collaborated with 171 external lecturers.
EPFL had 3256 foreign nationals (82%) and 1189 women (30%) among its academic staff. These proportions differ according to category, as shown in the figure below.
According to the Swiss University Information System (SIUS), the people directly involved in teaching and research activities at EPFL (academic staff) are divided into four categories:
About half (46%) of the academic staff are paid from the EPFL budget, i.e. 95% of the teaching staff, 92% of the other teaching staff (MER), 43% of the scientific staff and 38% of the doctoral students. Third-party funds finance the other half.
At EPFL, the proportion of academic staff on fixed-term contracts (CDD) is similar to the OECD average (2021); indeed, 3342 of them (84%) are on CDD. If we exclude the 2184 doctoral students, who are by nature on fixed-term contracts because they are in training, the proportion of people working on fixed-term contracts falls to 65%.
The share of temporary contracts is different when we consider the funding source for the contracts. Third-party funds, such as SNSF, Innosuisse or European Programmes, finance 54% of academic staff. External funding often finances research projects of a set duration, limited by the project scope and thus relies more on fixed-term contracts.
At EPFL, the vast majority of the academic staff work full-time. According to the Swiss Federal Statistics Office’s definition, a full-time position corresponds to a work rate of at least 90%. At EPFL, 92% of the academic staff are employed at a rate of 100%, and 95% are employed at a rate of 90% or more.
Full-time employment is prevalent across all categories of academic staff; 94% of faculty members, 94% of further teaching staff, 90% of scientific collaborators and 94% of doctoral students work full-time.
In comparison, only 47% of academics in Switzerland are employed at a work rate of 90% or more (BASS – SEFRI, 2015).
Furthermore, in most cases, EPFL academic staff have a contract with a single laboratory or unit. Indeed, only 4% of them have contracts with more than one unit.
Duration of employment
At EPFL, doctoral students, postdocs and tenure-track professors have fixed-term contracts. The contracts for doctoral students and postdocs are of short duration. Those working at EPFL on 1 January 2022 had been there for an average of 2.2 years (median two years).
Between 2018 and 2022, 2110 people obtained their PhD at EPFL. The average time to get the title is four years and six months. Only 73 people (3%) took more than 6 years to complete their studies.
The median duration of postdoctoral positions on 1 January 2022 is only 1.5 years. 86% of them have been employed for less than 4 years. Among the 411 people who started in 2016, only 24 (6%) are still in a postdoc position at EPFL five years later.
Salaries for Doctoral students and Postdocs
In 2022, the minimum basic salary for a postdoc is CHF 84’000 with yearly increments of CHF 1’500. For doctoral students, it is CHF 52,700 with yearly increments of CHF 1,000. Given the average employment rate of 97%, these figures correspond to the real salaries paid to staff in each category. An inflation compensation of 2.5% has been granted in January 2023.
For international reference, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions estimate gross annual earnings in Germany at approximately EUR 41,400 for doctoral students and EUR 61,800 for postdoctoral staff.
It is helpful to compare these earnings with those in the Swiss economy. The median salary (standardized at 100%) for EPFL Master’s degree holders one year after graduation is CHF 72,000. For EPFL doctoral graduates, one year after graduation, the median salary is CHF 85,000. For the Swiss population, the median salary is CHF 79,980 (Swiss Survey on the Structure of Earnings, SFSO, 2021).
There are no significant differences between men and women in terms of contract type, remuneration or tenure, except for the proportion of fixed-term contracts among faculty. The proportion of women is higher among tenure-track faculty members, which explains the higher proportion of fixed-term contracts in this category.
We do not observe any significant difference between women and men among doctoral students regarding contract type or work rate.
However, there is a difference in the work rates between female and male scientific collaborators. 85% of female scientific collaborators work full-time compared to 91% of male collaborators. There is no difference in the proportion of permanent contracts.
The figures show that at EPFL, all academic staff work full-time, with salaries in line with the average Swiss salary for similar training. The average time to complete a PhD is slightly more than 4 years, and the appointment duration for postdocs is short.
This study is complementary to surveys recently conducted on the doctorate or well-being and mental health on campus. EPFL will continue to monitor the working conditions of its academic staff and their career prospects, which will be the subject of a separate study.
Omar Ballester, Tristan Maillard, Sarah Gerster