Portugal: Precariousness, unemployment and emigration among scientific researchers

The economic and financial crisis has had a major impact on job security and working conditions across all sectors in Portugal, including scientific research. A national study finds that research staff are experiencing precarious employment having difficulties in finding a stable job in Portugal, leading many to choose emigration.


The employment status of researchers in Portugal, and its relationship with the brain drain phenomenon, is analysed in the report Precariedade, desemprego e emigração (in Portuguese, 1.2 MB PDF) [‘Precariousness, unemployment and emigration’].

This report is framed by the ‘Roadmap against Precariousness in Scientific Research’ developed by the Association to Fight Precariousness – Inflexible precarious workers (in Portuguese).

The report is based on the analysis of of a survey of 1,820 people working work in all fields of scientific research in Portugal. The main areas of research of the respondents are:

  • life sciences and health (32%);
  • natural and environmental sciences (26%);
  • engineering and exact sciences (22%);
  • social sciences and humanities (18%);
  • arts, architecture and design (2%).

The sample comprised mainly researchers with doctoral and master degrees (45% and 43%, respectively). The remaining respondents are university graduates (10%), have a post-graduate qualification (2%) or have attained some other level of education (0.3%).

The survey was available for completion online between 12 February and 11 March 2014.

Key findings

Research and employment status

Results show that 69% of the respondents are research fellows. Only 15.7% have an employment relationship (which may include a permanent or a fixed-term contract, a contract for the delivery of services or a traineeship). Additionally, almost 10% are unemployed, while 6% are studying or doing research without any kind of research grant or employment relationship. Out of those 285 persons (16%) who have an employment relationship, 73% have a precarious employment relationship.

During their professional careers as researchers, most of the respondents (78%) have never worked under an employment contract. Only 22% of the respondents stated that they have had an employment contract at least once, thus having access to full social protection and labour rights.

More than 50% of the research fellows have accumulated a total period of research grant(s) longer than five years (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Total duration of the period under research grant(s) (%)

Among the research fellows who had accumulated research grant(s) for a period between five and ten years, only 1.6% had only one research grant during that period. Among the remaining, 63% had two or three research grants, 31% had four or five, and almost 6% had six or more research grants.

Research and unemployment

Results show that 49% of the respondents (900 persons), experienced unemployment at least once during their professional careers as researchers. Of those, 50% were unemployed for less than six months; 29% between six months and one year; and 21% were unemployed for over one year (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Duration of unemployment (%)

Of those 900 researchers, 79.5% stated that they had never had an employment contract, meaning they lacked access to full social protection. Research fellows can only join the Voluntary Social Insurance, an optional protection scheme. This covers occupational diseases, illness, parenthood, invalidity, old age and death – not unemployment.

Research, emigration and brain drain

Approximately 46% of the respondents were willing to move abroad or already have done so (13% had already emigrated). Only 20% had no intention of leaving the country Figure 3).

Figure 3: Intention to emigrate (%)

The employment relationship seems to influence the intention to emigrate: excluding those respondents who had already emigrated, the results show that among those who do not have an employment relationship, including the research fellows, 39% were willing to emigrate, 22% did not think about it, and 39% were undecided. Among those who did have an employment relationship, 31% were willing to emigrate, 39% did not think about it and 30% were undecided.

Looking at those both with and without employment relationships, the proportion of respondents willing to move abroad and who had already made contacts to that end is high: 36.4% with no employment relationship and 35.6% with an employment relationship (Figure 4). 

Figure 4: Intention to emigrate (%)


Particularly since 2011, due to the impact of the economic and financial crisis, job security has been decreasing and working conditions have been deteriorating. The number of employed people decreased significantly between 2011 and 2013 – by 6.7%. This decrease particularly affected young people, the number of employed people aged 15–24 years dropping by 21.5%. In 2014, youth unemployment among those aged  15–24 was 34.8%, more than twice the rate for the overall population (13.9%).

Additionally, someone who is already integrated in the labour market is often employed in precarious jobs and face great difficulties in finding a stable job. Research fellows are an example of one group who are facing this.

The report reveals the difficulties experienced by those who work in scientific research in obtaining an employment contract. The majority of researchers have been adding research grants over the years, ‘jumping’ from one grant to the next. Most are considering emigrating. It is clear that the deterioration of the labour market in general and – in particular – the precarious employment relationships held by research fellows influence the intention to emigrate.

With the consecutives cuts in scientific research and in  employment in the field, the situation of researchers and in particular of research fellows is deteriorating. This is an issue of concern to the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities (CRUP), which stated that government measures would worsen universities' financial situation (256 KB PDF).

The Association of Scientific Research Fellows (ABIC) shares this concern. ABIC has criticised government disinvestment in the scientific field and recently issued a campaign ‘In defence of science in Portugal’. This campaign aims to highlight what it sees as the scientific community's dissatisfaction with a set of policies and strategies for science and research in Portugal, deeming them harmful to the scientific field and its workers. It also aims criticises the precariousness of employment and lack of recognition of work experienced by of most Portuguese researchers.

The social partners have been in the forefront of the critique of precariousness in employment. Both trade union confederations, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP-IN) and the General Union of Workers (UGT), have stressed the difficulties of researchers face in finding a stable job, and have identified young people as one of the most vulnerable groups in the labour market, in terms of precarious work relations and difficulty in accessing jobs.

The growth of unemployment, employment insecurity and precariousness, coupled with deteriorating working conditions, is leading many of Portugal's highly qualified young people to emigrate in search of good jobs. Official statistics show that the profile of Portuguese emigrants has been changing in the last few years: they are increasingly, female and well-qualified (Perista et al, 2013).

Hence, there is an an imminent risk within the Portuguese scientific community of 'brain drain' on a large scale. 


Perista, H., Nunes, J. and Carrilho, P. (2013), How has the crisis impacted on working conditions in Portugal? The price for young people. CICOT 2013 – 2nd Working Conditions International Congress, Porto, 5–6 September 2013.

Conselho de Reitores das Universidades Portuguesas – CRUP (2013), O Orçamento de Estado e as Universidades (256 KB PDF) [The State Budget and the Universities], CRUP, Lisbon, November 2013.

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