A cold grey day in January 2019 was the highlight of my academic career. After six years of hard work I defended my doctoral dissertation with all of the lovely pomp and circumstance that Leiden offers for such an occasion.
Receiving my PhD fulfilled a lifelong dream, proving to myself that I could hold my own in academia. It was also the validation that my leap of faith to leave a successful career in the publishing industry to return to the university was the right decision.
I never assumed that I would be able to stay in academia after my PhD but I naively thought that a clear career path would present itself sometime shortly after my doctoral defense, it did not. I do not regret the past six intellectually stimulating years but as I look to the future I am perplexed about what my next career move should be and the best strategy to achieve that goal. Try to stay in academia? Return to my former career? Embark on a new career?
Ideally, I would love to stay in academia like many of my colleagues but I am not willing to spend the next decade as an academic nomad. Furthermore, if I am being honest with myself such a plan is unrealistic as I like many other recent PhDs have a spouse with a job and school-age children. Mobility is certainly on the table but not for a two-year contract with no prospect of a permanent position afterwards.
I am not picky, I just want a position commensurate to my level of education and professional experience that offers a reasonable amount of stability for my family. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is.
For the time being, I am one of the lucky ones. In the final months of my PhD I had the foresight to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship which I was serendipitously awarded the same week that I submitted my dissertation. This grant assured me a seamless transition from PhD candidate to post-doctoral researcher with a two-year contract at Leiden to continue as a researcher.
I was blessed with a little breathing room, but almost one year into that project I am forced to seriously consider where I will be a year from now. Two years is short in the world of employment contracts and grant applications. What is a newly minted doctor to do? Apply for another post-doc? Write another research grant? Focus on publishing as much as possible and hope that a permanent position will miraculously appear? Or do I begin to clean up my CV, update my LinkedIn profile and start networking outside of academia?
The answer, it seems, is all of the above.
Thus, I am constantly conflicted as to the best way to use my time during what is possibly my last year in academia. Obviously, I am passionate about my research project and bursting with ideas but a two-year postdoc is not long enough to write a book. I would also like to dedicate some time to reworking my dissertation not only because it would look good on my CV but it is already under contract. In a few months I will need to worry about pressure from the publisher if I don’t deliver on time.
Beyond publications, building professional experience is constantly on my mind. This means spending time on my BKO portfolio, accepting to supervise thesis students, researching grant opportunities, and even taking on some freelance consulting to get back into the professional world.
In short, being a postdoc is exhausting, not because the research or teaching is more challenging than as a PhD, but because the uncertainty is so much greater and time is constantly of the essence.
This system of one and two-year postdocs (and temporary teaching contracts), I argue, is broken and of little benefit for the greater university community. Short contracts don’t allow researchers to become invested in their host institutes.
They also do little to alleviate the administrative workload of permanent staff as it is impossible to be a meaningful participant in any committee without institutional knowledge or the perspective to see a project to its completion. This is a shame particularly in the case of postdocs because research time is often spent writing job applications.
What then can universities do to improve the plight of postdocs? Ideally universities would be able to have greater long term strategic and financial overview thus enabling them to open up permanent positions but I realize this is only a pipe dream.
More realistically universities could offer longer temporary contracts of four or five years that allocate time for both research and teaching thus giving well-rounded professional experience commensurate with institutional needs.
These contracts are of greater value to both the researcher and the institution which employs them as they provide stability to the employee while maintaining flexibility for the employer. This is already the case at many German institutions which offer five year postdoc positions. I think it is reasonable to suggest that Dutch universities develop similar opportunities. Such a program would be a huge improvement from the current system which ultimately breeds a climate of unnecessary stress and insecurity.
Even as I write this editorial I am wondering whether my time would have been better spent applying for a Rubicon…