Postdocs under pressure
Half of the postdocs in the Netherlands are continually stressed, a Leiden-Amsterdam study shows.
Bart Braun
Wednesday 26 February 2020

Dr. Christine Teelken of the Vrije Universiteit's department of Organisation Sciences, why are you researching postdocs?
“Scientific research in the Netherlands has been turning in to a project-based affair more and more. Because of this, there are now more postdoctoral researchers, and they stay in this phase for longer. There always were researchers working on temporal contracts of course, but because of these changes, they now form a new and growing group. A group of people that contribute a lot to research and are strongly motivated, but without a permanent position. My Leiden University colleague Inge van der Weijden and I were worried about the consequences.”

Less than a quarter of the 676 people you surveyed is happy with their career perspective. Shouldn't they just have left the ship after finishing their PhDs then?
“Think of it like this. These are highly educated people, and their average age is 34. That's an age where many people want some stability in their home situation. Universities cannot offer it. During a PhD you are working towards a finish, while postdocs have to compete for money that is scarse. There's just a lot of pressure.”

To research this pressure, you use  a questionnaire. The result is not a psychological diagnosis, but what is it?
“We're not pretending it is a diagnosis. It's self perception. We ask them: did you experience stress the past week, were you able to concentrate, etc.”

47% have constant stress, 30% is unhappy and depressed, one third has sleeping problems and 39% experience four or more psychological problems. How does this compare to, say, doctors and lawyers?
“I don't know. But if we compare them to university staff that does have a permanent position – people who are doing similar work, after all – that last categorie isn't 39% but five percent. A big difference. We found it remarkable that postdocs with children actually experienced lower levels of stress; we'd expected that to be the other way around. The biggest stress factors are the fact that so many different things are expected of these researchers, and the uncertainty about their careers.

What are your recommendations?
“On social media many postdocs were complaining that there should just be more money for permanent positions. That would of course be nice, but it's very expensive. We advise universities to open more contacts with organisations where postdocs can switch to if the university career doesn't work out, and to open perspectives at alternative careers. 85% of those surveyed desires a career in academia, but there simply aren't enough jobs. You have to be realistic about this.”