This author of this blog post is a postdoctoral researcher in the life science academic sector. She is currently applying for positions inside and outside academia.
I’m a female postdoctoral researcher, and I’ve worked in academia for several years on fixed-term contracts. Working under these conditions has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage has been the ability to manage my own time and the main disadvantage has been dealing with the insecurity of fixed-term employment. When the funding inevitably runs out, I had to look for new opportunities. My goal has for many years been to check all the boxes required to secure a lecturing position. After getting an interview, which is a skill in and of itself, I’ve frequently felt exposed and vulnerable because future academic employers have heavily questioned my career choices. I do my best to persuade them, and perhaps myself, that I’ve been trying very hard to achieve permanent employment. For example, they seem unaware of how difficult it is to have children during a time when one is expected to prove one’s worth by working around the clock to achieve almost impossible goals in order to advance in academia. I’ve no way of knowing if other people in my situation have heard the message of never being ‘good enough’ to be ‘good enough,’ but I believe it’s a real thing.
Postdoctoral researchers, in my opinion, are an exploitable labour force because we are so desperately want to keep our jobs. In the beginning we are told that our postdoc positions are only temporary and that we will eventually find more permanent employment in either academia or industry. The issue with that is that what we are told to do and what we need to do are not synonymous. In my case, despite my achievements and training, I am still looking for a solution to the problem of finding stable employment 16 years after receiving my PhD.
In my early days, I imagined myself leading a research team. I have many good ideas and enjoy my work. I’m also good with students and have enjoyed teaching in the past, but here is the catch. I could never figure out what I needed to do to accomplish my goal. It was almost like a ‘moving goal post’ situation. The feedback I received constantly was that ‘you don’t have enough first-author high impact publications’, but I was never told what I need to do to get a lecturing position. When I asked the question specifically, I was told I needed to ‘get lucky’ or to be at ‘the right place at the right time’. It was even suggested to me to transfer to another university in another country, which was reasonable enough, but not something I wanted to do because my family was settled here. I was made to feel like I didn’t belong and that I should just give up my lecturing dream, which is difficult to accept, when I was obviously contributing with scientific output.
Unfortunately, I felt that my accomplishments were underappreciated, and that the longer I stayed in this situation, the less likely it was that I would be able to advance my career in this environment. Overall, I’m tired of repeating the process of starting anew in a lab, so now I’m looking for other types of work that don’t necessitate costly re-training. Even in this regard, it’s unclear what types of jobs a PhD has prepared us for. I’ve received far more assistance from industry friends and recruiters than from my academic employers. This implies that academic employers and academia must accept greater responsibility for the future careers of fixed-term academic staff, including newly examined PhD students. It must be established whether their training is worthwhile in order for them to find work. I believe that more is required than simply writing a recommendation letter. Giving out industry-relevant skill certificates would be a good way to ensure that we are given genuine opportunities. I understand that my opinion is unpopular, but it must be stated that perhaps the zealous emphasis on publishing papers is not in our best interests, if we don’t directly benefit from them. Contrary to what our academic employers tell us, publishing a paper does not guarantee us the opportunity to advance in our careers, and we require additional proof that our time and effort were not squandered benefiting others. Aside from altruism, I believe what we most need is stable employment and a work-life balance.