This one is for all the post-docs out there. It’s also for those of you thinking about pursuing a PhD. Here are some hard truths about life as an academic: it’s nomadic, transient and sometimes lonely in the “in-between periods”. But it is also (mostly) interesting, it is a global occupation like no other, and you will have an international perspective that few others have the chance to develop in other jobs.
Some job market trends in universities today
Academia wasn’t always this nomadic. Here’s some reasons why I think the industry has changed.
First, it is now less and less common for universities to hire their own PhD students, at least not immediately after they have graduated from their PhD programme. This means that as you are finishing up your PhD, you will also be writing job applications for post-doctoral research positions or for tenure-track Assistant Professorships.
Herein lies the second challenge. Tenure-track positions are harder to come by, which means more and more people who’ve done two or three post-docs and/or have been doing contract teaching for a number of years are now competing for entry-level tenure-track positions. So while it used to be common for PhD fresh graduates to score an Assistant Professor position with little track record in publications or grants, PhD graduates today are competing with other applicants with a longer list of publications, more teaching experience and at least some track record of successful grant applications.
Lastly, the third source of transience in academic life comes from the contract durations of post-doc positions. I’ve noticed over the last few years that more and more post-doctoral positions are for shorter periods from 2 to 3-year contracts, or even shorter. This means that researchers have less time to really settle into the new place, immerse in the local culture, make friends and really get to know what the place is about, how things work, the history, etc. It’s simply a mad dash to get started with the new project, finish legacy publications from the last project, and start applying for the next job.
Are you out of breath yet? I am!
In this new academic job market context, it’s really hard to sink roots anywhere. It is easy to develop a kind of cynicism about making new friends or starting a new relationship. What’s the point if I’m gonna leave in two years? It is painful to leave friends, boyfriends, girlfriends or partners behind. But I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to just do it anyway.
Books alone are not going to broaden your horizon. Meeting people will. Learning about their lives, what they do, where they come from will form a big part of your global credential. Everyone’s got a story to tell. And you never know how those stories might inspire you and inspire your work. When you come to the end of your contract, your publications are not what you’ll be talking about when you arrive at your next destination — well, yes but they won’t be the interesting subjects. It is the anecdotes of your friends, the stories crazy times you had with them, the memorable trips you made with them, and the interesting perspectives they had on various topics.
Your friends will so be what carries you through the “in-between” periods when you’ve just arrived in your new destination and you don’t know anyone. Those video calls and whatsApp messages from another land and another time zone will be so crucial in helping you to feel less lonely, stick the course and not drop out. They could also be the ones to link you up with their friends in your new city, which could help you find a social group faster.
I also cannot stress enough the importance of making friends outside of academia. This is not just important for epistemological reasons — i.e. staying grounded in what you do in your research and your various theoretical musings. It is also for practical reasons. They could open doors for you in the private or public sector when your contract is up and you are considering changing track.
It’s also really hard to be dedicated and loyal to the institution or department that you’re working in if you know you have a limited time there. In my experience, most post-doc offers will tell you that there is a possibility for extension or even conversion to a permanent position as a way to encourage candidates to take up a short-term contract and also be a source of motivation. But at the back of my head I always knew that I would be packing up my life again at the end of the contract. This makes it hard to really commit to the department and to go that extra mile to contribute to the scholarly community.
But, in fact, it can be helpful to be dedicated and loyal to your colleagues because many of them are going through the same challenges and uncertainties. They are going to be the ones who lift you up when you are down, to instil confidence in you when you are filled with self-doubt, and to remind you of how much you have achieved when you feel like you have so little to show for after so much hard work. Last but not least, they are also gonna be the once who will help you write that winning cover letter or CV that will get you the next job.
Key points for dealing with transience
Perhaps you don’t have an issue with transience…YET. I was pretty happy to be floating from one country to the next for a long time because I wanted to see the world and live in as many different places as possible. Academia enabled me to live my dream life while doing my dream job. But at some point, I got tired of packing and unpacking and selling my stuff on Facebook Marketplace. So for those of you who are tired or getting tired, here are some key points for dealing with the nomadic life of an academic:
- Don’t think about how little time you have. Think about how you’re gonna maximise the time you’ve got.
- Make friends. They will widen your horizon, give you perspective, be an inspiration and help you get through the “in-between” period.
- Sink roots in friendships not places. It’s the people that make a place feel like home. If you find the right people, they will feel like home even after you’ve left. Likewise, the place will no longer feel like home if they are not there.
- Start that relationship if it feels right because, what the heck, life is short and you don’t know what the future holds.
- Invest in your colleagues. They are your support network, they are your confidence booster, they are your space outside the box.
- Play Ultimate Frisbee — just a personal opinion 😉
I’m sure there are many more dimensions to this topic. I might come back to it in a later post. If you have any other thoughts, please leave a comment!