Musings of a Postdoc

Sometimes students who are considering pursuing a PhD contact me for advice. Is it worth it? What’s it like being a(n early-career) researcher? What are the advantages and challenges? Or people ask about postdoc life, as they are deciding whether to give academia a shot or do something else after finishing their PhD. It has now been two years since I became a postdoc in March 2020 – first at the University of Gothenburg, and then I started my position at the University of Oslo half a year later. Time to reflect on some of my personal pros and cons.

What I love about being an ECR

Flexibility and time for research. Flexibility in my choice of research foci was already a theme during my PhD – and one of the benefits, for me personally, of writing an article-based dissertation, as opposed to a more cohesive monograph. Being able to explore different and somewhat unrelated topics and research questions that fall under a broader theme made the PhD experience fun and dynamic for me. It also allowed me to delve into different methods and explore side projects, which I was then able to decide whether to include in the dissertation or not, as I moved along (one I did, two I didn’t). Throughout the entire process, it helped immensely that I had wonderful PhD supervisors, who took a largely hands-off approach but were always available to provide feedback and input when I needed a fresh set of eyes. Supervisor relations are of course difficult to plan or anticipate in advance, in most cases, and I was very lucky.

On the way to my first in-person presentation since the start of the pandemic, March 2022

The high level of flexibility, with respect to the content of my research and the use of my time, remains one of the things I value most as a postdoc as well. Hired on an open position, I can essentially work on what I want, how I want and with whom I want. At the same time, I am situated in a department where scholars and adminstrators provide support and assistance as I navigate uncharted waters. In my application, I did submit a relatively cohesive postdoc project, but the pandemic and shifts in my research interests have both forced and motivated me to explore new research avenues. Since starting the postdoc, I have thus published and worked on manuscripts that employ qualitative, quantitative and especially survey experimental methods; that engage with the practicalities of fieldwork and researching difficult topics; and that constitute an extension of my dissertation research (various aspects of conflict-related sexual violence) as well as new research avenues (public opinion, gendered political violence). Essentially, I am doing my own thing, but I am still part of a vibrant research group. For me, this is close to perfect.

Collaborations and networks. As a postdoc, I have also intensified what I started as a PhD researcher: collaborations with co-authors at different institutions in different countries, with different substantive interests and methodological skill sets. Most of these are other ECRs rather than more senior folks. Already in a previous post, I reflected on the benefits of such collaborations, especially during the pandemic. They have made research a much less lonely endeavor during times of intense social distancing. In addition, joining forces, combining strengths and exploring new methods have helped me grow as a scholar and tackle new research questions that I might have been more hesitant to approach on my own. The feeling that “we’re in this together” has further helped cushion the blow of rejection, which is an integral part of academia. Simultaneously, sharing successes only seems to magnify them.

Besides the joys (and I say this entirely without irony) of co-authoring itself, it has been wonderful to meet a few of my co-authors in person once the pandemic circumstances permitted and spend some time together without talking only about research. I have also been able to present my work and give guest lectures at universities in Norway, Germany and the U.S. (mostly virtually), thus making new connections. And I have attended workshops and even co-founded a new network for peace and conflict researchers. Most important of all, I have established bonds of friendship with co-authors and other peers. We provide mutual support during the various challenges we face, whether they relate to research, teaching or any other dimension of academic life. These connections are among the highlights of academia.

Visit to the beautiful city of Trondheim, March 2022

In the process, I have benefited from the great working conditions in Norway. I am in the lucky and, by international standards unusual, situation of holding a four-year postdoc position with good pay, generous annual research funds and a relatively low teaching load (25%). I’m a member of a union that advocates on behalf of its members and provides various services. I am fully aware that these are luxuries many postdocs don’t have, but it is a reality worth sharing (as departments in Norway regularly advertise positions and sometimes struggle finding qualified applicants). This does not, of course, mean that there are no drawbacks.

What I find challenging

Rejection and imposter syndrome. Academia embodies a culture focused on criticism, finding flaws, and constantly being compared to others, whether we apply for jobs, seek funding, submit manuscripts to journals etc. This can be frustrating, disillusioning and, in the long run, exhausting. The more junior you are, in my experience, the worse it is. When you’re starting out as a researcher and are still learning the ropes – I literally had no idea how publishing works, writing a convincing manuscript was still something of a question mark, and the first-ever paper I submitted to a journal was a solo-authored one – a rejection can feel crushing. In my first 2-3 years of the PhD, a journal rejection would send me into a pit of despair. The more I got used to it, i.e. the more I submitted to journals, the more I realized that reviewers are not always right, the better I got at sorting useful from not so useful or even callous comments, and the more I wrote peer reviews myself, the easier it became to shrug off rejections, regroup and move on to the next journal. And of course, successes also help – and over time, there were more of those too.

That said, I still experience imposter syndrome regularly, and I often feel like it’s only a matter of time before one of my peers realizes I’m nowhere near as smart and skilled as they are and exposes my shortcomings. I am assured by more senior scholars that this never truly goes away (whether this is reassuring or terrifying, I am not sure).

Precarity and uncertainty. Based on interactions with my colleague-friends and other peers (mainly on Twitter), precarious employment and the uncertainty that comes with it are a major source of stress for most ECRs. Only a minority of scholars are able to go straight from PhD to a tenure-track position and most are dependent on postdocs or other non-permanent positions after defending their dissertation. The academic job market in North America seems to be particularly bleak (I have not and do not intend to apply there, so cannot speak to it in depth), but also countries in Europe have witnessed a steady increase in the share of non-tenure track, precarious employment. This is the case for Norway and, as anyone who has followed the #IchBinHanna discussion will be aware, especially for my home country Germany. An in-depth discussion of the various systemic barriers inbuilt into the academic system would be too much here, but suffice it to say that the challenges of temporary positions and precarity are real and certainly a stressor in my own life as well. Simply put, I have no idea where – which country, which institution – I will be once my current postdoc period ends.

Impressions from home: The Sparrenburg in Bielefeld

The nomad lifestyle. For ECRs, academia holds almost unreasonable mobility expectations: you want a job in academia? You better pack your bags and go where the jobs are, then, even if that means moving halfway across the country, the continent, or even the globe. Of course, there are always the lucky ones who get the jobs they want where they want them. But for most, the reality is a different one. As a BA and MA student, I loved and actively sought out such a mobile lifestyle. Since the age of 21, I have moved across borders seven times, and (not counting shorter work and research stays in Germany, the U.S., Zambia and Colombia) lived in five cities, in four countries, on two continents. The longest consecutive period I have spent in one place since finishing high school are the five years I lived in Göteborg for my PhD and initial postdoc employment. What was fun and adventurous in my 20s became tiresome indeed by the time I hit my 30s. Now I feel nothing so strongly as the desire to introduce some long-term stability into my life, to settle down in a place I call home for good. Unfortunately, due to short-term contracts and the uncertainty that comes with them, this is not a realistic prospect.

The inability to plan – and by nature, I am very much a planner! – has not only practical but also psychological implications for me. For example, throughout my five years in Göteborg, while in my 30s, I lived in a functionally furnished apartment with only two pieces of furniture to call my own. The housing market in the city, my temporary employment contract, and my financial situation precluded a different solution. Now I do have my own furniture, but 1.5 years into my contract, I find myself shying away from making even semi-big purchases (e.g. kitchen appliances) because I always ask myself “is it even worth it if I may be somewhere else in a year or two? Might be better to wait and buy then.” In other words, I never feel that I have truly arrived anywhere. What is perhaps even worse is that I have reached the point where I feel that I have no energy left to invest in social relations, in building up a social network for myself, because I know it is all temporary anyway and in the not too far future, I will again have to start over somewhere, wherever, else. Meanwhile, the question of where home is for me, is up in the air (although for all I tried to escape it for years, I am realizing something is pulling me back to Germany).

Would I do it all over again?

In my experience, there are major pros and major cons to life as an ECR. I genuinely loved my PhD experience. At the University of Gothenburg, hierarchies were flat, work-life balance was an actual thing, I had wonderful colleagues, and the PhD program was designed to maximize independence and individual growth. Similarly, I love the flexibility and room for research and collaborations involved in my current postdoc position, where I also have many amazing colleagues. And I much, much prefer my life as an ECR to the job I held in consulting before I decided to get a PhD.

Defending my dissertation, June 2019

Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering where the road will take me, and how long I will be able to continue working in research or what sacrifices I may have to make to do so. Only time will tell where I will end up, but I don’t regret having gone for the PhD. It’s impossible to know what my life would have looked like, anyway, had I not pursued the PhD. Maybe I would be settled down, with a partner or even a family, in a situation of greater stability. Or maybe I wouldn’t be. Or maybe the grass is always greener on the other side, regardless of who and where you are. The one thing I know for certain is that I enjoy research and, it appears, I am reasonably good at it. And getting the PhD was the best way to develop that potential. But it is not at all unlikely that, were I to face the choice between life as a mobile researcher and a more sedentary lifestyle in a different job, I would choose the latter.

I am not going to be so arrogant as to, by way of a conclusion, formulate recommendations for others. Whether getting a PhD is worth it for each individual person depends on many things, including: how much you like research, what other possible careers you can envision, your financial and family situation, your attitude towards (medium- to long-term) mobility, how much you are willing (and able) to make compromises on stability and plan-ability, and how comfortable you generally are with uncertainty in your life. Of course, uncertainty is part of our reality regardless – just look at world events of the past two years alone – but in academia it is very much inbuilt. And that poses a series of challenges for ECRs, whether logistical, economic or emotional.

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