What Kind of Futures in Academia? Postdoctoral Experiences
For current graduate students, recent PhDs, and early career scholars hoping to pursue a career in academia, the futures on offer tend to look bleak. A recent data snapshot compiled by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shows how the majority of instructional positions in the United States have become casualized (i.e., are off the tenure track). Similar trends have been reported in the European Union, as well as in Latin America.
In these uncertain times, many scholars begin their careers in postdoctoral positions. Our editors asked five early career scholars about their experiences in postdoctoral fellowships. We hope to illuminate for our readers what a future in academia might look like and what considerations they may wish to take into account while they pursue careers in the field of socio-economics. We thank Steven Klein (Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Florida), Ronen Mandelkern (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Tel-Aviv University), Efrat Herzberg-Druker (Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison), Marie Piganiol (Postdoctoral Researcher, Max Planck Institute), and Caterina Froio (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sciences Po) for sharing their experiences with us.
Our editors have chosen to speak with a diversity of scholars – some on the tenure track, some not – in order to provide a glimpse into the varied trajectories that can follow the postdoctoral experience.
SASE: What professional considerations led you to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship?
Herzberg-Druker: I believe that the time in a postdoctoral fellowship allows a researcher to think what are the main fields of his expertise and to develop a research plan and identity that is more coherent than just after graduation. I think that during the last years as a doctoral student most of my focus was in completing the research and writing of the dissertation – the time in a postdoctoral fellowship allowed me to rethink the topics I dealt with during my grad-school life and to establish more foundations for a longer period of research.
Mandelkern: The first consideration was obviously to change academic environments and to have the opportunity to engage with the international research community in my field. Additionally, a postdoctoral fellowship was a necessary bridge between my doctoral studies and getting a position in a university, during which I could work on publishing my research and improve my job market prospects.
Froio: After my PhD, I was mostly interested in expanding my competences on topics and methodologies that were close but not fully overlapping with what I did in my dissertation on political parties. For these reasons I did a first postdoctoral fellowship in the framework of the ANR Project SOG-PRO at the CERSA (Paris 2) and then at the CEE (Sciences Po) on the “Structure and organization of governments” whose principal investigator was Philippe Bezes. Subsequently, I looked for a fellowship that would allow me to develop a personal project and strengthen my theoretical and methodological skills on right wing extremism, radicalism, and populism. To do this, I applied and received a VOX-Pol fellowship at the Oxford Internet Institute (Oxford University).
Klein: The reality is that postdoctoral fellowships are an increasingly necessary stepping stone to a permanent position. However, I also wanted to expand my professional world to include more of the European scholarly community. I also wanted additional time and support to develop my book manuscript out of my dissertation.
Piganiol: When I finished my PhD, I had exhausted my teaching position opportunities since I had already been an ATER (temporary junior lecturer/assistant professor) for two years. This is the maximum you are allowed to do in France if you are not a civil servant. Besides, getting a postdoctoral fellowship is the best way to enhance your curriculum vitae: it gives you time to write papers, present your work, and start a new project.
What employment conditions (length of contract, teaching load) were most important to you in choosing a fellowship?
Herzberg-Druker: The most important thing to me was a program that would enable me to dedicate most of my time to research.
Mandelkern: I looked for a postdoctoral fellowship around 2009-2010, that is, at the height of the economic crisis, which had significant effects on the academic job market. So I must say that I knew I could not be very picky. I did however have a preference for fellowships which had no, or at least minimal, teaching obligation. When the time came and I could choose between a fellowship at a North American University and the MPIfG, I decided to take the latter since I preferred the intimate environment of a research institute. The fact that Germany was closer to Israel and allowed our families to visit us more often, made this decision easier.
Froio: In both cases, my primary concern was the length of the contract and a balance between research and teaching activities. I was lucky enough to have the possibility to privilege contracts that were not too short. Short contracts do not really allow for improving your skills and joining research communities in a tangible way. Additionally, they have very high costs in personal terms, as changing contracts regularly (often across different countries) can be really time consuming in terms of bureaucracy! During my first postdoctoral fellowship I was also teaching 3 courses. These courses were not all in my primary fields of expertise, but the teaching experience was crucial to enriching and diversifying my academic profile.
Klein: I was particularly attracted to fellowships that promised a low teaching load and a strong scholarly community. I ended up receiving a fellowship – the EUI Max Weber Fellowship – that combined both with a short length of contract (one year) with extensive research time. There was also a large cohort of Fellows with whom to talk and collaborate.
Piganiol: In this market, very few people get to choose a fellowship. I knew about the Max Planck Institute’s postdoctoral programs and they were a perfect fit for my research since I work on economic sociology and political sociology. It was also important to me that it is a two-year program, so I knew I would not have to spend the first year looking for my next postdoctoral position. Moreover, the Max Planck Institute programs give postdoctoral fellows complete freedom to do research according to their own interests. Actually, I applied to this postdoc twice and was accepted the second time!
Could you describe, for our readers, what your time in a postdoctoral fellowship looked like?
Herzberg-Druker: I work on a few projects at the same time, so I am trying to divide my time between the different projects. Each week, I devote some time to each project. I think it is more productive way to handle multiple tasks and projects. I spend time during the week attending seminars – this way I am updated on what other researchers are engaged in. I think these seminars are highly important and they are an opportunity to broaden my horizons.
Mandelkern: I was firstly focused on trying to edit my PhD dissertation (which dealt with the role played by Israeli economists in Israel’s economic policymaking and economic liberalization) into publishable articles. I also began developing a new research agenda, namely studying the macroeconomic policy responses to the Great Recession in advanced economies, and the role played by economists and economic ideas in explaining them. So beyond the vast amount of enriching academic events at the Institute, I was mainly writing and doing research. But I confess, hanging out and drinking beer with new friends and colleagues was also an important part of my schedule…
Froio: During my first postdoc I dedicated 70% of my working time to the project and 30% to teaching. During my second fellowship, 100% of my time was dedicated to research, including training classes, seminars, and dissemination activities.
Klein: During the first few months of the fellowship, I was focused on job market considerations. I wrote a new chapter for my book manuscript and develop an article. My best experience, though, was co-organizing a workshop on recent research on gender inequality.
Piganiol: Being a fellow at the Max Planck involves taking part in a number of collective activities, such as research group seminars, public lectures, methodology workshops, and conferences. But mostly, I have a lot of time to develop my own projects. This has especially allowed me to launch collective projects, including with other fellows at the Max Planck.
How has this experience promoted you, as a researcher, for the next step in your career?
Herzberg-Druker: I think this period is extremely important. It provided me with the time to develop my research identity and I have now more goals and research plans I want to achieve in the next few years. Moreover, my research plan is more organized and focused than it was before. I also gained more experience in research methods and worked with more datasets, which of course have contributed to my professional abilities and skills.
Mandelkern: At the practical level, my postdoc fellowships gave me the time to get my research published and become a ‘viable’ candidate in the job market. At a more substantial level, the postdoc period was crucial for my ‘maturation’ from a PhD student to an academic researcher, giving me time to develop my research agenda and to gain more clarity about it.
Froio: Both fellowships and the teaching experience were crucial to my personal and professional development. They pushed me to expand my research agenda on political parties in other related core fields in comparative politics. At the same time they allowed me to get in touch with outstanding colleagues in different universities. I am still collaborating with them today.
Klein: I feel like the greatest benefit of the postdoc is the distance from and perspective on the dissertation project it provides – all without the pressure of a tenure-track or teaching and research position. I was able to further develop the project for an audience beyond my committee. Moreover, the fellowship introduced me to a whole range of academic debates and discussions that have helped orient my future research projects
Piganiol: I have no clue so far! We’ll see if I get a position at the end of the year!
Last question! Do you have any advice for other young scholars entering postdoctoral fellowships?
Herzberg-Druker: Plan your time wisely. List your goals for the long term and the short term and after doing that, build a work plan which can be met in the time you have and other responsibilities such as family.
Mandelkern: A first piece advice is don’t give up and submit a lot; I got many more rejections than acceptances throughout the process. A second piece of advice would be to focus on your research and to fit, as much as possible, all the other academic activities you need to engage in (most prominently teaching) into your research agenda.
Froio: Mmm. I have never been good at giving advice, but from my experience, there are at least two things. First, although the conditions on the academic job market are harsh, I believe it is important to do what you like. The ideal scenario would be to do what you like in existing research communities. For me, it has always been easier to learn from more experienced colleagues. Second, I found it really useful to use my research to inform my teaching. Teaching at different levels (BA, MA, PhDs) is an excellent opportunity for me to challenge my existing ideas about certain topics.
Klein: Set realistic goals – don’t overestimate how much you can get done. Seek out scholars at the institution with whom you think you can have useful conversations. Spend some time to plan ahead in terms of conferences or workshops that may be easier to attend because of the location of the fellowship.
Piganiol: Thinking about a new research project while finishing your PhD is of major importance. It motivates you to finish and start the next step of your career!
A joint contribution by the SASE Newsletter editors
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* This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2018/19 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page*