By Joern Fischer
I’m currently in Berlin, at a forum by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation on international challenges to postdocs. Below is a summary of my presentation.
Postdocs face a wide range of challenges, both in Germany, and in a range of other settings. My own background is that I studied in Australia, and also did my PhD and postdoc there. I then moved to Germany, where I have been a professor since late 2010. I currently work closely with several postdocs. My analysis of the challenges facing postdocs is an attempt to provide a bottom-up perspective – based both on my own experience in the (not so distant) past, as well as on my interactions with the postdocs I currently work with.
There are five specific challenges that I believe deserve consideration. First, high job insecurity is a key problem for postdocs. To a large extent this results from there being an over-supply in postdocs, relative to more senior academic positions. Of course, in some disciplines, industry provides viable alternative career paths, but in others, most people doing postdocs will do so because they are seeking academic appointments – though statistically, only few will succeed in this endeavor. In Germany, the over-supply of postdocs results at least partly from there being strong incentives for professors to build large (rather than excellent) research groups. The subsequent creation of postdoc positions serves the needs of a given professor, but does not necessarily help the overall situation of there being an over-supply of postdocs.
Second, gradual promotion opportunities would be beneficial for postdocs. Here, I draw on my experience in both Australia and Germany, where contractual situations of postdocs are quite different. In Australia, the academic system has academic levels, from A to E. Postdocs are level A (sometimes B). In principle, if they are good, postdocs can be promoted to levels B or C. This does not guarantee them a lifetime appointment, but it gives a gradual career trajectory and a sense of direction.
Third, in Australia, postdocs are considered fully fledged “academic staff”, who have the right and responsibility to contribute to the development of their departments. By contrast, in Germany, many postdocs are the “assistants” of “their” professors. They often are not on the same email lists, and lack basic rights, such as the right to supervise PhD students. A particularly problematic situation in Germany is that many postdocs are not eligible to independently apply for many kinds of research funding – often, professors are needed to officially head such applications (even if they are written by a postdoc).
The fourth problem is more general. Mobility is often considered to a key issue in the postdoctoral career phase. On this issue, I would simply like to highlight that mobility should be the means to facilitate professional development and the generation of new insights – but mobility is not a meaningful end in its own right. This needs to be considered in postdoctoral programmes. Some graduates stay where they were trained, and do very good research; others move around the world, and do very bad research. Mobility, on average, probably helps to get new ideas and perspectives, but it is not a meaningful goal worth funding in its own right.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that a diversity of approaches to career development and research excellence needs to be valued. Many postdocs are in their early to mid-thirties, and many have children. Many would welcome part-time appointments. My own experience is that individuals with young families are often particularly efficient at work. Rather than working long hours, they make sure they reach their goals within whatever budget of hours they set themselves. Part-time work, therefore, does not necessarily provide a hindrance to research excellence.
In combination, these five points should be considered in designing successful and enjoyable postdoctoral career paths: (1) oversupply needs to be minimized; (2) gradual promotion opportunities are preferable to all-or-nothing type systems; (3) postdocs should be treated as qualified academic staff, with the rights to apply for funding and supervise PhD students; (4) mobility during the postdoctoral stage can be helpful but should not be considered an end in its own right; and (5) flexible work arrangements, including the option for part-time work, would be desirable for many postdocs.