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Precarious careers: postdoctoral researchers in the Netherlands

The number of postdoc researchers is growing and while they enjoy their work and colleagues, studies in the Netherlands revealed that they experience high stress levels. Christine Teelken and Inge van der Weijden discuss mental health and the main stressors, including lack of academic career prospects, publication and grant pressure, work-life imbalance and lack of institutional support.

Academic organisations have changed substantially in recent decades in terms of their tasks, structure and culture due to increased internationalisation, lower government influence and funding, and larger influence from external stakeholders. Like other public organisations, universities are increasingly financed in an output-oriented manner, and therefore emphasis on performance has grown. The altered financial structure of universities has changed employee relationships extensively and at different levels. Because of these developments, the number of postdoc researchers is growing. Postdocs are highly educated professionals with a doctorate, contributing directly to the primary process of the university, particularly research output, but with no long-term perspectives and little opportunity to obtain a tenured contract.

Studies on postdocs in the Netherlands
The purpose of our research is to understand how, in the context of labour market instability, postdoctoral researchers experience their working conditions and their prospects and opportunities, in relation to their wellbeing. In a first study (2015), we found that nearly all postdocs (85%) wanted to stay in academia, but less than 3% were offered a tenure track position. The postdoc population is substantial and growing; the average duration of postdocs’ employment is approaching the length of the doctorate trajectory. In a follow-up study (2019), we conducted a survey among postdocs from eight Dutch universities. A sample of 676 postdocs, 51% male, 48% female and 1% gender neutral, responded. The average age of the respondents was 34 years. Forty-six percent had Dutch nationality, and 54% were from different countries. The postdocs worked in different fields: natural sciences (32%), social sciences and humanities (30%), medical and health sciences (21%), engineering and technology (17%). The average postdoc duration was 31 months.

Job satisfaction
Postdocs were generally quite satisfied with their research, their colleagues and their superiors. However, they were generally unhappy about their academic career prospects and the support they received from their organisation. Respondents think that their chances of acquiring a stable job in academia in the near future is very small, and they mention the shortage of available positions and dependence on insecure external research funding as the most important worries.

Training and career preparations
Sixty percent of the postdocs participated in several training modules or courses, mainly orientated on academia, such as grant writing, learning foreign languages and teaching. However, 40% had not yet participated in any training course at all. Postdocs are aware that networks are critical in preparation for the labour market; half of the respondents are actively networking in and outside the university. However, only one in three postdocs spent time during their postdoc position further developing additional transferable skills in order to expand their eligibility for career options beyond research. Even fewer postdocs (13%) developed some degree of management experience, such as being a member of a research council or board. Interestingly, nearly half of the postdocs did not feel encouraged by their supervisor to follow any additional training.

Mental health
To measure the postdocs’ mental health, we used the General Health Questionnaire-12. This is a validated and widely used screening instrument to identify psychological distress and the risk of a common psychiatric disorder. Experiencing four or more symptoms in the questionnaire indicates risk. Thirty-nine percent of the postdocs surveyed were at risk of developing serious mental health challenges, which can lead to anxiety and depression. The most frequently reported issues were: feeling under constant strain (47%), concentration problems (35%), and sleeping problems (33%). Experiencing lack of career prospects in academia, publication and grant pressure, work-life imbalance and feelings of lack of career support from supervisors and/or their organisation, negatively impact the mental health of postdocs.

Call for action
It is urgent that universities take postdocs more seriously into account within their current employment organisation. Below are recommendations that should be adopted by the sector and universities.

(1) Postdocs require more formalised visibility that can be accomplished through their recognition as a separate staff category in the Dutch national classification system of functions within universities.

(2) It is important to raise awareness among various stakeholders concerning the complexity of the postdocs’ position, since they must combine a variety of tasks and responsibilities with insecure career prospects. Maintaining this precarious balance causes considerable stress.

(3) Universities should foster more support for postdocs by developing appropriate, focused, and pragmatic human resources policies. Examples of instruments include:

a.  Launching a postdoc community or network, as has been done by Ghent University, consequently improving the contacts among the postdocs more actively.

b.  Providing career guidance by designing training modules for the personal and professional development of postdocs, including mentorship programs. Encourage supervisors to discuss career preparation activities with their postdocs.

c.  Establishing contacts with organisations that employ (former) postdocs or are interested in doing so in the future. This way, postdocs will be encouraged to reflect on their future prospects and career paths, either in academia or outside the university.

d.  Diversifying and vitalising career paths of postdocs in co-creation with postdocs themselves.

The results of the mental health questionnaire call for action: universities need to take the initiative to prevent mental health challenges, to increase wellbeing and to offer adequate support to postdocs who are already experiencing challenges. Of importance is, among other steps, the training of supervisors to recognise mental health issues, to increase awareness of the importance of mental health, to build resilience and to decrease stigma on mental health challenges in academia.

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Christine Teelken

Christine Teelken is Associate Professor of Organisation Sciences at VU Amsterdam. She has researched gender in academic careers and postdoctoral careers for many years and has published widely in organisational and higher education journals. She is a link-convenor of the EERA higher education network.

Inge van der Weijden

Inge van der Weijden is Senior Researcher at the Centre of Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University. She conducts both qualitative and quantitative research on career development of early careers researchers within and outside academia. She serves as President of the Netherlands Centre of Expertise for Doctoral Education.

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