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Purpose – This study aims to examine how post-PhD researchers construct their identities through significant work experiences as they endeavour to develop their research independence and a distinct scholarly profile. The authors were especially interested in how they made meaning of their important work experiences, the ones that were emotionally salient. Design/methodology/approach – Using a narrative approach, the analysis was conducted on a data subset from a large cross-national mixed-methods research project about early-career researchers’ identity development. The sample included 71 post-PhD researchers from the UK who completed an online survey. Ten of whom were also interviewed through a semi-structured protocol. Findings – Post-PhD researchers considered work experiences to be significant when those experiences helped them to gauge whether their self-representation as researchers was coherent and a further research career was practicable. The same type of significant event (e.g. publishing in a prestigious journal) could hold different meanings depending on who experienced it. Positive experiences helped to maintain their motivation and made them feel that they were consolidating their identities. Negative experiences tended to challenge their sense of identity and their sense of belonging to academia. Whereas positive feelings towards a significant experience appeared to persist over time, negative feelings seemed to fade or evolve through selfreflection, but ultimately had greater saliency. Originality/value – Few previous studies have been conducted on how emotionally powerful work experiences influence post-PhD researchers’ identity development. Besides highlighting how emotions and feelings, often-neglected aspects of identity development, influence the process, this study offers a constructive – and, in some ways, alternative – view of the impact that negative experiences have on their identity development.
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Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education
Post-PhD researchers’ experiences: an emotionally rocky road
Isabelle Skakni, Lynn McAlpine,
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To cite this document:
Isabelle Skakni, Lynn McAlpine, (2017) "Post-PhD researchers’ experiences: an emotionally
rocky road", Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 8 Issue: 2, pp.205-219, https://
doi.org/10.1108/SGPE-D-17-00026
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Post-PhD researchers
experiences: an emotionally
rocky road
Isabelle Skakni and Lynn McAlpine
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Abstract
Purpose This study aims to examine how post-PhD researchers construct their identities through
signicant work experiences as they endeavour to develop their research independence and a distinct
scholarly prole. The authors were especially interested in how they made meaning of their important work
experiences, the ones that were emotionally salient.
Design/methodology/approach Using a narrative approach, the analysis was conducted on a data
subset from a large cross-national mixed-methods research project about early-career researchersidentity
development. The sample included 71 post-PhD researchers from the UK who completed an online survey.
Ten of whom were also interviewed through a semi-structured protocol.
Findings Post-PhD researchers considered work experiences to be signicant when those experiences
helped them to gauge whether their self-representation as researchers was coherent and a further research
career was practicable. The same type of signicant event (e.g. publishing in a prestigious journal) could hold
different meanings depending on who experienced it. Positive experiences helped to maintain their motivation
and made them feel that they were consolidating their identities. Negative experiences tended to challenge
their sense of identity and their sense of belonging to academia. Whereas positive feelings towards a
signicant experience appeared to persist over time, negative feelings seemed to fade or evolve through self-
reection, but ultimatelyhad greater saliency.
Originality/value Few previous studies have been conducted on how emotionally powerful work
experiences inuence post-PhD researchersidentity development. Besides highlighting how emotions and
feelings, often-neglected aspects of identity development, inuence the process, this study offers a
constructive and, in some ways, alternative view of the impact that negative experiences have on their
identity development.
Keywords Identity, Sense-making, Emotion, Post-PhD researcher
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
The situation of post-PhD researchers, both those working on contracts for a principal
investigator and those on their own fellowship, is a challenging one (Powell, 2015). While
many of them want a research-teaching position, they mostly nd themselves in a holding
pattern of temporary contracts over lengthy periods (Van Weijden et al.,2016). This
situation generally implies low incomes, high workloads, limited time to dedicate to
research, last-minute appointments, poor resources and support and few professional-
development opportunities (Browning et al.,2017;Rothengatter and Hill, 2013). Thus,
although many post-PhD researchers report true passion for their work and nd rewards
when engaging in it (McAlpine, 2010), job insecurity, worklife balance and lack of career
This study was supported by funding from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness
under the project ResearchersIdentity Education in Social Sciences[CSO2013-41108]
Post-PhD
researchers
experiences
205
Received 23 June2017
Revised 5 September2017
Accepted 11 September2017
Studies in Graduate and
Postdoctoral Education
Vol. 8 No. 2, 2017
pp. 205-219
© Emerald Publishing Limited
2398-4686
DOI 10.1108/SGPE-D-17-00026
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/2398-4686.htm
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structure remain important concerns among them (Scafdi and Berman, 2011). Over the
long term, as with precarious workers in other areas, post-PhD researchers are likely to
experience insecurity, stress and anxiety; a type of emotional response that has been linked
with career dissatisfaction and identity challenges (Winkler, 2016).
This paper examines how, in this context, post-PhD researchers construct their
identities through work experiences as they endeavour to develop research
independence and a distinct scholarly prole (Laudel and Glaser, 2008). A workplace
learning perspective was chosen because post-PhD researchers learn through work and
interactions with others in their workplaces (Billett, 2004). We were interested in how
they interpreted or made meaning of important work experiences, ones that were
emotionally salient. While this emphasis on emotions related to signicant experiences
has been used to understand the case of doctoral students (Carlone and Johnson, 2007;
Emmioglu, McAlpine and Amundsen, 2017), very few studies have explored this
approach with regards to post-PhD researchers.
Broadly, the following research question was asked: How do post-PhD researchers
make sense of their important work experiences in relation to their developing identities?
Sub-questions to inform this answer included:
Q1. What meaning do they make of what they characterise as signicant positive and
negative work experiences?
Q2. To what extent are there differences in sense-making between negative and positive
experiences?
Q3.Whatinuence does time have on the emotional response to the experience?
Conceptual framework
This study draws on a view of experience and learning as inseparable, with learning
emerging through reection on experience a view central to adult learning (Boud, Keogh
and Walker, 1985). The focus is more, especially, on how individuals make sense of and
learn from their work experiences, as they initially construct and later re-construct the
meaning of these experiences within their broader lives (Baxter Magolda and King, 2007). At
the same time, the organisation in which work takes place is seen as inuencing the
experience of what it is to become or be recognised as a member of a particular profession or
eld (Antony, 2003). Considering this focus in workplace experience, learning and identity, a
central premise is that a sense of identity and self are tightly linked to how individuals
think about and engage in work(Billett, 2006, p. 63). Identity development is also a
relational and comparative process (Carlone and Johnson, 2007;Tajfel and Turner, 1986),
which often implies a search for recognition and approval by signicant others (Ashforth
and Schinoff, 2016;Watson, 2009). However, individuals are agents who have their own
intentions and act in accordance with those intentions. In working, they can choose to
participate, resist or act differently from common practices and take from the experience
what they wish. Further, in learning through their engagement, they are determining the
worth of what they experience(Billett, 2004, p. 315) making sense of it in light of past
experiences and their own identities.
Identity development and emotions are also considered as mutually constitutive
(Winkler, 2016). Moods, emotions and bodily sensations have been found to inuence
peoples processing strategies. From the feelings-as-information perspective, these
experiences guide cognitive attention where it is needed (Cascon-Pereira and Hallier, 2012)
and inform us about the benign or problematic nature of the current situation. This, in turn,
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inuences which processing strategy we adopt, consistent with the assumption that human
cognition is situated and adaptively tuned to meet situational requirements (Schwarz, 2002).
In this sense, emotions tend to shape the sense-making process that occurs following a
signicant event (Maitlis et al.,2013)byinuencing how individuals interpret it (Clore and
Huntsinger, 2007). Agency and emotions are closely connected; as Neumann (2006) says,
there is an inherent integrity between knowing and feeling because we approach and
respond to our experiences with a range of emotional perceptions. Feelings can be
understood as related to the wider contexts in which we try to enact our purposes (Archer,
2000;Nardi, 2005), as we learn how to reconcile potential conicts between our own goals
and desires and the social/structural elements we are negotiating. It might be argued that
part of being agentive is negotiating both positive and negative emotions to maintain
motivation and develop identity.
Finally, time also plays a role because our sense-making of experiences may shift as later
experiences provide new ways of interpreting earlier experiences (Maitlis and Christianson,
2014). Weick (1995) notes that sense-making is grounded in identity construction and
involves retroactive interpretation of events. Weick et al. (2005) argue that meaning is
generated and identity constructed through individuals reecting on their experiences,
focusing on certain extracted cues rather than all in relation to past experiences and
present intentions. Thus, as Maitlis and Christianson (2014) suggest, sense-making is both a
retrospective and a prospective process. OMeara et al. (2014), drawing on Wieck, refer to
sense-making as how individuals understand their everyday experiences in ways that can
inform or constrain identity; such as the latter case, shocks may require more work to
integrate than other kinds of experiences. Making sense of an unintended or atypical event
tends to reduce equivocality and enables individuals to make decisions, reorient their
actions and create innovative solutions (Maitlis et al.,2013) regarding the challenges they
encounter.
Research method
The study reported in this paper draws on a subset of the data from a large cross-national
mixed-methods multi-mode research project (Spain, the UK, Finland and Switzerland) about
early-career researchersidentity development[1]. Our broad goal is to understand the
perceptions of PhD students and post-PhD researchers in these different national contexts
regarding their development as researchers. In each country in this case, the UK the
study began with an online survey, which included both quantitative and qualitative
questions, sent to PhD students and post-PhD researchers at the universities that agreed to
forward our recruitment email. This survey was rst developed in Spanish and then
translated to Finnish, English and French with the aim of generating a broad data set. At the
end of the survey, the respondents were invited to participate in a subsequent individual
research interview. Those who had expressed interest were contacted and interviewed via
Skype. This individual semi-structured interview was based on a multi-mode approach
integrating survey responses (qualitative and quantitative) into the interview and two visual
methods (Buckingham, 2009) to explore in depth their perceptions and experiences.
A narrative approach (Riessman, 2008) was chosen, one consistent with the notion that
individuals create accounts of their lives. In everyday life, narratives make connections
between events, represent the passage of time and show the intentions of individuals with
some resolution (Coulter and Smith, 2009). Such stories told shortly after an experience
represent an initial interpretation their sense-making of the experience, which may
change over time. In other words, later narratives of the same event might differ. For
research purposes, narratives can be understood as representations of identity development;
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in this sense, identity is narratively constituted (Elliott, 2005;Riessman, 2008). Narratives
are inuenced by where, when and to whom they are told (Coulter and Smith, 2009): a
narrative told to a researcher in an interview will be different from a narrative about the
same experience told to a friend. The use of narrative emerges in our view of the data as well
as in the analyses (Coulter and Smith, 2009). The narrative in a survey (in this case with both
quantitative and qualitative data) can be understood as a structured narrative representing
how the individual presently perceives his/her identity. As a result, it enables researchers, in
preparing for a follow-up interview, to construct through an initial analysis a provisional
narrative about the individuals identity construction to guide the interview. After the
interview, it is possible to expand on that narrative substantially.
Sample
The focus here is on the experiences of the UK post-PhD researchers who completed the
survey, including the subset who also participated in an interview. Ninety-eight post-PhD
researchers, in social sciences, humanities, education, life science, health sciences and
engineering, completed the online survey. Given our focus, only the data from the 71
respondents who answered the open-ended questions about positive and negative
signicant events were retained. More than half of the respondents were female, their
average age was 33.7 years and three-quarters were from a European country. They had
been in a postdoctoral position for a mean of three years when they completed the survey.
Table I shows their characteristics.
Data collection and preparation for analysis
Survey. The items were designed to capture respondentssense of agency and self-
regulation, their perceptions of research and scholarly communication, as well as the nature
and role of their social support networks (Castello et al.,2017). The following themes were
covered through multiple choices or Likert-type items:
engagement and interest in ones research;
writing and publication productivity;
mobility;
relationships with supervisors, colleagues and peers;
stress and anxiety; and
career goals.
In addition, there were three open-ended questions: one about worklife balance issues and
the other two about post-PhD researchersmost positive and negative experiences. Further,
the open-ended questions about post-PhDssignicant experiences provided two episodes,
one positive and one negative, about their experiences from the beginning of their PhD. The
Table I.
Participants
characteristics
Gender Discipline Country of origin Source of income
65% Women
35% Men
49.3% HSS
50.7% STEM
75% European countries
6% Asian countries
9% American countries
5% African countries
5% Not identied
40% Post at the university
37% Postdoctoral scholarship
6.1% Scholarship in research project
1.5% Work outside university
15.4% Others
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items were constructed so that these narrative accounts incorporated a protagonist
(themselves), a description of the event (what happened and who was involved), the meaning
of the event (why it was signicant) and the emotional impact of the event (how they felt
then and how they feel now). Once the missing values were discarded, 134 positive and
negative episodes remained.
Semi-structured interview accounts. Ten of the 71 respondents agreed to be interviewed.
The protocol aimed to deepen the topics covered in the survey, with a review of their survey
responses, creating a narrative to draw on in preparing for the interview. Part of the
interview (central to this analysis) was a detailed explanation of the positive and negative
events reported in the survey (from the beginning of the PhD), which allowed situating
signicant events within their broader experiences. To examine how signicant events may
be experienced in a shorter temporality, interviewees were also asked to create a journey
plot, a visual method (McAlpine, 2016;McAlpine et al.,2016). The use of visual methods
within an interview is considered well suited to capturing experiences with related emotions
through time (Miller and Brimicombe, 2003). Participants were asked to illustrate the events
that had marked the 12 previous months. After mapping these events on a time axis, they
were invited to explain the meaning they made of them and the intensity of feelings related.
Analysis procedure
The data analysis was conducted by the two authors through a collaborative consensus
approach (Syed and Nelson, 2015). Using MAXQDA 12, a four-step iterative process
inspired by a thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006) was followed:
Familiarisation with the data: Repeating readings were conducted on the entire data
set (survey episodes and interviews accounts) to further acquaint ourselves with the
content. The ideas that emerged from these initial readings were carefully noted.
Coding: As the survey episodes were greater, they were analysed and coded rst
and then the interviews accounts. Separately, both researchers started by analysing
ten survey episodes each based on the main themes used for PhD students
signicant events previously analysed by the Spanish team (Corcelles et al., 2017).
To see similarities, these pre-dened themes related to the nature of the events
reported (e.g. career development; research process; resources, affordances and
limitations) were used. But, the process remained open to new categories because
the analysis was about a different population (post-PhD researchers). After having
coded the rst ten survey episodes, a discussion took place on the basis of which
some denitions were adjusted. All remaining survey episodes and the interviews
were then coded.
Searching for emerging themes: To understand the meaning they made of these
different experiences, the analysis further focused on the emotional aspect of the
event (positive or negative), the meaning given to the event and any change in the
emotional response to the event over time as reported both in the open-ended
questions and interviews. This allowed to look globally at the impact of the event on
the post-PhD journey. The emerging themes were identied based on a semantic
approach (Braun and Clarke, 2006), that is at a low-inference level of analysis. At a
rst level, there were three themes: effect/consequences, learning and feelings. Then,
these large themes were broken down and, independently, we divided each of them
into sub-themes.
Reviewing and dening themes: As several overlaps existed, agreements and
disagreements between both researchers were reviewed and the denitions of large
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and sub-themes rened. The new denitions were tested on ten respondents, and
the previous coding was revised in light of new decisions. All remaining survey
episodes and the interview accounts were coded. Any residual differences of opinion
were reviewed and reconciled. Ultimately, the entire process allowed the
examination of how signicant work experiences inuence post-PhD researchers
developing identities. Figure 1 illustrates the nal themes and sub-themes.
Results
To contextualise the answers to the research questions, a broad overview of the results is
offered, starting with a short narrative describing Sues experiences as a post-PhD
researcher in psychology in her second year:
After her PhD, Sue obtained a one-year x-term postdoctoral position at a dierent institution,
where she worked alone and without any mentor. Near the end, she was oered and took a six-
month extension, and then a part-time teaching position. Later in the year, she succeeded in
obtaining a teaching-research two-year xed-term position at the same university. Although she
enjoys her new project and colleagues, she is also applying for funding to work at a dierent
university, looking ahead to the imminent end of her current contract. Sue believes that junior
researchers should work as much as they can until they have established themselves. However,
she is struggling with work-life balance issues. She is married and would like to have a family,
but she perceives it as challenging given the precariousness of the xed-term contracts in
dierent locations with which she is dealing.
This cameo eloquently reects common challenges among the post-PhD researchers
who participated in the study. While in the survey they were asked to report the most
positive and negative events from the beginning of their PhD using a sentence
completion structure, during the interviews, they were invited to describe all the
signicant events that had marked the 12 previous months of their post-PhD careers.
As illustrated in Figure 2, the use of the journey plot tool revealed that the pattern of
post-PhD researcherstypical journeys was characterised by an alternation of often
highly positive and highly negative events (also seen in McAlpine, 2016). This pattern
that emerged from the ten interview accounts shows that, in addition to the workload of
their temporary post-PhD position, they actively tried to publish articles while
struggling with job applications, which appeared to be emotionally demanding and
also dealt with personal challenges, such as childcare and moving.
Figure 1.
Themes and sub-
themes
Concrete effect/consequence
of the event
Lessons learned from
the event
Validation by others
Sense of accomplishment
Self-validation
Future opportunities and constraints
Motivation
New perception of the academic world
Different awareness of oneself
New perspective of oneself in relation with others
THEMES SUB-THEMES
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The emotional challenges underlying such a typical post-PhD researchersjourney and their
inuence on their developing identities were eloquently expressed in the interviews. Rob, a
post-PhD researcher in education in his second year, explains in the interview the
emotionally rocky road he had been through in the previous 12 months and its effect on his
perception of himself as a researcher:
[...] my contract was coming up for renewal, and my university just messed me around. You
know, they werent telling me anything. It was just really dicult. I didnt know whether I was
coming or going. But they renewed it eventually in June, for another year, but they only renewed
it until May, so right from the beginning towards the end of the summer, it was a bit [emotionally]
low because I knew I needed to nd a new job. I knew I couldnt carry on like that, so it was a
really stressful time. I applied for a job; I went for an interview, which I didnt get because
someone had more publications, but then, eventually, I got a job. [...] since then, its been going
[emotionally] up and up and up because Ive got this new job, Ive got a couple of papers, you
know, Ive got a couple of research projects as well [...]Im not a novice anymore. Well, Ima
novice, but not as much of a novice as I was last year so [...] Do you see what I mean? Everything
starts going up.
Q1. What meaning do post-PhD researchers make of what they characterise as
signicant positive and negative work experiences?
For illustrative purposes, quotations both from the survey open-ended questions and
interview accounts have been selected. Regarding the survey, the identity of respondents is
indicated by a number (e.g. Postdoc 22), whereas in the case of the interviews, pseudonyms
are used. What respondents characterised as signicant positive or negative work
experiences was related to the following:
their research community (e.g. relationships with supervisors, colleagues and peers);
the research process in itself (e.g. recruitment, data analysis);
scientic communication (e.g. writing, publication, conference talks);
career development (e.g. goals and expectations, job hunting); and
resources, affordances and limitations (e.g. getting or not a fellowship/contract,
freedom that comes or not with a postdoc position).
Figure 2.
Typical pattern of
post-PhD researchers
journey
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While these different types of experiences were nominated as signicant across
respondents, there were qualitative differences in the meanings attributed to the signicant
events within a category, regardless of whether positive or negative. In other words, the
same type of experience could hold a different meaning depending on who experienced it
and on the particular time and context in which it took place. Nine themes interpretations
of experiences emerged from the 134 positive and negative signicant events reported in
this study. When these themes were examined at a meta-level, it was clear that the sense
post-PhD researchers made of these events focused on either: the concrete localised effect or
consequence of the event; or lessons learned for the future from the event.
In what follows, the themes related to each of these categories are presented.
Concrete localised eect or consequence of the event (n = 104)
In most cases, an event was reported as signicant based on its concrete effect or
consequence, which reects the respondentsperception of the outcome success or failure
of the experience. These effects or consequences were of ve types:
(1) validation by others (n= 31);
(2) sense of accomplishment (n= 19);
(3) self-validation (n= 18);
(4) future opportunities and constraints (n= 18); and
(5) motivation (n= 18).
Regarding validation by others and self-validation, respondents talked more especially
about events having the effect of conrming (or not) that they had mastered their eld or
had the necessary competencies to do research and the effect of strengthening their feeling
of belonging (or not) tothe research world:
Not conrming competencies: I didnt get a paper published [...] It was the rst paper I was rst
author [and I felt] not good enough (Postdoc 37, Male, Statistics)
Feeling of belonging: Receiving an award from a research society based on my presentation and
work [...] I felt that I was recognised as an experienced researcher who could convey my research
and was becoming an expert in my eld (Postdoc 45, Female, Oncology)
Other events were signicant because they generated a sense of accomplishment (or failure)
or concrete future opportunities (or constraints). Both meanings appear in this excerpt:
I was awarded the [X] postdoctoral fellowship [...] It felt like a recognition of my hard work and
achievements, and I knew it would be a turning point in my career and that it would give me time
to work with an inspiring professor (Kelsey, Female, Sociology)
Finally, regarding events signicant on the grounds of their motivational impact, on the
positive side they induce self-condence and a new impetus:
Getting some unexpected, exciting results [...] It drove me to want to understand the nding
more, and conduct more research (Postdoc 15, Female, Psychology)
On the negative side, they decreased post-PhD researchersdrive or even affected their
willingness to pursue a career in academia:
Conict over teaching hours, being asked to do lots more teaching than was advertised [...] Put
me oworking in academia (Postdoc 16, Female, Economy)
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Lessons learned from the event (n= 30)
These lessons for the future, often emerging over time or repeated experiences of the same
event, were of three types:
(1) new perception of the academic world (n= 12);
(2) different awareness of oneself (n= 11); and
(3) new perspective of oneself in relation with others (n= 7).
These events were seen as signicant because they called into question or triggered a
different understanding of participantswork environment or academia in general and
oneself:
Colleagues take advantage and do not work as a team [...] It made me understand the kind of
person I nd dicult to work with (Postdoc 35, Female, Medical Sciences)
Three of the fellowships I applied for were rejected [...] It taught me that thick skin and
perseverance are key qualities to instil in myself (Postdoc 22, Female, Psychology)
Further, these lessons often led to new understandings of their own abilities and
characteristics in relation to others (n=7):
I realised that a lot of professors no longer keep up with their eld and in turn become
administrators of their groups with very little intellectual input [...] I no longer relied on my
supervisor for much feedback. I learned to trust my own scientic instincts(Postdoc 36, Female,
Genetics)
In sum, the nature of the signicant experiences was largely unrelated to the categories of
meaning. The events reported by the post-PhD researchers were mainly considered as
signicant when they helped them gauge whether their developing self-identication as
researchers was coherent and whether they could project themselves further in a research
career.
Q2. To what extent are there differences in sense-making between negative and positive
experiences?
Our ndings indicate that whether the signicant experience was perceived as positive or
negative had a profound impact on its perceived meaning, with a subsequent different
impact on identity development. Thus, when post-PhD researchers talked about signicant
positive experiences (n=70),they always referred to the concrete effect or consequence of the
event, especially to validation by others (n= 26) and a sense of accomplishment (n=18),as
well as to self-validation (n= 11), motivation (n= 10) and future opportunities (n=5).
Regarding their identity development, these events were perceived positively, as they
offered some cues about their value as researchers and the relevance of their work.
On the other hand, when reporting signicant negative experiences (n= 64), post-PhD
researchers described the meaning as a concrete localised effect or consequence of the event
in only one-half of the responses (n= 34). This sense-making was especially related to future
constraints (n= 13), demotivation (n= 8), self-devaluation (n= 7), devaluation by others
(n= 5) or sense of non-accomplishment (n= 1). The other half of the signicant negative
experiences (n= 30) was related to the lessons learned from the event, more particularly a
new perception of the academic culture (n= 12) or a different awareness of themselves (n=
11), as well as a new perspective on their relationships with others (n=7).
In this sense, negative feelings, especially when they induced self-reection, appeared
more powerful when it comes to negotiating ones identity. Hence, it appeared that on a
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regular basis, positive events helped to maintain post-PhDsmotivation and make them feel
they were consolidating their identity. In contrast, negative events tended to challenge their
sense of identity and their sense of belonging to academia and have great meaning for their
futures.
Q3.Whatinuence does time have on the emotional response to the experience?
The signicant events reported both in the survey and during the interviews had occurred
from few months to several years ago. When explaining the emotional experience related,
respondents and interviewees tended to use strong positive and negative terms such as
invigorated, privileged, elated, proud, thrilled or frustrated, downcast, depressed, helpless
and betrayed. Further, our analysis showed that their interpretation of a signicant event
could persist, remain emotionally powerful over time (positive or negative) or the emotional
response might evolve, shift towards neutral (e.g. from negative to neutral) or even to the
opposite emotion (e.g. from positive to negative).
Persistence of feelings
Overall, we observed that feelings, whether positive or negative, especially appeared to
persist over time when the event was seen as validation or devaluation of post-PhD
researcherswork by others:
Validation: Publishing an important paper. Showed me that my ideas were valued. At the moment
I felt [...] Stronger and able to do more. Now, I feel [.. .] I can still do more (Postdoc 33, Female,
molecular biology)
Devaluation: A major researcher silently yet completely dismissing me after we had been talking
for 5min at a big conference in 2009 [...] It made me doubt myself even more than I already did,
but also led me to change directions in my research. At the moment I felt [...] worried and
demoralized. Now, I feel [...] I am still very insecure about my capabilities and sometimes lapse
back into dejection, but I also just go on and care less (Postdoc 19, Male, Psychology)
In a few cases, feelings persisted over time when the event was seen as opening future
opportunities or when it led to a new perception of academia:
Future possibilities: Getting the research fellowship abroad [...] It opened up my horizons. At the
moment, I felt [...] enthusiastic Now, I feel [...] it was a very useful experience (Postdoc 4,
Female, Economy)
New perception: I experienced that the publishing process is much less objective than I had
expected [...] It showed me that academics are not only interested in research progress but as
well (or sometimes even more) in their personal progress. At the moment, I felt [...] frustrated.
Now, I feel [...] frustrated. (Postdoc 10, gender unknown, Psychology)
Evolution of feelings
Evolution of feelings seemed to happen mostly when the event generated learning from
negatively experienced events. Three scenarios emerged in this regard. In the rst case,
feelings evolved from negative to neutral: the event was simply far in the past, and the
feelings had faded over time, as reected in the following extract about a challenging
collaboration:
I dont care anymore; Ive kind of forgotten about it, to be honest. [...] At the time, I was very
frustrated and irritated. I mean, I was complaining a lot to a colleague at work, a lot she must
have been really bored [laughing]! [...] But, you know, then you kind of get over it and just think,
well, Ive learnt my lesson, and I wont work with them again. (Kelsey, Female, Sociology)
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In the second case, despite hindering post-PhD researchersidentity development by
inducing doubts about their competencies or affecting their self-esteem, the feelings related
to a negative event might become positive over time. This was likely the result of later
experiences which provided more context in which to re-interpret the meaning of the
experience for ones identity:
[My] project failed after 1.5 yrs, and I had to change projects. [I] moved to another country to work
on my PhD. It was midway my PhD. At the moment, I felt [...] confused, lost, like I failed. Now I
feel [...] Very good, as it all worked out better with the new project than it would have been with
the old one and from this, I have gained valuable experience on setting up project from scratch
and in another country (Postdoc 52, Female, Infectious diseases)
In the third case, the feelings switched to the opposite emotional response. This was
observed mostly when the meaning of the event was related to a particular moment of self-
validation or sense of accomplishment:
Some of my data was totally unexpected [...] It made me want to gure out why. At the moment I
felt [...] like a proper researcher. Now I feel [...] that I have not found this excitement again
(Postdoc 31, Female, Neurosciences)
Overall, the strength of the feelings generated through a signicant event generally
appeared to persist over time when they involved a validation or devaluation of post-PhD
researcherswork by others. On the other hand, an evolution of feelings seemed to happen
mostly when the event generated learning from negatively experienced events. It appeared
that time and the opportunity to reect was essential in integrating the negatively
experienced event in a meaningful way into ones sense of identity.
Discussion
This study offers new insight into how post-PhD researchers make sense of their signicant
work experiences in relation to their developing identities as they endeavour to develop their
research independence and a distinct scholarly prole (Laudel and Glaser, 2008). It also
highlights how emotions and feelings, often-neglected aspects of identity development
(Winkler, 2016), inuence the process. Our analysis demonstrated that the same type of
signicant work experience (e.g. publishing in a prestigious journal) was not related to a
specic meaning: it could hold different meanings depending on who experienced it and on
the particular time and context in which it took place.
Rather, the meaning given to the experience could be characterised as either a concrete
localised effect or consequence on post-PhD researchersidentity development or lessons
generated for the future. Strikingly, only negative experiences were linked to learning for the
future, whereas most positive experiences were characterised as a concrete localised effect.
More precisely, positive feelings related to signicant events meant the cues they drew from
the experience conrmed they were on the right track, supporting their self-image. That is,
these experiences afrmed individualsviews of themselves as researchers so did not
generate further reection. In contrast, negative feelings provided cues that they were
experiencing academia differently than expected, thus inducing doubt and questions about
whether they belonged in the research world. In this sense, negative emotional experiences
had greater and longer saliency, especially if they called into question, shocked or disrupted
their own perceptions.
We began by arguing that a sense of identity is linked to how individuals think about
their work and engage in it (Billet, 2006). In this regard, disruptive events drew forth more
attention and reection (OMeara et al., 2014). The interplay of action, sense-making and
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later action requires plausibly identifying, labelling (new learning) and then putting the
learning into action (Weick et al.,2005). Ultimately, these signicant events served as a
gauge for whether a self-representation as researcher truly resonated (Cascon-Pereira and
Hallier, 2012) and whether a further research career was practicable. This nding highlights
how negotiating a sense of self is both a retrospective and prospective process (Maitlis and
Christianson, 2014). The distance in time from the emotional memory as well as whether it
was perceived to be positive or negative inuenced its meaning. While positive feelings
towards a signicant event appeared to persist over time, negative feelings seemed often to
fade or evolve through self-reection.
These ndings raise two important points about post-PhD researchersdeveloping
identities. First, their sense of identity seemed to be negotiated through the eyes of others in
relation to their own present views of themselves, which is consistent with Carlone and
Johnsons (2007) conclusions about doctoral students. As Ashforth and Schinoff (2016,
p. 123) pointed out, othersperceptions affect self-perception. This statement is probably
especially true in a context such as academia where a researchers credibility and legitimacy
are largely grounded in their peersrecognition and evaluation. This may explain why, in
this study, signicant events seen as validation or devaluation of post-PhD researchers
work by others were reported more frequently than events related to self-validation. This
concern about validation by othersreects how identity development is a relational and
comparative process (Carlone and Johnson, 2007;Tajfel and Turner, 1986). It is by
establishing both who one is and who one is not (in the eyes of oneself and others)
(Watson, 2009, p. 446) that the process occurs. It also suggests that, to negotiate their
identities, post-PhD researchers try to nd observable proof that they are developing the
identities they imagine notably, through performance outcomes (e.g. paper accepted in a
prestigious journal) (Ashforth, 2001) as well as self-perception of competence (Carlone and
Johnson, 2007). Second, the ndings revealed the somewhat counter-intuitive result that one
type of sense-making of negative events, lessons learned, had a more profound impact on
post-PhD researchersidentity development than positive or negative events that had led
only to localised consequences. It was especially the case when the negative events
provoked new understandings of academic culture and research realities or led to a greater
awareness of ones interactions with peers and colleagues. Maitlis et al. (2013, p. 18) noted in
this regard that sense-making is especially fuelled by moderately negative emotions.By
providing a more realistic view of academias tacit rules and expectations, these negative
events enable post-PhD researchers to evaluate the worth of their actual engagement within
their work and environment. In this sense, negative signicant events can highlight
tensions between actual and desired identities(Winkler, 2016, p. 3) and help in rethinking
ones developing identity. The lessons learned from these events may facilitate further
adjustments; for instance, regarding with whom and under which conditions post-PhD
researchers agree to collaborate. These events may also have enabled them to dene more
carefully which people they wanted to model themselves on (Ashforth and Schinoff, 2016).
Overall, it brings an interesting alternative and constructive view of the impact of
negative emotions on identity development, which are generally considered as impairing the
process (Winkler, 2016).
Conclusion
Very few studies have reported on how emotionally powerful work experiences inuence
post-PhD researcher identity development. More concretely, none has examined the
differences in types of sense-making or the inuence of emotion or time. While previous
work has been helpful in providing us with an understanding of the types of experiences
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that doctoral students, in particular, report as being inuential in their learning, the focus on
sense-making used here is foreseen as a further and fruitful approach to examining
experience in relation to identity development. Our study highlights that, in a context where
post-PhD journeys are often characterised by uncertainty, change and delocalisation, being
agentive implies negotiating both positive and negative emotions to maintain motivation
and develop identity. These ndings raise the importance of providing post-PhD researchers
with formal career support that is not only based on skills development and employability
but also on emotional and affective support. It also invites to create informal safe spaces that
allow post-PhD researchers at different stages in their academic paths to share about and
reect upon their experiences with peers. However, more research is needed to better capture
this issue. As our study is based on voluntary participation and mainly on answers to open-
ended survey questions, conducting in-depth interviews with a focus on individual
strategies, as well as the impact of institutional and social support, would be a promising
avenue.
Note
1. www.ns-ridss.com
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Corresponding author
Isabelle Skakni can be contacted at: isabelle.skakni@education.ox.ac.uk
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Objective To understand how researchers experience working in academia and the effects these experiences have on their mental health and well-being, through synthesizing published qualitative data. Method A systematic review and qualitative meta-synthesis was conducted to gain a comprehensive overview of what is currently known about academic researchers’ mental health and well-being. Relevant papers were identified through searching electronic databases, Google Scholar, and citation tracking. The quality of the included studies was assessed and the data was synthesised using reflexive thematic analysis. Results 26 papers were identified and included in this review. Academic researchers’ experiences were captured under seven key themes. Job insecurity coupled with the high expectations set by the academic system left researchers at risk of poor mental health and well-being. Access to peer support networks, opportunities for career progression, and mentorship can help mitigate the stress associated with the academic job role, however, under-represented groups in academia are at risk of unequal access to resources, support, and opportunities. Conclusion To improve researchers’ well-being at work, scientific/academic practice and the system’s concept of what a successful researcher should look like, needs to change. Further high-quality qualitative research is needed to better understand how systemic change, including tackling inequality and introducing better support systems, can be brought about more immediately and effectively. Further research is also needed to better understand the experiences and support needs of post-doctoral and more senior researchers, as there is a paucity of literature in this area. Trial registration The review protocol was registered on PROSPERO ( CRD42021232480) .
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This study examines the impact of career uncertainty on post-PhD researchers’ experiences. Drawing on an identity-trajectory approach and a qualitative design, we analysed experiences of post-PhDs from the UK and Switzerland. Our findings show that in the course of their work experiences, career uncertainty takes two different forms: intellectual uncertainty and occupational uncertainty. On a daily basis, both forms strongly impact the participants’ work and personal lives and can limit their ability to plan for the future, restrict their developing research expertise and networks and induce tension in trying to reconcile work and personal lives. While often struggling with a blurred institutional status, participants ‘hang tough’ despite their uncertain situation, notably by clinging to their academic researcher identity. Contributing to the previous work on the increasing casualisation of post-PhD positions and the resulting challenges, our study offers new insights into how different aspects of career uncertainty influence post PhDs’ work and identity.
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This chapter explores the experiences of post-PhD researchers in the academy. It demonstrates the challenges experienced and the need to be agentive and develop emotional resilience in order to navigate experiences of different contexts as well as efforts, whether successful or not, in reaching career goals. The chapter highlights the role of the work environment and the opportunity structures available in the development of careers. We suggest that the degree to which local work environments were perceived as supportive or not by participants in our research interacted with the development of personal goals, as well as individual strategic thinking and action.
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