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Higher Education Research & Development
ISSN: 0729-4360 (Print) 1469-8366 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cher20
Hanging tough: post-PhD researchers dealing with
Isabelle Skakni, María del Carmen Calatrava Moreno, Mariona Corcelles
Seuba & Lynn McAlpine
To cite this article: Isabelle Skakni, María del Carmen Calatrava Moreno, Mariona Corcelles
Seuba & Lynn McAlpine (2019): Hanging tough: post-PhD researchers dealing with career
uncertainty, Higher Education Research & Development, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1657806
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1657806
Published online: 10 Oct 2019.
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Hanging tough: post-PhD researchers dealing with career
, María del Carmen Calatrava Moreno
Mariona Corcelles Seuba
and Lynn McAlpine
Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK;
Technopolis Group, Vienna,
Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona, Spain;
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford,
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 the 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.
Received 17 September 2018
Accepted 7 April 2019
Post-PhD researchers; career
uncertainty; identity; career
As an intrinsic part of the research process, uncertainty, regarded as risk, unpredictability,
or ambivalence (Sigl, 2016), is probably what makes being a researcher particularly appeal-
ing for many people. Such uncertainty characterises the journey of becoming a researcher
as establishing one’s intellectual credibility and becoming recognised for one’s expertise in
aﬁeld (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018), which represents a transition from dependent to
independent research (Laudel & Gläser, 2008); this period is often marked by self-doubt
and questioning (Skakni & McAlpine, 2017). To some extent, well-established researchers
still deal with uncertainty through the ongoing search for making an intellectual contri-
bution and the uncertain processes of research funding and publishing (Laudel, 2006).
However, uncertainty has taken on a diﬀerent signiﬁcance over recent years: increas-
ingly, career uncertainty is emerging as a concomitant concern for post-PhDs in the
academy as individuals aspire to secure employment as researchers (Ortlieb & Weiss,
2018). On the one hand, the growing number of PhD holders worldwide (OECD, 2016)
has increased the competition for tenure-track academic positions, with more than half
© 2019 HERDSA
CONTACT Isabelle Skakni email@example.com Department of Educational Research, County South, Lancaster
University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT
of the PhD holders ﬁnding themselves outside academia (Vitae, 2016). Further, while the
number of graduates has increased, the number of permanent research-teaching positions
has not (Larson, Ghaﬀarzadegan, & Xue, 2013), with temporary positions increasing
(Loveday, 2018). Thus, postdoctoral academic futures have become more precarious,
and fellowships or contracts are no longer short-term entrance trajectories into an aca-
demic career (Van der Weijden, Teelken, de Boer, & Drost, 2016). The new norm consists
of accumulating multiple short-term contracts over the years (Fitzenberger & Schulze,
2013), which often translates to several institutional or geographical relocations (McAl-
pine, 2012). This situation is generally characterised by low incomes, high workloads,
last-minute appointments, poor resources and support, and few professional-development
opportunities (Browning, Thompson, & Dawson, 2017). Such casualisation of postdoc-
toral positions shapes not only researchers’working lives, but also the research they
produce (Wöhrer, 2014). In brief, choosing a traditional academic career path now
appears a risky undertaking.
Previous studies show that insecure career prospects contribute to the dissatisfaction of
post-PhDs in their daily work experience (Van der Weijden et al., 2016), often inducing a
high level of stress and anxiety (Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016) as they try to reconcile their
work and personal lives (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018). Short-term contracts and
working on someone else’s projects have also been shown to impede one’sresearchniche
development by leaving little time for fundamental analysis or high-quality publications
(Wöhrer, 2014). In the same vein, while a relatively uninterrupted research focus positively
impacts postdoctoral experiences (Scaﬃdi & Berman, 2011), short-term contracts/projects
hinder developing an in-depth and coherent research proﬁle (Wöhrer, 2014). Throughout
repeated changes of institutions, projects or funding, post-PhDs have to adapt to new
topics and research paradigms continually and to publish on diﬀerent subjects (Wöhrer,
2014), which may be far from their own expertise and interests. Ultimately, it has been
argued the high level of uncertainty that characterises current post-PhD career paths
reduces the attractiveness of academic research as a profession (Roach & Sauermann,
2017) and the sector’s ability to recruit in the future (May, Strachan, Broadbent, & Peetz,
2011). While this previous work has been helpful in highlighting the increasing casualisation
of postdoctoral positions and its challenges, very few studies have examined how post-PhDs
deal with career uncertainty. Thus, we undertook this analysis to examine how career uncer-
tainty was experienced by post-PhDs’in their work experiences and their identity develop-
ment. More speciﬁcally, we examined how post-PhDs from the UK and Switzerland deal
with career uncertainty by asking the following questions:
.What form does career uncertainty take within post-PhD researchers’work
.How does career uncertainty manifest on a daily basis?
.How does career uncertainty inﬂuence their developing researcher identities?
Career and identity development are examined here at the intersection of individual and
contextual factors that evolve over time, while continually interacting. On one side, socio-
political and economic contexts inﬂuence post-PhDs’career paths (Ylijoki & Henriksson,
2I. SKAKNI ET AL.
2017) while work environments shape their experience of becoming or being recognised as
researchers (Antony, 2002). Further, on an ongoing basis, post-PhDs’work situations
inﬂuence their personal lives, while personal aspects of their lives inﬂuence their work
experiences and career decisions (Chen, McAlpine, & Amundsen, 2015). Drawing on
McAlpine and Amundsen’s(2018) identity-trajectory approach, we apprehend research
career trajectories as complex ongoing processes comprising three distinct but interwoven
work strands that develop through time: intellectual, networking, and institutional. These
strands represent complementary inter-connected threads through which post-PhDs’
careers and identities are developed and consolidated over the years.
The intellectual strand refers to post-PhDs developing research expertise which com-
prises the past and current projects they conduct or collaborate in, the research niche
(theoretical/methodological/disciplinary) they have been developing throughout these
projects and the resulting artefacts (peer-reviewed papers/conference papers/citations).
It is through this intellectual strand that post-PhDs establish their credibility as researchers
and become recognised by their peers. Inability to do this can negatively inﬂuence career
trajectories (Wöhrer, 2014). The networking strand is related to post-PhDs developing
academic networks, which comprise local, national and international relationships with
peers or colleagues, including supervisors, mentors, and line managers. These relation-
ships are established within research collaborations or memberships in scholarly organis-
ations and journal boards and are developed at inter-personal (e.g., talking to scholars at
conferences) or inter-textual (e.g., reviewing manuscripts for journals) levels. Overall, this
networking strand constitutes post-PhDs’larger research community. Active networking
oﬀers, for instance, opportunities for collaboration (Ansmann et al., 2014), whereas a
limited investment in networking creates isolation and limits research possibilities. The
institutional strand refers to the formal aﬃliations (being employed) with speciﬁc insti-
tutions in which post-PhDs’research projects and expertise, as well as scholarly/academic
networks, are developed (e.g., research institutes/universities). Further, this strand refers to
(a) institutional responsibilities as represented in availability of diﬀerent kinds of job and
(b) diﬀerent levels of institutional resources that contribute to post-PhDs’networking or
intellectual strands such as support from a host supervisor, access to departmental career
development initiatives or fellowships/grants awarded by funding agencies. Post-PhDs are
often weakly embedded institutionally and may not have access to resources that others do
(Van der Weijden et al., 2016). It is through the individual’seﬀorts to advance these inter-
acting strands that post-PhDs can build and consolidate their career potential.
Given the current complexity of research career trajectories –particularly, the inter-
action between individual’seﬀorts to advance their careers and the labour market, our
focus is also on how career uncertainty aﬀects post-PhDs’identity development. Thus,
we mobilised the concept of ‘career uncertainty’,deﬁned here as a set of factors ‘that
make the individuals feel uncertain of their career future’(Tien, Lin, & Chen, 2005,
p. 164) –combining both occupational and intellectual uncertainty. Career uncertainty
is diﬀerent from and more subtle than the ideas of ‘barriers’or ‘diﬃculties’that might
interfere with one’s career development. It rather refers to post-PhDs’perceptions of an
inability to control their academic situation and their feeling of personal eﬃcacy to
cope with circumstances. As a contextual factor beyond their control, career uncertainty
is likely to inﬂuence post-PhDs’agency, deﬁned as their motivations, intentions and eﬀorts
to plan and persist despite constraints, whether expected or not (McAlpine & Amundsen,
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 3
2018). In response to such constraints, individuals may induce the role of luck as part of
succeeding or not (McAlpine, 2016)–thus enabling resilience to uncertainty. Career
uncertainty inﬂuences individuals’experiences of becoming researchers, their personal
lives and their identity-trajectories.
This qualitative study draws on data gathered in the UK and Switzerland, although it is
part of a larger research project also conducted in Spain and Finland. This cross-national
project aims to investigate early career researchers’experiences in these diﬀerent national
contexts (http://www.ﬁns-ridss.com). Based on a mixed-methods design, the two-step
research protocol was the same in each country. The ﬁrst step consisted of an online
survey, including quantitative items and open-ended qualitative questions, sent to PhD
students and post-PhDs in various universities in the UK and Switzerland. The quantitat-
ive items covered the respondents’: (1) experiences in research/publication; (2) work
environment relationships/support; (3) career goals and (4) strategies to overcome
diﬃculties. The qualitative open-ended questions were related to respondents’: (1) most
signiﬁcant events that have marked their academic paths; (2) dropout intentions and inter-
ruptions and (3) work-life balance challenges. The last question of the survey was an invi-
tation to participate in a subsequent individual research interview. As a second step, these
one-hour semi-structured interviews were based on a multimethod approach integrating
(a) survey responses (quantitative/qualitative) and (b) visual methods: the network map
and the journey plot to explore in depth their perceptions and experiences.
For the purpose of this article, we focused on the 24 post-PhD respondents from the UK
(n= 11) and Switzerland (n= 13) who, after having completed the online survey, participated
in semi-structured interviews. At that moment, these participants were aged between 28 and
56 years (median 36), in a postdoctoral position for an average of 3.5 years and mostly from
humanities and social sciences ﬁelds. Table 1 shows their anonymised characteristics.
Three primary data sources were mobilised for the analysis: (1) interview accounts, (2)
visual displays from the journey plot and (3) responses to one open-ended survey question
about dropout intentions.
Interview accounts and journey plot
The interview accounts from the 24 respondents (10 men; 14 women) were primarily
examined. The protocol was designed to deepen their survey responses, which were
reviewed prior to the interviews. During the interview, participants were asked to use
the journey plot to illustrate, on a time axis, the most signiﬁcant events (positive/negative)
they had experienced in the previous 12 months, which resulted in 24 visual displays. By
capturing participants’own interpretations of their experiences, this type of visual method
4I. SKAKNI ET AL.
is considered well suited for researching complex and dynamic phenomena (Mazzetti &
Blenkinsopp, 2012) such as career uncertainty.
Survey open-ended question accounts
The open-ended question selected for this analysis was the following: Have you considered
dropping out of your post-doc work? If they responded yes, they were then asked to brieﬂy
explain why they had considered this option, which provided narrative accounts about
reasons behind their intentions. Although the principal data source remained the inter-
view accounts, the visual displays and open-ended question responses brought more accu-
racy and completeness to the analysis.
The data were analysed by a team of four researchers through a procedure inspired by the
consensual qualitative research approach (Hill, 2012). Using MAXQDA 12, we followed
an iterative four-step process combining deductive and inductive procedures (Graneheim,
Lindgren, & Lundman, 2017):
Table 1. Interviewees’characteristics.
Pseudo Country Age Gender Discipline Stage Source of income Career goal
Abbey UK 28 F Sport sciences 1st year Contract at a university Researcher at a university
Geri UK 44 F Education 1st year Contract at a university Other
Anne UK 30 F Sociology 1st year Postdoctoral scholarship Researcher at a university
Jake UK 41 M Sociology 1st year Postdoctoral scholarship Researcher at a university
Sue UK 31 F Psychology 2nd year Unemployed Lecturer (non research-
Gord UK 40 M Social work 2nd year Contract at a university Lecturer (research-intensive
Rob UK 42 M Education 2nd year Contract at a university Lecturer (research-intensive
Fred UK 33 M Sociology 3rd year Postdoctoral scholarship Lecturer (research-intensive
Kelsey UK 36 F Sociology 5th year Postdoctoral scholarship Lecturer (research-intensive
Sandra UK 39 F Life sciences 5th year Postdoctoral scholarship Other
Faye UK 36 F Molecular bio 7th year Postdoctoral scholarship Lecturer (non research-
Emma CH 56 F Education 1st year Postdoctoral scholarship Lecturer (non research-
Clara CH 31 F Social sci. 1st year Postdoctoral scholarship Researcher at a university
Mark CH 38 M Sociology 2nd year Postdoctoral grant Lecturer (research-intensive
Pio CH 35 M Natural sci. 2nd year Contract at a university Researcher at a university
Noah CH 33 M Education 3rd year Contract at a university Other
Juan CH 30 M Psychology 3rd year Postdoctoral scholarship Researcher at a university
Gaïa CH 38 F Humanities 4th year Contract at a university Self-employed
Céline CH 36 F Education 4th year Contract at a university Lecturer (research-intensive
Ian CH 34 M Psychology 5th year Contract at a university Other
Lloyd CH 31 M Engineering 5th year Contract at a university Lecturer (research-intensive
Joëlle CH 34 F Social sci. 7th year Contract at a university Researcher in government
Marta CH 39 F Life sciences 8th year Contract at a university Researcher at a university
Jada CH 37 F Neurosciences 8th year Postdoctoral grant Other
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 5
(1) Building the codebook. The general structure of the codebook used for analysing UK
and Swiss data was developed based on the key constructs underpinning identity-tra-
jectory (deductive): intellectual strand (research/publication/careers), institutional
strand (work environment), and networking and agency (signiﬁcant events).
(2) Coding. To ensure that we shared the same deﬁnition of these themes, we started by
using them to code two UK participants data ﬁles (survey responses/interview
accounts/visual displays). The four of us coded a large part of a transcript together,
using a common computer screen to enable discussion and agreement; code
deﬁnitions were developed as we proceeded. The same process was subsequently con-
ducted in pairs and individually. We then compared our results, reconciled them, and
assessed our intercoder agreement by calculating a Kappa coeﬃcient. We reviewed
any unresolved questions and modiﬁed the deﬁnitions when necessary. This
process was repeated on one-third of the entire transcript set until we reached a
Kappa coeﬃcient of at least 0.75% (Syed & Nelson, 2015). The remaining transcripts
were coded independently. The general themes were ﬁnally clustered into sub-themes.
The ﬁnal version of this codebook was eventually used to code the Swiss data.
(3) Searching for emerging themes. While examining more especially the interview
excerpts related to the intellectual strand (research/careers) and the institutional
strand (work environment), we observed that uncertainty was a theme recurrently
referenced by participants (inductive). Thus, a further analysis was conducted by
the ﬁrst author to get a better understanding of the importance of uncertainty in
their overall post-PhD experiences. To that end, each of the 24 participants’
journey plots, as well as the narrative accounts from the survey open-ended question
about their dropout intentions, were analysed in depth, seeking further information
about ‘career uncertainty’–two sub-themes emerged: intellectual uncertainty and
(4) Reviewing and deﬁning themes. In line with the collaborative consensus approach,
these emerging themes were revised by the co-authors as well as an ‘external
auditor’(Hill, 2012), who is a researcher with expertise on identity development the-
ories. This review mainly led to the inclusion of ‘personal life’as an element interact-
ing with career uncertainty. Any disagreements or diﬀerences of opinion were
reviewed, and the deﬁnitions of themes and sub-themes reﬁned accordingly. Ulti-
mately, the entire process allowed the examination of how career uncertainty inﬂu-
ences post-PhDs’identity development.
In the UK and Switzerland, post-PhD research positions remain temporary, diﬃcult to
obtain and marked by uncertainty. In this regard, 9 of the 24 interviewees reported in
the survey past or present intentions to quit their postdoc with career uncertainty as a
central reason in most cases (8 out of 9). Further, just over half of the journey plot
visual displays (n= 13), in which participants indicated the most signiﬁcant events that
have marked the previous year, were directly related to career uncertainty –though not
necessarily intention to leave the academy. In other words, career uncertainty –both intel-
lectual and occupational –is not equally experienced by all. Detailed ﬁndings, structured
to address the three research questions, are presented in the following sections. We present
6I. SKAKNI ET AL.
ﬁrst what form career uncertainty takes in participants’work experiences and its daily
manifestations before turning to its inﬂuence on identity-trajectory.
What form does career uncertainty take within post-PhD researchers’work
Our analysis showed that, in the course of post-PhDs’work experiences, career uncer-
tainty seems to come in two recognisable forms: (1) intellectual uncertainty (largely
evident in excerpts coded as intellectual and networking) and (2) occupational uncertainty
(largely evident in excerpts coded as institutional and personal). When considering
research careers, post-PhDs experience intellectual uncertainty in the same manner as
do more senior researchers, in relation to their intellectual and networking strands. In con-
trast, occupational uncertainty is mostly related to the development of an institutional
strand and is likely to aﬀect especially early career researchers. Both forms of uncertainty
inﬂuence participants’sense of agency, in other words, are tightly related to the perception
of an (in)ability to control their work situation or a feeling of personal eﬃcacy to cope, or
not, with circumstances (Tien et al., 2005).
The ﬁrst aspect of intellectual uncertainty directly inﬂuences the development of partici-
pants’research expertise and thus their intellectual strand. It refers to their doubts regard-
ing their capacities for developing original, valuable ideas that are in line with their ﬁeld’s
criteria or the more general fear of not being intellectually recognised in their research
communities. In the following quote, Ian recounts a situation that happened a few days
after he started his postdoctoral fellowship abroad. During a meeting, his ideas were pub-
licly discredited by his hosting supervisor, a world authority in his ﬁeld. This situation had
destabilised his intellectual self-conﬁdence:
He told me: ‘Hey! Regarding your project: I read it and found it completely trivial’[…] This
project was important to me. It was the very ﬁrst project for which, based on the knowledge
that I had developed throughout my PhD, I had a strong enough theoretical background to
say: ‘Okay, there is a gap here, I can develop and work on this’…and then my idea was born,
with some feedback from my colleagues, and this idea was accepted and developed …and
recognised in Switzerland. Because I received a postdoctoral grant for this idea, and those
grants are highly diﬃcult to get. […] It was very, very hard. It was a complete denial of
my researcher identity. (Ian, 5th year, Social sciences, Switzerland)
The second aspect of intellectual uncertainty, which is closely related to the development
of post-PhDs’networking strand, entails the diﬃculty of ﬁnding peers who share one’s
ideas or the feeling of intellectual isolation. As Jake –appointed to a temporary position
–explains, this form of uncertainty tends to hinder the feeling of being part of an intellec-
At the beginning, of course, you expect to be isolated. You expect to spend some time ﬁnding
your feet and getting to know people. But after three or four months …It’s four months now,
when I still feel that I haven’t found this community. I haven’t found this intellectual inspi-
ration or community which enables me to …to ﬁnd some kind of joy in the research I’m
doing, some kind of …It’s not just feedback. It’s more than feedback. It’s support and intel-
lectual discussion, and it’s becoming more and more diﬃcult. (Jake, 1st year, Sociology, UK)
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 7
The ﬁrst aspect of occupational uncertainty refers to individuals’doubts regarding their
opportunities and capacities to ﬁnd satisfying positions within or outside academia, and
thus to develop their institutional strand. Such doubts were often linked to the personal.
The following quotes (positive answers to the survey’s open-ended question about dropout
intentions), represent examples of how post-PhDs from the UK and Switzerland talked
about occupational uncertainty and its interaction with personal decisions:
Continued uncertainty of funding …[I] can’t live in limbo forever and moving every few
years is getting tiresome. (Female, 9
year, Health science, UK)
Because there is no possibility to go further. I need to stay here for family reasons, and there
are few professor positions available, and the competition is high. And, it’s the ﬁfth time that I
have to move since I got my PhD. And I can’t. What’s the point of keeping going? (Female,
year, Natural science, Switzerland)
The second aspect of occupational uncertainty relates to the necessity of constantly think-
ing about and searching for the next job position. This situation is often seen as unbear-
able, as Geri explains here:
Well, I’ve just ﬁnished a six-month postdoctoral project, and although I was asked to do some
other research for a month, still at the same faculty, at the same department, it’s just a month.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen next month. So, in March, I may end up unemployed,
and this is a very stressful situation. I’m also applying for new jobs, and I get interviews, but last
week, for example, I was notiﬁed that I didn’tpassaninterview.It’s very stressful, and the
uncertainty just is killing me, you know, because I’m just not sure whether I will even have
a job or not, even though I invest so much and I’m doing everything that I can. I work on
my networks, I publish, I engage in very high-level research, but still, it just doesn’tcomeup
to a permanent job, and it’s really, really stressful. (Geri, 1st year, Education, UK)
Figure 1. Sue’s journey plot.
8I. SKAKNI ET AL.
Figure 1 represents the journey plot of Sue, a post-PhD researcher from the UK in her
second year. This visual display, in which she mapped the most signiﬁcant events that
marked her previous year, illustrates how occupational uncertainty took form in most
participants’career paths, whether they were in the UK or Switzerland. As Sue explains,
‘It’s all about getting a job, and keeping a job, and getting my next job.’
While some participants talked more especially about one or the other form of uncer-
tainty, in most cases both forms seem to be intimately interwoven as they manifest
throughout their daily work experiences.
How does career uncertainty manifest on a daily basis?
Based on our analysis, career uncertainty seems to concretely impact participants’day-to-
day work lives while also interacting with their personal lives. This career uncertainty
manifests especially through (1) struggles to plan for the future, (2) diﬃculty in developing
one’s research, (3) missed opportunities and (4) precarious work-life balance. Often, occu-
pational and intellectual uncertainties are concomitant.
Struggling to plan for the future
The diﬃculty in planning for the future is the most salient manifestation of career uncertainty
that emerged from participants’accounts. At a ﬁrst level, this issue is related to their insti-
tutional strand while intimately embedded in their personal life by inﬂuencing their life
goals or inducing ﬁnancial duress. Post-PhDs are generally at a crucial life stage where
most people have or think about having children and aspire to a stable career situation.
Like Faye expressed, many participants considered this issue as central in their current lives:
Not being able to [make] any plans for the future, not being able to aspire to a permanent
position or a higher salary to get a mortgage or stable situation to think about having a
family. […] And the fact that you work so hard and you are not …it’s not sure that you
will get something proportional in return. These are the main problems. (Faye, 7
ecular biology, UK)
For some participants, struggling to plan for the future also manifests at an expertise level,
which aﬀects their developing intellectual strand. Jada, who holds a prestigious postdoc-
toral grant that makes her a PI for ﬁve years, explained how she must anticipate her
next potential funding:
It’s doing research while anticipating future research. Not over a 10-year period, but you need
pilot data for your next proposal. So, I must carry on my current research and, at the same
time, plan for the next 3–4 years based on what I wish to work on, and collect some pilot data
for that. And it’s really …planning according to which funding I potentially can obtain.
year, Neuroscience, Switzerland)
Unlike Jada, who was amongst the only two interviewees awarded a postdoctoral grant,
most participants were hired under a non-permanent contract that left them few oppor-
tunities to develop their own research expertise.
Diﬃculty developing one’s research
If it seems theoretically possible to reconcile developing one’s research expertise and
working on parallel projects as part of a post-PhD contract, the reality is diﬀerent from
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 9
the participants’perspective. As Abbey expresses in the following, a gap between one’s
expertise and the research for which one is hired has the potential of transforming into
an intellectual uncertainty issue:
Trying to balance sort of progressing my own research career as well as doing this current job,
which is part of the career, but it doesn’t focus on my PhD area. That’sdiﬃcult. When I’ve
discussed it with my line manager, it is supposed to work out that I have a day every week
which is my own writing time, but it never works out like that, and I should plan better,
and I do try to block out every Friday so it’s my own writing day, but then things always
come up […] My work for my managers has to come ﬁrst because that’s what I’m paid to
do. (Abbey, 1st year, Sport science, UK)
In the case of participants hired to work on topics very close to their own expertise, some of
them rather reported that their temporary contracts implied a lack of liberty that made them
feel they were not developing or felt uncomfortable with the project at an intellectual level:
So, I was doing this part-time postdoc, and it was more or less in my subject area. They were
looking at [topic X]. This is a very interesting area for me, very important area, and I was
working on this project, and so I was doing lots of reading; I was helping with some analysis
…You know, it was okay, it was ﬁne, but I wasn’t developing. It was good for my CV, and I
was earning money, but it wasn’t…it wasn’t intellectually fascinating in many ways. (Rob,
2nd year, Education, UK)
Actually, I no longer have any interest in the research problem on which I’m working …even
though I was willing to explore it at the beginning. Now, I ﬁnd that it’s more imposed on me
since I have discussed several methodological and theoretical issues of the project [with the
PI]. I’m asked to continue despite of this. So now, I work on a topic to which I don’t feel com-
mitted. (Noah, 3
year, Education, Switzerland)
While trying to reconcile their own research with the tasks they were hired for, some
participants also reported how their precarious situations interfered with their career
Also emerging from our analysis is that career uncertainty manifests through missed
opportunities, with an impact on networking and institutional strands. In some cases,
the short-term aspect of participants’contracts, when it was not simply their post-PhD
status, was limiting their possibilities to beneﬁt from career development initiatives or
[…] one example is that staﬀmembers at my university, they can study for [Certiﬁcate X] for
free, and this is part of the continuous development for staﬀmembers. In principle, I’m eli-
gible for that as well because I am a staﬀmember. But in practice, I can’t really do it because
this is a one-year program, and I’m not sure that I will be here for the whole duration of that.
So, you know, it’s just something that shows me that, yes, you are eligible, but in practice, you
can’t really take advantage of this option. (Geri, 1st year, Education, UK)
Furthermore, as Geri highlighted, missing opportunities due to career uncertainty mani-
fests also through a diﬃculty in developing strong scholarly/academic networks:
I think, again, it all comes down to having a permanent or a more permanent role that
enables me to nurture speciﬁc relationships within the network because, at the moment
…I feel that I have to cultivate so many diﬀerent relationships because I don’t know
10 I. SKAKNI ET AL.
where will I end up, rather than really focusing on a smaller amount of relationships and
really investing in these relationships. (Geri, 1st year, Education, UK)
Apart from the above-mentioned consequences on professional development, opportu-
nities, and networks, career uncertainty also appeared to create complicated personal
and family situations.
Balancing a post-PhD position with personal life
Whether they were parents or not, most participants reported work-life concerns related
to career uncertainty. For many participants, having to change workplaces and the
assumed mobility that comes with short-term positions had concrete implications for
their personal lives, particularly regarding their family relationships or responsibilities.
Such was the case of Gord, who found a new temporary position at the same time that
his pre-term baby was born:
[…]I’d only just started my new job, and things were really, really diﬃcult, trying to like ﬁnd
my way as a lecturer, with a new child, and my job is also miles away, so it was four hours
commuting every day. (Gord, 2
year, Social work, UK)
Occupational uncertainty also manifests through dual-career issues. As illustrated in the
following quote, when both partners are researchers, their career trajectories might be
hardly reconcilable. Sometimes, the success of one partner might even negatively
impact the career opportunities of the other:
My husband just got a professor position [in Switzerland] and …he will never quit this pos-
ition to go elsewhere. […] Of course, I’m happy for him: It was his ultimate goal. But from
now, in terms of mobility, my own options are restricted. (Jada, 8
Ultimately, in both its occupational and intellectual forms, career uncertainty impacts par-
ticipants’identity development concretely.
How does career uncertainty inﬂuence their developing researcher identities?
Our ﬁndings revealed two main eﬀects of career uncertainty on post-PhDs’identity devel-
opment related to the three work strands of identity-trajectory: (1) dealing with an insti-
tutional blurred status and (2) clinging to the academic researcher identity. While the ﬁrst
one appeared to be a direct eﬀect of career uncertainty, the second one was more subtle
and must be seen as a side eﬀect.
Dealing with an institutional blurred status
Whether they were considered to be employees or held a postdoctoral grant, some partici-
pants highlighted the ambiguity that characterised their temporary post-PhD status. On
one side, as illustrated in the following quote, the challenges of such an institutional
blurred status had an impact on the institutional strand as they were related to their inte-
gration within the institution to which they were aﬃliated:
What I ﬁnd hard is that I actually don’t have any status. I mean, I’m here but not ‘part of it’.
It’s very destabilising. For example, a few months ago, the university was hosting a reception
for the newly hired staﬀ. Then I thought: ‘I must go there because I’m a new staﬀ’. So, I went
there and …I wasn’t on the list! I don’t care to be on the list or not, but where do I belong?
What is my status? (Jada, 8
year, Neuroscience, Switzerland)
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 11
On the other side, this blurred status appeared to impact participants’perceptions of
themselves as researchers and, above all, their feeling of being recognised in their research
community, which seems to exacerbate intellectual uncertainty. Geri explains how her
post-PhD status made her feel that she was not part of a research community yet:
[…] as a postdoctoral experience, my feeling is that I am still very much judged on my per-
formance, so, in a way, I still feel like I felt when I was a PhD student. So I’m still judged. I am
not really there yet. I’m not really part of the research community. I don’t feel like that. I
haven’t been accepted yet. I am still a Class B researcher here. (Geri, 1st year, Education, UK)
Similarly, Noah reported that because he was collaborating closely with the PI, he was
often labelled as ‘the Professor [X]’s postdoc’by his colleagues. He felt that, as a result,
his own contributions were underestimated in his research community:
I have been feeling more like a subordinate since I’m [a postdoc] than when I was a [doctoral
research assistant] […] Since I got my PhD, I’m often reduced to [being the subordinate of
professor X]. But, I also have my own expertise and even more than him in certain domains. I
would like to be recognised minimally. (Noah, 3
year, Education, Switzerland)
Clinging to the academic researcher identity
Another interesting eﬀect of career uncertainty on participants’identity development was a
tendency to cling to their identity as academic researcher. As we reported previously, one-
third of the participants had thought of quitting their postdoc because of career uncertainty.
However, the idea of becoming an academic researcher appeared for many of them as a
powerful motivation to keep going. Especially amongst more advanced post-PhDs, some
admitted that, after so many years in academia, was it diﬃcult to imagine themselves as any-
thing other than academic researchers. Such was the case of Jada:
I am a researcher: I don’t have any other training. And, because I don’t have any clinical
experience either, I don’t have any plan B. So, either I am a researcher or …that’s it!
year, Neuroscience, Switzerland)
Even those who tried to concretely quit academia expressed to what extent the academic
researcher identity had remained strongly embedded in their perception of themselves:
Last year, I tried to change jobs, so I tried not to do a postdoc anymore—to do something
diﬀerent—and it was very hard on me, for multiple reasons. For example, because I realised
that it was very diﬃcult to reinvent myself in a diﬀerent position, as I’ve always been a
researcher since I [got my PhD degree] (Faye, 7th year, Molecular biology, UK)
Every time I tried to postulate outside academia—I’ve had two job interviews so far—it’s been
extremely hard: I felt like torn a part of myself away, as I would abandon so many things.
(Joëlle, 7th year, Social sciences, Switzerland)
Discussion and conclusions
This study examined how career uncertainty inﬂuences work experiences and identity
development amongst post-PhD researchers from the UK and Switzerland. Our ﬁndings
show that, in both countries, career uncertainty tends to take two diﬀerent forms
through the course of their work experiences. Intellectual uncertainty refers to post-
PhDs’doubts regarding their capacities for developing original, valuable ideas that are
12 I. SKAKNI ET AL.
in line with their ﬁeld’s criteria or the more general fear of not being intellectually recog-
nised in their research communities. It also entails the diﬃculty of ﬁnding peers who share
one’s ideas or the feeling of intellectual isolation. Occupational uncertainty refers to post-
PhDs’doubts of their ability to ﬁnd satisfying institutional positions within or outside aca-
demia. It includes a continuous job-searching situation that implies constantly thinking
about and searching for the next job position, but largely only in academia. This ﬁnding
is in line with McAlpine and Amundsen’s(2018), who observed that those who had
been in post-PhD research situations for many years did not actively seek other career
options despite experiencing anxiety and stress due to this occupational uncertainty.
On a daily basis, both forms appeared to strongly impact participants’work and per-
sonal lives by limiting their ability to plan for the future, impairing their developing
research expertise and scholarly networks and inducing tension as they tried to reconcile
work and personal lives. Regarding their academic researcher identity, participants
reported having to deal with a blurred institutional status, which impacts their perceptions
of themselves as competent researchers and their feeling of belonging to their research
community. However, many of them ‘hang tough’despite their precarious situation by
clinging to this identity. Overall, as Sigl (2016) argued, dealing with career uncertainty
appears as a more encompassing challenge than simply seeking to secure a position or
outputs; it also fundamentally aﬀects individuals’self-perception and their ability to
project themselves into the future.
Several concerns emerged from these ﬁndings. First, our analysis shows that work and
personal lives are closely intertwined and must be not considered separately when addres-
sing post-PhDs’career issues, thus uncertainty is expressed in the fullness of each individ-
ual’s identity-trajectory (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018). An eloquent example is the case of
dual-career couples, when one partner’s success may negatively impact the career opportu-
nities of the other, regardless of the strength of their respective investment in the process.
Moreover, while precarious employment prospects often involve adverse ﬁnancial circum-
stances (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2016), post-PhDs with family responsibilities and those
who are unable to aﬀord income insecurity are especially disadvantaged in the pursuit of
an academic career (Sigl, 2016). Second, while access to institutional resources, support
from the research community, and a broader network promote post-PhDs’positive experi-
ences (Chen et al., 2015), the consequences of the blurred institutional status reported by
some participants show to what extent career uncertainty might impede establishing
oneself as a recognised researcher. Finally, given the current lack of tenure-track positions,
it is surprising to ﬁnd that some participants reported clinging to the academic researcher
identity as a way to maintain their motivation and persist despite career uncertainty. This
diﬃculty to imagine oneself as anything other than academic researchers is in line with
the contradiction observed by Wöhrer (2014) amongst post-PhDs repeatedly declaring
intentions to leave academia due to career uncertainty while continuing to apply for aca-
demic jobs. One possible explanation is the existence of the enduring belief that with
enough work, devotion, and sacriﬁce, the most talented researchers will ﬁnd academic pos-
itions (Skakni, 2018). If obstinacy and a willingness to take risks are indeed considered assets
when pursuing an academic career, this enduring belief of ‘the survival of the ﬁttest’(Brown-
ing et al., 2017) tends to overshadow the actual role of luck as part of succeeding or not in
academia (McAlpine, 2016) and likely contributes to the high levels of stress and anxiety
observed amongst post-PhDs (Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016).
HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT 13
While we might assume individuals have some responsibility for planning and taking
action as regards their career development, the evidence suggests this is not always the
case. Yet, doctoral students and post-PhDs need to be better informed about existing
non-academic careers, including those in universities (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018),
and, one might argue, better supported in preparing for these types of careers. Since the
early 2000s (Golde & Dore, 2001), studies internationally have consistently shown that
PhD students and postdocs want more career advice. To what extent should career devel-
opment be a core institutional concern and formally integrated into doctoral programmes
and postdoctoral support schemes? The same question might be asked about more sys-
tematic tracking of post-PhDs’paths to better understand the challenges that mark the
diﬀerent stages of their career trajectories.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported by Fonds de recherche du Québec –Société et culture: [grant number
2016-B3-193871]; Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness under the project ‘Research-
ers’Identity Education in Social Sciences’: [grant number CSO2013-41108].
Isabelle Skakni http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7704-7737
María del Carmen Calatrava Moreno http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6493-2251
Mariona Corcelles Seuba http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6771-1251
Lynn McAlpine http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5361-1361
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