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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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Higher Education Research & Development
ISSN: 0729-4360 (Print) 1469-8366 (Online) Journal homepage:
Hanging tough: post-PhD researchers dealing with
career uncertainty
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
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Published online: 10 Oct 2019.
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Hanging tough: post-PhD researchers dealing with career
Isabelle Skakni
, 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
researchersexperiences. Drawing on an identity-trajectory
approach and a qualitative design, we analysed experiences of
post-PhDs from the UK and Switzerland. Our ndings show that in
the course of their work experiences, career uncertainty takes two
dierent forms: intellectual uncertainty and occupational
uncertainty. On a daily basis, both forms strongly impact the
participantswork 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 toughdespite 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
oers new insights into how dierent aspects of career
uncertainty inuence post-PhDswork 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 ones intellectual credibility and becoming recognised for ones expertise in
aeld (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 dierent signicance 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 Department of Educational Research, County South, Lancaster
University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK
of the PhD holders nding themselves outside academia (Vitae, 2016). Further, while the
number of graduates has increased, the number of permanent research-teaching positions
has not (Larson, Ghaarzadegan, & 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 researchersworking 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 elses projects have also been shown to impede onesresearchniche
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 (Scadi & Berman, 2011), short-term contracts/projects
hinder developing an in-depth and coherent research prole (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 dierent 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 sectors 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-PhDsin their work experiences and their identity develop-
ment. More specically, 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 researcherswork
.How does career uncertainty manifest on a daily basis?
.How does career uncertainty inuence their developing researcher identities?
Conceptual framework
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 inuence post-PhDscareer paths (Ylijoki & Henriksson,
2017) while work environments shape their experience of becoming or being recognised as
researchers (Antony, 2002). Further, on an ongoing basis, post-PhDswork situations
inuence their personal lives, while personal aspects of their lives inuence their work
experiences and career decisions (Chen, McAlpine, & Amundsen, 2015). Drawing on
McAlpine and Amundsens(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 inuence 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-PhDslarger research community. Active networking
oers, 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 aliations (being employed) with specic insti-
tutions in which post-PhDsresearch 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 dierent kinds of job and
(b) dierent levels of institutional resources that contribute to post-PhDsnetworking 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 individualseorts 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 individualseorts to advance their careers and the labour market, our
focus is also on how career uncertainty aects post-PhDsidentity development. Thus,
we mobilised the concept of career uncertainty,dened 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 dierent from and more subtle than the ideas of barriersor dicultiesthat might
interfere with ones career development. It rather refers to post-PhDsperceptions of an
inability to control their academic situation and their feeling of personal ecacy to
cope with circumstances. As a contextual factor beyond their control, career uncertainty
is likely to inuence post-PhDsagency, dened as their motivations, intentions and eorts
to plan and persist despite constraints, whether expected or not (McAlpine & Amundsen,
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 inuences individualsexperiences 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 researchersexperiences in these dierent national
contexts ( Based on a mixed-methods design, the two-step
research protocol was the same in each country. The rst 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
diculties. The qualitative open-ended questions were related to respondents: (1) most
signicant 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 elds. Table 1 shows their anonymised characteristics.
Data sources
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 signicant events (positive/negative)
they had experienced in the previous 12 months, which resulted in 24 visual displays. By
capturing participantsown interpretations of their experiences, this type of visual method
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 briey
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.
Analysis procedure
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. Intervieweescharacteristics.
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
(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 (signicant events).
(2) Coding. To ensure that we shared the same denition of these themes, we started by
using them to code two UK participants data les (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
denitions 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 coecient. We reviewed
any unresolved questions and modied the denitions when necessary. This
process was repeated on one-third of the entire transcript set until we reached a
Kappa coecient of at least 0.75% (Syed & Nelson, 2015). The remaining transcripts
were coded independently. The general themes were nally clustered into sub-themes.
The nal 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 rst 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
occupational uncertainty.
(4) Reviewing and dening 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 lifeas an element interact-
ing with career uncertainty. Any disagreements or dierences of opinion were
reviewed, and the denitions of themes and sub-themes rened accordingly. Ulti-
mately, the entire process allowed the examination of how career uncertainty inu-
ences post-PhDsidentity development.
In the UK and Switzerland, post-PhD research positions remain temporary, dicult 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 signicant 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 ndings, structured
to address the three research questions, are presented in the following sections. We present
rst what form career uncertainty takes in participantswork experiences and its daily
manifestations before turning to its inuence on identity-trajectory.
What form does career uncertainty take within post-PhD researcherswork
Our analysis showed that, in the course of post-PhDswork 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 aect especially early career researchers. Both forms of uncertainty
inuence participantssense 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 ecacy to cope, or
not, with circumstances (Tien et al., 2005).
Intellectual uncertainty
The rst aspect of intellectual uncertainty directly inuences the development of partici-
pantsresearch 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 elds
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 eld. This situation had
destabilised his intellectual self-condence:
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 rst 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 dicult 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-PhDsnetworking strand, entails the diculty of nding peers who share ones
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-
tual community:
At the beginning, of course, you expect to be isolated. You expect to spend some time nding
your feet and getting to know people. But after three or four months Its four months now,
when I still feel that I havent found this community. I havent found this intellectual inspi-
ration or community which enables me to to nd some kind of joy in the research Im
doing, some kind of Its not just feedback. Its more than feedback. Its support and intel-
lectual discussion, and its becoming more and more dicult. (Jake, 1st year, Sociology, UK)
Occupational uncertainty
The rst aspect of occupational uncertainty refers to individualsdoubts regarding their
opportunities and capacities to nd 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 surveys 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] cant 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, its the fth time that I
have to move since I got my PhD. And I cant. Whats 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, Ive just nished 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, its just a month.
So I dont know whats going to happen next month. So, in March, I may end up unemployed,
and this is a very stressful situation. Im also applying for new jobs, and I get interviews, but last
week, for example, I was notied that I didntpassaninterview.Its very stressful, and the
uncertainty just is killing me, you know, because Im just not sure whether I will even have
a job or not, even though I invest so much and Im doing everything that I can. I work on
my networks, I publish, I engage in very high-level research, but still, it just doesntcomeup
to a permanent job, and its really, really stressful. (Geri, 1st year, Education, UK)
Figure 1. Sues journey plot.
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 signicant events that
marked her previous year, illustrates how occupational uncertainty took form in most
participantscareer paths, whether they were in the UK or Switzerland. As Sue explains,
Its 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 participantsday-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) diculty in developing
ones 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 diculty in planning for the future is the most salient manifestation of career uncertainty
that emerged from participantsaccounts. At a rst level, this issue is related to their insti-
tutional strand while intimately embedded in their personal life by inuencing their life
goals or inducing nancial 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 its not sure that you
will get something proportional in return. These are the main problems. (Faye, 7
year, Mol-
ecular biology, UK)
For some participants, struggling to plan for the future also manifests at an expertise level,
which aects their developing intellectual strand. Jada, who holds a prestigious postdoc-
toral grant that makes her a PI for ve years, explained how she must anticipate her
next potential funding:
Its 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 34 years based on what I wish to work on, and collect some pilot data
for that. And its really planning according to which funding I potentially can obtain.
(Jada, 8
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.
Diculty developing ones research
If it seems theoretically possible to reconcile developing ones research expertise and
working on parallel projects as part of a post-PhD contract, the reality is dierent from
the participantsperspective. As Abbey expresses in the following, a gap between ones
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 doesnt focus on my PhD area. Thatsdicult. When Ive
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 its my own writing day, but then things always
come up [] My work for my managers has to come rst because thats what Im 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 ne, but I wasnt developing. It was good for my CV, and I
was earning money, but it wasntit wasnt intellectually fascinating in many ways. (Rob,
2nd year, Education, UK)
Actually, I no longer have any interest in the research problem on which Im working even
though I was willing to explore it at the beginning. Now, I nd that its more imposed on me
since I have discussed several methodological and theoretical issues of the project [with the
PI]. Im asked to continue despite of this. So now, I work on a topic to which I dont 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
Missing opportunities
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 participantscontracts, when it was not simply their post-PhD
status, was limiting their possibilities to benet from career development initiatives or
training oers:
[] one example is that stamembers at my university, they can study for [Certicate X] for
free, and this is part of the continuous development for stamembers. In principle, Im eli-
gible for that as well because I am a stamember. But in practice, I cant really do it because
this is a one-year program, and Im not sure that I will be here for the whole duration of that.
So, you know, its just something that shows me that, yes, you are eligible, but in practice, you
cant 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 diculty 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 specic relationships within the network because, at the moment
I feel that I have to cultivate so many dierent relationships because I dont know
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:
[]Id only just started my new job, and things were really, really dicult, trying to like nd
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, Im happy for him: It was his ultimate goal. But from
now, in terms of mobility, my own options are restricted. (Jada, 8
year, Neuroscience,
Ultimately, in both its occupational and intellectual forms, career uncertainty impacts par-
ticipantsidentity development concretely.
How does career uncertainty inuence their developing researcher identities?
Our ndings revealed two main eects of career uncertainty on post-PhDsidentity 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 rst
one appeared to be a direct eect of career uncertainty, the second one was more subtle
and must be seen as a side eect.
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 aliated:
What I nd hard is that I actually dont have any status. I mean, Im here but not part of it.
Its very destabilising. For example, a few months ago, the university was hosting a reception
for the newly hired sta. Then I thought: I must go there because Im a new sta. So, I went
there and I wasnt on the list! I dont care to be on the list or not, but where do I belong?
What is my status? (Jada, 8
year, Neuroscience, Switzerland)
On the other side, this blurred status appeared to impact participantsperceptions 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 Im still judged. I am
not really there yet. Im not really part of the research community. I dont feel like that. I
havent 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 postdocby 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 Im [a postdoc] than when I was a [doctoral
research assistant] [] Since I got my PhD, Im 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 eect of career uncertainty on participantsidentity 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 dicult to imagine themselves as any-
thing other than academic researchers. Such was the case of Jada:
I am a researcher: I dont have any other training. And, because I dont have any clinical
experience either, I dont have any plan B. So, either I am a researcher or thats it!
(Jada, 8
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 anymoreto do something
dierentand it was very hard on me, for multiple reasons. For example, because I realised
that it was very dicult to reinvent myself in a dierent position, as Ive always been a
researcher since I [got my PhD degree] (Faye, 7th year, Molecular biology, UK)
Every time I tried to postulate outside academiaIve had two job interviews so farits 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 inuences work experiences and identity
development amongst post-PhD researchers from the UK and Switzerland. Our ndings
show that, in both countries, career uncertainty tends to take two dierent forms
through the course of their work experiences. Intellectual uncertainty refers to post-
PhDsdoubts regarding their capacities for developing original, valuable ideas that are
in line with their elds criteria or the more general fear of not being intellectually recog-
nised in their research communities. It also entails the diculty of nding peers who share
ones ideas or the feeling of intellectual isolation. Occupational uncertainty refers to post-
PhDsdoubts of their ability to nd 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 nding
is in line with McAlpine and Amundsens(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 participantswork 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 toughdespite 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 aects individualsself-perception and their ability to
project themselves into the future.
Several concerns emerged from these ndings. First, our analysis shows that work and
personal lives are closely intertwined and must be not considered separately when addres-
sing post-PhDscareer issues, thus uncertainty is expressed in the fullness of each individ-
uals identity-trajectory (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018). An eloquent example is the case of
dual-career couples, when one partners 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 nancial circum-
stances (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2016), post-PhDs with family responsibilities and those
who are unable to aord 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-PhDspositive 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 nd that some participants reported clinging to the academic researcher
identity as a way to maintain their motivation and persist despite career uncertainty. This
diculty 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 sacrice, the most talented researchers will nd 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 ttest(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).
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-PhDspaths to better understand the challenges that mark the
dierent stages of their career trajectories.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict 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-
ersIdentity Education in Social Sciences: [grant number CSO2013-41108].
Isabelle Skakni
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... On one side, the length of doctoral training involves long-term projections into a professional future that is unpredictable. On the other side, postdoctoral researchers, who now typically cumulate fixed-term contracts, often find themselves in a continuous job-searching situation that implies continually thinking about and searching for their next positions (Skakni et al., 2019). Over time, such a situation manifests through job insecurity, which negatively affects these researchers' perceived employability: It makes them doubt their ability to find satisfying positions within or beyond academia (Skakni et al., 2019). ...
... On the other side, postdoctoral researchers, who now typically cumulate fixed-term contracts, often find themselves in a continuous job-searching situation that implies continually thinking about and searching for their next positions (Skakni et al., 2019). Over time, such a situation manifests through job insecurity, which negatively affects these researchers' perceived employability: It makes them doubt their ability to find satisfying positions within or beyond academia (Skakni et al., 2019). This self-doubt issue is particularly crucial, as the gender gap in self-esteem and selfconfidence is already well documented in both the general population and academia (e.g., Bleidorn et al., 2016;Herbst, 2020), including with regard to career progression (Manfredi et al., 2017). ...
... Recent qualitative research seems to support the idea that career competencies can be a crucial career development mechanism for ECRs. For instance, in previous studies amongst Swiss ECRs (Skakni et al., 2019), we observed that career competencies were particularly salient in the discourse of many participants who were not always aware that they possessed such competencies. To illustrate, some participants highlighted the importance of developing a sense of self-evaluation in professional contexts and a capacity to anticipate and steer the next steps in their careers. ...
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This study examines the extent to which career competencies (knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to manage one's own work and learning experiences to achieve the desired career progression) are prevalent amongst early career researchers (ECRs). We adapted the Career Competencies Questionnaire (Akkermans et al., 2013). Competencies to ECRs' training and career specificities, considering the two career tracks facing them: within and outside academia. This questionnaire was sent to PhD students and junior PhD holders in 16 countries (n = 727). Our results show that career competencies for within and outside academia are clearly contrasted. Furthermore, compared with their female counterparts, male participants generally reported stronger career competencies in preparation for careers both within and outside academia, while PhD students perceived having more career competencies in preparation for careers outside academia than PhD holders did. We also found a positive link between ECRs' career competencies and their perceived employability, and those who perceived themselves as having strong career competencies were more likely to consider their current work meaningful. While most PhD holders pursue careers beyond academia, the concept of career competencies offers an innovative theoretical contribution to the field of ECRs' development, by highlighting how this population perceives their preparedness for diverse professional paths.
... Ainsi, la menace que le doctorant perç oit dans tous les scénarios d'incertitude, si elle est récurrente, est susceptible d'affecter son humeur pendant toute la durée de sa thèse. Par exemple, l'incertitude concernant la thèse affecte la perception que les doctorants ont d'eux-mêmes et leur capacité à se projeter dans le futur (Sigl, 2016 ;Skakni et al., 2019). L'incertitude est d'ailleurs citée dans la littérature scientifique en psychologie des organisations comme étant responsable de l'insatisfaction au travail (Rafferty & Griffin, 2006) et comme pouvant avoir des conséquences négatives sur la santé (Padilla et al., 1992). ...
... S (Anderson, 2019 ;Skakni et al., 2019). ...
... Par exemple, pour pouvoir soutenir leur thèse ou espérer obtenir un poste à l'université, les doctorants ont pour mission de publier les résultats de leurs recherches dans des journaux scientifiques. Cette pression à la publication constitue tant un défi qu'une source d'incertitude car le doctorant n'est jamais sûr des résultats qu'il va obtenir, et de la possibilité de voir ses manuscrits publiés (Skakni et al., 2019 ;Sigl, 2016). ...
Un travail de recherche qui ne progresse pas, une supervision insatisfaisante, des perspectives de carrière incertaines ou encore le sentiment de ne pas appartenir à une communauté scientifique, telles sont les difficultés que rencontrent nombre de thésards pendant leur doctorat. Si ces difficultés font l’objet d’un nombre croissant de publications, peu de travaux se sont attachés à mettre en lumière les déterminants du vécu positif du doctorat. En effet, le vécu d’une thèse peut être extrêmement enrichissant. Dans cette revue de la littérature, notre objectif est d’exploiter les connaissances actuelles permettant d’envisager l’expérience du doctorat comme positive pour en extraire des pistes susceptibles d’améliorer cette expérience. Dans un premier temps, nous exposons les éléments de la littérature qui démontrent que, bien que le doctorat puisse être vécu comme une épreuve difficile, il peut également être vécu comme une expérience très positive. Dans un second temps, nous proposons des pistes d’améliorations de l’expérience du doctorat. Dans l’ensemble, cet article, présente un intérêt pour les doctorants désireux d’approfondir leurs réflexions sur leurs conditions de travail, mais aussi pour tous ceux qui les entourent, tels les directeurs de thèse, les directeurs d’unités de recherche, et les directeurs d’écoles doctorales.
... However, individuals may undertake unscripted performances through interactions with others, reshaping institutional scripts through internal scripts and agentically transforming accepted pathways -morphogenesis (Archer 1995;. This approach is particularly pertinent for academics in precarious positions, as the structured aspects of their employment conditions, and the ways in which they exert agency, can shape the construction and performance of their identities in the workplace (McAlpine, Pyhältö, and Castelló 2018; Skakni et al. 2019). ...
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Despite the fact that precarious modes of employment have become increasingly common in academic careers, studies have shown that precarious contracts are often hidden and masked within higher education structures. This has important implications for the identities of those on such contracts. This paper uses Goffman’s work on stigma, ‘spoiled identities’, and identity management, and Archer’s concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis as heuristic devices to examine the ways in which precariously employed academic staff experience their work and think about their identities. In doing so, the paper maps out the complex relationship between structure, agency, and identity in precarious academic careers and the ways in which participants reproduced embedded career norms and dominant career scripts through the process of masking the stigma of their precarity.
... Once graduated, for those wishing to remain in academia, uncertainties emerge in the desire to establish a long-term career. While occupational (financial) security is a pressing issue (van der Weijden et al., 2016*), there is also the desire to achieve intellectual (research) certainty, create a distinct profile (Skakni et al., 2019*); negotiating the two may involve weighing structural and other personal factors, such as partner co-location. ...
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... The picture that emerged from the analyses substantially confirms some of the well-known fragilities of the Italian academic system that does not allow a clear definition of the professional paths in research, especially for female candidates. In the literature, the uncertainty of research career paths is widely documented [79]; in particular, there are organizational constraints-more in detail, the presence of short-term contracts for researcher positions-that impede professional plans for the future at an individual level both for female and male counterparts. The problem of career development is also closely related to a limited availability of funds for research. ...
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... Finally, regarding the third research question, we emphasize that the ECRs in our study resisted the isolation felt by some junior researchers (Scaffidi & Berman, 2011;Skakni et al., 2019;Sverdlik et al., 2018) through a readiness to develop salient followership identities. This has important implications for academic management and leadership. ...
Free e-copies here: Academic institutions are characterized by specific dynamics between leaders and followers. Academics prefer work autonomy but expect quality leadership. In this article, we explore how early career researchers (ECRs) constructed followership identities through their expectations of supervisory interventions. We used thematic analysis to analyze 39 interviews. The identified themes of ECR followership identity constructions were as follows: 1) Followers as apprentices: Seeking support in reaching career milestones; 2) Followers as motivated performers: Expecting efficient work organization; and 3) Followers as team members: Calling for a shared vision. We argue that the ECR demand for proactive supervisory interventions and the adoption of active followership identities is necessary to foster full academic autonomy development and to overcome negative aspects of experienced isolation in academic life. Acknowledging hierarchical relationships between leaders and followers in HE has the potential to contribute to enhanced career support for ECRs.
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This volume examines the diversified and challenging experiences of Chinese international STEM doctoral students at Australian institutes of higher education, exploring how intersections between research, personal life, and social experiences can be negotiated to achieve academic success and personal transformation. By drawing on a range of qualitative and longitudinal research methods, the book foregrounds student narratives and utilizes a novel three-dimensional multi-world framework as an effective approach for understanding student experiences in a holistic way. It integrates Chinese philosophical perspectives and theories in the fields of educational psychology, international education, and doctoral education to interpret the nuances, complexity, and particularities of the cross-cultural STEM PhD experience, highlighting the importance of the supervisor–mentee relationship and the role of students’ cultural, social, and philosophical values in supporting their successful completion of the PhD degree. The analysis thus provides new insights into the ways in which these experiences vary across students, and might apply in other national contexts, and to non-STEM student cohorts. This book will be a valuable resource for researchers and academics engaged in cross-cultural education, the sociology of education, and international and comparative education. It will be of particular interest to those with a focus on international doctoral education and cultural Asian studies.
The evolution of the higher education sector has included a strong focus on academic performance despite increasing workloads and employment precarity, with COVID-19 further disrupting traditional university expectations. Drawing on HERD’s author voices from 2010 to 2020, this reflective review examines the changing nature of academe, mapping the shifts in role and identity that occur through an academic’s career life cycle. The mechanisms to support these developmental journeys are examined, highlighting the role that development agencies and university leaders need to play in supporting the holistic development of academics (and researchers), particularly as expectations evolve. Implications for a post-COVID sector are explored, suggesting this disruptive phase will require more responsive support from universities, developers and university leaders. The paper identifies gaps in research and commentary that warrant further exploration by scholars in the future.
Globally, countries often view PhD training as building research capacity and may encourage international mobility of potential PhDs as they expect them to return home – not considering individuals as agents negotiating their own intentions. We examined the interaction between such structural factors and 36 PhD graduates’ efforts (from 13 African countries) to negotiate their intentions, particularly around international mobility as they navigated international, national, organisational and day-to-day factors in three periods. Shifts in focus occurred: a) Pre-PhD: international factors around finding a place; b) PhD: host country (national through day-to-day) factors in negotiating a time-limited experience; c) Post-PhD: focus on longer-term, with difference between those returning home and those away (elsewhere in Africa or beyond). Nine trajectories emerged, highlighting the variation in how individuals negotiated asymmetrically within distinct structural factors to advance their careers. Implications for future research as well as policy and practice are explored.
McCulloch describes a scholarly publication trajectory over a six-year period from the final stages of doctoral study to becoming a senior lecturer. The chapter takes a literacy studies perspective on scholarly publishing and analyses the socio-political factors that influenced the author’s own path towards establishing a scholarly publication record in a British higher education context. Specifically, the chapter explores the role that language, geographical place and geopolitical forces including the competitive academic job market and the pressures of research evaluation systems can play in enabling or constraining early-career scholars’ publishing. The chapter concludes with a reflection on the practical and emotional costs of establishing a track record in an age of precarity.
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Intellectual abilities alone are not sufficient to successfully progress through doctoral studies. Research indicates that modes of training and the context and conditions in which doctoral studies take place also have a significant impact on the process. However, few studies examine how taken-for-granted and self-evident practices in academia likely impede students’ progress. To address this gap, a qualitative inquiry was conducted according to an instrumental case study design. Six human and social sciences faculties at a Canadian university were selected to define the case. In addition to analysing institutional documents pertaining to doctoral studies in this specific context, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 36 PhD students, 14 thesis supervisors and five academic administrators. Based on Giddens’ theory of structuration, the analysis revealed an enduring perception of doctoral studies as an ‘initiatory trial’ that affects both the formal and tacit organisation of the process, and consequently its underlying challenges.
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The early stages of an academic career are fraught with insecurity. By focusing on the individual and his or her background, this article sets out to analyse and develop theories for this insecurity. We see academic career insecurity as a mix of how much someone wants to pursue a job in academia and what they feel is the probability of reaching their goal. The article draws on concepts of boundaryless careers and protean careers to theorise about the antecedents of insecurity. Empirical analysis is based on survey data from early-career researchers at a large Austrian university. The findings indicate that the most important individual factors that reduce academic career insecurity are the willingness to be geographically mobile, self-attribution of previous career success, a high proportion of working time devoted to research and networking, as well as being at an advanced career stage. The article demonstrates the potential and limits of the boundaryless and protean career concepts for studying academic careers. Practical measures are that universities should provide early-career researchers with temporal space for research and networking, facilitate stays at other universities, inform them about career success factors, and tailor faculty development programmes to the distinct stages of academic careers.
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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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There is increasing evidence that science & engineering PhD students lose interest in an academic career over the course of graduate training. It is not clear, however, whether this decline reflects students being discouraged from pursuing an academic career by the challenges of obtaining a faculty job or whether it reflects more fundamental changes in students’ career goals for reasons other than the academic labor market. We examine this question using a longitudinal survey that follows a cohort of PhD students from 39 U.S. research universities over the course of graduate training to document changes in career preferences and to explore potential drivers of such changes. We report two main results. First, although the vast majority of students start the PhD interested in an academic research career, over time 55% of all students remain interested while 25% lose interest entirely. In addition, 15% of all students were never interested in an academic career during their PhD program, while 5% become more interested. Thus, the declining interest in an academic career is not a general phenomenon across all PhD students, but rather reflects a divergence between those students who remain highly interested in an academic career and other students who are no longer interested in one. Second, we show that the decline we observe is not driven by expectations of academic job availability, nor by related factors such as postdoctoral requirements or the availability of research funding. Instead, the decline appears partly due to the misalignment between students’ changing preferences for specific job attributes on the one hand, and the nature of the academic research career itself on the other. Changes in students’ perceptions of their own research ability also play a role, while publications do not. We discuss implications for scientific labor markets, PhD career development programs, and science policy.
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The higher education sector is a dynamic environment where universities compete on a global basis for resources, students, and high-quality staff. The impending retirement of the baby boomer generation will create increased competition for research leaders. One way to address this is to develop research leaders from existing researchers. However, little is known about what it takes to transition from a leading researcher to a research leader, so there is much to be learned from the experiences of those who have successfully navigated those transitions. To explore the transition from early career researcher to leading researcher to research leader, we undertook a mixed methods study involving 30 senior research leaders and administrators from a range of organisations across Australia. In this paper, we describe how the career paths of these research leaders developed in a highly competitive research environment and discuss how universities can attract, retain, develop, and promote their researchers.
The fully revamped and re-titled OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook is a biennial publication that aims to inform policy makers and analysts on recent and future changes in global science, technology and innovation (STI) patterns and their potential implications on and for national and international STI policies. The report provides comparative analysis of new policies and instruments being used in OECD countries and in a number of major emerging economies (including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and South Africa) to boost the contribution of science and innovation to growth and to global and social challenges.
What does it mean to attribute success to 'luck', but failure to personal deficiency? In 2015/16, more than 34 per cent of academic employees in UK higher education institutions were employed on temporary contracts, and the sector itself has undergone a substantial transformation in recent years in terms of expansion, measurement, and marketization. Based on two waves of interviews conducted with fixed-term academic employees at different career stages, the article explores the narrativization of success and failure amongst staff working at the 'sharp end' of the so-called neoliberal academy. Arguing that precarious employment situations precipitate the feeling of being 'out of control', the majority of the participants' narratives were characterized by a distinct lack of agency. The paper explores the recourse to notions of chance and the consolidation of 'luck' as an explanatory factor in accounting for why good things happen; however, in tandem with this inclination is the tendency to individualize failure when expectations have been thwarted. While accounts of fixed-term work are suffused with notions of chance and fortune, 'luck' remains an under-researched concept within sociology. The article thus concludes by considering what the analysis of 'luck' might offer for a fuller, politicized understanding of processes at work in the contemporary academy.
This discussion paper is aimed to map content analysis in the qualitative paradigm and explore common methodological challenges. We discuss phenomenological descriptions of manifest content and hermeneutical interpretations of latent content. We demonstrate inductive, deductive, and abductive approaches to qualitative content analysis, and elaborate on the level of abstraction and degree of interpretation used in constructing categories, descriptive themes, and themes of meaning. With increased abstraction and interpretation comes an increased challenge to demonstrate the credibility and authenticity of the analysis. A key issue is to show the logic in how categories and themes are abstracted, interpreted, and connected to the aim and to each other. Qualitative content analysis is an autonomous method and can be used at varying levels of abstraction and interpretation.
This book argues that post-PhD career planning should ideally begin at the same time as the PhD itself. Drawing from ten years of research and stories of close to 50 individuals, each chapter focuses on the stories of individuals who share common career intentions and how they negotiate these both before, during and after their studies. Each career trajectory is different as individuals planned and made decisions in the face of both expected and unexpected work, personal experiences and responsibilities. The book concludes with resources to help those who are currently planning or reflecting on their own career trajectories. Lynn McAlpine is Professor of Higher Education Development at the University of Oxford, UK and Professor Emerita at McGill University, Canada. She has received distinguished research awards for her research in which a constant thread has been both how individuals in professional and academic roles engage in and learn from the work they are doing and also how to better support that learning. Cheryl Amundsen is Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines at Simon Fraser University, Canada. She has focused her research on the investigation of how academics think about teaching, including supervision, in relationship to their disciplinary knowledge. Amundsen currently directs a program that supports academics from across disciplines to design and carry out research about teaching and student learning.
Conference Paper
The authors examined career-related uncertainties perceived by college students in Taiwan. Five hundred thirty-two Taiwanese students responded to a free-response instrument containing 3 questions related to career uncertainties: (a) the sources of career uncertainty, (b) the experiences at the moment of feeling uncertainty, and (c) coping efficacies toward the uncertainty. Responses were sorted into categories within each question based on the grounded theory methodology (B. G. Glaser & A. L. Strauss, 1967). A hypothetical model was developed to describe college students' perceptions of career uncertainties, experiences of feeling uncertainty, and coping efficacy toward the uncertainty.