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  • Postdocs under pressure

    - The beginning of an academic career is tense for most postdocs. Dr. Ruth Müller did research on their experiences of working towards an academic career in the life sciences in Austria. “What I was interested in, is how postdocs structure their careers in the life sciences today.”

    Through observations and interviews with postdocs Ruth Müller sketched what it means to strive for an academic career in the life sciences. At the Crafting Your Career symposium in Utrecht organised by Rathenau and CWTS she will share her experiences and findings.

    Afraid of collaboration

    “The main problem I found is that career structures focuses mainly on individual achievements, while many postdocs need to work in group projects. This creates tensions, as the researchers know they have to publish a lot and as first authors to be successful in their academic career. You see they are afraid to collaborate because disputes around co-authorship can be damaging. This process also puts pressure on the work in research projects.”

    According to Müller this development will be harmful for the academic world as postdocs play an important role in academia. “Their role in the education of younger students is very important but it is continuously less and less valued. You can see that for your career the relationship between postdocs and students pushes away from education based to production based. Postdocs are more inclined to seek opportunities to co-operate and co-author with students, instead of mainly helping them as a co-supervisors.”

    Reconsider credit system

    Turning this process the other way around will be a difficult task, Müller thinks. “That will be very complicated. I think to get there we have to reconsider the way in which we give credit. In Austria for example universities are very dependent on soft money and this money will be awarded mainly based on criteria like publications. Basically you are a good scholar if you publish a lot in high impact journals.”

    “Don’t get me wrong,” Müller directly adds, “I think publishing is a good thing, but I think valuing academic work with all its important aspects will need a more holistic assessment structure of what it means to work well as an academic. It would be important to develop more complex guidelines for that.”

    Looking at other disciplines

     Ruth Müller got her conclusions doing research among scholars in the life sciences as part of a larger research project at the Department for the Science & Technology Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. Her next step will be a similar sort of research at her current institution, the Research Policy Institute at Lund University in Sweden. “When I presented my findings about the life sciences I got a lot of feedback also from academics from other disciplines. I just started at Lund where I will study climate research and social sciences to see how its there.”

    Dr. Ruth Müller will be speaking at Crafting Your Career in Utrecht the 30th of October. Registration here