Reservoir postdocs. On academia unemployment, hunt for grants and precarious living among (young) scholars

munch-the-scream-1440x1440A few months ago I read a Guardian article about a scholar who had decided to honour his friend by telling his traumatic story. The friend had killed himself due to his lack of success (widely defined) in academia. The men met during a fellowship a few years back and had remained friends despite one of them (the author) eventually attaining a position outside academia while his friend struggled with short-term postdoc positions until his tragic end. “Over the course of five years, Dolan held positions in Cambridge, Dublin, Southampton, Amsterdam and Crete, most of which meant living away from his partner.” When I read this piece, my six months of unemployment had just started and I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights wondering: when will I reach the point where suicide becomes an option actually worth considering?

But let me start from the beginning. In 2013 I defended my PhD thesis and became a proud member of academic community. My PhD thesis wasn’t brilliant but it wasn’t too bad either and at the time of defence I already had achieved a pretty decent publication record. I thought, ok, academia is hard but come on, who if not me? I love my job, I’m a pretty good researcher, I like teaching (!) and I’m not lazy. Moreover, I’m happy to relocate and learn a new language so…even the sky is not the limit for me. I had no single reason to think that I would not get a job in this exciting but challenging environment. And, at least at the beginning, I was right. Two months before my defence, I already had two job offers: one from a university in Bhutan, which offered me a position as head of the sociology department (!) and a research associate position in a research institute based in Berlin, Germany. I chose Berlin, as I wasn’t ready for life in such an exotic country like Bhutan, obviously. I had my life in Berlin – my friends, partner, and apartment – and I was absolutely over the moon that I could continue doing my research in such a great place. But I only had a two year contract and I knew that I needed to apply for new jobs very quickly. And I did. In 2014 I applied for (let me take a look into my CV of failures) exactly nine jobs (five postdocs, one assistant professorship and three positions within research project proposals that I wrote and sent to EU research programmes). Within less than half a year I got two job offers for postdocs in leading universities in Sweden and the UK. I chose Sweden and I couldn’t have made a better decision as the two years spent at the University of Gothenburg have been the best years of my scholarly development. I learned a lot, met great people and gained a lot of confidence as a (still young) scholar. However, as usual, the duration of my contract was limited to two years so at the beginning of the second year I started to apply for new jobs and research grants. I was pretty sure that with a much better CV than in 2014, I would not have to keep applying for longer than several months, and by the end of my contract my new position would already be secured. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Way of the Cross

I sent my first application in March 2016. I applied for the position of assistant professor at University A in Austria. I fulfilled all essential criteria and all but one desirable as I had decided that I would only sacrifice my time to apply for jobs that were 99% compatible with my profile. And I’ve stuck to this rule until today. Unsurprisingly, my first application was rejected pretty quickly and I didn’t feel too sad about it. I only wondered why I wasn’t invited to take part in the interview since I matched the profile almost entirely. Writing these words right now, I cannot believe how naïve I was…

Within the next 21 months I had a further 48 applications rejected, the vast majority of them at the first stage of the application process. In general, I applied for 17 assistant professor/lecturer positions, five postdocs, and 13 research fellow positions in countries such as the UK, Germany, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Additionally, I submitted 13 (mostly individual but also collaborative) research proposals to Swedish and European research councils (and by that simply tried to create a position for myself). Within these 21 months I was invited to four interviews which were unsuccessful. In three of the four cases this was due to the fact that I was “overqualified” for the job. Five of my research proposals went to the final round and the last one was merely one point shy of getting funded (I got 17 while the threshold was 18).

Don’t get me wrong, I know that nowadays getting funding can be comparable to finding the Holy Grail and that all academics face the same problem. I agree and I wouldn’t complain that much if I knew that the process (both regarding research grants and job applications) is logical, well organised, fair and transparent. It’s just that it isn’t. Let me explain why.

Research grants

In 2016 I applied for a research grant with the research council X. I managed to get to the second stage and despite positive reviews from two external evaluators I didn’t get the grant. To be fair, my application wasn’t perfect and I basically agreed with the reviewers’ comments on how it could be improved. The year after, taking into consideration all feedback, I improved my proposal to a large extent, sent it in and…it was rejected in the first stage.

That same year, together with a large group of colleagues from different European and non-European universities, I applied for EU funding. I was the main applicant so it was my responsibility to finish and submit the application. And so I did. At first, we did not get the grant but instead, we received very positive feedback with a minor criticism regarding what we could improve next time. A few months later we had implemented all the suggested changes and hoped that this time we would get funded. Unfortunately, the opinions of the new reviewers seemed to be exactly the opposite of the previous reviewers. They criticised all the improvements that we had implemented after the previous feedback. As a consequence, the much better proposal received fewer points than its less developed version and, surprise, surprise, we didn’t get the grant.

It was a similar story with my application for a European fellowship for young and “promising” scholars. In 2016 my application got to the final stage but I didn’t receive the grant. Here is why:

“Dear Madam,

Unfortunately, I must inform you that in spite of an excellent evaluation, you have not been top ranked by the institute you applied to. Please find below the feedback from the IAS: The candidates’ projects did not align with the Institute’s priority lines of scientific research”.

I was rather mad as the institute where I was planning to do my fellowship did not provide information on its website as to what its priority lines of its scientific research were… But fine, I decided to try again, with another institute and an improved application. Here is the response I received the following year:

“Dear Sir/Madam,

XXX Fellowship Programme’s call for applications 2018/2019 has been highly competitive with 795 submitted applications, 445 applications for junior positions and 350 applications for senior positions. The applications have been reviewed by an international pool of 367 external scientific experts covering a wide range of disciplines in humanities, social sciences and several “hard sciences”. On the basis of these assessments, the XXX Selection Committee preselected 163 applications (92 juniors and 71 seniors) for the final selection by the 19 participating institutes’ scientific boards. We are sorry to inform you that your application has not been preselected.”

In 2017 I applied for a research grant to the research council Y. Again, I got to the second stage and again, I did not receive the grant because the evaluator didn’t know the meaning of “feminist methodology.” This despite my detailed explanation of how feminist methodology applied to my research project and despite the several references I attached, referring the evaluators to the most respected publications on the subject.


As I mentioned, I applied for a large number of lectureships and assistant professorships as well. In the vast majority of cases, I wasn’t invited to any interviews, even when my profile fitted the selection criteria 100%. Here are my favourite cases:

University B in England: I applied for a lectureship in European Studies. I fulfilled all essential and desirable criteria and argued for my candidacy on eight single-spaced pages. The deadline for submission was Friday midnight. And you can imagine my astonishment when on Monday evening I received an email informing me that “your details have been very carefully considered, along with all other applications for the post, in relation to the ideal candidate specification for the above role. Having done so, we regret to inform you that you will not be invited to interview.” They did not even pretend that they read my application. This situation has happened to me more than once proving that so-called “transparency” and fair competition is a university fairy tale. In many cases positions are already reserved for internal candidates (who are usually less qualified than me). I know this, I’ve checked many times.

Department C at the University D in Finland: I applied for a postdoc in D department. The job advertisement was long, written in English and very much encouraged international candidates to apply. So I did. I spent hours producing hundreds of documents (cover letter, project proposal, teaching philosophy, administration experience, five-year career plan, recommendation letters from three professors etc. etc.) and…didn’t get the job, obviously. But the committee was kind enough to send me the names of the three researchers who actually did. All of them were Finnish and Department C alumni. Coincidence? I think not.

University E in Germany: lectureship in European Studies. Again, I fulfilled 100% of the requirements, I wasn’t invited to the interview and the job went to the freshly appointed doctor, who (I’m sure it’s just a coincidence) was a former PhD student of the head of the European Studies department. Obviously they were less qualified than me.

University F in the UK: actually, it’s not a rejection. I have sent my application (again, very long and time-consuming) in June 2017. Until now I have not received any answer despite several emails I have sent to the HR department. So, maybe in five years, when the decision will be finally made, I will be a happy citizen of F? I really doubt it.

Private life

I wish I could say that the misery of my professional life has been balanced by a happy and fulfilling private life. Unfortunately, I can’t. Moreover, I am convinced that my private life has been strongly influenced by my professional situation. Not in a good way.

Let’s start with my colleagues. Despite being unemployed, I haven’t stopped working. I have written papers to make sure my publishing record remains strong. I have also taken part in scientific conferences, which has been nothing but a huge source of pain. Each time I had a chance to meet my peers I was very open about my situation, believing that there is nothing more important than networking. Oh how wrong was I, again. I was furious each time I met freshly appointed lecturers and assistant professors with less than a year of postdoctoral experience, who approached me with sentences like “oh, you are Katarzyna, nice to meet you finally! I’ve read your paper recently and I want to say it inspired me a lot so I would like to introduce myself and tell you that your research is great.”

Each time when I’ve talked to the professors that I like and admire and heard one of the following:

“Have you considered applying for the Marie Curie Fellowship?” (Yes, I did, among dozens of other options).

“Try and check or, there are plenty of job offers there” (Both are the first pages I open every single day).

“YOU don’t have a job yet??? Don’t worry, you will find something in a heartbeat, you are too good to remain unemployed!” (No comment really)

“Are you coming to our conference next year? You are not sure if you will have a job by then? Oh come on, you are an academic at heart (who doesn’t need to eat apparently), of course you will come!” (….)

I screamed inside.

Moreover, my situation also affected my relationships with close friends as the majority of them are academics as well. Every time someone has complained that her paper has been rejected, I’ve been unable to find any comforting words. Despite knowing how hard rejections are, I’ve only thought about myself and the fact that I don’t have a job, while they have. Every time someone has told me that his project proposal did not get funding, I thought, come on, but you have tenure! How the hell can you complain! Deep inside I knew that my attitude was wrong, but I really couldn’t find any empathy and I did my best to at least hold my tongue and not pour my frustration on my dearest friends, who only needed my support. To be fair, I still wonder how I managed not to lose them all…

But friends are friends, and I don’t interact with them on a daily basis so to some extent I was able to hold my tongue and pretend that I wasn’t furious all the time. Sadly, I wasn’t able to do that in front of my family. I was alternately depressed, angry, down, crying, screaming etc. and it influenced my relationships with the people who are closest to me. Every time I got a rejection, a little kitten died. I was constantly frustrated and crucifying people who are the most important to me. I knew my behaviour was unacceptable but I was unable to resist. Moreover, the job hunt and the possibility that I might have to relocate to not merely another city, but to a different country, have an extremely negative impact on intimate relationship. As a result, my current private life is nothing but a ruin of what I had before and I blame academia. Though it was me who caused all the pain and unnecessary conflicts, it has been the outcome of my professional situation.

Post scriptum

In December 2017, thanks to the help of a friend, I got known about (and got) a six-month post-doctoral position at a German university. Two weeks later my 50th job application appeared to be successful and I got a full time research position at a UK-based university. You may think, ok, so the story has a happy ending, eventually. Well, one may say so. I can relax and take a breath, finally. And this blissful state will last as long as three months. My contract expires in 12 months and very soon my hunt will have to start again.



8 thoughts on “Reservoir postdocs. On academia unemployment, hunt for grants and precarious living among (young) scholars

  1. Kasiu, swietny i szczery do bolu post…Gratuluje, ze wkoncu sie udalo, (Jesus F..g Christ!!!). Kasiu dziekuje, ze podzielilas sie niepowiedzeniem, ze czasem nie zaleznie od tego jak bardzo sie staramy, jak dobre jestesmy poprostu nie wychodzi, za cholere nie wychodzi..ze dorosle zycie to nie tylko pasmo pieknych zdjec z Instagrama i sukcesow.
    Dziekuje za inspiracje.
    pozdrawiam, Gosia

  2. Dzięki za tę opowieść, pokazuje ona nonsens neoliberalnej, tzw. przedsiębiorczej akademii i jej zgubny wpływ na codzienne życie. W Szwecji się opamiętano i następuje powrót do kolektywnych form organizowania pracy w uniwersytecie. W GB narasta fala strajku przeciwko REF i innym audytowo-reżimowym metodom, już nie do zatrzymania. A w PL tymczasem wspólnota akademicka w sposób cynicznie obojętny daje sobie wcisnąć kit o lepszym świecie list rankingowych i dążeniu do doskonałości. Życzę powodzenia w dalszym rozwoju kariery, może kiedyś uda się nam znaleźć bardziej ludzkie warunki pracy niż te związane z koniecznością publikacji w topowych czasopismach, których nikt nie czyta, ale za to wzajemnie cytuje.

  3. Człowiek wiedział od dawna, że polska, turbofedualna bieda-akademia jest do niemal pełnego zaorania na szczytach hierarchii (od haba w górę). Miało się jednak nadzieję, że w międzynarodowej może być nieco lepiej. No cóż.

  4. [Przepraszam, jeśli to powtórka; coś nie poszło tak jak trzeba, i nie wiem, czy jestem w kolejce do moderacji, czy mój komentarz zanikł]

    “Reservoir postdoc”? A mere five years after your PhD? How should I feel – I did my PhD in 2005, and I still have no long term perspective or hope for a tenure – not even a contract that would last more than two years – while at the same time having published about a hundred papers, getting a thousand or two of citations, doing teaching, lecturing, writing successful grant proposals (in the name of my PI’s), getting habilitation etc.? No personal grants, no invitations for job interviews, no hope, no right to apply for a postdoc job at a university (in Germany), no… future?

    The particularly aggravating part is the way how your scientific career impacts on your family, since you can either choose what you want to do, or you can choose where you want to do. Even in your forties, even with family and kids you have to remain infinitely mobile and flexible, ready to move not even from one city to another (which can be bad enough), but from one country to another, or perhaps even to another country on another continent.

    Well, I don’t worry too much, given that I’m lucky to have a set of skills that might be useful in industry. So if push comes to shove, I will leave academia. But others aren’t as lucky as I am.

    There are too many postdoctoral scientists, that might be true. But there is also a growing gap between the highly successful scientists, and us – the averages. `The rich get richer’, those with many grants get even more; those who already have a tenure, get resources for non-tenure positions, while tenures are getting fewer. Few big fishes dominate the pond and accumulate large resources, without a vested interest in promoting a postdoc into tenure. Why make a postdoc independent, when she can work for you and get you grants, that you will use to hire even more postdocs on a short term contract?

  5. Na szczęście najlepsi, tj. dzieci profesorów dostają kontrakty na czas nieokreślony 😉
    a tak na serio to z jednej strony praca za granicą jest świetna, rozwija człowieka i daje więcej niż praca na polskiej uczelni, ale niestety tak to funkcjonuje. Całkowity brak stabilizacji, a w Polsce też jak ktoś ma etat to musi być na miejscu i pilnować go, żeby jakiś lizus nie wygryzł go. Szkoda, że tak jest, ale niestey tak do wygląda

  6. That’s so true!!!I am on a similar situation since 2014 when I got my PhD, but I cannot be mobile like you. I live in Glasgow , I have a wife who has a good job and we want to start a family soon. I am from Greece but I do like Glasgow a lot…It feels like home to me. I am not a person who wants to travel around the world to do research. I want to build relationships with local people and be part of a broader community, not just academia. In fact, academia functions more like a cast rather than a community. Judging by the little experience I have in the UK, academia is not that an exciting environment to work on, unless if you are an administrator or manager…If you are an academic, then it is very hard to get a job and once you have it then it is so intense and stressful that you have to forget your personal life. On average, academics do not have stable relationships, are getting married quite old, the divorce rate is high, they neglect their old friends, family and kids and they tend to find partners from their own working environment. In a nutshell, academics operate in a social vacuum not interacting with other social classes, unless if there is some kind of projects which dictates them do so for building their careers. This is a norm, but of course there are bright exceptions. I am not referring to myself, but I know people who try to resist to this frenzy. However, it is them who usually take the blame for any failures, mainly caused by bureaucratic chaos or extremely narrow thinking from colleagues, admin staff and senior managers.

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