I’m coming to the end of my first post-doc contract, so I’ve been job hunting. Obviously I’m not the only person to be job hunting right now (during the COVID-19 pandemic), and obviously I’m not the first person to be job hunting at the end of a post-doc contract. But I think there are some problems with post-doc job hunting that are specific to academia. These observations aren’t new, but I wanted to write about them so that they’re not rattling around in my head.
First, to (hopefully) make sure that you don’t become unemployed, you have to start job hunting before the end of your contract. Not only does this take time out of the job that you’re still supposed to be doing (or cut into evenings and weekends) it also feels very strange to me. I get on well with my managers, and the team I work with, so searching for a new job feels like a betrayal. Perhaps this is more down to my naive idea that you only look for a new job when you’re sick of your current job/boss, but it’s still been tricky to deal with. Luckily, my managers know that this is the way academia currently is, and have done everything they can to make me not feel bad about it.
Second, it seems very likely that at the end of a research project, not all of the post-docs will get their next jobs at the same university. This means that the team, which you’ve hopefully gotten used to working alongside and collaborating with, disperses. People might be actively searching for jobs in different places, fields, or sectors. But, assuming that the team wants to stay together, this regular churn in the team isn’t good for research or researchers. When I started this post-doc contract, it took me a few months to get used to the new university and the project, and my first post-doc publication took seven months. I’ll probably get better at changing jobs, and the papers I’ve got in the pipeline now will keep my publication record ticking over (hopefully) but this still seems like a loss of time that could be avoided.
My third gripe about post-doc job hunting every two or three years is that is heavily biases the cohort of researchers that remain in academia towards those who are able to remain in this period of instability for long enough to find a permanent job. A new post-doc job usually means moving house (barring being able to commute or the new job being in the same city) which is expensive, and because you’re not applying for a permanent job there isn’t usually any money to help with relocation. In the UK a post-doc wage is fairly good (I already earn more than I ever expected to) but this is still an extra financial hurdle to staying academia, and it will hit those from lower income backgrounds the hardest. People who have families, caring responsibilities, or other dependents will be less able to move to where ever a job happens to be available. Moving job and house every two to three years (when you don’t really want to) can cause a large mental health burden too. The uncertainly and instability caused by the job hunting and moving means that long-term planning or ‘settling down’ is very difficult.
This period of the academic career, on top of the PhD, feels like a delay to my ‘real life’ starting. Moving into new rented housing always feels temporary, with little chance to make somewhere feel like mine or feel like I’m part of any local community. This isn’t helped by the fact that a rented house isn’t mine and that a lot of people are low-level hostile to renters who have just moved to an area. The stress of seeing the end of a contract looming has definitely affected me, and after how badly being unemployed hit me after the end of my PhD I was adamant that I wasn’t going to slip into being unemployed again.
The positives that I have to try to keep hold of from this period are that it gives me the chance to move around and see new places, adding to my network of friends and colleagues as I go. I know that this is something that neither of my parents had the chance to do, so I’m grateful for those upsides. But it feels like a PhD and post-doc jobs are a marathon to get to the finishing line of a permanent job. It’s daunting and exhausting, and not everyone begins the race from the same starting point. I hope that I’ve got the stoicism and persistence to get to the finishing line.