The valley of shadows: A note on missing guidance during the postdoc years

by Endre Dányi

I was recently asked to write a short piece for The EASST Review about mentoring and supervision. At first I thought I’d compose a note on the PhD process, the importance of letting go of being a good student, and the complications that may arise along the way. But then I realised most PhD students already know all of that – thankfully, in academia in general and in STS in particular there are several mentoring schemes aimed at making doctoral life more manageable. Needless to say, such schemes don’t make doctoral life easy – but at least the difficulties are more recognisable today than, let’s say, a decade ago. What is generally missing, however, is guidance for the postdoctoral years, which therefore may feel like a journey through ‘the valley of shadows’. While my short contribution cannot make up for that missing guidance, hopefully it can identify some themes that are worth considering, both for postdocs and for those who employ them.

Let me start by stating the obvious: the idea that one’s academic training is over the moment one receives their doctoral degree is a fantasy. Of course, things work differently in different places, but most people I know had to jump from one postdoc position to the other for several years before they got a faculty position – or decided to leave academia entirely. The lack of security or a clear perspective during the postdoc years is one thing; the lack of information about the skills and experiences that are required to navigate that space is another. Here I want to focus on the latter.

Teaching. Although many postdoc positions are situated within research projects, it’s not uncommon for new postdocs to be asked to teach as part of their new job. Even if they aren’t, it makes sense for them to offer a course or two, as it greatly increases their future employability. (Sorry about the language.) This often takes a lot of time and effort: designing new courses from scratch is hard work, and teaching them well requires practice. Teaching training programmes are helpful, and higher education certificates come in handy, but many employers see them as a waste of (their) time. So, there is likely to be tension.

Research. New postdocs are understandably proud of their achievements and tend to be busy publishing their doctoral theses as a book or a series of articles. (This is often also an explicit requirement to receive their degree.) At the same time, they are expected to start working on their new research, either within an externally funded project or at a department (as a grant proposal, for instance). There is likely to be more tension between the need to make the ‘old’ research visible and to focus on the new one (which often requires learning other methods, entering unknown fields, etc.).

Administration. Some postdoc positions are associated with the establishment of a new research centre, others are embedded within already existing departments or other academic units. Irrespective of the environment, for most postdocs this is the first time they are confronted with the internal politics of their institution – and it tends to be ugly. There’s often a shortage of funding and other resources, which might generate petty clashes among otherwise amicable colleagues. In addition, there might be difficult personalities, bad academic habits, not to mention complications that arise when one shifts from one academic system to another. In other words: more tensions ahead.

Networking. Most PhDs know well how to network: each conference, workshop, exchange semester, field trip or summer school is a terrific opportunity to make new academic friends. In principle, the postdoc years are not that different, except that networking after the PhD increasingly means the maintenance of already existing friendships. Here the tension comes from the realisation that the maintenance of one’s network is not simply a matter of socialising: what kind of a scholar one is, in what contexts and collectives one hopes to make a difference, becomes clearer when one is forced to decide what relationships to nurture over the years, across countries and continents, even during a pandemic.

The future. Most postdoc contracts are short; one needs to think about the next job well before the current one expires. But there is more that increases the tension between the present and the future: many postdocs are also confronted with big life events – the birth of children, illness or the death of a parent – that make it difficult to concentrate entirely on academia. And that is probably a good thing, in the sense that the establishment of internal boundaries becomes really necessary when external boundaries are getting invisible (just think of those work emails sent out at night or in the weekend). All of that is likely to create, yes, even more tensions.

As I mentioned earlier, I refer to the postdoc years as the valley of shadows because they lack clear orientation points. Before long, the temperature drops, the visibility worsens and one begins to feel the tensions – the demands of teaching, the need to publish from the PhD versus the pressure to focus on the new project, institutional politics, the maintenance of existing networks, looking for the next job while trying to live a life – without any specific guidance as how to ease them. Postdocs might have bosses (PIs with specific research and publishing plans, defined by grant proposals or departmental committees, for instance) but rarely any supervisors to help them grow beyond the PhD, and it is difficult to remember the purpose of it all when doubtful voices are getting louder and louder. In such situations it is particularly important to keep one’s cool and not change course too often. Postdocs should look out for each other more, and experiment with/insist on collaborative modes of knowledge production that offer alternatives to academic heroism. And their employers should realise they can make a crucial difference by trying to accommodate postdocs’ needs in institutional settings where many of those needs are not even articulable.

Author Biography

Endre Dányi is an STS scholar interested in the places and material practices of democratic politics. His PhD in Lancaster was a material semiotic analysis of the Hungarian Parliament; his habilitation project in Frankfurt am Main concentrated on the political affordances of seemingly hopeless situations – a condition he calls melancholy democracy. Endre is co-founder and co-editor of Mattering Press.