The melancholic tune and the realistic lyrics of this popular tune must be familiar to most of you out there, for it is the number one hit whenever young historians get together. The tune is also a smash hit in junior scholars’ blogs. Although it is hard to imagine that there is anything left that has not been said about the topic, I’ll take the risk of repeating some of the well-known notes and join the chorus of frustrated postdocs with this post. After all, it is the annual high season of drafting applications and feeling bluesy about the realities of the academia.
There are many who claim that the present situation is extraordinary challenging for recent doctors seeking a career in research. As a historian, I am aware of the danger in claiming that something is unique and without precedents, but in this particular case I agree: the occupational distress of the twenty-first-century history doctors is without precedents. Yes, of course I am also aware of the fact that academic competition and insecure career prospects have an unfortunately long history. Certainly, there was nothing enviable to be a privatdozent trying to make ends meet in nineteenth-century Germany. Jacob Burckhardt advised his young friend to avoid an academic career which was, according to Burckhardt, nothing but a game of chance. There were never enough vacant positions and the poverty and misery of the scholarly circles was hard to imagine. The only way an aspiring young history doctor could pursue a scholarly career was to marry well and live on the wife’s fortune. Burckhardt might have exaggerated to make his point, but other similar examples suggest that many shared his opinion. Although new chairs were established and funding was assigned for research, the development could not keep up with the rapidly growing number of university students during the second half of the century. Yet, in spite of this, I dare to argue that the nineteenth-century career anxieties cannot be compared with what postdocs experience today. There are two key-issues which help to substantiate this claim: quantitative and qualitative.
So, let’s first talk about numbers. It is widely known that the number of doctoral degrees has been in steep rise for years while the funding options for early career historians have not followed this development. Quite the contrary, the financial crisis hit hard the universities where the humanities tend to be a prime target for cutbacks leaving a growing number of fresh doctors competing for the scarce fellowships and coveted tenure track positions. I don’t, of course, question the necessity of competition for sciences – competition is one of the fundaments of high-quality research – but at the moment the scale of the competition is such that there is nothing healthy in it.
What about then the unique quality of the twenty-first century postdoctoral blues? When a nineteenth-century historian succeeded in landing in a job at the university, he likely secured himself life-long employment. This is nothing but a distant dream to most of the early-career historians today. The academic career has to be sown together from short-term positions and different pieces of funding. The concept of job market has also changed dramatically. National borders no longer constitute the vocational pool and early-career historians move across continents and oceans in pursuit of academic employment. The shift divides opinions and a joy of adventure and sense of rootlessness are equally familiar companions to postmodern academic migrants.
The postdoctoral blues hits the low notes when the lyrics tell about the consequences the short-term gigs and continuous insecurity have on the quality of research and family life. Needless to say, it is impossible to embark on extensive research projects when a significant amount of time is needed to draft new proposals and applications for securing the next stretch of funding. Extensive projects are also threatened by the fact that it is decisive for winning funding that the candidate can boast a long list of publications. And well, articles can be swiftly produced only when the scope of the project is narrow enough that time is not “wasted” in collecting a large set of sources or in familiarizing with new theories and thoughts. Whether such narrowly focused research and lack of innovative approaches benefit historical scholarship is of course another matter. And, well, when it comes to the ramifications on family life, everyone should understand that when the sense of security comes in bite-size portions spread around the world at a time when many try to establish a family, leading an ordinary family life is, to say the least, challenging. Compromising and extraordinary understanding is required from spouses who have to adjust to the continuous unpredictability. So if you can find a partner – or an academic groupie as the species is depicted in PhD Comics – who can put up with all of this, hold on tight to that special someone.
What should then be done to solve these issues? The easy answer would be to demand more investment in early-career research but knowing the realities, this seems rather a utopian wish. Instead, a starting point could be to rethink the different funding structures and make a cautious step away from the short slots and towards longer-term research opportunities. It just is not possible to conduct cutting-edge research if the financial backing comes only on yearly-bases. Another critical point that needs to be addressed is the lack of career prospects at the universities. It is no longer feasible to think that the best talents will remain at the universities without even the slightest hope for building an academic career. It feels that recent doctors’ need for security and sense of stability are grossly overlooked and it is presumed that they commit on scholarship out of pure passion for research. The reality could not be further from this outdated assumption.
In the midst of all this gloominess, is there anything that could save this blog entry from diving even deeper into the bluesy postdoctoral realities? Is the postdoctoral blues really nothing but career anxieties and stress? Of course not, postdoctoral life is also about the excitement and thrills of research, but unfortunately when the pile of rejection letters grows and the days of existing funding run short, it is hard to escape feeling nothing but blue and bitter. And no, it does not help that when the blues is on, someone comes to tell that “hey, you should have known what was coming on your way when you a) chose history as your major, b) chose to write your doctoral thesis in history, and c) because you were warned many times about the slim career options when you were a graduate student.” Yes, yes, and yes, but laying a guilt trip on the stressed out postdoc does not hit the mark, because the right target for criticism is not as much the young historian as it is the existing funding structures that have created the unhealthy and unreasonably competitive temporary employment rat race.
It is even harder to hide the pessimism when the thrill of securing a first major postdoctoral gig slowly fades out, the privileged days of employment near an end and lack of subsequent funding threatens a successful completion of the research project. At moments like this, nothing feels better than the good old bluesy self-pity, but since that does not contribute to a dramatic comeback to the academia, more fruitful approaches are needed to salvage whatever is left from the professional self-esteem and dignity. While finding an alternative employment might not feel attracting at all, it probably is an unavoidable step that has to be taken at some point or another. In such case, the creativity, innovativeness and uniqueness – all skills and qualities familiar from those submitted funding applications – come handy. Just to prove the point that the world needs historians, I hope that the example of Boston historians’ creative career thinking will help to inspire all of us who are at the moment writing applications and battling the postdoctoral blues.
Thus, instead of heading to the nearest karaoke bar to sing the postdoctoral blues, it might be a more beneficial to head to the nearest pub to earn some bucks to keep those scholarly dreams of an academic career afloat.