About the Author

Silke Oldenburg

“Oh, you are a postdoc. Would you consider yourself rather a grad student or a professional?”Silke

Let’s start this essay by this little anecdote from my first encounter of the Basel and Virginia Tech groups.

I will deal in this brief report with the process of being and becoming in academia while focusing on the “impossible word” (Constable 2015) of “young academic” or “youngster” (wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs). The postdoctoral stage of researchers is one of the most critical periods in their professional lives and can be a very long period. So, what does the German term „Nachwuchs“ imply for Higher Education systems? Imagine a researcher with fifteen years of research, teaching and publishing experience and a grad student beginning the PhD. The term „Nachwuchs“ denigrates and infantilizes (Hirschi 2012) scholars who are the driving forces behind innovative research around the world. As this labelling impacts on academic and private lifestyles, academic careers are challenging and not merely regarded attractive as we discussed in our mixed Basel and Virginia Tech group.

In the higher education systems of Switzerland and the USA, the number of PhDs awarded has steadily increased while the proportionate number of tenure track positions available at academic research institutions has decreased (Hirschi 2015). Passing the so called bottleneck of being a “young academic” to becoming a full professor one day will be at the centre of this essay. Is it “the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” as framed Basel’s Vice Rector alarmingly the period of the postdoc? Even more poignant he declares the “postdoctoral (as) the lost generation in (his) University” (Constable 2015).

From my perspective as a postdoc at University of Basel, I will reflect on the question if the postdoc is a period of employment or of training: What are the functions of postdocs in different universities and differing countries? What are the professional development opportunities and what is the importance of graduate students and postdocs for higher education?

Defining a Postdoc

The question of whether a postdoc is still learning or already autonomously working is paradigmatic and comes up as in the question of my Virginia Tech-colleague. The lacking clarity of definition is as well clearly visible in the changing denominations of postdocs who are sometimes addressed as “postdoctoral researchers”, “scholars” but also often as “postdoc students” (see e.g. GPP 2010: 7).

Let’s see some definitions from the US and Swiss higher education institutions. The US national postdoc-organization defines a postdoc as follows:

“A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is defined in the US as an individual holding a doctoral degree and who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing”

The Vice Rector from University of Basel refers to a similar definition:

“A post-doctoral researcher is a person conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies as part of a temporary appointment, usually in preparation for an academic faculty position. It is intended to further deepen expertise in a specialist subject, including integrating a team and acquiring novel skills and methods” (Wikipedia, cited by Constable 2015: 15).

Although the progression from graduate student to postdoc to tenure-track to tenured professor remains relatively direct, this progression describes the minority of academic careers which may no longer follow this neat trajectory. The rise of contingent academic labor and lengthened postdoctoral periods suggest that more non-linear paths might more closely match the reality, even in academia (Reed 2007).

In the German-speaking world a large proportion of young researchers go on to gain a postdoctoral qualification (called Habilitation), which is the traditional prerequisite for the appointment to a professorship, mostly still in humanities and social sciences. This system has been in flux for several years now. The introduction of so-called junior professorships in Germany created the status of non-tenured professors, while the funding of junior research group leaders opened up an alternative route to professorial appointment. The prominence of the habilitation depends on the field: Within the natural sciences the habilitation has become a mere ritual while the habilitation is still an important qualification for careers in the humanities and social sciences.

Problem: The Postdoc Bubble

After defending the PhD, options become difficult: is there a light at the end of the tunnel? There are no guarantees however. You might be in your 30s or early 40s with underpaid teaching. Neither the preparation of classes might be covered nor retirement provisions, not to mention the difficulties of a work-life-balance because of the expected mobility and the uncertainty that prevents many to form a family. However, a recent survey revealed, the majority of postdocs still aspires to achieve tenure-track faculty positions at research universities (Reed 2007).

As the number of PhDs increases, Switzerland contributes tremendously to the global „Postdoc bubble” (Hirschi 2012). As many scholars holding a PhD might not be absorbed by neither academia nor industry, more and more young researchers juggle and live from one temporary contract to the next. Working conditions and perspectives can be harsh. There is no sufficient time for qualitatively high ranking research or following one’s innovative ideas. The bottleneck towards a full professorship is getting tightened and the departure towards private economy is becoming harder as graduates are overqualified and getting older although remaining “academic youngsters”. Ed Constable explains that this bubble therefore produces a „lost generation“ (Constable 2015: 3). According to Hirschi (2015) Switzerland is boosting the Postdoc-Bubble because of project funding of the Swiss National Foundation (SNF) and the European Research Council (ERC).

Still, Swiss universities follow research-wise top-ranking universities in the US and Great Britain (Hirschi 2015). They recruit highly qualified staff, benefit from stable structures and protect, compared to non-Swiss universities, a relatively high degree of self-regulation. Yet, generally working conditions are harsh for postdocs in Switzerland. The number of PhD students/researchers has doubled since the year 2000. Switzerland has by far the highest number of PhDs within OECD countries per capita (OECD 2008: 157; WBF 2014: 6). However, despite intrinsic motivation, young postdocs are scared away because of a lacking vision or a better predictability of their career path, particularly in the postdoc period. If you decide and dedicate yourself to an academic career, you don’t know how things will evolve.

One of the biggest problems in the system are lacking permanent positions besides the full professor. The system is clearly dualistic: On the one side there are the professors, on the other side the “young academics”. They are “youngsters” despite their age and years of experience as a researcher. Depending on reference letters and the goodwill of their professors in order to acquire research funds or guidance for promotion might make them shy away from critical academic contributions. In US research universities the options next to full professor are more diverse and flexible as it appears. The creation of such options for academics in Switzerland is a central challenge.

If young academics are always occupied securing the next short-term contract, they cannot focus adequately on their work and put in danger the quality of research and teaching. They will shy away from innovative approaches. It would be useful to provide more incentives and create additional long-term positions to encourage the career promotion instead of bringing forward more and more short-term projects, increasing the postdoc bubble and letting the scholars in a very long situation of being a “youngster”.

There is neither in the US nor in Switzerland a clearly defined status of postdocs relating to objectives and tasks. Time for research is often not there and many postdocs are busy with teaching. In Swiss higher education institution, young researchers aim at a “flexibilisation” of the chair-centered structure of higher education institutions and claim the creation of additional assistant professorship positions with different profiles, e.g. teaching or researching (SWTR report 2013).

There are differences in institutional behavior of higher education institutions and higher education systems are embedded in a bigger global context. The American tenure-track-system opens up a perspective for postdocs to remain in the academic system if they perform their duties according to the before defined criteria: Be it as a professor or another fixed-term contract in academia without using the denigrating label of “youngster”. These (Swiss) youngsters are only very late in their career enabled to research independently and autonomously. The uncertainty in planning a career is due to unclear working conditions. In Switzerland the will to mentor, the allocation of resources and the provision of references depend from the chair and goes top-down. In the US, there are a number of positions for independent research and teaching with more diversified career options and perspectives for an open-end position.

Perspectives for Postdocs in Higher Education

Discussing the importance of graduate students and postdocs to higher education among peers working at Virgina Tech and Basel university brought many different aspects to the fore. I answered my colleague’s question from the beginning with a convinced: “I consider myself as a professional”. However, being still at the beginning of my postdoc and therewith still considered an “academic youngster”, I struggle with the structural implications of this label as it tells a lot about the appreciation and importance given to the postdoc by the higher education framework. The direct engagement with US higher education system in general and the interaction with the Virginia Tech group in particular showed that the challenges that graduate students and postdocs are confronted with on their way to becoming global academic leaders are strikingly similar. However, learning more about the different options of postdocs besides the full professorship inspires to think more about paradigmatic changes to guarantee long-term perspectives for researchers out of the label of being “a youngster”.


  1. Constable, Ed (2015): What is the Post-Doc for? …. The End of the Beginning or the Beginning of the End? Conference Proceedings, 25.05.2015, Reykjavik.
  2. Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung, WBF (2014): Massnahmen zur Förderung des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses in der Schweiz. Bericht des Bundesrats in Erfüllung des Postulats WBK-SR (12.3343).
  3. GPP Manual (2010): Global Perspectives. Comparative views of academic leadership, governance, research and teaching in Swiss and US Higher Education. University of Basel.
  4. Hirschi, Caspar (2012): Bessere Karriereaussichten? Die Schweiz als Alternative für junge deutsche Wissenschaftler. In: Forschung & Lehre, 11 (15).
  5. Hirschi, Caspar (2015): Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs. Paradebeispiel einer Scheinreform. In: nzz, 25.05.2015
  6. National Postdoctoral Association: http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/
  7. OECD (2008): OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook. Country Notes Switzerland.
  8. Reed, Alyson (2007): The Situation of Postdoctoral Careers in the United States. In: Alexander-von-Humboldt-Stiftung (Ed.): Postdoctoral Career Paths: International Perspectives. 1st Forum of the AvH International Advisory Board, Washington.
  9. SWTR Schrift 2/2013 Nachwuchsförderung für eine innovative Schweiz. Grundlagen für eine umfassende Förderung von Nachwuchskräften für Wissenschaft, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.