I’ve written here before about different stages in my academic career, and the opportunities and challenges each one has brought. I’m now three months in to a postdoc research fellowship, my first full-time academic role after finishing my DPhil in 2020. It’s been a big move in various ways – across the Atlantic to Toronto, Canada; from my training in English departments to a specialised institute of Medieval Studies, with a focus on Latin; and from the life of an ‘independent scholar’, fitting my academic pursuits around a full-time admin job, to a sudden freedom to spend all my time in research.
This opportunity has been a gift and a privilege, one that I didn’t see coming. From talking to friends and colleagues in the last few years, I know that postdoc roles vary hugely in length, in what they require and expect, and how much support is given. I didn’t really know what to expect of my time in Toronto, but so far I have felt amazingly provided for and well supported as I dive back in to research and academic work. I have the chance to dig deeper into an area of my research I could only touch on during my doctorate, learning from experts and making use of Toronto’s excellent resources for the study of medieval Latin culture.
But as some of you reading will know, life as a postdoc can be an oddly in-between place. People outside academia rarely know what I mean by postdoc and tend to assume I’m a student, which is understandable but can be a little frustrating! Within the academy, it’s common for postdocs to have few peers around them, if any – I’m fortunate to be one of a cohort of four early career scholars at my institute, but it’s very often the case that postdocs fall between the graduate students and the more established academics, no longer studying (with the structured support that provides, or at least should provide!) but still precarious in their career.
Short duration, and the precarity that goes with it, is one of the most complicated aspects of navigating a postdoc. My fellowship is for a year, which means that not an insignificant proportion of the first few months has been spent applying for further opportunities – time I would much rather be giving to my new research project. Other postdocs I know have longer, others even shorter lengths of time, depending on the purpose and institution, but the uniting factor is the overriding sense of impermanence and, very often, accompanying anxiety about the future. The growing crisis of academic employment opportunities means that for many people, this way of life may not end with one postdoc role, but will extend through years and years of fixed-term and ‘portfolio’ academic work, with no guarantee of the stability of a permanent job on the other side.
Intervarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network has recently published this post about some of these issues, and an online formation group specifically for postdocs is beginning in the new year (do check out the link and get in touch if you’re interested!). I attended an initial information session and time of prayer for this group, and I was startled by how much of a relief it was to talk with others in a similar liminal, transitional place, with the common ground of wanting to follow Jesus well in this in-between phase of our careers.
If you’re a postdoc right now, are you connected to a community that understands your specific needs and opportunities, and can pray for you and support you in an informed way? (For some, it might make sense to get involved with a graduate ministry – I’ve been warmly welcomed to the Graduate Christian Fellowship at the University of Toronto – but for others it may be necessary to get more creative!) If you’re in a different stage, but there are postdocs in your life – whether as supervisees, friends, colleagues – take the opportunity to ask how you can pray for them or support them where they are now.
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