Personal story: from PhD to postdoc

Pieter Houten
30 Sep ’21

Are you figuring out what you want after your PhD?

To help you and your fellow researchers find your career path, we developed a new platform: AcademicsConnected. Here you can explore six research focused career journeys, get expert advice and read personal stories from other researchers.

Today we share Pieter's personal story. After his PhD graduation, he got a postdoc position abroad. How did he get there? And what are his tips for PhDs who have the same ambitions?

Name: Pieter Houten
Master’s degree: Ancient History (Utrecht University)
PhD degree: Urban networks and economic integration in the Roman Empire (Leiden University)
Current position: Postdoc Project ATLAS (Universität Hamburg)

"If you decide to continue in academia, prepare for at least a decade of job uncertainty."

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your PhD?

Since the moment I started my PhD, I have had the ambition to get a tenured position at a (Dutch) university. During my PhD I got the advice to look for an opportunity abroad, as this is one of the ‘demands’ for a successful career leading to tenure. I had the luck to obtain my first postdoc at the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

The ultimate goal of a tenured position is quite hard to fulfil especially in my field: Ancient History. One of the major uncertainties is the ‘demand’ for experience abroad. It is quite challenging to switch countries and the required academic exile after a PhD falls at the most inconvenient moment in life: when you want to start thinking about settling down.

Job security is another uncertainty to keep in mind. I took up teaching during my PhD as a serious task and aimed at gaining as much experience here as possible. This led to a few short-term teaching positions at two Dutch universities. These allowed me to finish writing the PhD-thesis and start the process to find my next position by job searching and grant writing.

At first, the opportunities after finishing the PhD-thesis were quite unclear to me. My supervisor stated that publishing the dissertation is the first and foremost task to get job opportunities. Whereas this is certainly true, nowadays we need to have more output than one book.

To get more opinions on how to succeed in academia I asked tenured members of faculty at several universities for advice. This way I learned about the need to have a few publications, in addition to a published thesis, to gain a postdoc position or a grant. However, for a tenured position teaching is also an important component. One of the challenges is to keep the balance between research and teaching. And of course your personal life.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

When finishing the PhD-thesis I started writing grant proposals. During this writing process, I asked colleagues for advice, tested my ideas and shared with them my willingness to take the needed steps to continue in academia.

Furthermore, I created a supportive international network by presenting at several conferences and workshops. This allowed me to create a broad network of peer and senior researchers, which I believe is key in getting further on the academic path.

Personal growth: Why does this job fit you?

During my PhD trajectory, I learned about what I want to get out of a job. For me this is international collaboration and the search for a deeper understanding of our world. However, without losing my personal life out of sight. My current postdoc position in Hamburg allows me to further develop my skills, expand my knowledge and my international network. This all benefits me in getting a tenured position.

The takeaway: What can others learn from your story?

Start thinking about your options early, and ask your promotor and other faculty members for advice on the career path. Create a wide supportive network of peers and seniors within your field. When asking for help on your academic path, do not be afraid to specify your goals and direction. However, as our path is never straightforward, we have to keep an open mind. Even though I planned to spend my academic exile in Spain, I ended up having postdoc positions in the UK and Germany.

An honest advice from an early career researcher: if you decide to continue in academia, prepare for at least a decade of job uncertainty. This decade will see several short-term positions. Start looking for the next one, at least six months before the end of each of these positions. Many job applications and research proposals will be rejected, but the next one might be around the corner.

Want to read more personal stories from researchers in other sectors? Navigate your career on AcademicsConnected and be inspired!

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