Personal story Julieta Matos-Castaño

Name: Julieta Matos-Castaño
Master’s degree: Construction Management and Engineering (University of Twente)
PhD degree: “Frames and dilemmas in multifunctional projects” (University of Twente)
Current position: Postdoctoral researcher Human Centred Design (University of Twente)

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

To me, the PhD was a great opportunity to explore where my capabilities and aspirations lie. Contrary to many of my colleagues, my PhD was a journey of self-discovery, a time to get a perspective on what I wanted from my career. Throughout those 4 years, it became clear that with my work I want to bridge academic knowledge and practice to tackle societal challenges. Addressing societal challenges calls for innovation, experimentation and reflection which are elements at the core of academic practice. At the same time, working hand in hand with societal partners and applying that academic knowledge is essential to make a real impact and further develop knowledge. Making this bridge requires creative methods and tools to bring people together and collaborate, to understand and learn from one another. Having learned this, my ambition became to work in the field of design, in particular in futures or innovation design in different contexts; where the main goal is to co-create visions, and figure out together ways to make them happen.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

Fulfilling this ambition was hard because it took me a long time to articulate what it is about. At times, while working in academia, we tend to think in abstract terms that seem difficult to translate into “the real” world. I have experienced this. Besides, wanting to be at the intersection between academia and practice is difficult because people never know whether you are an academic or a practitioner. I learned to accept that I enjoy being a ‘hybrid’ professional and that’s where my strengths are.

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

After my PhD, I worked as a change management consultant in an international big consultancy firm. During this experience, I collaborated with organizations to support them through big transformations. This experience was very valuable for me, to put the skills I obtained during my PhD to practice, and to learn about different organizational culture, dynamics and challenges that different industries experience.

While working as a consultant, I heard about an exciting postdoctoral position in Human Centred Design. Excited about the possibility of working on a project with research and industry partners, and knowing that I would have the creative freedom to build something together with an interdisciplinary team, I decided to join this project. I also joined a different project at the DesignLab of the University of Twente. Combining both projects has been an exciting combination to bridge research knowledge and practice as I intended. I have been combining these positions at the university with my role as a senior creative consultant; learning and enjoying my different positions.

Personal growth: Why does this position fit you?

This position fits me because I have the creative and intellectual freedom to develop and experiment with new methods to tackle societal challenges and to work towards responsible futures. I enjoy working in interdisciplinary teams, working on projects while having the opportunity to reflect and experiment. Research plays an important part in my job since I learn from the insights I get from practice to further develop new methods and learn something new about the world.

Take away: What can others learn from your story?

In my experience, a postdoc position is a wonderful opportunity for development. At the career stage at which you start a postdoc, you have a clearer perspective on what you want to achieve and learn; so a postdoc gives you the possibility to shape that path. Some people want to pursue a tenure track so they focus their energy on that, while others aim at working closely with the industry. Depending on the project, and having clear alignment with the team, I have experienced that it is possible to pursue your ambitions.

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Personal story Pieter Houten

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)

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.

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