, Volume 52, Issue 3, pp 329–349 | Cite as

Postdoctoral Life Scientists and Supervision Work in the Contemporary University: A Case Study of Changes in the Cultural Norms of Science

  • Ruth MüllerEmail author


This paper explores the ways in which postdoctoral life scientists engage in supervision work in academic institutions in Austria. Reward systems and career conditions in academic institutions in most European and other OECD countries have changed significantly during the last two decades. While an increasing focus is put on evaluating research performances, little reward is attached to excellent performances in mentoring and advising students. Postdoctoral scientists mostly inhabit fragile institutional positions and experience harsh competition, as the number of available senior positions is small compared to that of young scientists striving for an academic career. To prevail in this competition, publications and mobility are key. Educational work is rarely rewarded. Nevertheless, postdocs play a key role in educating PhD students, as overburdened senior scientists often pass on practical supervision duties to their postdoctoral fellows. This paper shows how under these conditions, postdocs reframe the students they supervise as potential resources for co-authored publications. What might look like a mutually beneficial solution at a first glance, in practice implies the subordination of the values of education to the logic of production, which marginalizes spaces primarily devoted to education. The author argues that conflicts like this are indicative of broader changes in the cultural norms of science and academic citizenship, rendering community-oriented tasks such as education work less attractive to academic scientists. Since education and supervision work are central cornerstones of any functioning higher education and research system, this could have negative repercussions for the long-term development of academic institutions.


Science policy Higher education Academic career Academic citizenship Life sciences Postdocs 



This paper is based on research conducted in the research project ‘Living Changes in the Life Sciences,’ funded by GEN-AU/BMWF (Project leader: Ulrike Felt; main collaborators: Maximilian Fochler, Ruth Müller; 09/2007-12/2010). The author was also funded by a research fellowship of the University of Vienna (03/2011-11/2011) for her PhD thesis, which this paper is part of. Many thanks to Ulrike Felt, Max Fochler and the two anonymous reviewers for their input and invaluable feedback; to Martha Kenney, Cornelia Schadler Michael Penkler and Kay Felder for their thoughtful comments; and to Martha again for excellent final language editing. This paper was first presented at the conference ‘Risky Entanglements. Contemporary Research Cultures Imagined and Practiced.’ (Vienna, Austria, June 9-11 2010). Many thanks to the other co-organizers of this conference (Joachim Allgaier, Ulrike Felt, Maximilian Fochler) and to the audience for their constructive feedback.


  1. Ackers, Louise. 2008. Internationalisation, mobility and metrics: A new form of indirect discrimination? Minerva 46(4): 411–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Åkerlind, Gerlese. 2005. Postdoctoral researchers: roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development 24(1): 21–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berman, Judith E., Tim Pitman, Campbel Thomson, and Sato Juniper. 2008. Reconceptualising post-PhD research pathways: a model to create new postdoctoral positions and improve the quality of postdoctoral training in Australia. Australian Universities Review 50(2): 71–78.Google Scholar
  4. Bonaccorsi, Andrea, Cinzia Daraio, and Aldo Geuna. 2010. Universities in the New Knowledge Landscape. Tensions, Challenges, Change—An Introduction. Minerva 48(1): 1–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown, Shirley. 2002. Student Counselling and Students’ Failure. In Failing Students in Higher Education, eds. Moira T. Peelo, and Terry Wareham, 139–150. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Deem, Rosemary. 1998. ‘New managerialism’ and higher education: The management of performances and cultures in universities in the United Kingdom. International Studies in Sociology of Education 8: 47–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Deem, Rosemary. 2001. Globalisation, new managerialism, academic capitalism and entrepreneurialism in universities: Is the local dimension still important? Comparative Education 37: 7–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Delamont, Sara, and Paul Atkinson. 2001. Doctoring Uncertainty: Mastering Craft Knowledge. Social Studies of Science 31: 87–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Erikson, Kai T. 1976. Everything in its path. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  10. European Commission. 2004. Europe Needs More Scientists. Accessed April 2 2012.
  11. Etzkowitz, Henry, and Loet Leydesdorff. 1998. The endless transition: a “Triple Helix” of university-industry-government relations, Introduction to a theme issue. Minerva 36: 203–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Felt, Ulrike, Maximilian Fochler, and Michael Strassnig. 2010. Experimente partizipativer ELSA-Forschung. Eine methodenpolitische Reflexion. In Genomforschung–Politik–Gesellschaft. Perspektiven auf ethische, rechtliche und soziale Aspekte der Genomforschung. Sonderband ÖZS, eds. Erich Grießler, and Harald Rohracher, 33–67. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.Google Scholar
  13. Felt, Ulrike (ed.). 2009. Knowing and Living in Academic Research. Convergence and Heterogeneity in Research Cultures in the European Context. Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.Google Scholar
  14. Fochler, Maximilian, Ulrike Felt, and Ruth Müller. Unpublished. For what it’s worth. Academic lives, knowledge production and valuation practices in the life sciences. Manuscript in preparation for submission to American Journal of Sociology. Google Scholar
  15. Ferlie, Ewan, Christine Musselin, and Gianluca Andresani. 2008. The steering of higher education systems: a public management perspective. Higher Education 56: 325–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow. 1994. The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  17. Hackett, Edward J. 1990. Science as vocation in the 1990s: The changing organizational culture of academic science. Journal of Higher Education 61(3): 241–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jacob, Merle. 2000. ‘Mode 2’ in context: The contract researcher, the university and the knowledge society. In The future of knowledge production in the academy, eds. Merle Jacob, and Tomas Hellström, 11–27. Buckingham: Open Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  19. Jacob, Merle, and Tomas Hellström (eds.). 2000. The future of knowledge production in the academy. Buckingham: Open Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  20. Lam, Alice. 2010. From ‘Ivory Tower Traditionalists’ to ‘Entrepreneurial Scientists’? Academic Scientists in Fuzzy University-Industry Boundaries. Social Studies of Science 40(2): 307–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Macfarlane, Bruce. 2005. The disengaged academic: The retreat from citizenship. Higher Education Quarterly 59(4): 296–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Macfarlane, Bruce. 2006. The Academic Citizen: The Virtue of Service in University Life. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Martin, Ben R., and Henry Etzkowitz. 2000. The origin and evolution of the university species. Vest 13: 9–34.Google Scholar
  24. Merton, Robert K. 1942. The normative structure of science. In The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations, ed. Robert K. Merton. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 1973.Google Scholar
  25. Miller, Thaddeus R., and Mark W. Neff. 2013. De-facto science policy in the making: How scientists shape science policy and why it matters (or, why STS and STP scholars should socialize). Minerva 51(3): 295–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Mitroff, Ian I. 1974. Norms and counter-norms in a select group of the Apollo moon scientists: A case study of the ambivalence of scientists. American Sociological Review 39: 579–595.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Müller, Ruth. 2012. Collaborating in life science research groups: The question of authorship. Higher Education Policy 25: 289–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Müller, Ruth. 2014. Racing for What? Scientific Practice, Pace and Meaning. Forum: Qualitative Social Research (in press).Google Scholar
  29. Müller, Ruth, and Martha Kenney. 2014. Agential Conversations. On Interviewing Life Scientists and the Politics of Mundane Research Practices. Science as Culture, Online First 29 May.Google Scholar
  30. Nowotny, Helga, Peter Scott, and Michael Gibbons. 2001. Re-thinking science. Knowledge in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  31. Scaffidi, Amelia K., and Judith E. Berman. 2011. A positive postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education Online First 31 March: 1–14.Google Scholar
  32. Science. 2005. Not your father’s postdoc. Editorial feature. Science 308(5722): 717–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shils, Edward. 1997. The calling of education. The academic ethic and other essays on higher education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Silver, Harold. 2003. Does a University Have a Culture? Studies in Higher Education 28(2): 157–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Slaughter, Sheila, and Larry L. Leslie. 1997. Academic capitalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Stephan, Paula. 2012. How Economics Shapes Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Strathern, Marylin (ed.). 2000. Audit cultures. Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  38. Strauss, Anselm, and Juliet Corbin. 1998. Basics of qualitative research. Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, London & New Delhi: Sage.Google Scholar
  39. Scientist, The. 2006. Are we training too many scientists? Feature. The Scientist 20(9): 42f.Google Scholar
  40. The Scientist. 2013. Opinion: Publish Negative Results. Non-confirmatory or “negative” results are not worthless.
  41. Torka, Marc. 2009. Die Projektförmigkeit der Forschung. Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung 3. Baden-Baden: Nomos.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ylijoki, Oili-Helena, and Hans Mäntylä. 2003. Conflicting time perspectives in academic work. Time & Society 12: 55–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ylijoki, Oili-Helena. 2005. Academic nostalgia: A narrative approach to academic work. Human Relations 58: 555–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Policy GroupLund UniversityLundSweden

Personalised recommendations