Skip to main content

What makes them leave? A path model of postdocs’ intentions to leave academia


A growing number of postdoctoral academics cite stressful working conditions for considering abandoning their studies and leaving the academic profession entirely before they obtain a tenured position. This paper identifies the mechanisms by which work stress influences postdocs’ intentions to leave academia. Based on Schaubroeck et al.’s (1989) stress-turnover-intention model, we propose a professional turnover-intention model that includes both the effort-reward imbalance model as a comprehensive measure of work stress and affective professional commitment. The research model is tested using structural equation modeling (SEM) and data from 421 postdocs. The results show significant support for the hypothesized effects. In particular, a three-path-mediated effect is found from work stress to the intention to leave academia via strain and job satisfaction. Additional analyses reveal significant gender differences: The relationship between overcommitment and strain is stronger for female postdocs than it is for male postdocs, and the direct link between work stress and the intention to leave academia applies only to female postdocs. Further, job satisfaction fully mediates the relationship between affective professional commitment and the intention to leave academia. Thus, we provide a model on an academics’ professional turnover intention that goes beyond previous research by incorporating two important mediators, strain and job satisfaction. We also confirm the relevance of affective professional commitment to professional turnover intentions in the realm of academia. Specific policy recommendations for retaining more postdocs in academia are given.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  • Agarwala, A. (2015). Prekariat mit Doktorgrad. Accessed 17/03/06.

  • Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development. doi:10.1080/0729436052000318550.

  • Allisey, A., Rodwell, J., & Noblet, A. (2012). Personality and the effort-reward imbalance model of stress: Individual differences in reward sensitivity. Work & Stress. doi:10.1080/02678373.2012.714535.

  • Anderson, D., Sweeney, D., Williams, T., Camm, J., & Cochran, J. (2014). Statistics for Business & Economics (12th ed.). Stamford, CT: South-Western.

    Google Scholar 

  • Association of American Universities (2005). Graduate and postdoctoral education committee – Postdoctoral education survey summary of results. Washington, DC: Association of American Universities.

  • Aust, B., Peter, R., & Siegrist, J. (1997). Stress management in bus drivers: A pilot study based on the model of effort-reward imbalance. International Journal of Stress Management, 4(4), 297–305.

  • Bäker, A. (2015). Non-tenured post-doctoral researchers’ job mobility and research output: An analysis of the role of research discipline, department size, and coauthors. Research Policy, 44(3), 634–650.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barnes, L. L. B., Agago, M. O., & Coombs, W. T. (1998). Effects of job-related stress on faculty intention to leave academia. Research in Higher Education, 39(4), 457–469.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Berndt, S., Burkhardt, A., Nickel, S., Püttmann, V., & Rathmann, A. (2014). Karrierewege von Juniorprofessor(inn)en und Nachwuchsgruppenleiter(inne)n. Accessed 15/11/02.

  • Blau, G. (2000). Job, organizational, and professional context antecedents as predictors of intent for interrole work transitions. Journal of Vocational Behavior. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1999.1718.

  • Blau, G. (2009). Can a four-dimensional model of occupational commitment help to explain intent to leave one’s occupation? Career Development International. doi:10.1108/13620430910950737.

  • Blau, G., Tatum, D. S., & Ward-Cook, K. (2003). Correlates of professional versus organizational withdrawal cognitions. Journal of Vocational Behavior. doi:10.1016/S0001-8791(02)00019-2.

  • BMBF (2017a). Das Professorinnenprogramm. Accessed 17/03/03.

  • BMBF (2017b). Das Tenure-Track Programm. Accessed 17/03/03.

  • Boyd, N. G., Lewin, J. E., & Sager, J. K. (2009). A model of stress and coping and their influence on individual and organizational outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2009.03.010.

  • Brechelmacher, A., Park, E., Ates, G., & Campbell, D. F. J. (2015). The rocky road to tenure – Career paths in academia. In T. Fumasoli, G. Goastellec, & B. Kehm (Eds.), Academic work and careers in Europe: Trends, challenges, perspectives (pp. 13–40). Wiesbaden: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Byrne, B. M. (2004). Testing for multigroup invariance using AMOS graphics: A road less traveled. Structural Equation Modeling. doi:10.1207/s15328007sem1102_8.

  • Calnan, M., Wainwright, D., & Almond, S. (2000). Job strain, effort-reward imbalance and mental distress: A study of occupations in general medical practice. Work & Stress. doi:10.1080/02678370110040920.

  • Chang, S.-J., Van Witteloostuijn, A., & Eden, L. (2010). From the editors: Common method variance in international business research. Journal of International Business Studies. doi:10.1057/jibs.2009.88.

  • Chlosta, K., Pull, K., Fiedler, M., & Welpe, I. M. (2010). Should I stay or should I go? Warum Nachwuchswissenschaftler in der Betriebswirtschaftslehre das Universitätssystem verlassen [Should I stay or should I go? Why junior scientists’ in business administration leave the university career system]. Zeitschrift für Betriebswirtschaft. doi:10.1007/s11573-010-0403-1.

  • Daly, C. J., & Dee, J. R. (2006). Greener pastures: Faculty turnover intent in urban public universities. The Journal of Higher Education. doi:10.1353/jhe.2006.0040.

  • Davis, G. (2009). Improving the postdoctoral experience: An empirical approach. In R. B. Freeman & D. L. Goroff (Eds.), Science and engineering careers in the United States: An analysis of markets and employment (pp. 99–127). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • De Croon, E. M., Sluiter, J. K., Blonk, R. W. B., Broersen, J. P. J., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. W. (2004). Stressful work, psychological job strain, and turnover: A 2-year prospective cohort study of truck drivers. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.89.3.442.

  • De Jonge, J., Bosma, H., Peter, R., & Siegrist, J. (2000). Job strain, effort-reward imbalance and employee well-being: A large-scale cross-sectional study. Social Science & Medicine. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(99)00388-3.

  • Derycke, H., Vlerick, P., Burnay, N., Decleire, C., D’Hoore, W., Hasselhorn, H. M., et al. (2010). Impact of the effort-reward imbalance model on intent to leave among Belgian health care workers: A prospective study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. doi:10.1348/096317909X477594.

  • DFG (2017). Excellence Initiative. _initiative/index.html. Accessed 17/03/03.

  • EFI (2017). Report 2017. Accessed 17/03/03.

  • Esdar, W., Gorges, J., & Wild, E. (2015). The role of basic need satisfaction for junior academics’ goal conflicts and teaching motivation. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9944-0.

  • Evers, A., & Sieverding, M. (2015). Academic career intention beyond the PhD: Can the theory of planned behavior explain gender differences? Journal of Applied Social Psychology. doi:10.1111/jasp.12285.

  • Farkas, A. J., & Tetrick, L. E. (1989). A three-wave longitudinal analysis of the causal ordering of satisfaction and commitment on turnover decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.74.6.855.

  • Federal Statistical Office (2016a). Bildung und Kultur. Studierende an Hochschulen [Education and culture. Exams in universities 2015]. Wiesbaden: Federal Statistical Office.

  • Federal Statistical Office. (2016b). Bildung und Kultur. Personal an Hochschulen 2015 [Education and culture. University personnel 2015]. Wiesbaden: Federal Statistical Office.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, L., & Lück, H. E. (1972). Entwicklung einer Skala zur Messung von Arbeitszufriedenheit (SAZ) [Scale Development for the Measurement of Job Satisfaction]. Psychologie und Praxis, 16(2), 64–76.

  • Fitzenberger, B., & Schulze, U. (2014). Up or out: Research incentives and career prospects of postdocs in Germany. German Economic Review. doi:10.1111/geer.12010.

  • Ford, J. K., MacCallum, R. C., & Tait, M. (1986). The application of exploratory factor analysis in applied psychology: A critical review and analysis. Personnel Psychology. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.1986.tb00583.x.

  • Geuna, A., & Shibayama, S. (2015). Moving out of academic research: Why scientists stop doing research? In A. Geuna (Ed.), Global mobility of research scientists. The Economics of who goes where and why (pp. 271–304). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Griffeth, R. W., Hom, P. W., & Gaertner, S. (2000). A meta-analysis of antecedents and correlates of employee turnover: Update, moderator tests, and research implications for the next millennium. Journal of Management. doi:10.1177/014920630002600305.

  • Harley, S., Muller-Camen, M., & Collin, A. (2004). From academic communities to managed organisations: The implications for academic careers in UK and German universities. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 329–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, K. J., James, M., & Boonthanom, R. (2005). Perceptions of organizational politics and cooperation as moderators of the relationship between job strains and intent to turnover. Journal of Managerial Issues, 17(1), 26–42.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hautzinger, M., & Bailer, M. (1993). Allgemeine depressions-Skala: ADS manual [general depression-scale: ADS manual]. Beltz-Test-GmbH: Weinheim.

    Google Scholar 

  • Höhle, E. A., & Teichler, U. (2013). The academic profession in the light of comparative surveys. In B. Kehm & U. Teichler (Eds.), The academic profession in Europe: New tasks and new challenges (pp. 23–38). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Homburg, C., & Baumgartner, H. (1995). Beurteilung von Kausalmodellen: Bestandsaufnahme und Anwendungsempfehlungen [Assessment of causal models: Inventory and recommendation for use]. Marketing: Zeitschrift für Forschung und Praxis, 162–176.

  • Horta, H. (2009). Holding a post-doctoral position before becoming a faculty member: Does it bring benefits for the scholarly enterprise? Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-009-9221-1.

  • Hox, J. J., & Bechger, T. M. (1998). An introduction to structural equation modelling. Family Science Review, 11(1), 354–373.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hu, L. t., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal. doi:10.1080/10705519909540118.

  • Huisman, J., de Weert, E., & Bartelse, J. (2002). Academic careers from a European perspective: The declining desirability of the faculty position. The Journal of Higher Education. doi:10.1353/jhe.2002.0007.

  • Hüther, O., & Krücken, G. (2016). Hochschulen: Fragestellungen, Ergebnisse und Perspektiven der sozialwissenschaftlichen Hochschulforschung [Universities: Questions, results, and perspectives of sociological higher education research]. Wiesbaden: Springer-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ipsos MORI (2013). Risks and rewards. How PhD students choose their careers: Qualitative research report. Accessed 16/07/13.

  • Johnsrud, L. K., & Rosser, V. J. (2002). Faculty members’ morale and their intention to leave: A multilevel explanation. The Journal of Higher Education. doi:10.1353/jhe.2002.0039.

  • Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations (2 ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

  • Kim, D., Wolf-Wendel, L., & Twombly, S. B. (2013). The role of citizenship status in intent to leave for pre-tenure faculty. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. doi:10.1037/a0034719.

  • Kinman, G., & Jones, F. (2008). Effort-reward imbalance and overcommitment: Predicting strain in academic employees in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Stress Management. doi:10.1037/a0013213.

  • Kline, R. B. (1998). Principles and practice of structural equation modeling. New York, NY: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Konsortium BuWin (2017). Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs 2017. Accessed 17/03/03.

  • Kreckel, R. (2008). Zwischen Promotion und Professur. Das wissenschaftliche Personal in Deutschland im Vergleich mit Frankreich, Großbritannien, USA, Schweden, den Niederlanden, Österreich und der Schweiz [In between PhD and professorship. Academic staff in Germany compared to France, Great Britain, USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland]. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsanstalt.

  • Krisor, S. M., & Rowold, J. (2013). Effort-reward imbalance theory and irritation: The important role of internal and external work-family conflict. Journal of Business and Media Psychology, 4(2), 1–10.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lawrence, J. H., Celis, S., Kim, H. S., Lipson, S. K., & Tong, X. (2014). To stay or not to stay: Retention of asian international faculty in STEM fields. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-013-9658-0.

  • Lee, K., Carswell, J. J., & Allen, N. J. (2000). A meta-analytic review of occupational commitment: Relations with person- and work-related variables. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.85.5.799.

  • MacKinnon, D. P., Lockwood, C. M., Hoffman, J. M., West, S. G., & Sheets, V. (2002). A comparison of methods to test mediation and other intervening variable effects. Psychological Methods. doi:10.1037/1082-989X.7.1.83.

  • Manger, T., & Eikeland, O.-J. (1990). Factors predicting staff’s intentions to leave the university. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/BF00133893.

  • Matier, M. W. (1990). Retaining faculty: A tale of two campuses. Research in Higher Education. doi:10.1007/bf00992556.

  • Meyer, J. P., Allen, N. J., & Smith, C. A. (1993). Commitment to organizations and occupations: Extension and test of a three-component conceptualization. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.78.4.538.

  • Miller, J. M., & Feldman, M. P. (2015). Isolated in the lab: Examining dissatisfaction with postdoctoral appointments. The Journal of Higher Education. doi:10.1353/jhe.2015.0029 2015.

  • Mobley, W. H. (1977). Intermediate linkages in the relationship between job satisfaction and employee turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.62.2.237.

  • Netemeyer, R. G., Burton, S., & Johnston, M. W. (1995). A nested comparison of four models of the consequences of role perception variables. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. doi:10.1006/obhd.1995.1007.

  • Niedhammer, I., Chastang, J.-F., David, S., Barouhiel, L., & Barrandon, G. (2006). Psychosocial work environment and mental health: Job-strain and effort-reward imbalance models in a context of major organizational changes. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. doi:10.1179/oeh.2006.12.2.111.

  • Nunnally, J. (1978). Psychometric methods. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • O’Grady, T., & Beam, P. S. (2011). Postdoctoral scholars: A forgotten library constituency. Science & Technology Libraries, 30, 76–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Lee, J.-Y., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2003). Common method biases in behavioral research: A critical review of the literature and recommended remedies. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.5.879.

  • Podsakoff, N. P., LePine, J. A., & LePine, M. A. (2007). Differential challenge stressor-hindrance stressor relationships with job attitudes, turnover intentions, turnover, and withdrawal behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.2.438.

  • Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2012). Sources of method bias in social science research and recommendations on how to control it. Annual Review of Psychology. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100452.

  • Powell, K. (2015). The future of the post-doc. Nature. doi:10.1038/520144a.

  • Price, J. L., & Mueller, C. W. (1981). A causal model of turnover for nurses. Academy of Management Journal. doi:10.2307/255574.

  • Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement. doi:10.1177/014662167700100306.

  • Rödel, A., Siegrist, J., Hessel, A., & Brähler, E. (2004). Fragebogen zur Messung beruflicher Gratifikationskrisen [Questionnaire for the Measurement of Effort-Reward Imbalance]. Zeitschrift für Differentielle und Diagnostische Psychologie. doi:10.1024/0170-1789.25.4.227.

  • Rogge, J.-C., & Tesch, J. (2016). Wissenschaftspolitik und wissenschaftliche Karriere [Science policy and academic career]. In D. Simon, A. Knie, S. Hornbostel, & K. Zimmermann (Eds.), Handbuch Wissenschaftspolitik [Handbook of science policy] (pp. 355–374): Springer.

  • Rosser, V. J. (2004). Faculty members’ intentions to leave: A national study on their worklife and satisfaction. Research in Higher Education. doi:10.1023/B:RIHE.0000019591.74425.f1.

  • Rosser, V. J., & Townsend, B. K. (2006). Determining public 2-year college faculty’s intent to leave: An empirical model. The Journal of Higher Education, 77(1), 124–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ryan, J. F., Healy, R., & Sullivan, J. (2012). Oh, won’t you stay? Predictors of faculty intent to leave a public research university. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-011-9448-5.

  • Scaffidi, A. K., & Berman, J. E. (2011). A positive postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-011-9407-1.

  • Schaubroeck, J., Cotton, J. L., & Jennings, K. R. (1989). Antecedents and consequences of role stress: A covariance structure analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior. doi:10.1002/job.4030100104.

  • Schmidt, K. H., & Diestel, S. (2012). The relation of self-control demands to job strain: The moderating role of organisational commitment. Applied Psychology. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2011.00479.x.

  • Siegrist, J. (1996). Adverse health effects of high-effort/low-reward conditions. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. doi:10.1037/1076-8998.1.1.27.

  • Siegrist, J. (2000). Place, social exchange and health: Proposed sociological framework. Social Science & Medicine. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(00)00092-7.

  • Siegrist, J. (2016). A theoretical model in the context of economic globalization. In J. Siegrist & M. Wahrendorf (Eds.), Work stress and health in a globalized economy: The model of effort-reward imbalance (pp. 3–19). Cham: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Siegrist, J., Starke, D., Chandola, T., Godin, I., Marmot, M., Niedhammer, I., et al. (2004). The measurement of effort-reward imbalance at work: European comparisons. Social Science & Medicine. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(03)00351-4.

  • Smart, J. C. (1990). A causal model of faculty turnover intentions. Research in Higher Education, 31(5), 405–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Snape, E., & Redman, T. (2003). An evaluation of a three-component model of occupational commitment: Dimensionality and consequences among United Kingdom human resource management specialists. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.1.152.

  • Steel, R. P., & Lounsbury, J. W. (2009). Turnover process models: Review and synthesis of a conceptual literature. Human Resource Management Review. doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2009.04.002.

  • Taylor, A. B., MacKinnon, D. P., & Tein, J.-Y. (2007). Tests of the three-path mediated effect. Organizational Research Methods. doi:10.1177/1094428107300344.

  • Teichler, U., Arimoto, A., & Cummings, W. K. (2013). The changing academic profession. Major findings of a comparative survey. Wiesbaden: Springer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Tett, R. P., & Meyer, J. P. (1993). Job satisfaction, organizational commitment, turnover intention, and turnover: Path analyses based on meta-analytic findings. Personnel Psychology. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.1993.tb00874.x.

  • van der Heijden, B. I. J. M., van Dam, K., & Hasselhorn, H. M. (2009). Intention to leave nursing: The importance of interpersonal work context, work-home interference, and job satisfaction beyond the effect of occupational commitment. Career Development International. doi:10.1108/13620430911005681.

  • van der Weijden, I., Teelken, C., de Boer, M., & Drost, M. (2016). Career satisfaction of postdoctoral researchers in relation to their expectations for the future. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9936-0.

  • van Dick, R., & Wagner, U. (2002). Social identification among school teachers: Dimensions, foci, and correlates. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. doi:10.1080/13594320143000889.

  • van Dick, R., Christ, O., Stellmacher, J., Wagner, U., Ahlswede, O., Grubba, C., et al. (2004). Should I stay or should I go? Explaining turnover intentions with organizational identification and job satisfaction. British Journal of Management. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2004.00424.x.

  • van Vegchel, N., De Jonge, J., Bosma, H., & Schaufeli, W. (2005). Reviewing the effort-reward imbalance model: Drawing up the balance of 45 empirical studies. Social Science & Medicine. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.06.043.

  • Vandenberg, R. J., & Lance, C. E. (1992). Examining the causal order of job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Journal of Management. doi:10.1177/014920639201800110.

  • Weng, Q., & McElroy, J. C. (2012). Organizational career growth, affective occupational commitment and turnover intentions. Journal of Vocational Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2012.01.014.

  • Xu, Y. J. (2008). Faculty turnover: Discipline-specific attention is warranted. Research in Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s11162-007-9062-7.

  • Yang, L., & Webber, K. L. (2015). A decade beyond the doctorate: The influence of a US postdoctoral appointment on faculty career, productivity, and salary. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9860-3.

  • Yousaf, A., Sanders, K., Abbas, Q., Cornelius, N., & Harcourt, M. (2015). Organizational/occupational commitment and organizational/occupational turnover intentions: A happy marriage? Personnel Review. doi:10.1108/PR-12-2012-0203.

  • Zhou, Y., & Volkwein, J. F. (2004). Examining the influences on faculty departure intentions: A comparison of tenured versus nontenured faculty at research universities using NSOPF-99. Research in Higher Education. doi:10.1023/B:RIHE.0000015693.38603.4c.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Isabelle Dorenkamp.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dorenkamp, I., Weiß, EE. What makes them leave? A path model of postdocs’ intentions to leave academia. High Educ 75, 747–767 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Intention to leave the profession
  • Postdocs
  • Effort-reward imbalance
  • Work stress
  • Professional commitment
  • SEM