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


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.

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  1. 1.

    This is not to say that nepotism as well as sexist and racist biases are no longer at work in appointment procedures; members of recruitment committees still report discrimination/favoritism of candidates along sex, race or networks.

  2. 2.

    See e.g., for EU level examples; or for Austrian programs.

  3. 3.

    Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects of science.

  4. 4.

    This wide age span is already indicative of the variety of people, positions and paths that the category of the postdoc encompasses today: within the current career model, it covers almost all academic scientists that have obtained a PhD, but not achieved to become a group leader.

  5. 5.

    For a detailed study about the demand to be mobile and its consequence, see Ackers (2008).

  6. 6.

    See Åkerlind (2005) for similar findings in an Australian study.

  7. 7.

    Note how this goes against the current political moves towards economically and societally feasible research.

  8. 8.

    This fact has also been discussed in EU policy documents, e.g. the 2004 Gago-Report: “The education, professional training and putative prospects of researchers are still being patterned as if in preparation for careers in ‘academic’ science, even though this is now only a small part of the whole system where, in fact, they will mostly work.” (European Commission 2004 , p88)

  9. 9.

    Common examples for latent conditions are latent bodily disorders: they are asymptomatic in the present, but need to be treated nonetheless to avoid unfavorable developments in the future of the patient.

  10. 10.

    Beyond the interview material, this becomes particularly tangible at events focusing on advising PhD students and postdocs on how to develop a successful career in the academic sciences today.

  11. 11.

    For a more detailed discussion of the often troubled relationships between present, future, pace and meaning in academic work see Müller 2014 in press.

  12. 12.

    Though nostalgia itself can be understood as an indicator of value tensions, see Ylijoki (2005).


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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.

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Correspondence to Ruth Müller.

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Müller, R. Postdoctoral Life Scientists and Supervision Work in the Contemporary University: A Case Study of Changes in the Cultural Norms of Science. Minerva 52, 329–349 (2014).

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  • Science policy
  • Higher education
  • Academic career
  • Academic citizenship
  • Life sciences
  • Postdocs