Biographical Options and Considerations
In contrast to the PhD students’ accounts, the dynamics of everyday work were not the main topic for the postdocs we interviewed. Instead, they were deeply concerned with their futures and how their research would contribute to their achievement of career goals. Postdocs did not discuss the possibility of different career trajectories. For them, deciding to do a postdoc was the equivalent of choosing to pursue an academic career. Alternative careers were viewed as a product of failure and thus were hardly considered.
Nearly all the interviewed postdocs shared a preoccupation with—and somewhat of an anxiety about—their career prospects. They were deeply concerned about the worth of their research work and their worth in the scientific labor market, as this postdoc explains:
The (…) higher you are in this hierarchy, the more competition you can feel. […] Because a lot of postdocs have to fight for the best publications to get a group leader position in the future. […] We fight for money […], and of course we fight […] for being first, you know, because only if you are first to publish then it’s cited a lot. […]. And this is somehow a measure of success in science—the number of citations. (PDoc1m)
In this quotation, individuals’ worth is defined by their ability to succeed in competition, based on their productivity in acquiring tokens of academic quality that may count for something in the international academic labor market, that is, indexed publications, grant money and recorded citations.
Why did postdocs focus so much on individual productivity? Knowing that only a very small proportion of them will be able to become group leaders and stay in research, they considered themselves engaged in a fierce competition. This experience of competition is augmented by the spatial and temporal organization of the postdoc phase. Postdocs are expected to be mobile, that is, to change research groups and, better yet, countries after each postdoctoral appointment of typically two to three years. The interviewees considered two to three postdocs to be the norm for those pursuing scientific careers; after this postdoc phase, they can possibly settle into a more long-term position.
The necessity of moving on to a new work context requires that postdocs prove their worth in ways that are transferable and standardized rather than tied to a specific local context. For early postdoctoral appointments, recommendation letters can transform locally proven worth, such as intellectual sociability or experimental skills, into a transferable currency. However, the relevance of recommendation letters was seen to strongly decline as one started to enter the competition for group leader positions.
As the reputation of the groups and places associated with postdoctoral appointments matters, every transition from one appointment to the next is regarded as connected to a test of the worth of one’s past and future research capacity compared with that of others. Consider how the postdoc below justifies her work at internationally renowned universities as an important part of her scientific vita:
So, I think this postdoc abroad is extremely important for the career and what your CV says about it. […] Because, there, you really have to work on your own and show what one is capable of; that’s why it is so decisive. If you prevail against the enormous competition at such a top university, […] that says a lot. (PDoc3f)
Interestingly, in this quotation, neither the general reputation of the university nor the epistemic opportunities that it might offer for this specific postdoc’s work are cited as central. Instead, the competitiveness of the place and the individual’s ability to survive in this environment constitute worthFootnote 10. Very different from PhD students, postdocs view themselves as individuals competing on a global market rather than as part of a specific localized research collectiveFootnote 11.
In postdocs’ biographical considerations, we re-encounter a basic evaluative principle to which the PhD students also referred—determining an individual’s worth through his/her productivity. Compared with our PhD students, the postdocs regard this evaluative principle as far more central, and they describe it as institutionalized in a number of discourses and evaluation infrastructures: in their perception of the dynamics of the international labor market and the hiring conditions for group leader positions, in the temporal and spatial structure of the postdoc as a succession of time-limited mobility episodes, in a general discourse about the importance of excellence and competition, and in the material forms and formats of counting and accounting for research output. Other than for PhD students, for postdocs it is this regime of valuation that generates a strong moral imperative. From the perspective of the individual postdoc, knowing which performance will be needed to succeed in competition seems impossible because, on a global scale, the competitors are too numerous and their performances cannot be monitored. Hence, maximizing their performance in line with the rules of this regime of valuation seems imperative to many postdocs.
Therefore, postdocs aim to make biographical decisions that maximize their individual productivity and competitive performance. These decisions do not only impact their professional practice, but also strongly affect their private lives. They discuss “logging out of life” for the postdoctoral period to “show that one really belongs in science,” “camping in the lab,” and postponing family plans. The readiness to sacrifice other biographical plans is viewed as an indicator of a person’s worth in a discourse that assumes that only those with total dedication can become successful researchers. Other biographical aims are postponed until later phases, assuming that these phases involve less competition; however, quite a large number of respondents expressed doubts about whether such phases were possible in contemporary academia, even if they succeeded in becoming group leaders.
In postdocs’ biographical considerations, one regime of valuation was dominant. Other evaluative principles that were cited as ends in themselves in our PhD interviews, such as inspirational motivation, were referred to as resources in discussions of the postdoc phase. For example, epistemic fascination was not discussed so much as a value in itself but as a resource that was necessary for coping with the long working hours required to prevail in the competition.
Living and Working Together in Science
Very different from PhD students, postdocs framed their relationships within the research group in terms of how the group aided their productivity and performance in the regime of valuation they saw as dominant. For example, one of our informants discussed his current project and the fact that if it would deliver promising results was unclear. He considered leaving the group if the project did not turn out to be productive, justifying this decision as follows:
I am sorry; it is kind of business. As a postdoc, you cannot stay too long in a place where you don’t get a kind of profit, you know, in the form of publications or good scientific data because it’s very bad for your future career and getting your own group and stuff like that. So… (PDoc1m)
Notice how our informant uses the introductory phrase “it is kind of business” to justify why the potential consequences of his decision for his future individual productivity weigh more heavily than any moral obligations that he might have to the group leader or his colleagues in his current group. As opposed to the accounts of our PhD informants, the central evaluative principle that determines the quality of a specific local context is not how well it enables learning and mutual support but how well it supports the postdoc in acquiring the credentials needed to further his academic career.
Of course, postdocs’ emphasis on competitiveness was not always as strong as in the quotation above. In discussing their everyday work, many still referred to the importance of good working relationships in the group. However, the ways in which they defined their rights and obligations toward other group members were very different from those of our PhD student informants. Teaching, learning and contributing to common resources played a role for postdocs, but these actions were not seen as valuable in themselves; instead, they needed to be scrutinized in terms of the extent to which they contribute to or inhibit individual productivity:
So, yeah, I mean, I think certainly […] whenever you ask anybody for help, there is always a question of, well, you know, maybe it’s not the first question that comes to mind, but eventually it’s a question of, well, am I gonna be on the paper, am I not gonna be on the paper. (PDoc9m)
As the quotation above illustrates, for postdocs, asking for help must be weighed against the risk of having to share authorship, and providing assistance should result in co-authorship on papers that result from the project of the person who was helpedFootnote 12. As such, nearly every act of technical or epistemic support constitutes an implicit exchange relationship; publication credits are received for the time and knowledge invested.
Postdocs’ individualistic and instrumental framing of their social relations in the laboratory stands in latent conflict with the hierarchical structure of research groups and the regime of valuation associated with it that our PhD informants described. Postdocs felt the need to prove themselves as independent individuals and to grow out of this hierarchy as quickly as possible; however, they still had to contend with the expectations that others had for them as group members. Consider the following quotation in which a postdoc talks about her ambivalent relationship with her lab leader:
Because if I sit here until I’m 40, […] when I apply for a grant, they will ask me why I didn’t become independent earlier. Then everything I do would be his [her current lab leader’s], you know. So, like, it was not my idea; it was his idea. It was not my project; it was his project. (PDoc2f)
Epistemic Practices and Decisions
Assessing actions in terms of their expected future profitability in the dominant regime of valuation also influences how postdocs discuss planning projects and even choosing questions and model organisms. Consider the following quotation by a senior postdoc:
The higher you rise on the career ladder, the more the pressure rises when you […] choose a project. There are interesting projects, but you know it will be hard to find funding for them. Because if the reviewers assessing it say: This is interesting, but it is just not en vogue at the moment. Then it will also be hard to publish that. So, you really start planning at the very beginning [of the project]—what will I be able to write in a paper, which experiments do I need, and so on. It sounds much more calculating than you would assume it to be when you start out naïvely into a research career. (PDoc6f)
Here, the “calculating” mindset involved in epistemic decisions is juxtaposed with the “naïve” assumption that epistemic interests and considerations alone determine the choice and planning of projects. Of course, postdocs also speak about choosing topics that fascinate them. However, the space in which these fascinations can unfold is a priori structured and delineated by considerations of their expected productivity. This does not only apply to the planning of projects but also to how they choose methods and model organisms. Consider how a postdoc builds a complex argument about the different payoffs and risks of two methods in the context of the temporalities of contemporary academic careers:
So, everyone [working with mice as a model system] has to realize there is some risk involved. If I do cell culture and I have a well-defined question […], you look at that, there are results […] and you can publish that. […] On the other hand, if you have a [transgenic] mouse, that can mean that in two months you can learn as much as you can in five years doing cell culture. But considering that your contract [for a university assistant position] is limited to four years [at this university], and you need two years until you’ve got the mouse. And you might have to do some teaching as well. Then you might manage to do, say, one publication. And then you have to go. (PDoc7m)
Consequently, attempting to build a career using transgenic mice as the main model system is discussed as a “risky game,” as “poker,” or perhaps even as “naïve.” Interestingly, the risk involved in choosing topics, methodological approaches or model organisms is conceptualized very differently here from the way that it was in our PhD student interlocutors’ statements. For postdocs, epistemic risk is defined through the relationships between the expected data quality (ideally expressed through the impact factor level of the journal that accepts one’s publicationFootnote 13), the expected time needed to produce these results and the perceived likelihood that a particular project will fail. Within this equation, different risk management strategies are possible, from mixing high- and low-risk approaches to “doing one high-risk project, and if that doesn’t work, then they say, OK, I’m out” (PDoc6f). Epistemic risk is nearly synonymous with career risk, as an unwise epistemic investment is seen as almost inevitably leading to losing out in international competition.
Postdocs’ strategies for dealing with risk were very different from those of PhD students. PhD students were in a more resilient position to take epistemic risks because, from their perspectives, if their work failed to generate worth along one evaluative principle—such as individual productivity—they could compensate for this failure with success in others. For postdocs, only a narrow set of evaluative principle centered on productivity seemed to truly matter. Failure to produce results that can be transformed into publications or grant money cannot be compensated, and equals career failure. Whereas PhD students operate in a more heterarchical context and are able to take advantage of this context by taking epistemic risks, postdocs conduct their research in a context structured by one extremely dominant regime of valuation and hence make more conservative decisions.