Postdocs unite at TU/e

Postdocs at Dutch universities are facing uncertain career prospects, and suffering from stress and the symptoms of depression. In recognition of this, a policy for postdocs as a specific target group was recommended in the latest collective labor agreement. At TU/e the newly founded TU/e Postdoc Association last week held its first event.

photo Willem van Hoorn

There are 280 postdocs at TU/e, scientists who, having gained their doctorate, have been appointed for a couple of years to do research and deliver education. According to Willem van Hoorn, policy officer for internationalization at Personnel and Organization, these individuals tend to fall between the cracks when it comes to supervision. “A developmental path and a tenure track program are provided for assistant professors; courses and programs are available to PhD candidates. For postdocs this systematic support is lacking. They are falling between these two stools, as it were.”

Tim Wezeman, who gained his doctorate at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and is now a postdoc, is aware that TU/e provides a broad range of training courses and workshops for its academic staff. “PhD candidates are making use of the PROOF program and professors have the benefit of a good number of training courses developed specially for them. Postdocs are often temporary academic staff who fall between these two categories."

Together with Willem van Hoorn and three other postdocs, he is a founder of TU/e Postdoc Association. “As a broad platform, we want to give postdocs at TU/e the opportunity to build a stronger and broader academic and personal network. What's more, we are seeing that postdocs would like particular kinds of training, for example in soft skills such as leadership and project management. We realize that some of these courses are already on offer, but often they are not geared to postdocs. We also believe that career development is very important; the transition from an academic to a commercial scientific career, for example, can be quite challenging.”

Social events can help raise the profile of postdocs, believe Wezeman and Van Hoorn, and give them a stronger group identity. The drinks party on Thursday was a very successful first step. “More than fifty postdocs came along and I could see they were pleased to have the opportunity to meet likeminded people, swap experiences and get to know their colleagues,” says Van Hoorn. “So, in a relaxed and enjoyable way the foundations for TU/e Postdoc Association have been laid.”

Let's not forget, says Wezeman, that the network is still in its infancy. “In the coming weeks we'll be looking at how we can give further shape to the association. One of the many things we'll be examining is how and our new association can assist and support each other. Another two events at least are planned for later this year, but what they will involve has not yet been decided.”

Postdocs who were unable to attend Thursday's event but who would like to be kept informed of the Association's activities can sign up using the email address

Researchers raise the alarm and argue for better supervision

In general, postdocs are pretty content with the work they are doing, and with their contact with their colleagues and immediate supervisor. Nonetheless, almost half of them are experiencing constant stress and one-third suffers from concentration problems, lack of sleep and the symptoms of depression. These figures demand action, says the Leiden-based researcher Inge van der Weijden.

One possible explanation for the problems, she believes, is the constant state of uncertainty in which many postdocs find themselves. The majority feel their prospects of having an academic career are poor. Nor are they happy about the guidance the university offers them when they need to find their next job.

“A postdoc's appointment is almost always temporary and project-based,” says the Leiden-based researcher Van der Weijden. “Insecurity and competition are inherent in a situation like this: the whole time, you have to be just that bit better and bring in just that bit more money than your colleagues. And for young researchers the latter is a tall order. After all, without a grant you can't write papers, but without published papers you can't get a grant.”

Together with researcher Christine Teelken of VU Amsterdam, Van der Weijden canvassed opinion among almost seven hundred postdocs working at eight Dutch universities. Postdocs are too often overlooked, is one conclusion. “Managers, researchers and PhD candidates are often at the table, but no one remembers to invite a postdoc representative, says Van der Weijden.

Source: Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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