Bagging the PhD and then…?

The last year of PhD studies is for many not only characterized by high levels of stress that more often than not translate into all-nighters at the office and unhealthy amounts of coffee, but also by the creeping question of what happens next. During the legendary period of writing-up, submitting the thing and facing the defence, PhD students are also struggling with the essential problem of future employment and career planning. In some ways, a period of relative security in terms of knowing your status comes to an end. In this blog I will discuss some of my personal experiences of finding out what to do next and the difficulties as well as delights connected with the process.

In 2012, 3700 graduate students started pursuing their goal of receiving a PhD in Sweden. That are 200 students more compared to the previous year enrolled in one of the Swedish PhD programs. Especially in social sciences and humanities the number of doctoral students is increasing (UV-Ä, 2014). 20-30 per cent of fresh PhDs leave academia for a position in the called real world. The rest remains in the shrinking market of higher education (Report Fackförbundet ST, 2014). Since PhD students mean extra funding and merits for senior faculty, the departments aim to increase rather than decrease the numbers of PhD candidates. Consequently, in some areas there are more PhDs then positions in or outside the university.

The academic job market for PhDs in media and communication studies in Sweden is tight, in contrast to the myth that still dominates outside of the country. Openings for permanent positions are rare and fresh doctors compete with both assistant and associate professors in the run-up for jobs in attractive departments. In this situation, external funding from one of the major financiers becomes another important option to secure an academic future. Naturally the competition for funding is increasingly fierce as well. The growing number of applications has led Riksbankens Jubilieumsfond to change their procedure in order to reduce the number of proposed projects and the workload for reviewers. Additionally, early-career scholars with temporary employment form a group of internal competitors for permanently employed faculty that are equally inclined to obtain prestigious external funding, leading my current employer to constrain the possibilities of temporary employees to apply for external funding.

The funding schemes solely dedicated to early-career scholars are by far not meeting the demand. Besides single post-doc openings within research projects, it is Riksbanken Jubliumsfond’s flexit program and Vetenskapsrådet that provide major sources for post-doc funding for research in the field of media and communication studies.

I was lucky enough to bag one of Vetenskapsrådets international post-docs that allows the recipient to spend between 2-3 years on research including an extended stay abroad. The VR post-doc scheme is an excellent opportunity for early-career scholars to extend their academic network, publish and test the role as independent researcher, but the chances of actually receiving the grant are low especially for scholars within social sciences and humanities that compete with researchers in natural and life sciences. In 2013, 24 per cent of the funded post-docs were in social sciences or humanities. And the application process requires time, not only to write the project proposal as such, but also the practicalities connected with it. In the case of VR, it takes (only) four months from the submission until the decision, but with the funding comes time-intensive administration: Vetenskapsrådet as Formas and FAS decided a while ago to change the status of the post-doc funding from scholarships to funding a position at the Swedish home university, which is generally a good development in terms of insurance and social security (read more here), but it also means that in some cases the overhead costs are eating up large amounts of the funding. In the end the research project might need cross-funding from the home university, if there is no agreement on waiving the administration costs, like in my case. Depending on the size and experiences of the department and university that hosts the post-doc project, this whole process can be painfully long.

Even if the said might seem discouraging, it is worth the hassle once you get started with the project you applied for. For me, it is an experience of privilege to work on my own project in a new academic setting. The feeling of being in between institutions – my home and host department – was at first puzzling, but is now merely enjoyable as it comes with the necessary freedom to focus on research. Now, half way through the post-doc, I have entered the next round of worrying about the future that I channel into applying for the few permanent positions that are currently out there.

In general, there needs to be an open discussion of “overproducing” PhDs that face a gloomy future in academia and often do not have increased chances for employment outside the academic system. In order to avoid the silent doctor that is part of a reserve army conducting large shares of teaching as Sara Eldén and Anna Johnsson discuss, we need departments and funding structures that support early-career scholars instead of creating a two class system of teaching staff with casual contracts and permanent faculty that focuses on research.


Philadelphia, March 30, 2014

Anne Kaun

Södertörn University and Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania