Life as a postdoc in the Netherlands

Academia is a ‘soul-sucking machine’. Having a family, writing grants, publishing papers, and coping with all the administrative work (admin, students, teaching, training) that we have is just too much. In order to win grants, especially the ones offered by the NWO, I have to have more and more papers, but writing the actual grants takes me more time than a paper. Recently, I am in the position where balance that load of work is hurting my health. I love researching, but the way academia is configuring right now is just not healthy1.

CWTS researcher Inge van der Weijden and Christine Teelken from VU Amsterdam conducted a study on the work experiences and career prospects of postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) in The Netherlands. 676 postdocs from 8 Dutch universities responded in 2019 to an online questionnaire.

More than half of the respondents expressed positive experiences concerning their current work as postdocs. They generally liked the content of their work, their colleagues and the amount of research time. However, despite these positive experiences, nearly all respondents felt that several aspects of their work are in serious need of improvement:

  • Lack of career prospects in academia
  • Publication and grant pressure
  • Work Life Balance
  • Lack of support from institute or organisation
  • Combination of insecurity of prospects, high workload and the work-life imbalance

39% of the postdocs surveyed were at risk of developing serious mental health problem, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Most frequently reported issues were: feeling under constant strain (47%), concentration problems (35%), and sleeping problems (33%). The findings in previous studies among PhD candidates in LeidenGroningen and Flanders would suggest a problem of the similar magnitude.

60% of the postdocs participated in several training modules or courses, especially regarding grant writing, learning (foreign) languages and project management. However, 40% did not yet participate in any training course at all. Only 40% of the postdocs spent time during their postdoc position to further develop -additional- transferable skills in order to expand their eligibility for career options beyond research and academia.

A factsheet of the main findings is available here, including an extended 2 page summary with policy recommendations.