“I am slightly concerned by how the people most consistently successful in the academic system are from the same socio-economic background.”
Associate Professor, Archaeology, University of Bergen
Interview originally published in TEA 65
How long did it take you to obtain a permanent academic job from the end of your PhD?
Almost 13 years.
Where did you do your PhD? Have you moved to another institution, country or discipline in order to pursue a career in archaeology?
My PhD was at Cardiff University, where I graduated in 2006. I moved to Wales as an undergraduate after my Abitur, the German equivalent of A-levels, to study the ‘Celts’. When I was told that the Celts do not really exist, I decided that my topic was the ‘European Neolithic’. I have moved around quite a lot in my career. My only regret is not having been more mobile as a student. I wish my MA had been somewhere else than Cardiff, in something a bit more sciency, like osteoarchaeology or zooarchaeology – a topic that gives a second leg to stand on and helps building a network early on.
Tell us about your post-doc experience. How many post-doc positions have you held? Do you ever miss being a post-doc?
After my PhD, I had a brief stint in commercial archaeology, then held two postdocs at Cardiff University. It was great being part of Alasdair Whittle’s research group; he was always very successful at writing grants, so I ended up staying in Cardiff. After the first two postdocs, I moved to Oxford with a fellowship. I was then unemployed for a year and did some teaching at the Lifelong Learning centre in Cardiff, before beginning another archaeology postdoc there. A friend sent me the advert for a Junior Professorship in Hamburg.
I moved back to Germany. A particularity of the German academic system is that postdocs can only be employed at universities for a maximum of six years. When the countdown ends, they must either find a permanent position or acquire third-party funding (for instance from the DFG, thenGerman national research fund) to maintain their stay in academia. My position as Junior Professor at Hamburg University was without tenure-track. I was given the opportunity to interrupt my contract in Hamburg to stand in for a full Professor at Cologne for six months, which looks good on a CV in Germany. Finally, just before my Hamburg contract ran out, I moved to Norway to take up a permanent position at Bergen University.
There are definitely aspects of postdocs I do miss, such as extended periods of time to do research. In a permanent position you end up mostly creating a framework for other people to do research. But postdocs come with a limited safety net; often the research is not even your own. You can manage to carve out a niche while working on someone else’s project, but it’s difficult. Your job insecurity increases with each postdoc. As the end of one contract looms you are wondering what you will do next. That is when the ‘impostor syndrome’ kicks in and you start worrying that you have not published enough etc. The pressure to find follow-up projects is really tough. I got a bit worried after a while, but in the end I did ok.
One of the more spectacular finds uncovered at Riedling, a younger Neolithic enclosure in Bavaria: ceramic vessels in pit 144. The site has been excavated during Daniela’s time at Hamburg and relates to one of her DFG-funded (German Research Foundation) projects (credit: G. Meixner, ArcTeam, Kreisarchaeologie Straubing-Bogen)
Do you have any advice for new PhD graduates who wish to pursue a career in academia?
You really need to balance the pros and cons. Is postdoc life the right thing for you? Think strategically. Consider where people might retire in the near future. Make sure to put your effort in the right publications. What skills could you add to your portfolio? Stay true to yourself, but also be aware that there are ‘hot topics’, trends, that tend to shift around a lot. Currently there is a trend to have some sort of big data component in your projects, and most universities would now expect you to know at least some GIS and statistics. But this doesn’t mean alternative skills or projects cannot work out.
Academic requirements are slightly different from one country to another. In Norway having a teaching certificate is very important. Germany still likes monographs and some departments favour quantity over quality indicators like journal rankings. The UK is all about publishing in the right journals, like PNAS, Antiquity, Oxford Journal of Archaeology etc.
Is there a typical career path in academia, have you noticed if this has changed over the years?
Not really. There is a lot of luck involved. You need to have the right set of skills whenever a job opportunity arises. The UK is a bit less predictable than Germany, because there is no compulsory retirement system there. A lot of academic positions are going to be available in Germany over the next five-ten years. It is possible to return to academia after a long stay in commercial archaeology, but that route is very difficult. Some people manage to obtain one postdoc position after many years working professionally, but it can be difficult to maintain the momentum to build a stable career, perhaps because they are lacking publications early on.
Retrospectively, would you make any different choices in your academic career path?
I was not very wise with publications after my PhD and had results published in obscure proceedings that no-one reads or cites. I had to play catch-up with publications later on.
Is there anything you want to add?
I am slightly concerned by how the people most consistently successful in the academic system are from the same socio-economic background. There is a lot of social reproduction involved. It’s no longer just about ‘men’, but people who do not have the resources to handle long-term insecurity are weeded out of the system.