“…try to be true to what you think is important and interesting in archaeology“
Professor of Archaeology, University of Oslo
Interview originally published in TEA 65
How long did it take you to obtain a permanent academic job from the end of your PhD?
Where did you do your PhD? Have you moved to another institution, country or discipline in order to pursue a career in archaeology?
I finished my PhD at the University of Kiel, in Germany. After that, I worked there and in Frankfurt in different postdoctoral positions until 2018, when I moved to Oslo to take up a professorship.
Tell us about your post-doc experience. How many post-doc positions have you held? Do you ever miss being a post-doc?
I initially held two postdoctoral fellowships from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), one was a postdoctoral research grant, the other the one-year travel scholarship which is granted to travel and study archaeological sites worldwide. I then held three research and teaching contracts from the University of Kiel, the last of which was a six-year Lecturer and Research Fellow position, which gave me the opportunity to plan things a little further ahead and write a habilitation thesis (a monographsized thesis, traditionally qualifying to teach independently at all levels and practically still sort of a requirement for a professorship in Germany). After completing my habilitation, I was able to obtain a substitute professorship in Frankfurt for one semester. I then got the professorship in Oslo just at the time when my last contract was ending. Being half Norwegian and able to speak the language made the transition relatively straightforward.
Although I stayed in Kiel for a very long time, the German university system forbids to ascend and get tenure on the same institution, in which you finished your PhD and/or habilitation. So it was always clear that I would have to move out at some point. In addition, Germany has rules restricting how many years you can spend in short-term contracts, which makes the situation for postdocs more precarious. There are however exceptions, so technically it is possible to stay in academia without ever obtaining a permanent position. So people are usually for a very long time in this rather precarious job situation, which also involves being dependent on tenured staff when it comes to defining and conducting research. A permanent position in Germany practically means a professorship, and such a position you usually only ascend to later in your career.
The main advantage of the professorship is of course the academic independence, but also no longer having to deal with the anxiety of the precarious job situation during the postdoctoral phase. This concern about future employment rises the longer you are a post-doc, and it makes it difficult to plan your private life. I was personally rather privileged to have this six-year contract prior to my current employment, which is ‘long’ in postdoc terms. Overall, and all anxiety aside, I was always quite optimistic about my chances of staying in archaeology and finally getting a tenured position.
Excavation of the enclosure ditch system at Vráble, an Early Neolithic site in SW Slovakia, 2017. The project started in 2012 (credit: Kiel University)
Do you have any advice for new PhD graduates who wish to pursue a career in academia?
People should be clear that it is really what they want to do and that they have the right motivation. If you don’t have that motivation, how will you cope with a perspective that could add up to something like 12 years of postdoc? An archaeology career is never going to be highly rewarding financially. Make sure that you can live with the insecurity. I know a lot of excellent researchers who did not manage to obtain a permanent position for a very long time, but still stayed in archaeology. It seems to me that there is a lot of luck involved. To be successful you obviously have to publish a lot, but you also have to find your own niche: try to be true to what you think is important and interesting in archaeology. On the other hand, you have to accept that in the current system, there is nothing you can do that will really guarantee you a permanent position.
Is there a typical career path in academia, have you noticed if this has changed over the years?
My impression is that those with stamina, i.e. who don’t give up, usually find ways to stay in archaeology. They may not always be employed in their dream positions, but still they manage to somehow continue. Even if you exceed the postdoc phase (there are limits on how many years you can apply for postdocs after your PhD), there are still jobs available. Many people I know, who have stayed longer in academia, get permanent positions in their late 40s or even in their 50s. This is true in Germany and to some extent in Norway, where however there are more permanent positions available earlier in your career.
I am under the impression, from hearsay mainly, that the ratio of permanent positions to nonpermanent postdocs was more balanced in the 1980s-1990s. There were not so many people at the postdoctoral level then. Today the competition for professorships and other permanent positions is very strong.
Two headless individuals at the bottom of the ditch in Vráble (SW Slovakia), 2017 (credit: Kiel University)
Retrospectively, would you make any different choices in your academic career path?
Not really. I spent many years on post-doc positions at one place (Kiel), which probably was not a good choice with regards to my CV, but I was continuously employed there in good contracts, and the scientific community there was very stimulating and this had, I think, good effects on my academic development.
Is there anything you want to add?
It seems to me that you can really damage your own creativity when you are unable to follow your convictions and do what you are passionate about. I think it is not a good idea to follow too strictly advice about what is wise for your CV and what not. Many say, for example that you have to specialise, that you have to offer a special technical or analytical skill, e.g. micromorphology, stable isotopes or ancient DNA, to succeed professionally. However, this is not necessarily the case. Different places hire different people, and some are explicitly looking for generalists. More important, really, is to do what you yourself are interested in, what motivates you and makes you curious enough to push yourself to pursue novel ideas.