Universiteit Leiden

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Quantized careers

The research of Cathelijn Waaijer shows that scientific careers and especially their early part consist of a succession of short-term posts, or ‘quanta’; hence the title of the dissertation 'Quantized Careers'. PhD defence 24 November, 2016.

Science-career system

The past half century a science-career system has developed in which young researchers (after obtaining their master degree) do their PhD research for 4-6 years on a temporary contract, or as a student, e.g. on a grant. After obtaining their PhD, those who continue with a research career, do so on a succession of temporary post doc posts. Only a minority eventually obtains a permanent academic post, usually at least 10 years after their master's degree. Thus, scientific careers and especially their early part consist of a succession of short-term posts, or ‘quanta’; hence the title of the dissertation.

Origins and consequences

Little research has been done on the origins and consequences of this career system; this is the gap that Cathelijn’s PhD research set out to fill. To trace the origins, she studied how the science career system developed in Germany, arguably the first country with a modern organization of science, from the early nineteenth century on. Employing methods from quantitative history, she shows that the academic workforce gradually evolved from a fairly homogeneous flat structure through various waves of differentiation to the present pyramid structure with a broad base of temporary junior posts, fewer intermediate posts, and still fewer permanent senior posts. This evolution appears to have been driven not by considerations of research efficiency or quality, but simply by reactions to financial constraints. A big differentiation wave occurred from the nineteen-seventies, when the growth of participation in higher education flattened out and the academic institutions had to cope with stagnating budget growth. This they did by appointing many more temporary junior researchers, implying greatly diminished prospects of early career researchers to eventually obtain an appointment to a full professorship.


Cathelijn studied the consequences of the system mostly through a dedicated CWTS survey among recent PhD graduates from five Dutch universities. In this survey information was collected both about the careers of the respondents and about their perceptions of career prospects and their influence on career decisions. The central finding is that young researchers consider the career prospects and employment conditions in academic science as inferior to those elsewhere, while at the same time they value highly the opportunity to do scientific research in academia. This tension between employment conditions and prospects on the one hand, and intellectual gratification on the other, drives their career decisions in ways that depend on personal preferences and on career stage. Thus people who value contribution to society strongly, are more likely to opt for a career outside academia than those who value the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Similarly, since  employment conditions are often felt to impact negatively on personal lives (e.g. starting a family), those who attach great value to the latter are more likely to opt for non-academic careers.


The dissertation also studies if the structure of the career system impacts differently on males and females. It is well known that in academia, the proportion of females falls as the level of the post is higher. Equally well known from gender studies is that no single factor be isolated as the cause. Instead, there are many factors that each contribute a bit: many molehills make mountain. This turns out to be also true of the elements of the career structure that are the subject of the dissertation: the preponderance of temporary posts, the low prospects for permanent senior posts, and the adverse influence on private life affect the decisions of females a bit more than those of males, thus contributing a few molehills to the mountain.


The opening chapter of the dissertation shows that the science opinion makers that write editorials in Science and Nature worry about the adverse effects that the career system may have on science. The results of the dissertation confirm their worries and indicate that the quality of science and its sensitivity to societal needs could be improved by reforming the academic career system to provide better prospects and more stable careers.


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