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‘As a postdoc, you have to be creative and alert’

Elisabeth Heijmans originally comes from French-speaking Belgium – ‘close and far at the same time’. She came to Leiden University for her Ph.D. in 2013, and consequently managed to get a postdoc position. In this role, she is part of a team of Ph.D. students, postdocs and supervisors, looking at historical criminal court records of former Dutch colonies.

Elisabeth Heijmans is already quite familiar with Leiden University: she has been around since 2013. ‘I came here for my Ph.D. My research focused on the French empire, within global history, in a very international team of Ph.D’s who started at the same time in an ERC project. When I came here in 2013, I did not know I would be here for a longer time.’

‘Knowing there was a grant, I applied for a postdoc position when finishing my Ph.D. My expectations were quite modest: it is always uncertain if you have a chance. And this was a NWO grant, with a clear Dutch focus. My application was successful, and when I was invited for a personal interview in Amsterdam at the International Institute of Social History, I felt my chances changed for the better.’


Her feeling turned out to be right: Elisabeth became part of the Leiden-Amsterdam research team that studies records of criminal courts of justice in the early modern Dutch empire.

‘Looking back, it was a very good choice. I was not really prepared for “juggling” though. The old and the new research, a new group, teaching, applying for a grant: those are quite a number of balls you have to keep up. That is why I think that a postdoc should at least be for a two years’ period. Otherwise you cannot spend enough time and keep focus on the actual research itself.’

Elisabeth’s supervisor, Catia Antunes, let her off the hook, fortunately. ‘She let me finish my Ph.D. publication first. That was very important to me, because I felt sort of guilty to be working on the “wrong” things. She was very clear: finish this first. That was such an important advice from her. It gave me the peace of mind to finish my Ph.D. book. The openness of supervisors and the space they give us can really make a huge difference.’

Historical court records

The research project Elisabeth is part of is called ‘Resilient Diversity: the Governance of Racial and Religious Plurality in the Dutch Empire, 1600-1800’. Elisabeth says: ‘The Dutch empire was multi ethnic and religious. We gathered and examine court records, to see how colonial administrations ruled over their colonies. They mainly did that based on gender, religion, race and status, among other factors. We compare different regions: Indonesia and Sri Lanka with the Atlantic settlements such as Elmina (Ghana), Surinam and Curaçao. Did they have different colonial purposes? Was their strategy for criminalization different?

In an extensive group effort, we set up a database of criminal court records, mostly from the 17th and 18th century. This has already led to two co-authored articles. One of these is about the role of gender and ethnicity in the criminalization of non-marital sexual relations by colonial authorities and is under review in the Journal of Social History.

At this stage, we are cleaning up the database, so members of the team and other researchers can use it for future research and dissertations. In the second half of 2020 I plan to publish a single authored article about the criminal courts themselves. I hope to finish that when I have started my next postdoc,’ she says, smiling as history seems to be repeating itself.

Learn form the past

In the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests, this topic seems to be more relevant than ever. ‘We expect institutional discrimination to be present back then, but now we can actually prove that this is really the case. It is always good to understand the past and learn from it. Besides, our database will hopefully show how entwined discrimination is in our cultural heritage.’

Being a postdoc, Elisabeth certainly experienced challenges along the way. ‘At the faculty of Humanities, you don’t always get a fulltime appointment. Even with research and teaching combined, I still did not have a 1.0 position. I also went back in salary when I became a postdoc. This felt like a step ahead, but backwards at the same time. You have to find other ways to complement it. One of my colleagues received a grant supporting female scientists, that might offer some extra research time of other female researchers in the institute. I applied to the institute for history to receive part of the grant for a supplement. As a postdoc, you always have to be creative and alert.’

There is always the opponent time as well. ‘In December 2019, I started to feel restless. I had less than a year, so I applied for multiple jobs. But my cv is very academic. Of course I could be looking for another postdoc, but I was wondering if that would not make me too specialized and too academic. There is a risk of staying a postdoc forever… Even though that is not my ambition, I was very happy to find a new postdoc position in Antwerp. Here, I will be developing more digital skills, using tools like Python to get an overview of how people of the past looked at their own future, by analyzing early modern letters.’

This new position will follow directly after she finished her postdoc in Leiden. ‘No gaps yet again! I am taking the risk that I might become hyperspecialized, digging myself deeper in the academic hole,’ Elisabeth says, laughing. ‘When I started my Ph.D., I had never heard of postdocs. Now I will be doing two in a row. My excitement exceeds the uncertainty. My new position is for four years, so that will give some more time and space.’

‘An opportunity to do the research that you like’

Even though postdocs can be in a vulnerable position, that should not hold them back, Elisabeth stresses. ‘I am aware that a postdoc places you in an uncertain position. That can be tough. But it is important to keep a good work life balance, as overworking will not guarantee you a permanent position. Even though it can be stressful, a postdoc also is a nice opportunity to do the research that you like. Enjoy it as it comes, develop new skills, meet new people.’

Leaving Leiden

In November 2020, she will be leaving Leiden, after a period of seven years. ‘In Leiden, I became an adult. That will probably make saying goodbye a little emotional. I will miss various things here: the big and dynamic history institute (but I will definitely stay in touch with my colleagues), my friends here, the cycling. I will even miss the directness that I disliked in the beginning, but which I grew fond of.’

Antwerp, be aware…

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