(This is the sixth installment of our series of philosophers who have been on the job market for a long time - submissions - anonymous or named, are still welcome - send your story to helenldecruz @ gmail.com).
Since 2012, I have been an associate professor at the University of Groningen (NL).
After receiving my PhD it took me eleven years to get a permanent position. The reason why I think it might be interesting to share my story is that I had most of my education and job market experience in Germany, which is special in that most academics ‘encouraged’ to do a Habilitation after receiving their PhD.
The main part of the Habilitation consists in writing a second book, preferably in a somewhat different area of specialisation, and might take five or up to ten years. Until very recently, there has been no such thing as a proper tenure track model in the German speaking countries. This means that it was and still is quite the norm to live on fixed term positions as a postdoc (if one is lucky enough to get one of those) until being “habilitiert”. But having one of the various kinds of postdoc positions or obtaining the Habilitation is not a guarantee for anything and might just result in unemployment. In the German speaking countries, then, the real run on permanent positions begins after the Habilitation, for many people at an age between 35 and 40, when there is uncomfortably little room to go for realistic alternatives outside academia.
Bearing this system in mind, I was fairly lucky. Although I had to live on unemployment benefit after receiving my PhD in 2001 in Bochum, this situation lasted only for one year. But the problem was that I was clueless: short of a proper graduate programme, I had a highly critical supervisor but no idea how academia worked. And, worse still, I had specialized in medieval philosophy. Now I had a book waiting to be prepared for the press, two papers out, but no clue where to go from here. To keep a long rant short: history of philosophy in general and medieval philosophy in particular was (and largely still is) greatly neglected in Germany.
Going abroad seemed the right thing to do, and I was lucky: in 2002, I received a prestigious scholarship that took me to Cambridge for two years. This was the first of a series of postdoc positions I lived on till 2012. Besides meeting wonderful people in Cambridge and elsewhere, I could at last begin to build up collaborations with colleagues, receive and give feedback on papers, join readings groups and apply for conferences. This way I could slowly establish a real network. But what ultimately encouraged me to do so was that I had people around me who trusted me and put me in touch with others.
Yet I also began to notice that I was different: people around me went “on the market” for permanent jobs, while I must have looked strangely content with my two-year gigs that I was lucky enough to get. And indeed, I felt rather privileged. My eyes firmly fixed on the Habilitation, I did not expect to land a proper position before that. Yet, what kept (and indeed keeps) worrying me was that many of my German colleagues worked literally for free, just as I had done in the year after my PhD: so long as people hope to get a proper job after the Habilitation, a university can be fairly sure that they will happily exploit themselves and handle teaching and research whilst living on unemployment benefit or other resources.
Like other postdocs in the final year of their respective employment, I was always enormously worried whether and where I would get another position. As it happened, I got another grant that took me to Berlin, where I stayed for most of the following eight years, enjoying the company of a great research group and students most of whom were truly committed to philosophy. During my time in Cambridge, there had been much talk about abolishing the Habilitation in Germany. It goes without saying that I was rather hopeful to do without the procedure, but eventually it turned out that the Habilitation was there to stay and so I finally obtained it in 2009.
Great! Now I was a “Privatdozent”, that is someone at the level of an associate professor without tenure. There were various rumours about the number of years you might have without going “stale” as a Privatdozent, but what kept me both hopeful and worried is that I knew quite a number of people who took considerably longer to land anything. Luckily, I immediately got a very good visiting professorship at Tübingen, while I could keep my postdoctoral position in Berlin on hold. On returning, I was even offered to run a research group for two years. But to prevent the most obvious forms of nepotism, the university at which you obtain your Habilitation is normally not entitled to offer you a permanent professorship.
So it was clear from the start that I should use my time carefully to get a job elsewhere. But where? Did anyone look for someone focusing on medieval and early modern philosophy? I sent applications to various places in the world, but many people told me that the US, Britain and most other European countries would mainly look for people who were really familiar with their educational systems. In Germany there were hardly any openings for my AOS, and many of the possible posts there seemed to have been reserved for other candidates beforehand, or so I kept thinking in my increasingly desperate moods. The blatant impoliteness of some search committee members did not help. But I went through equally many pleasant and constructive experiences. And after all, I still had a good position and a lot of privilege anyway. So I kept applying and writing grant applications for the few possible follow-up positions.
In 2012, I got really worried: my current stipend was about to run out and I had just received another rejection. What now? I decided that at this point, aged 41 and facing unemployment, I really had to think seriously about alternative professions. Yet I did not see anything I could do, apart perhaps from some day job that would pay the rent. But even proper day jobs are hard to come by. And I had never given serious thought to a plan b. Luckily, I was soon to be overjoyed to receive an offer from Groningen.
So what’s the take-home message, besides perhaps a German perspective? One thing I realised repeatedly is that most steps in my career are due to sheer luck. Of course, one can do things well or badly, but apart from writing and speaking there’s very little that is under one’s own control. I always hoped to do all the right things and to get a pertinent job, but did not really expect to succeed. It wasn’t just that the job market got worse; it was mainly that there are so many factors that one might not even think about. On the other hand, knowing about the insecurity and randomness did not make me feel any less insecure. Despite all the privilege, it is a very risky business, but much else is too.
Yet although I don’t believe that one can control all the crucial factors to endure being on the market, there is one thing I would hope to do differently today. Most academics work in difficult and increasingly unstable conditions. We have no lobby. No one is going to create one on our behalf if we don’t do it ourselves. I would hope to take more care to get politically organised and unite with colleagues across different status groups to advocate our common interests. There are, for instance, well-established unions for academics that would certainly welcome a rise in membership. But while I think that people in secure positions should certainly speak up and encourage their fellow academics, it’s mostly today’s graduate students who actually do get organised and are true role models in this regard.