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How to influence your working life and career development as a postdoc or PhD student

Dansk Magisterforening (DM) and PhD Association Network Denmark (PAND) are working together to improve the conditions of junior researchers at Danish Universities. Through this work we continuously encounter both strong communities and dedicated researchers. However, we also see a number of recurring issues related to stress, feelings of isolation, and lacking career perspectives among junior researchers.

In the following guidelines DM and PAND propose four areas of focus for PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and union representatives that want to help junior researchers gain a stronger position at their institutions and improve their working life – both as individuals and as a collective.

1. Create a strong contact between union representatives and junior researchers

DM and PAND propose that union representatives invite junior researchers for yearly meetings to stay informed about their needs and give them relevant information.
PAND and DM advise that junior researchers familiarize themselves with their union representatives as well as their health and safety representatives, and that they should contact them with questions about salaries, PDR (see below), workplace conditions, labour rights, work-related stress, career perspectives inside or outside academia, etc.

2. Ensure high quality employee performance and development reviews (PDR)

DM and PAND encourage university management to make sure that employment performance and development reviews (PDR/MUS) are held every year.

Prepare for the review
Performance reviews will often both include an evaluation of the previous year as well as plans for the coming one. Reviews are intended to establish a dialogue about the working lives of postdocs and PhD students, including the relation to supervisors and the daily physical and psychological working environment.

In order to get the most out of your review, it is essential that you prepare in advance. Often there will be a standard formula that you fill out before the review.

As a starting point, you can consider the following questions:

  • Are you currently satisfied with your workload?
  • Do you have sufficient time to focus on your research?
  • Do you have the necessary organizational and financial support from the university required to do your research?
  • Do you have a good relationship with senior faculty – including your supervisor?
  • Is your work progressing as planned?
  • Do your PhD or postdoc colleagues share your views on workplace issues?

Make sure the right person holds the review
In daily life for a young academic, the supervisor is of key importance to both career considerations and well-being in the workplace. However, a relationship to a supervisor is also both personal and involves a hierarchy and an unequal power dynamic. For this reason we recommend that the yearly review is held by a person that is not in a supervisory role to the postdoc or PhD. Rather we see immediate management as more suited to fulfil this function. Depending on the individual institution’s structure, reviews could be held by for instance deputy department heads, PhD school heads or PhD coordinators. The framework for yearly reviews is decided in collaboration between management and a local collaboration committee (LSU) where your union representative is a member.

Your local union representative will represent you in the local collaborative committee. Contact him or her if you want to have a say in who is present at reviews at your institution.

Use the occasion to reflect on your career situation
Such a meeting between the individual junior researchers and immediate management also presents an opportunity to discuss career perspectives and strategies for future employment whether inside or outside academia.

Depending on scientific fields and individual needs, conversations about career planning at the reviews can revolve around

  • The chances of further employment at your individual institution.
  • How you can use your PhD or postdoc position to develop a strong professional profile
  • Future career expectations
  • Developing a plan A and plan B
  • Considering options both within and outside academia
  • A step-by-step plan to reach your individual goals

3. Support junior colleagues who seek to influence the workplace

DM and PAND encourage postdocs and PhDs to participate in the organizational tasks of collegial and professional life at the departments. A way of doing this is to have your union representative arrange with the head of department, so that a spot is reserved for a junior colleague in the local collaboration committee. The union representative must ensure that the spot is filled by a member of DM or another academic union.

Some departments will have department councils or other bodies where junior researchers can participate.

You can be a part of organizing your own workplace
In order to strengthen the collective voice of junior researchers DM and PAND emphasize the value of organizing at a local level at your university - through your local union club and your local PhD association.

Organizing through your local union club is an important way to ensure a strong collective position in your workplace. Whether you are a member of DM, DJØF, IDA, or one of the other academic unions, your local club elects a union representative, who will represent you in recurring negotiations with management. The union representative will take part in negotiations of for instance salary levels, working conditions, or local workplace policies.

Union club meetings should also create a space where you can share your experience as a junior researcher and support each other in addressing issues such as high work pressure, difficulties with supervisors, or contract extensions due to illness.

PAND and DM see a potential for collaboration between local PhD associations and union clubs. We encourage an ongoing dialogue between union representatives and organization chairs, as well as a coordination of, for instance, joint events focused on career questions or mental health.

4. Create a space for career reflections and planning for PhDs and postdocs

DM and PAND encourage universities, management, supervisors as well as junior researchers to contribute to a culture that supports a dialogue about career options and difficulties within academia as well as outside.

Supervisors and senior researchers should consider how best to help junior colleagues develop academic and professional profiles that can help them advance their career after graduation.
Career counseling for the labour market outside academia should not be the responsibility of academic staff whose main task is helping students develop a high level of research skills and position themselves for careers in research. However, professors can help students in their career reflections by encouraging them to take advantage of the resources made available to them by the universities or academic unions.

DM and PAND suggest that universities and junior researchers collaborate with unions or local PhD associations to arrange career activities. Such activities can be career counselling, competence clarification sessions, business networking, or mentoring sessions.

Are you interested in receiving more information about how DM or PAND can help you arrange career focused activities, you can contact us at ng@dm.dk or pand@phddenmark.dk