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Finding direction as a postdoc – a leap of faith

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In January this year I made a huge leap of faith in my academic career; sideways in terms of a new field of specialisation, and what sometimes feels like backwards in terms of my professional status. After 8 years of teaching, I started a postdoctoral fellowship here at McGill, took a pay cut, threw myself into many unknowns, and have had moments of excitement as well as utter fear: what if I’ve made a mistake? But I did it in order to have a chance to work at the world-class McGill Faculty of Law, and knowing that many successful careers are made not by climbing a single ladder, but by trying out new things.

I had a truly privileged PhD experience. I was based in the Netherlands, where PhD researchers are employed by the university under various different contracts. I had a 6 year contract, which consisted of teaching full-time for half the year and researching full-time for the other half. It was the ideal training for an academic career, and the ideal testing grounds for those of us undertaking it as to whether that career that suited us, and whether we suited it. I completed my PhD confident in my teaching and in love with the constant learning process of research and writing.

I also walked straight into a permanent, mid-level teaching position at the same university. A dream outcome for most doctoral graduates which is becoming scarcer in today’s job market. Yet I decided at the age of 38, to leave this safe, permanent and comfortable position and apply for a postdoc, which puts me back in the status of “student”, offers no guarantee of any job at its completion, and to top it off I have entered a new field of law, meaning I have to invest a lot of time learning and researching before I can produce any meaningful publications. I face the question every day that you are no doubt thinking: why, oh why?

The thing is, although the institute in Amsterdam where I had studied, done my PhD and taught was a great university, I felt limited in creativity, and wanted to branch out and be challenged in new ways. McGill had been at the top of my wish list since I was a student, and there was an opportunity to step into a new, specialised field of law while also bringing my broad and international background to the research. I was ready to make the leap because I believed other doors would open, even if I couldn’t yet see them.

I have made big moves in life before; I grew up in Australia and moved to the Netherlands at the age of 21 to study abroad, and I have studied and researched in 5 different countries. But somehow the move to Montreal this year felt riskier. I’m a bit older now, a bit more invested in the choices I make, and a lot more concerned about whether those choices will carry me further on my path.

One challenge has been realising that in this entirely new environment – new country, new university, new field of law – nobody knows what I am capable of and what I bring with me. In Amsterdam I was a very active member of the faculty, here I have had to accept that I must earn my stripes anew. One of the risks of a postdoc is that time is short, and depending on the strength of the supervisor relationship, it can be difficult to find avenues in which to demonstrate existing capabilities while still in a “traineeship” position.

In this respect, I honestly don’t think postdoctoral fellowships are what they could be. These coveted fellowships are seen as the door into an academic career, but they are more often a revolving door with no clear track during or after the fellowship. Much depends upon the individual relationship with one’s supervisor, and the supervisor’s level of interest in supporting a postdoc’s career, whether or not the time spent will actually add any valuable experience or improve employability. Some postdocs are exploited for the benefit of senior researcher’s projects, others are desperately seeking involvement in something other than their own, sometimes opaque, research projects. The fact that fellows are given the official status of “student” is at odds with the true position of a postdoc and, as far as I know, unique to Canada. In fact there has been some Canadian case-law confirming that the nature of a postdoc appointment and the work we do means that even if the official status is “student”, in fact we are employees. Recently postdocs at McGill have become unionised, and are taking up the worthy cause of ensuring that we get the kinds of benefits that employees are entitled to.

But aside from this definitional challenge (and challenge to my ego!), I guess taking up a postdoctorate position has forced me to be truly creative and resourceful in envisioning and beginning to forge the next stage of my career path for myself. While I find it frustrating that people assume I really am at the beginning of my career, because they do not see my 8 years of teaching experience, my publications nor my contributions to faculty life that took place in another country, it is really up to me to bring all of that with me into the room and into every conversation. Not in the sense of trying to sell myself, but in the sense of knowing who I am, what I have to contribute, and what I am capable of. Academia is very competitive, but it’s not about having the loudest voice, it’s about offering what I have to give the best way I can give it.

The in-between status has also helped me see the academy from yet another perspective. Not really a student, not really a faculty employee, but moving in both circles, I have built relationships with various members of the McGill law faculty community, and have come to understand where there are some tensions or misunderstandings between those circles, as well as the incredible amount of mutual respect. I’ve also gotten to know the unique personality of the institute I am affiliated with and learned from the inter-institutional interactions.

And in seeking out some career advice, I have come to know some of the people working in the Office of Sponsored Research and in Teaching and Learning Services, and gained a better understanding of the massive organogram that is this university. Apart from the rich and insightful advice I have received, this process has helped me understand that McGill doesn’t operate as separate, isolated faculties, but truly as an entire educational organisation.

My postdoc appointment has just been renewed for a second year, which gives me more time to continue exploring how I want to further myself in new ways, and how to best enter the job market. Postdoctorate positions are about moving towards career independence, and gaining more of the necessary experience. I guess I am discovering that this requires me to exercise that independence and look for ways to create those experiences, so that at the conclusion of my second year, I’m ready to take the next leap of faith.

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An Australian based in Canada after 16 years based in the Netherlands: I like my life as international as I like my law! I have a background in Public International Law, Space Law, International Criminal Law, International Humanitarian Law, legal theory and research methodology.

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