Beeld: Arian Khoshchin, canva.com

In recent months, Isabelle Kohler has engaged with numerous PhD students seeking career guidance. Many have shared their interest in following an academic career but are quite confused by the overwhelming number of online posts and articles recommending against it. In this column, Isabelle gives her perspective on the conventional academic path, highlighting the benefits and challenges associated with this career choice.

Since I started writing this column for C2W International and engaged more actively on LinkedIn, I have received many messages from early-career researchers seeking career guidance. Many of these messages come from PhD students who are preparing for their post-PhD journey. Often, they have already spent considerable time researching online and on social media, only to find themselves confused by the myriad of paths available. Why confused? Because they have come across many posts and articles that discourage young researchers from opting for an academic career.

I have noticed these posts as well. I think there are multiple reasons why such viewpoints are more visible. For instance, individuals who have chosen non-academic paths feel more at ease sharing their experiences. Additionally, it seems that fewer academics are active on LinkedIn or other social media platforms, and those who are active tend to focus solely on showcasing their research. This dynamic, coupled with the algorithms of social media, creates a biased representation in my feed, which I do not like.

Indeed, while embarking on a traditional academic career might currently be more of an exception than the rule, it does not necessarily mean that it is an unsuitable path for everyone. Yes, the journey towards professorship comes with many challenges, but as with most things in life, it’s not black and white. Pursuing an academic career can bring both significant challenges and profound satisfaction.

One of the persisting challenges in my own career has been managing work-life balance. The academic workload is substantial, often far exceeding the hours stipulated in contracts. Expectations run high, as academic career aspirants are typically expected to excel across a broad spectrum: research, teaching, communication, networking, collaboration, and more. Moreover, securing funding often requires dedicating countless hours to writing grant proposals, despite the slim chances of success. In my view, excelling in all these areas without overextending oneself is nearly impossible. The situation worsens when team members fall ill or take leave, as replacements are rare. Additionally, the level of administrative support at universities often falls short of needs.

Securing a stable position in academia is also highly competitive, and job security is not always ensured. The salary shows the advantage of being transparent and dependent on the position but remains lower compared to some non-academic alternatives.

But an academic career can also bring a lot!

One of the greatest rewards is the impact we can have through our research and teaching. Striving to make a societal impact is incredibly fulfilling. The joy of mentoring future scientists and the dynamic nature of academia, with its constant influx of young and enthusiastic individuals, brings a unique dynamism and motivation. The inherent temporariness of many academic positions means that there is always fresh energy and new dynamics within a group.

The relatively high workload and at times insufficient administrative support mean that academia is anything but boring – there is always something new to learn. There is no time to get bored!

Finally, climbing the academic ladder also means growing personally and professionally, and learning better about our talents – with the possibility to explore them further. Despite academia’s traditionally conservative stance, I have observed encouraging developments recently. Even though universities still seem to look for “a sheep with five legs” (as we say in Dutch), the situation is slowly evolving, where individual talents start to be recognized and rewarded.

In 2019, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) published a position paper entitled “Recognition and Appreciation” [1], which outlines a vision to reform how academic achievements are evaluated in the Netherlands. It advocates for a more holistic approach that values a wide range of contributions beyond traditional publication metrics, including teaching, societal impact, leadership, and teamwork. Universities are now busy implementing these changes; I am confident that this will bring positive changes to academia, promoting both personal and professional development among academics.

Interested in pursuing a traditional academic career and becoming a professor? Follow your dream, but do not hesitate to actively seek guidance and insights from current assistant, associate and full professors. This will allow you to better understand this world, and, in turn, be better prepared for the demands and rewards of such a career path.


[1] Ruimte voor ieders talent – naar een nieuwe balans in het erkennen en waarderen, https://www.nwo.nl/sites/nwo/files/documents/2019-Erkennen-en-Waarderen-Position-Paper_NL.pdf (Accessed 22-03-2024)


If you are interested in learning more about how to navigate academia and prepare for your post-PhD career path (for instance towards professorship), do not hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up for the newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn.