Academic careers are uniquely challenging: individuals invest years in getting advanced degrees, such as Master’s and Doctoral degrees, after which they typically take on temporary jobs such as postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track positions. All throughout this time, academics are being evaluated on a plethora of different activities, such as research, teaching, impact on society, leadership (VSNU, NWO, & NFU, 2019) but also others such as fundraising, and training the next generation of academics, in the hopes of ultimately getting a permanent position or “tenure”. The general idea behind this principle is that scholars first prove themselves as being good researchers, educators, and employees, and upon tenure, in exchange, will get academic freedom and the liberty to carry out more risky and high-impact projects. Throughout this trajectory, though, academics usually have to relocate multiple times, often to different countries, and have to deal with several challenges, such as uncertainty, and fluctuating workloads and resources.
This all makes a career as an academic an extremely uncertain and challenging endeavor. Many factors that make or break an academic career are (somewhat) beyond the academic’s control: papers essential to a scholar’s promotion are sometimes rejected after years of working on them, and when trying to obtain external funding – often an important factor in promotion decisions – rejection is usually the norm, rather than the exception. On top of this, academic careers can also bring stress on a personal level, such as long-distance relationships due to having to move around multiple times or postponing having children or buying a house until one gets a permanent contract. And if that’s not challenging enough, due to the temporary nature of some academic jobs, such as postdocs, academics often have to spend significant chunks of time on work that benefits their institution more than them: think of having to develop a new curriculum or training junior colleagues in teaching when you know you have to leave the school in the near future anyway. Despite this, the number of doctorates in the Netherlands keeps increasing: the number of submitted PhD dissertations and awarded PhD degrees almost doubled from 1997 to 2019 (data from Rathenau institute (2020, 2021)). At the same time, the number of academic positions is growing at a lower rate, which means that not everyone will get the chance of getting a permanent academic position (Fischer & Lohner, 2001). Becoming an academic thus increasingly requires courage. In this essay, we reflect on contemporary challenges for the career path of young academics: more specifically, we first take the perspective of entrepreneurial studies to reflect on the uncertain career paths of academics as well as their well-being (Lien Denoo), and secondly, reflect on the role of digital technology and its impact on the careers and well-being of academics (Inge van de Ven). Bringing these perspectives together in our conclusion, we offer several suggestions for Tilburg University to help improve the well-being and quality of life for its academic staff.
Few professions are characterized by such extended periods of uncertainty, increasing pressure to manage multiple different sets of tasks and responsibilities, and factors beyond an employee’s control, as the academic career path. One other prime example of a career where individuals have to “wear multiple hats”, deal with extreme uncertainty for extended periods of time, and ride an “emotional rollercoaster” is entrepreneurship, where peaks and valleys rapidly alternate, and entrepreneurs have to quickly navigate between positive emotions and stressful events (De Cock, Denoo, & Clarysse, 2020; Wach, Stephan, Weinberger, & Wegge, 2021). Uncertainty, high workload and resource constraints make entrepreneurship a stressful career path (Williamson, Gish, & Stephan, 2021): entrepreneurs should keep going when the going gets tough, and suppressing one’s emotions may even help their ventures survive (De Cock et al., 2020).
Given this difficult journey where regulating one’s emotions is important, more and more research has started to focus on the well-being of entrepreneurs, and deservedly so. The general opinion has shifted from ‘entrepreneurs choose to become entrepreneurs, and therefore, have chosen for this uncertain lifestyle’ to realizing the importance of entrepreneurial well-being, for both entrepreneurs as well as their ventures and subsequent economic value creation. From an academic point of view, entrepreneurial well-being has become a popular research topic, with increasing practitioner and governmental attention being spent on it since it has been reported that a staggering 72% of entrepreneurs deal with issues related to health and well-being (Al Mansoory, 2022).
Despite this, entrepreneurs are actually quite happy: they have a higher work and life satisfaction than employees and do not experience more negative feelings (Stephan, Rauch, & Hatak, 2022). This means that individuals working in challenging environments do not necessarily have to be more stressed or have lower well-being; individuals can even thrive from it. What we do know from recent research is that institutional contexts, such as laws, performance-based cultures, and regulation can affect both positive and negative feelings, meaning that they can both enhance or lower entrepreneurial well-being (Stephan et al., 2022). In other words, entrepreneurial well-being is not absolute and can be both improved or made worse by means of the context in which entrepreneurs find themselves. This was confirmed in a recent study on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on entrepreneurial well-being: entrepreneurs in countries with more severe lockdowns faced worse business adversity and lower well-being (Stephan et al., 2022).
Moreover, for entrepreneurs whose well-being is challenged, the “three R’s” of entrepreneurial recovery interventions’: Respite, Reappraisal, and Regimen may bring relief (Williamson et al., 2021: 1316). Respite refers to interrupting work for tangible and mental relief, such as by spending time in nature, listening to music, or engaging in mindfulness, whereas reappraisal refers to changing one’s perceptions, which can be done with behavioral theory and stress optimization, and regimen refers to adding structure, for example through structured breaks but also through sleep hygiene (De Cock et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2021). From this, we thus know that the institutional context in which one is active plays an important role, and that respite, reappraisal and regimen are important in sustaining an entrepreneur’s well-being. Translating this to an academic context, universities and higher education organizations should take an active stance in supporting their employees’ well-being, which can be done with one or multiple interventions targeting the “three R’s”.
Digital technology has an important role in the strategic plan of our university: as a challenge, a realm of possibilities, a set of new methods, and an object of study in its own right. The shift towards increasing digitalization and datafication transforms our research fields in far-reaching ways, including how we think, how we formulate our questions, and what answers we find. It impacts the ways in which we attend to each other and the world around us, our teaching, managing our careers, and doing research. The implications of the rise of digital technology and datafication are a “mixed bag”, as the Strategic Plan readily acknowledges: “We have to calibrate our way of working in light of new opportunities, such as digitalization and the wide availability of data and challenges such as the need for cyber security, but also take action against the high workload of staff and students.”
One challenge that lies before us is to rethink well-being, in relation to the digital tools and methods that we use. Can we develop novel ways to use computational approaches to help further goals like equality, diversity, social justice, and wellinformed citizens? Related to the three R’s, such questions correspond to reappraisal.
In addition, digitalization puts new demands on academic staff. The Strategic Plan states: “We believe in the power of connection”, which has a nice ring to it, but it remains unclear what exactly should be connected with what, and what the status of connection is here: is it imperative, is it unqualifiedly positive? Do we have to be connected all the time? In this respect, the core values “Caring” and “Connected” are indeed interwoven, but also have a very real potential to clash. Digital technologies are so entrenched in everyday life that almost all their facets have been restructured around them. Over the past decades, our social, leisure, and work environments have become permeated with technologies operating on wireless network infrastructures, leading to a culture of ubiquitous connectivity.
This “deep mediatization” of life (Hepp, 2019) brings undeniable benefits to our professional and social lives. We can perform our roles, manage our social and professional networks, and access information and services catered to our personal preferences “whenever, wherever”: without time or place constraints (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf, & Ling, 2018). We can supervise students through Zoom, work from home or a coffee shop (or on holiday!), access and consume information instantaneously and on-the-go, et cetera.
Yet, our “always on” culture also comes with individual and societal burdens and challenges, and new responsibilities. Simply put, because there is the possibility, individuals are also expected to be connected, to be online almost all the time. Being available outside of work hours has normalized, and when tasks do not neatly fit into their allotted time, we have to “take one for the team”. Private and professional lives increasingly bleed into each other, and in both realms, we are always on standby. Constant negotiation of availability is too often delegated to the individual, and the solutions do not always seem clear-cut. Do I decide to take a call from my partner or friend when at work? Do I follow up on work-related emails when on summer holiday with my family? Are there exceptions? The burden of individual responsibility might lead to feelings of doubt and guilt, regardless of the decisions you make. As a result, many of us are distracted and feel the permanent pressures and demands that this newly afforded connectivity brings about, giving rise to “availability stress”: distress (including guilt and anxiety) that results from beliefs about others’ expectations that one is available through digital media (Hall, Steele, et al., 2021). In other words, the interwoven values of Connection and Care urge us to consider how we further our digital well-being (Vanden Abeele, 2021), and balance between these benefits and burdens of digital technology.
Constant connectivity simultaneously functions as cause and solution for poignant problems in neoliberal societies, like loneliness, distraction, and isolation. A lack of face-to-face contact can cause mental health issues such as anxiety and depression; ubiquitous connectivity can lead to depression, fatigue, sleeplessness, and burnout. Many students, especially international ones, experienced a sense of disconnection and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The new platform Digital Sciences for Society, that aims to use knowledge from digital sciences and social sciences & humanities to solve social issues, and the Digital Education Enhancement Program (DEEP) which focuses on improvements in education through digitization, could be used to monitor employees’ and students’ digital well-being, including mental health.
Besides making caring connections, it is important at times to invest in disconnectivity, including “voluntary psychic, socio-economic, and/or political withdrawal from mediated forms of connectivity” (Hesselberth, 2017: 1995). This includes forms of media resistance (“opting out”) under neoliberal conditions in an always-on culture, and it aligns well with respite as one of the three R’s of entrepreneurial recovery interventions. Rather than making the management of (dis)connectivity the responsibility of every single employee, we should think about this in a structural way (by making it part of academia’s regimen). After all, disconnecting is needed at times to reconnect: to make new, meaningful connections.
We find ourselves at a critical moment, combating enduring systemic inequality and polarization while we cope with major crises like climate change and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. On a personal, social, and institutional level, we are compelled to reappraise, to redesign our ways of life. When it comes to managing our professional lives, the Strategic Plan urges employees to “work on personal leadership through self-reflection, self-awareness, flexibility, and taking responsibility for their own development”. This would mean that, in addition to having to manage stressful careers with the many uncertainties that come with them, academics should also take the burden of their personal leadership on them and find time and effort to take responsibility for their own development.
Instead, in order to truly interweave care of employees with connection, it is necessary for the university to take on a more active and collective role in safeguarding the well-being of both students and employees in times of everincreasing expectations for academics, including job insecurity, high workload, communicational pressures, and technological demands. It should not put the burden on employees themselves and expect them to arrange this on an individual basis (as Marjolein de Boer explains in her contribution to this volume, this could also reinforce the gender gap), but actively support their personal development and well-being. From entrepreneurship we can take inspiration on how to thrive while working in fast-changing, challenging environments: for this, respite, reappraisal, and regimen should be structurally built into our technological and social infrastructure.
We should strive for innovation, to “do things smarter and differently” but this should never be to the detriment of our overall well-being. On the contrary, we can use our knowledge of the scientific fields of entrepreneurship and digital sciences to solve social issues and improve individual and professional well-being and the good of the university. This might also contribute to a more sustainable society and even guide us to “live a morally good life”, for instance by attending to our local environmental and social ecologies in non-instrumentalist ways (Odell, 2020), in which case reappraisal will naturally lead to a new regimen.
Times of rapid transformation can give us the opportunity to rethink our fields of research and education as well as their main concepts and values. Technology does not have to mean only challenges, but should also be used to improve our wellbeing. Specifically, we should take inspiration from initiatives like that in Belgium, where federal institutions recently introduced a ‘right to disconnect’. This means that employees at federal institutions should not be called anymore after 17h (5 pm) except in case of emergencies and that employees who do not answer phone calls after 17h cannot suffer any negative consequences or repercussions in the workplace for not doing so.1 Interventions like these at the regimen and respite level can directly increase employee well-being. Also, more awareness should be raised for problems related to digital well-being and self-management, like burnout and other mental health issues. A lot should be done to make career paths less uncertain, and the university should actively follow VSNU CAO rather than trying to find ways to bypass it. We could also have a critical look at the ethical implications of the technology we use for our research and how it affects the wellbeing of others (like using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and other sites that use lowpaid labor for survey studies).2
We can communally create a culture in which it is not the norm to work outside of office hours or to answer emails on weekends and evenings, and where it is considered healthy to reduce screen-time and maintain a social life. Clear criteria for academics on temporary, renewable contracts, such as post-docs, may help reduce anxiety and the need to work on weekends in the hopes of getting a contract renewed. Clear time off on the weekends can also contribute to a more positive work-life balance, especially in the cases of the many international academics or academics with long-distance relationships who are lacking the time to visit their families. Management and heads of departments should take a lead in this and set an example. On a smaller scale, we hope that the new on-campus community garden that the Young Academy is currently having designed will prove to be a space where staff and students can recalibrate the disconnectivity-connectivity balance and can act as a starting point to help reconnect and restore well-being.
Connecting schools and disciplines and connecting to our environment are a good way to start, but it should not end there: recognizing the challenges of academic careers at neoliberal institutions means realizing the interwovenness of care and connectivity. Universities can and should go further than what is proposed by VSNU and should provide a work environment where the well-being of employees is not an afterthought, point of negotiation, or extra item on their to-do list, but sits at the top of the university’s priority list.
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Stephan, U., Rauch, A., & Hatak, I. 2022. “Happy entrepreneurs? Everywhere? A metaanalysis of entrepreneurship and wellbeing.” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice: 10422587211072799.
VSNU, NWO, & NFU. 2019. Room for everyone’s talent: towards a new balance in the recognition and rewards of academics. https://www.universiteitenvannederland.nl/ recognitionandrewards/recognition-and-rewards/index.html.
Vanden Abeele, M. M. P. 2021. Digital Wellbeing as a Dynamic Construct, Communication Theory, Volume 31, Issue 4, November 2021, Pages 932–955, https://doi.org/10.1093/ ct/qtaa024
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Wach, D., Stephan, U., Weinberger, E., & Wegge, J. 2021. Entrepreneurs’ stressors and wellbeing: A recovery perspective and diary study. Journal of Business Venturing, 36(5): 106016.
Williamson, A. J., Gish, J. J., & Stephan, U. 2021. Let’s focus on solutions to entrepreneurial ill-being! Recovery interventions to enhance entrepreneurial well-being, Vol. 45: 1307-1338: SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.