Geoffrey Dierckxsens worked longer than planned and partly at his own expense on his PhD.
He applied all over the world for a year and a half in search of a postgraduate position.
He is currently a senior researcher and head of a research group. For that, he moved to Prague.
Dierckxsens reflects on the difficult and the beautiful aspects of pursuing an academic career.
Alumnus Geoffrey Dierckxsens holds a PhD in philosophy. He works as a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. Before he managed to secure his current job, he swam through a lot of academic waters.
Timing and funding
Geoffrey Dierckxsens started studying philosophy at UAntwerp in 2005. After obtaining his master degree, he drafted a research plan for which he was awarded a scholarship from the FWO: for four years he could count on funding to study the works of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur as a PhD student in Antwerp and Paris. But as the end of his scholarship term approached, it became clear that he needed more time to finish his thesis. Motivated, he continued working for an extra year. And the additional funding? He used his own savings account.
That a PhD takes longer than estimated beforehand is not uncommon, according to Dierckxsens: ‘It’s due to the nature of the job. A long-term research project is not always easy to plan out in advance. Unexpected hurdles come your way. In addition, starting a PhD often leads to a lot of questions: how am I going to approach this, what do I want to emphasise? Finding answers to those questions is a crucial phase of any project. That also takes time – sometimes more than anticipated, which happened to me.’
Applying around the world
Dierckxsens defended his thesis in 2015, after which he could call himself Doctor of Philosophy. A milestone in his academic career! But the next challenge presented itself immediately: the search for a postdoctoral research position. ‘Such positions are scarce and coveted. An international mindset is needed, I think. And perseverance.’ For a year and a half, Dierckxsens searched for a position. He applied all over the world, while in Leuven he tutored higher education students in philosophy.
Eventually, his perseverance was rewarded and he was offered a position as a postdoctoral researcher. But his new workplace was not exactly close by... it was in Prague. ‘Yet I didn’t have to think about it for long’, Dierckxsens recalls. Full of courage and academic ‘gusto’, he headed to the Czech capital.
The positions are scarce as well as coveted. An international mindset and perseverance are needed when applying, I think.
A new life
Dierckxsens has been living and working in Prague since 2017. He has since made it to head of the bioethics research group ‘IRLaB’ (Interdisciplinary Research Lab for Bioethics) at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He quickly managed to embrace his new life: the exciting work, his new colleagues and the city itself. And that shouldn’t be surprising: ‘Even during my PhD years, I was used to and even rather attracted to living abroad. I have always been curious about new surroundings.’ He also puts the distance between Prague and Belgium into perspective. He still sees his family in Belgium regularly, but last-minute visits are of course difficult. How did his personal network react to his departure at the time? ‘They were especially happy for me because they knew how keen I was on pursuing an academic career.’
A precarious sector
According to Dierckxsens, not knowing in advance exactly where in the world you will end up is something typical of an academic career. ‘Most people with an academic career I know move at some point. Or they work abroad at least for some time. My supervisor and professors told me the same when I started my PhD, and fortunately did not deter me.’
What did put Dierckxsens off was the uncertainty of the chance of success an academic career. ‘Will I manage to acquire funds again at all? To secure a follow-up position? An academic career is not a walk in the park, and you are certainly not guaranteed a permanent position. Failure is an option. Possibly due to practical or financial reasons.’
Yet Dierckxsens’ drive always proved stronger than the fear of that uncertainty. ‘That is also needed’, he says, ‘Strong motivation guides you through the sometimes difficult times.’
First of all, you need to have a strong profile and experience. But besides that, you need to see opportunities, and then go for them full steam ahead.
A positive mindset and a dose of luck
Dierckxsens also thinks adopting a positive, constructive attitude is important. ‘An academic career is not always doom and gloom. Several moments left me feeling very satisfied and inspired – and these were not just the typical moments of success, such as obtaining my PhD, my postdoc position or a publication. I also learnt a lot from setbacks and rejections. The feedback was often valuable: for example, I saw that my profile was often considered to be strong in application procedures, but that my research plans sometimes needed fine-tuning. Or that they simply did not match what was wanted.’
And that brings Dierckxsens to luck, which, as in any career, also comes into play in an academic career. ‘Of course there is a balance between being lucky and performing well. First and foremost, you need to have a strong profile and experience. But besides that, sometimes you just have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. You need to see opportunities, and then go for them full steam ahead.’
No individualistic attitude
To conclude, we asked Dierckxsens for advice for young colleagues. Having an open mindset to the unpredictable – also in terms of where you live and work – proves to be important. But Dierckxsens wants to warn them especially for overly rigid clichés around opportunities in academia: ‘Some “hard rules” are best taken with a grain of salt. Such as: “If you don’t have x number of top publications, then goal y will never be achieved”, and so on.’
Finally, he makes a sincere request to everyone in the field: ‘Let’s all adopt a more collectivist attitude. However competitive our sector is. By very individualistically pursuing only one’s own career, we are not helping academia or each other. A focus on constructive cooperation takes us much further!’