8: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” How Early Career Researchers Imagine the (Im)Possible Future in Academia

The STS literature on gender in science shows how academic cultures, scientists’ identity-making and gender intersect in multiple and heterogeneous ways. In regard to recruitment processes as well as individual career trajectories, gender is often reduced to a barrier for women in making an academic career. In this chapter, we turn our attention towards early career scientists’ imaginaries of academia and academic life. How do early career scientists reflect upon their possibility of having an academic career? What do they see as ‘boosters’ and ‘blockers’ when it comes to success in academia, and how are these reflections and experiences imbued with gender? The chapter is based on qualitative interviews with early career scientists (PhD students and postdocs) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The interviewees were purposively selected from departments with different levels of gender balance and gender balance change patterns. The chapter demonstrates the role that gender plays in how early career scientists envisage their future careers, and in particular how professorships are connected to over-work, total job dedication and incompatibility with ‘having a life’.

Introduction

Interviewer:What do you think about the possibilities to pursue what you described as your plan A, an academic career?
Post doc:To stay in academia? … It’s not like that. It doesn’t feel like that is something one can just choose to do.

This short exchange captures the ambiguous situation early career researchers find themselves in: regardless of any genuine desires to pursue an academic career, the fact that it is not up to the young scholar alone to make the desired future happen was a strongly present awareness among several of the 29 postdocs that participated in the study presented in this chapter. There are multiple ways of dealing with and making sense of this situation. The purpose of this chapter is to explore how early career researchers reflect upon their potential future within academia, and the ways in which these reflections draw on their experiences of entering an academic career.

A better understanding of how early career researchers perceive their potential futures in academia is crucial for informing future work on gender balance (Murgia and Poggio, 2019). This is particularly relevant to the current Nordic context, where one policy goal is to enhance the gender balance among professors (Brandser and Sümer, 2017). Despite longstanding efforts to promote women in academia, 74 per cent of all professors in Norway are men (Wendt, 2019). Even in fields where women outnumber men in the student population, and the numbers of female and male PhD candidates have been equal for more than a decade, an imbalance persists in top positions (Næss et al, 2018). The postdoc period of an academic career trajectory is in other words crucial in terms of gender balance.

Postdoc researchers are potential future professors. However, their position within academic institutions is ambiguous: on the one hand, they have already made their way into a narrow and highly competitive working life which suggests that they are both ambitious and privileged. On the other hand, as their position within this system is still by definition temporary, they are in an ambiguous and precarious situation, commonly referred to as a ‘career stage’. By studying careers and perceptions of career choices, one gets to understand how societal context, organization and individual agency relates (Inkson et al, 2012). Thus, we argue that exploring their experiences and reflections provides valuable insights into the ongoing efforts to promote a gender balance and inclusion in research and innovation. To guide the empirical investigation and analysis, we asked the following questions: how do early career researchers make sense of their academic endeavours? How are past and current experiences within academia linked to perceptions of possible futures in academia? And whether and how is gender made part of these reflections?

In the following, we describe the contextual background of the chapter, before introducing the empirical data, methods and analytical strategies. The analysis is organized into three sections, exploring i) how the postdocs make sense of finding opportunities and starting an academic career; ii) how they view challenges in pursuing a career; and finally iii) what makes them want to continue. The chapter ends with a concluding reflection on how crucial elements in assembling research careers for early career scholars provide the basis for future change towards a better gender balance.

Gendered career trajectories: patterns and perceptions

Nordic higher education institutions (HEIs) have seen rapidly growing numbers of postdoc scholars in recent years and in Norway, where our study was conducted, there has been a particularly sharp increase in that number over the last decade (Kwiek and Antonowicz, 2015; Kyvik, 2015). Postdoc positions provide opportunities for PhD graduates to qualify for a permanent academic position. However, the substantial increase in use of postdoctoral positions and temporary research contracts across Europe has coincided with changes in funding structures and an increased demand on universities to engage directly with partners outside of academic institutions, suggesting that postdoc positions potentially also enable alternative career trajectories outside of academic institutions (Chantwell and Taylor, 2015; Yudkevich et al, 2015).

Academic career trajectories are not identical across national contexts. Thus, local situations influence how early career researchers make sense of their opportunities (Le Feuvre et al, 2018). For example, tenure track positions do not exist in Norwegian HEIs, but once one is employed as an associate professor, a full professorship can be achieved based on personal merits, that is, through personal promotion (Kyvik, 2015). Since the early 1990s there has been a tendency in Norway to announce positions at associate professor level as a means in particular to keep women in the academy (Olsen et al, 2005).

This structural change has contributed to an increasing number of women staying on the academic career path in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and technology (Suboticki et al, 2021). It has been combined with targeted recruitment and efforts to redefine the gendered symbolism of STEM and technology studies, both discursively and in representations (Lagesen, 2007; Lagesen et al, 2021), as well as funding schemes to support women academics, alongside with women’s networks and mentoring programmes.

However, there are gender differences across academic careers, after achieving permanent positions. Women outnumber men in teaching positions, while men to a larger extent occupy research positions (Frølich et al, 2018). Model calculations based on Norwegian data still show that if you compare female and male associate professors of equal age within the same academic discipline, employed at the same type of institution, the probability of becoming a full professor is four percentage points lower for women compared to men (Frølich et al, 2018). Thus, it is important to explore whether and how early career scholars navigate this gendered landscape. Does it influence their experiences and perceptions of future possibilities? Are they aware of gender in how they make sense of their career experiences, choices and prospects?

The extant literature shows that scientists’ sense of professional self is shaped by understandings of research as purposes and ‘passion’, and also strongly influenced by gendered perceptions of the self (Søndergaard, 2005; Armano and Murgia, 2013; Bozzon et al, 2019). Some have emphasized how discourses of ambition and practices of boasting are inherently gendered, resulting in patterns of gender inequality (Benschop et al, 2013; Lund, 2020). Furthermore, gender stereotypes are shown to influence perceptions of competence and merit in the peer review processes (Tregenza, 2002; Reuben et al, 2014). We also know that precariousness in relation to family situation influences the likelihood of pursuing an academic career (Manzi and Ojeda, 2014; Bataille et al, 2017; Sutherland, 2018). Ideals of work-life balance are known to be discursively gendered (Sørensen, 2016, 2017), and empirical studies have shown how women academics take on the responsibility for managing that balance (Toffoletti and Starr, 2016).

When we planned our study, we expected early career researchers to be more or less conscious about the various obstacles and drivers identified in previous research in how they navigate the landscape of academia. And, as we will show, ideas about work-life balance, required merits, international mobility, self-esteem and social background did play significant roles in the narratives, but not always in coherent or consistent ways – and not always according to our anticipation.

Empirical data, methods and analytical strategies

The empirical data analyzed in this chapter are based on group interviews with early career scholars, conducted by the authors and research colleagues in a project entitled ‘Gender balance from below: Towards a gender-balanced NTNU 2025’. This project aimed to enhance the gender balance at departmental level at Norway’s largest university, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). As part of an initial mapping of the situation we conducted individual interviews with professors and heads of departments, as well as group interviews with PhDs and postdocs from across the university.

For this chapter, we draw on the eight group interviews we conducted during 2017 and 2018 with 29 postdocs in total: 12 women and 17 men. Approximately half of the participating postdocs had done their entire education in Norwegian institutions, while the other half had an international background, with either a Master’s or a doctoral degree from institutions outside of Norway. Their ages varied from late 20s to early 40s. This is indicative of the fact that the average age of Norwegian PhDs and postdocs is relatively high (Kyvik, 2015).

The research participants were recruited from departments at NTNU with different levels of gender balance and gender balance change patterns, representing a broad range of academic disciplines, including both human and social sciences and the STEM disciplines (Sørensen et al, 2019). The interviews were conducted by two, sometimes three, researchers taking part. One researcher led the conversation, while the other(s) observed, took notes and joined the conversation with additional questions. The interview guide was structured around career experiences, career expectations, perceptions and opinions about gender balance and inclusion in academia.

All the interviews were recorded and later transcribed verbatim. The study was approved by the Norwegian Center for Research Data, and the participants signed consent forms to enable us to use their data in publications from this research. The interviewees were given pseudonyms and those who participated in the same conversation were given names starting with the same letter. This allows for some sensitivity towards the interactional context of the individual voices. The transcribed conversations were coded thematically, using the software Atlas.ti.

We used thematic analysis to categorize the different narratives of how the postdocs entered their academic career trajectory in the first place (Braun and Clarke, 2013). The stories were then further processed by drawing on the tools of dialogical narrative analysis (Riessman, 2008; Frank, 2012). According to Bakhtin (1981: 426) the dialogical constitutes an epistemological mode. Instead of being occupied primarily with identifying the narrative structure or any coherent pattern that can be labelled a narrative, dialogical narrative analysis allows one to pay attention to and capture the complexity of how stories come to make sense. Language use is always saturated with meaning, both in descriptive and ideological ways. By paying attention to what utterances respond to, both in terms of capturing pasts and imagining futures, we were able to identify not only the material obstacles facing early career researchers, but also the subtle and less tangible barriers and possibilities that are experienced by prospective academics.

Our main interest lay in exploring how these stories relate to images of a future career. We looked at how ideas about a future career were perceived in the context of a broader notion of a future life situation. The main themes addressed by the early career scholars were work-life balance, geographic mobility and scholarly identity or ‘sense of self’. In order to keep the complexity of individual voices accessible and visible we have chosen to focus on a limited number of research participants in the empirical analysis. All the interviewees in this chapter are white and born in a Nordic country. The selected voices represent diverse backgrounds in terms of family situations. The voices we will meet in the analysis, belong to the following interviewees:

Agnes was 37 years old at the time of the interview, lived with a partner and had two children. She was in her fifth year of postdoc research within life sciences. Berit was also a 37-year-old woman, without children. She lived with her partner, a dog and a cat. She worked in social science and was one year into her postdoc period. Henriette was 35 years old and had completed her PhD three years previously. She combined academic work with paid work as a consultant. She had two children, both born during her PhD period. Hilde was 38 years old and had four children. She had had various temporary lecturer and teaching contracts since finishing her PhD five years previously, and recently started her postdoc. Both Henriette and Hilde worked within the humanities.

Are was a 29-year-old man, one year into his postdoc. He was single, with no kids. Børre was another 29-year-old man, two years into his postdoc, also single with no kids. Are worked in engineering, whereas Børre worked in social science. Harald was the third man in our sample. He was in his mid-30s, married and the father of two young kids. He worked in the humanities, and just a month before the interview took place he had landed a permanent position after several years on temporary postdoc and research contracts.

In the following, we explore some of the complex dynamics and ambiguities that came to the fore when the interviewees were encouraged to share their reflections upon their life in academia, voicing career-choice considerations.

“Skills, help and luck, basically”

When asked about why and how they took the first step into an academic career, the postdocs shared a variety of experiences. Most of them, regardless of family situation and other circumstances, talked about their motivations for being in academia, closely linked to a sense of purpose. The majority talked about their research as a desirable activity in its own right. A good example of this was Are:

‘I started on my PhD studies because I wanted to become a researcher, not necessarily to become a professor. I just want to learn new things all the time, thus becoming a researcher would be optimal. But, I guess one has to become a professor at some point, and then you need to apply for funding, take on responsibility for other people and things like that, tasks that are less tempting to me.’ (Are)

At the core of Are’s expressed motivation was an urge to “learn new things”, and the idea of a researcher embodies this motivation in his story. Still, he responded to the idea of an expected future in which becoming a professor was implicitly understood to be the goal of an academic career. There is a dissonance between the expressed genuine, personal motivation and the institutionalized expectations – embodied by the professor. Thus, becoming a professor did not emerge as a goal in itself, but rather as a means to being able to continue to do research, at least part-time.

This ambiguity regarding a professorship was also articulated in other career-choice narratives, for example in Børre’s who told quite a different story from Are. Børre did not base his story on a sense of purpose or a genuine research interest. Instead, he talked about almost randomly starting his academic career path, currently “making something good out of it”:

‘I never had an ambition to become a professor, or to do anything within academia so I was kind of also just a bit thrown into it because I was offered a PhD position, and didn’t have any other job offer at the time, and then we received funding for further research so I could continue into a postdoc. And now that I am in academia, I want to do the best that I can do and use my energy to make something good out of it.’ (Børre)

Børre’s story illustrates a ‘seizing the opportunity’ narrative. He describes how he was offered a position and had no better alternative for an income at the time. The next step was described as seemingly random as well through the use of the passive “we received funding”. There were no visible traces of hard work or luck in this narrative of career moves. Børre articulated his agency by stating that since he happened to be in academia he would “make something good out of it”. Interestingly, this type of story too responded to an implied expectation of becoming a professor as an end-goal, by distancing itself from the idea of pursuing an academic career as such and instead emphasizing the “making something good”.

Another way of framing one’s career start, different from Are’s and Børre’s narratives, was presented by Berit. Berit, like Are, expressed genuine interest in her research subject and for that reason wanted to pursue an academic career. In her story, the opportunities she had had were not represented as arbitrary, nor invisible. Instead, she stated quite clearly:

‘I have definitely been helped. I am not a bad scholar, because I guess there would be no point in helping me if I was. But I guess someone needs to get involved, to personally make an effort. And I was very lucky to have that. First for my PhD, and then also for my postdoc. But, then it was also a matter of luck. I was the right person at the right place at the right time. And someone saw that. So, skills, help and luck, basically.’ (Berit)

The striking contrast between this story and the two previous excerpts of the men’s narrative is the distribution of agency in creating a career. Whilst Are and Børre both narrate their career starting from issues of their individual agency – purposeful or lucky – centre stage, Berit highlights the relational aspect, and the crucial helpers she has had. In her story Berit responds to a potential sense that being helped implies one is somehow incapable. But she regarded the fact that “someone” had decided to make an effort on her behalf as a confirmation of being a good scholar. The way Berit narrated her story resembles an element central to several narratives, namely ‘being seen and supported’ by someone in power.

This was also the case for Agnes. In her story, the supervisor was an important figure: “In my experience, my supervisor really wanted me to continue, even though they did not have the money to fund further research. I have the impression that if they really want to keep you, there are ways.” These quotes reference a combination of hard work and dependence on people in power for ‘finding ways’ to support one’s career. In our material, both women and men told stories about being supported as part of how they had succeeded in academe. However, there was a gendered difference in these narratives about support, in the sense that the women more explicitly articulated and highlighted this as a significant factor, whereas more of the men tended to downplay any direct dependence on others – as we saw in Børre’s story, who narrated the same kind of circumstances in an altogether more passive way when explaining how he was “offered a PhD position, and didn’t have any other job offer at the time, and then we received funding for further research so I could continue into a postdoc”. Both instances, however, echo the statement by Henriette, the postdoc quoted at the beginning of this text: “It doesn’t feel like that is something one can just choose to do.”

A striking feature across the stories about opting for a career in academe was that the general idea of what a professor is, portrayed across the narratives, was construed as less desirable, and not compatible with pursuing one’s research interests as the main motivation. This might seem surprising, given a general notion of the supposed desirability of achieving higher ranks. However, for these early career researchers, pursuing a professorship seemed to be a consequence of wanting a permanent position, rather than a goal in its own right.

“If you want to live a balanced life, it is difficult to become a professor”

When we asked explicitly about career aspirations and expectations it quickly became evident that the most important threshold was having a permanent position. Becoming a professor was expressed as a rather reluctant ambition. This is illustrated in the exchange between Berit and Børre:

‘I want to see a future in academia, that, I mean you have to kind of decide to pursue a permanent position because living on these temporarily contracts never knowing when you will get work again, that is not really a good way of living. So I have to say that my ambitions in the end have to be to become a professor. Even though I don’t want to say that I want to become a professor, but that seems like the option. Because you can’t say that my main goal in life is to become an associate professor. That’s not valid in a way to, to say that, to stop there.’ (Berit)

The idea of a predictable future seemed to be the rationale behind pursuing a professorship in Berit’s narrative. Børre responded: “If you want to be a professor you have to sacrifice a lot of things. I think if you want to live a balanced life, it is difficult to become a professor.” Berit quickly followed up on Børre’s claim about this required sacrifice:

‘I agree. I don’t have a family, I have my job and my partner and a dog and a cat, and it is hard enough to balance them with the type of academic work that we do. You become your career in a way. If I am to become a professor, that is not just my job, that’s my identity. And to separate those things I can easily see myself not managing that very well.’ (Berit)

‘Sacrificing things’ did not merely seem to be about time or effort; rather, the idea of pursuing an academic career was linked to identity. The quotes show how it seemed impossible to keep work and life separate if one was to be a professor, and this merging of work and life was portrayed as so comprehensive that there was no room for anything but work – work becomes everything, so to speak, in the expectations expressed by these early career researchers. Bringing it down to personal desires and expectations, it seemed more difficult to envision a work-life balance as something that could be reconciled with becoming a professor.

Several of the postdocs who were not sure if they wanted to pursue an academic career talked about conflicts regarding the investments necessary to succeed. They talked about time as a scarce resource, that it was too time-consuming to do high-quality – or in many cases – high-quantity (‘enough papers’) research to succeed in academia, if one wanted more in life, either a family or to pursue other, non-academic activities. They also talked about time in the sense of life course, particularly in relation to starting a family and having children. Hilde expressed it like this:

‘There is something about having children in parallel with building your career, both in terms of time-management, but also – at least I think it influences my self-confidence. There is something about that feeling of being stuck at home with the laundry, while others travel to conferences and write up their articles. It is just as if it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in a system where you are supposed to brand yourself as the person who is willing to go “all in”’. (Hilde)

Hilde’s comments made it clear that if one could not see oneself mainly as an academic, the risk of losing self-confidence was very present and explicitly linked to a feeling of not living up to a perceived expectation of going “all in”. Housework – the laundry – represents the counterpart to academic work and career advancement in this story.

“Being stuck at home”

Being “stuck at home” was also a concern with regard to the issue of international mobility in several interviews. Typically, mobility was on the one hand presented as an opportunity that would potentially open up new possibilities in academia, and on the other hand as a problem when the early career researchers or their family members (partner, children) did not want to relocate. Agnes explained:

‘My contract now is for one more year. I really want to continue in academia as long as possible. But I have a daughter that is in school, and a husband with a permanent position here. The focus on mobility is really strong, so I guess it would be possible for me to get a position somewhere, but when your family is here and they don’t want to go elsewhere, it is hard.’ (Agnes)

The conflict between family commitments and mobility as a requirement for pursuing an academic career was not only expressed by the women taking part in our study. Harald expressed a similar frustration related to short-term mobility and travel requirements:

‘It is difficult to balance it all, when conferences are taking place at weekends, and you have to work late nights, and then taking care of your kids. I was actually supposed to be at a conference right now, I really should have, but I can’t since my wife is on a job trip abroad at the moment, all the traveling makes it difficult.’ (Harald)

Several of the men in our study expressed similar concerns for balancing family responsibilities with their work as a researcher. Common to all of them, however, was that they talked about a partner equally committed to their career, and how they adapted to that – implicitly presenting themselves as gender-equal spouses. Women in our study, on the contrary, tended to narrate their own agency in planning family and career, implicitly taking the responsibility for ‘being equal’. Henriette explained how she deliberately planned ahead and made sure to have a longer research stay abroad before she had children:

‘I had my stay abroad before I had children. I made that choice consciously, because I knew you have to go abroad, and I knew I wanted to have children. Of course, the stay was beneficial in many ways, but I have to admit that I did it mainly to “tick the box”’. (Henriette)

The timing of having children became a topic in most of the interviews, here illustrated by an exchange between Agnes and Are:

‘You really cannot wait until you have reached professor level to have kids, because by then you might be 45 or 50. It will be too late to have kids, at least for women.’ (Agnes)

‘That is true, but then it is a bit like as if I, as a man, could be expected to be 40 and successful and then find a much younger partner to start a family. I don’t find that right either.’ (Are)

In this dialogue, we can see how gendered perceptions of age and prioritizing family and children are challenged by expectations regarding academic careers. Prioritizing family is first portrayed, implicitly, as optional for men who can pursue their career first, and thereafter family. Implicit in this dialogue are heteronormative stereotypes of age difference and status difference between heterosexual partners. Are challenges this idea by arguing that the same problematic is also relevant for men. The orientation towards gender-equal relations expressed both by Harald and Are is significant as it paves the way for an allegiance between women and men in creating liveable lives in academia. Equally important to note is the fact that the women in our study talked about how they adapted to and assessed themselves according to assumed work standards and gendered constraints that are embedded in understandings of personal choice (Gascoigne et al, 2015; Sørensen, 2017).

“When you’ve already invested a lot, it is hard to let go”

Despite the fact that becoming a professor was associated with great sacrifice, and many of the early career researchers explicitly stated that they were not pursuing an academic career in order to become a professor, they also explained that they had already invested so much time and effort in their academic career that it was difficult to imagine leaving academia. This dynamic has been labelled a ‘trap of passion’ and ‘promise dispositif’ (Bozzon et al, 2019). The following conversation took place between Hilde, Henriette and Harald:

‘I have been willing to live on temporary contracts because I have already invested so much, both time and energy in this work, and I don’t want to let go of that.’ (Harald)

‘I agree, it is such a huge choice to make to give up, to let go of the idea that one day I will be sitting there, looking out.’ (Hilde)

Here a sense of purpose as the motivation for staying in academia becomes self-fulfilling through the way in which Harald explains why he has put up with years on temporary research contracts. Letting go, giving up, suggests being defeated, while the idea of “sitting there, looking out [from the ivory tower]” indicates victory and satisfaction.

It was not only the individual defeat or victory that mattered in the postdocs’ narratives. Henriette commented: “Sometimes I think that it is such a waste if the knowledge I have accumulated just disappears from the university.” The underlying sense of purpose here relates to the efforts of the university as a collective, rather than the individual career. Hilde added: “A frustrating thing about not getting hold of a permanent position is also the fact that you have to keep giving, without getting anything in return. At the end of the day, your voice doesn’t count.” Implicit in this statement is the longing for a position with the authority to be listened to. Interestingly, having a permanent position was constructed as the relevant threshold for achieving this status, not ‘becoming a professor’. Thus, the sense of purpose and genuine interest in the research in itself was entangled with a desire for getting a reward for one’s efforts, and the end of precariousness seemed to be the most desirable reward.

Assembling academic career choices: discussion and concluding remarks

In this chapter our main interest has been to explore how early career researchers perceive their agency and possibilities for pursuing an academic career. By analyzing qualitative interviews with postdocs employed at the largest university in Norway, we explored how early career researchers reflect upon their potential future within academia and how their experiences and expectations were potentially gendered.

Focusing first on the postdocs’ reflections about their own experiences when entering academia and being early career researchers, we found what we labelled a narrative about having the right skills and motivation, being supported and fortunate (lucky). This finding reinforces the notion that careers in academia are difficult to plan (Riordan, 2011). This narrative was articulated across the gender divide, but the notion of being supported turned out to be more strongly expressed by the women interviewees. In the stories presented by the men the efforts of others were more implicit, and rarely explicitly highlighted. Our interpretation of this is that even though both men and women to a great extent depend on active support to succeed in making an academic career, the narrative of ‘being helped’ is subtly gendered.

The main narrative about having the right skills and motivation as well as being supported and fortunate included elements of a sense of finding a purpose in research. Others too have found that academics tend to express great personal passion for their job, and that they tend to appreciate autonomy, independence and opportunities for individual self-expression (Lindholm, 2004; Loveday, 2018; Murgia and Poggio, 2019). On the other hand career-coaching models emphasizing community building and collective support has been developed as a supplement to traditional research mentoring to support minority academics. Evaluations of such schemes suggest that collective career mentoring, informed by social theory, can promote persistence in pursuing academic careers (Thakore et al, 2014; Williams et al, 2016).

Our study indicates that career mentoring should, however, include not only theoretical insights about gender and diversity, and peer solidarity, but should also aim to open up knowledge about varieties of experiences of becoming and being a professor (see also Ylijoki, 2013). We argue this as the ideas about what a professor is, and what it entails to be a professor, played a crucial role in how the postdocs made sense of their own choices. A strong perception of being a professor as an all-consuming endeavour left the early career scholars with a sense of being incapable, and ‘stuck’ in life outside of the university. This was true for both women and men. However, while women to a greater extent talked about taking active agency and planning strategically to fulfil the requirements of international mobility, the men’s stories revolved around negotiating family concerns with an equally committed spouse. Again, the gendered perceptions of the obstacles were subtly gendered.

Becoming a professor was explicitly discussed as something unattractive, and involved a narrative of sacrifice, overwork and multiple responsibilities, a situation that the early career scholars found undesirable. Nevertheless, becoming a professor was also and simultaneously portrayed as an obligatory career goal, due to the fact that academics who have the possibility of becoming a professor are likely to have invested much time and energy into the process leading up to it. This means that a trap between passion and overwork, as discussed by Bozzon et al (2019), was also implied in the narratives of these Norwegian early career researchers. Embedded in the narrative of becoming a professor was a strong perception of a permanent position as the threshold that could potentially resolve stress and ambiguity.

In contrast to the ideas circulating among early career researchers, professors at the same university regard academia as flexible and adjustable to family needs. Our understanding of this discrepancy is that the shift from precariousness to predictability that comes with a professorship is of crucial importance to how both work within, and life outside of, academia is made sense of. This discrepancy needs to be acknowledged in future work to promote a gender balance. Furthermore, the inherent and often subtle ways in which gender works in how early career researchers make sense of their career need to be discussed more openly in order to support early career scholars and promote a better gender balance.

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