The double-edged sword of the academic rat race

A lot of criticism has been doled out on the competitive attitude universities have toward fundings, teaching positions and post-grad positions. Three EURbased specialists reflect on academic competition. ‘It’s a shame if a career in research doesn’t work out, but looking for more of an investment from the university isn’t the answer either.’

TEXT: Inge Janse
PHOTO: © Monique Bröring

This is the story of Pauwke Berkers. Though in reality it’s also the story of many (in particular young) researchers at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Berkers’ story, though not unique, is a perfect example of the battles waged in and amongst researchers. Not literal battles, of course – we’re talking about battles for funding. Because funding means money, and money means the freedom to do research, and research equals the legitimisation of one’s status as a researcher – including the promise of tenure and promotions.

Back to Pauwke Berkers: he started out studying sociology in Tilburg. In 2009 he wrote his dissertation at Erasmus on demarcations drawn along the lines of ethnicity within the literary field. Following this, he became assistant professor. In 2015 he entered a three-year tenure track – a programme aimed at holding on to university talent – in the hope of moving on to the title of university professor. After working the mill for three hard years (which included many funding applications and having to give more yesses than nos to research requests), the response from the careerprogress committee was positive. Ever since then he has taken up a position as associateprofessor in sociology of arts and culture, with a specialisation in social inequality in arts and culture. It is, all in all, an uplifting story.

  • ‘Many others students are experiencing the same stress and pressure. we want to make the conversation less of a taboo.’ - Maite Houwing

Messing in the margins
However, zooming in on Berkers’ story will reveal a different sort of narrative: one full of bumps and potholes and dead-end roads. The sociologist explains that a career in academics usually heavily emphasises research. But then again, in the Netherlands, an associate professor is expected to teach 60% of the time – which leaves about two days a week for research. To put it bluntly: that sounds more like messing in the margins than truly investing in one’s work. Berkers says, laughing: ‘That, or you just spend all your weekends doing research.’ Which is why Berkers is trying for new funds quite regularly: funds mean money which means getting to hire people to take over some tasks in the teaching department, leaving him with more time for research. That money is also instrumental in, for example, buying data or hiring data analysts. ‘Especially the latter, I think, is very important. I want to give young researchers the chance to participate in a cool project – or have a post-doc position – one that pays, for a change, so that they don’t have to live on scraps before getting ahead in the academic world.’

He wasn’t even invited for a talk
That’s where the tragedy starts. Berkers self-deprecatingly describes himself as “one of the losers” whose Veni and Vidi applications (for two of the most important funding opportunities for young researchers, see list below) didn’t come through. Berkers isn’t sure why it got rejected: for his first application, he got an A three times in a row. Which, on a scale of F to A+, is quite impressive. Still, he wasn’t invited for a talk that would’ve got him through the next round. And while his second Vidi application was even better than his first, this one got him a lower rating. Berkers did, however, receive the EUR Fellowship grant of a 150- thousand euro, which allowed him to go ahead with his Vidi-research.

Though just to be clear: Berkers doesn’t think that it’s a case of arbitrary selection. ‘The people who get the grants are truly very good researchers.’ All the same, the funding system is putting quite a strain on both the people working at the university and the university’s machinery. ‘Preparing an application requires a near-perfect preparation. You need to be somewhat of a control freak, keep an eye on absolutely everything. It can be quite unhealthy at times, how intensely people go into these things. And that, in turn, can come at the cost of for example teaching.’ This has, in a sense, been confirmed by Elsevier’s yearly assessment of education in academia: EUR faculties that put a heavy focus on research score quite low, comparatively. Berker’s ESHCC – which, despite EUR’s research goals, also invested in small-scale education and a lively teaching environment – has done quite well.

Young post-graduates are in doubt
The question remains: how to do better? ‘I have mixed feelings when it comes to this rat race for grants. On the one hand, it’s great that people can hand in applications, because the NWO truly does its best to distribute the money in a fair and objective manner. More than that – a little it of competition is good.’ But on the other hand, the competitive environment comes with a lot of downsides. ‘Young post-graduates end up doubting: should I be fighting this fight, do I want to end up in this world? Even though all they should be thinking about is how cool this research is that they want to do, that has so much potential and impact.’ Berkers likes to encourage his colleagues with a quote by Harry Mulisch: ‘The list of writers who’ve received the Nobel prize is nice, but the list of writers who haven’t is even nicer.’

  • Who: Pauwke Berkers (41)
    Study: MSc Sociology (1996-2003) at Tilburg University
    Carreer: Doctorate (2003-2009), university teacher (2007-2018) and associate professor (since 2018) at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.

  • Who: Pursey Heugens (45)
    Study: Msc Business (1993-1997) at Erasmus University Rotterdam
    Carreer: PhD in business (1997-2001), assistant-professor management at Concordia University (2001-2003), assistant-professor organisational theory at Utrecht University (2003-2005), associate professor business-society management (2005-2008) and professor of organisational theory (2008-present) at RSM Erasmus University Rotterdam.

  • Who: Maite Houwing (30)
    Study: Medicine (2009-2017) at Erasmus University Rotterdam (1 year as a clinical researcher for pediatric oncology, and 1 post-grad year in pediatrics)
    Carreer: Doctorate in medicine (2017-present) at Erasmus MC.

Pursey Heugens went through much of the same
Pursey Heugens is a professor in organisational theory and Dean of Research at RSM, as well a science director of Erasmus Research Institute of Management. At the RSM faculty he gets to see a lot of young researchers come and go – shine for a brief moment before slinking away. A lot. He’s not necessarily against that. Of course, Heugens sees the disadvantages. ‘Some people feel like they’re getting caught up in a heartless race. The consequences, such as the pressure to perform, burnouts and depressions, are of course horrible, and nothing I’d wish on anyone.’ However, he emphasises, ‘Should you be so lucky to have been born with the talent and you’ve developed the right skills, then the academic world won’t feel like a rat race to you – it should feel like a competition that you want to be a part of. The science of research is the most beautiful occupation out there, if you’re up for it.’

It’s exactly this discrepancy between the ‘rat race’ and the ‘most beautiful job’ is, according to Heugens, a necessary evil to separate the wheat from the chaff. ‘You want to be able to reward the most talented people, with opportunities as well as with financial support. But you can’t offer everyone a job at the university. You need some sort of method of assessment, and that’s what the competition is there for.’ Carefully, (‘I’m not a swashbuckler’), Heugens claims that those who don’t feel at home in the academic system, should wonder if that’s where they want to work. ‘You can also focus more on teaching, for example on HBO level or as an academic teacher. It’s a shame if a career in research doesn’t work out, but looking for more of an investment from the university isn’t the answer either.’

The ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ process is, in part, shown in the tenuretrack mechanism. This is often used in the larger faculties within the EUR, such as the ESE and RSM. If you manage to get through these five years successfully, then tenure awaits you at the end, and – perhaps – the possibility of full professorship. ‘If you haven’t been able to prove yourself after five years, then we’ll have to part ways. Those who do survive them, see in what ways research is a beautiful thing. It’s really the people who have difficulty getting into the tenure track in the first place that experience the competition as a rat race.’

Stricter door policy
Despite all of this, Heugens does see the tenure track as the “lesser of evils”. Women, for example, have less of an opportunity of getting in, considering that their publication numbers are lower, which in turn lowers their admission rates. Also people who’ve had life-changing events during their tenure track – a pregnancy, an illness or a burnout – are at a disadvantage, having to still finalise their track within the appointed five years. Moreover, according to Heugens there’s another issue with the university’s selection process: ‘Hiring people who don’t have the right skills, that’s not offering someone an opportunity – that’s just cruelty. You’ll just ensure someone’s miserably stressed for five years long. Is someone not qualified? Then offer a contract that’s more fitting, like a postdoc-position.’ At the moment, only 35 to 45 percent of tenure tracks end up geting tenure. In other words: more than half doesn’t make it to the finish line. ‘We need a stricter door policy.’

Those who are vying for a tenure track should also be better prepared. ‘Doing research is a profession. Learn it. Don’t think of yourself a junior researcher during your track, but as a student. Invest every minute in developing skills, don’t finalise that dissertation until you’ve had as many publications as possible, as much social capital as possible. If you don’t do those things, you’ll be entirely overwhelmed by the prerequisites needed. Feelings of helplessness are most often seen with people who’ve not accurately learned their profession.’

Undo the culture of fear
You’d think that Maite Houwing – a doctorate at Eramus MC – would be at the heart of said rat race. However she, too, sings a milder tune: ‘We need to stop it with the stories about how intense the competition is. By repeating these stories we create a culture of fear. Just be yourself.’ Not that she denies that there’s a problem. Along with fellow colleagues, Houwing organised a symposium this last February on stress amongst medicine undergrad and doctorate students. It’s the field of medicine – starting with high school and continuing until the very end of the academic track – that demands and creates the most pressure (varying from ‘how will I get through the selection?’ to ‘how will I ever find a traineeship?’). It’s also the field where people are the least likely to seek out help. ‘You’ve been educated in taking care of others,’ explains Houwing. ‘Which means it’s difficult to ask colleagues for help. What if they end up thinking you can’t even take care of yourself?’

The consequences are, as the results show, higher numbers of depressions and suicidal thoughts amongst students of medicine than any other field of study. ‘The symposium aimed at making students aware that they weren’t alone, and that many others are experiencing the same stress and pressure. That’s how we want to make the conversation less of a taboo.’

  • Funding by the NWO

    The largest body of funding in the Netherlands is the NWO: Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek. It functions as the Dutch funder for scientific research, granting a total of 500 million euro per year in the form of grants and other financial support. The NWO gets its money from universities, which it then divides according to applications. In taking the process of appointing funding out of the hands of universities, favouritism is more easily avoided and more transparency then is created.

    I came, I saw, I conquered

    The most important grants are the Veni (meant for recently graduated doctorates, and has a max. Of 250,000 euro), Vidi (for more experienced researcher, max. 800,000 euro), and the Vici (for senior researchers, max. 1,500,000 euro). Whoever gets one of the grants (and of course everyone wants the Vici, the holy grail of sciences), will be revered at their university; whoever misses, is judged for it.

    Smart culture and hera

    The NWO also has other kinds of grants. For sociologist Pauwke Berkers, for example, the Smart Culture grant would be of interest: a grant of a half-million euro that includes the investment – both in time and money – from other partners from the industry. Last year, Berkers had the Hera grant awarded to him for research on diversity at music festivals. The grant covers about a million euro, and is divided over five European partners. ‘But those grants are still less acclaimed within universities than the Veni-Vidi-Vici arrangement. And on top of that, you do have partners you otherwise wouldn’t – and you need to be okay with that, to have that back and forth about what research questions you’re going for.’

    Funded by the municipality

    Of course there’s more to the world of funding than just the NWO. Last year, for example, Berkers had his research funded by the municipality of the Hague. ‘It was a really cool research with a lot of impact especially because it was a bottom-up arrangement with cultural institutes. Of course, there’s less money down that path and the research is very question-focused. This kind of research is not a replacement for “real” scientific research.’

  • Erasmus MC World-Champion hyperpublication

    At the end of 2018 Erasmus MC was announced to be the ‘world-champion hyperpublication’. Most researchers aim to publish about two original papers – with an academic journal – per year. This stands in stark contrast with the nine scientists of the teaching hospital who manage to have an article published under their name every five days (!). This makes Erasmus MC the FC Barcelona of researching institutes, because nowhere else can you find such a collection of hyperprolific authors. According to one of these authors, epidemiologist Henning Tiemeier, this is mostly down to the fact that medical research is so complex that certain papers have over two hundred researchers involved.