Ne(x)twork as a researcher: how and why? Lessons from Pauline Meurs

On November 21st, yESHPM – the platform for PhD’s working at Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management – organised the seminar ‘Ne(x)twork as a researcher: how and why?’ with guest speaker prof. Pauline Meurs, PhD. What is the importance (or not) of societal involvement as a researcher? How do you position yourself as a researcher within society? How is this of influence for career developments during and after academia? During this interactive session, professor Meurs shared her career development experiences, which difficulties she faced, and summarised lessons learned and points of advice for young researchers. Why is ‘networking’ important after all? “You learn the most throughout the conversations.” This blog will address the main insights during the lunch seminar.

Activist

Looking back on her career so far, professor Meurs starts by saying that she was a scientist and activist at the same time. Interested in power relations, power structures, and inequalities, she questioned herself: how does power ‘work’? Why are there so many inequalities? “Informal power relations can also be strong, and talking truth to power is very difficult”, she argued. She lived abroad and travelled a lot in her youth. Meurs ends her introduction therefore by giving her first point of advice for young researchers. “Do not stay at the university. That might make you narrow-minded.” Travel and seek other perspectives, it will enrich you.” For her masters, she went to Leiden University without speaking Dutch.

Researcher

In line with her passion to read work on power relations, she started her role as a researcher in various hospitals. What is the role of work personnel? Although obtaining a PhD wasn’t her primary goal, she was given the opportunity to do so. “Therefore, look at opportunities around you, and if possible, get them.” Illustrative of this, a former colleague of Meurs said that her research within the hospital could be extended to a full PhD trajectory. So, she did. “Circumstance are, off course, of influence. Remember that a PhD is just a starting point, and not your workpiece of life.”

Threshold

During her talk, Meurs openly tells about her job experiences. “What is a good match? Who am I as a person? What are my competences?” These questions are addressed as important to answer in an early stage of the PhD trajectory. Her working period at the Dutch railway wasn’t that successful, she said. “Sometimes you feel that you are not connected enough to the organisation itself. Then it is time to move on. I had my share. Don’t stick.” Meurs worked for the Trimbos Insitute, and conducted research on psychiatry care. “I prefer to do research myself, and not only for other’s agenda.” For ten years she worked in consultancy, travelled extensively to South-America, and connected with multiple non-governmental agencies. However, she started to miss science. At the Erasmus University, she started as a lecturer on part-time basis. “I flourish by working on the threshold; combing different worlds.” She admits that this isn’t easy at all. Living up to various and diverging expectations is difficult. Interestingly, Meurs never worked full time at any university.

  • Generalist

    Societal engagement has been an important factor during her career so far. “Nowadays, you need to specialise. That was not what I want. I’m hybrid; more of a generalist, then a specialist.” While reflecting openly, Meurs mentions that she was “zigzagging” through all kinds of knowledge institutions, government agencies and organisations. Illustrative of this, she calls herself “a hybrid professor”. A clear example that she brought her social network into the field of academia, is the emergence of the Erasmus Centre for Healthcare Management, located on the 6th floor of ESHPM (in Dutch: het Erasmus Centrum voor Zorgbestuur). “I am too independent to belong to one party.”

    Relational

    She continues: “You need to invest in friends and relations, intensively.” She argues that in life, you need to keep in touch with others. “It is reciprocal.” In the working environment, you not only create your own connections but you also become part of someone else’s “network”. At this point in her life, Meurs still creates – and seem to build – networks. For example, in Surinam (located in South-America, her father is Surinamese) she initiates a project that aims to help elderly populations in rural areas, the so-called “jungle”. During her enthusiastic talk, Meurs shared some food for thought. For example, “throughout conversations, you learn the most” is an interesting quote, yet considering her background is sociology not that surprising.

    Society

    Meurs ends with some career development tips. “Fixing on your next step is important. Take time to do so.” She regrets a bit that she didn’t used her language skills (Meurs speaks Spanish among others) more intensively. “I could have used that more as an asset.” Young researchers should discuss more that “PhD is not your life; you are not your PhD or your future job”. It is about knowing your own competences. However, we should be aware that other competences are important as well. How? “By going to other universities. Try to move out your comfort zone. Sometimes you need to be shaken up a bit, and move further.” Difficulties are present along the way, such as accepting critique on your (hard) work. Sometimes you don’t feel comfortable in your own situation. “Therefore, again: really invest in two or three friends that will help you.” Meurs ends her talk with concluding that her journey so far “is sort of a story”. It is. However, not only (young) researchers, but we all should tell our story in and to society “to really connect”.

    Five points of advice

    Taken the above shared insights into account, the following five lessons learned for young researchers are listed down below:

    1. What really makes you tick? This question should be answered regularly.
    2. If possible, travel during your PhD trajectory and beyond. Do not stick to the university.
    3. Focus on your next step. It is important to know your own competencies.
    4. Invest in friends. Twee or three are really important. Never forget them.
    5. Look for windows of opportunities. Move to other organizations. Sometimes you need confrontation to move.
More information

This blog was written by Oemar van der Woerd on behalf of the 2019/2020 yESHPM board: Samare Huls, Sanne Kuipers, Jannis Stockel, and Oemar van der Woerd.