yESHPM presents: lessons from Professor Kim Putters

“Don’t think that you are not ready yet” 

On August 28th, yESHPM had the honour to welcome Professor Kim Putters in their midst as part of an inspirational meet-up for early-career researchers. Putters – last year’s most influential Dutchman according to De Volkskrant – combines his Health Management chair at Erasmus University with the position of director at The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP). How does he combine the seemingly different worlds of practicing science and influencing policy? An open talk about career development, coincidence, proactiveness, and being clear about your role. 

Different worlds 

Prof. dr. Kim Putters (1973), who grew up in a protestant environment in the polders surrounding Rotterdam, was sitting in his office for the first time again since the beginning of lockdown. He remarked it was nice to be back at campus, instead of video calling from his kitchen table. 

Coming from a family of inland skippers, it was not obvious that Putters would go to university, perhaps instilling in him the ability to move between different worlds seemingly effortlessly. He became a public administration scientist, who constantly manoeuvres between science, policy and politics. 

“We live in a changing welfare state in which more responsibilities are transferred to citizens. Our job is to be critical to the Dutch government about the subjective reality.” As director of an advisory council to the government, he is a strong believer in telling the stories behind the figures of how the Dutch are doing, feeling and experiencing their lives. The SCP advices the government on a regular basis, and Putters is frequently in contact with the media to interpret and comment on societal developments. 

Noblesse oblige 

His urge to understand decision-making in political arenas drove him to study Public Administration, but why the choice for healthcare? “Most people don’t want to think about it, but it has to be there when it is needed.” With his knowledge of public administration, Putters was offered a PhD position on the reforms in Dutch healthcare towards more entrepreneurship in health management. He found a niche that correlated with his passion. 

One year into his PhD, he realized it could be inspiring to combine the scientific work with advisory work. Luckily, his supervisor Tom van der Grinten had good connections within the Council for Health and Social Service (in Dutch: de Raad voor Volksgezondheid en Zorg) and so Putters became parttime advisor from 1997 until 2003. 

This hybridity later becomes a repeating element in his work, raising the question how to connect with practice as a young scholar? “Don’t think you are not ready yet. Don’t question if you have a story to tell or whether you could inspire others. You can already do that during your PhD trajectory, as you have gained a lot of valuable knowledge.” 

He acknowledges that coincidence is and has been an important factor throughout his career, exemplified by the connections made via his supervisor to present research insights to political parties as well as to former Minister of Health, Els Borst. This meant the start of his political career. “Nonetheless, you should proactively reach out to people. Don’t stay inside the bubble too much.” However, he says, this is a shared responsibility: “As a professor, you have to think about how to introduce your pupils to your network. It is noblesse oblige.” 

Balancing values 

One of the things that stand out most, is that combining different worlds is central in Putters’ work. “This has a lot of advantages, but it also challenges you to be clear about your role at all times.” Logically, he left the Senate and quit politics, before he entered the policy world as director of the SCP in 2013. “Don’t misuse one role for the other. You cannot advice politics and be in politics at the same time.” 

His time in the Senate for the Labour Party, between 2003 and 2013, indicates the urge to speak up; Putters is actively looking for good trouble. This resonates in his current work. He maintains a critical stance towards current policies for vulnerable people, such as the young or elders with disabilities, for which self-reliance is often simply unrealistic. “Sometimes they don’t want to listen, but they have to listen!”, referring to his discussions about the SCP research results. 

Authenticity is often and easily said to be important, but it requires work and determination. During his work, he constantly needs to balance values. For instance, Putters anecdotally told that government officials approached the SCP with a request for a survey. “No,” was the stern reply, “you have to tell me your problem, and not how to carry out the research. We choose the research methods that we think are most appropriate.” 

While discussions in academia are proliferating on how to measure societal impact, Putters argues to look for impact that is in harmony with your passion. He questioned: “What kind of impact do you want to make? Find a niche where you can be of value. This can also be your research group, team or department.” 

Lessons 

In sum, Putters acts and interferes in multiple contexts, which requires him to balance values daily. He advises early-career researchers to stick close to what makes them tick, while being pro-actively looking for impact accordingly. Thus, Putters seems to suggest a modest, personal attitude towards career development. 

Earlier that day, Putters was interviewed for NPO Radio 1. During a stroll along the Maas, he is asked what he would like to be in the future. His answer? “To be a teacher on an elementary or high school, perhaps. Making a switch during my working life. Or to start a pub with my brother.” Who knows what’s next? Putters’ talk illustrated that modesty, ambition, coincidence and proactiveness are the ingredients that built up his career throughout the years. 

This inspiriational meet-up was the second in a series that started with Professor Pauline Meurs in November 2019. Here you can find her lessons for early-career researchers. If you have any suggestions for a next speaker, please let us know

Thomas Reindersma, PhD Candidate Health Services Management & Organisation 

Oemar van der Woerd, PhD Candidate Healthcare Governance