“Are you satisfied with your career prospects?” was the first question Marijn van Ballegooijen, director of the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN), asked an audience of 25 representatives of local Ph.D. councils to consider. These had gathered in Amsterdam on 18 June to take part in a discussion about scientific career development. The event, entitled “A Career in Science,” had been organised by the PNN, following the introduction of the tenure-track system in the Netherlands, at the University of Groningen. “Career perspectives in science need improvement,” van Ballegooijen continued, “and today we are taking the first step.”
Brainstorming: How Do You Do That?
The Ph.D. students were invited to spend an afternoon brainstorming about their futures and those of their colleagues. “Brainstorming is not just about spouting ideas,” said van Ballegooijen to introduce the rules of the afternoon. If you really want to get useful ideas from it, he explained, your “idea-spouting” should be structured, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
First, students were given three cards meant to help their thoughts on career development flow. Each participant was asked to write down on a red card what aspects of a scientific career they thought needed to be changed, a golden clue for brighter career prospects on a gold card, and any other idea or suggestion coming to their minds on a blue card. Figure 1 shows the broad themes that emerged.
Figure 1. Red, yellow, and blue cards and the categories of ideas brought up by participants
As could be expected, this exercise resulted in many new ideas, pros and cons, short- and long-term visions, and far-sought dreams. Let’s see what the participants came up with.
Self-assessment of Ph.D. students
The students considered career opportunities within academia to be rather limited, especially when compared with industry. Of course, there are many factors influencing the job market, which students have no control over, but participants wondered whether perhaps Ph.D. students could change something about themselves to improve their career prospects. Do they have the qualities and attitude employers would expect budding scientists to have?
“Work like hell and publish as much as you can” appeared on one of the gold cards. Yet most students felt this is what they’ve been doing all along. Blinkers on, doors and windows closed, and focus on science has been their motto from day 1. Paying attention to what is going on around them and self-reflection are not usually included in a Ph.D. package. Students felt this resulted in their being perceived as nonassertive, antisocial, and noncommunicative. They also mentioned a feeling of vulnerability coming from an often too great dependence on their supervisor’s decisions. How about turning things around?
“A first step would be to look at yourself as an employee,” one discussion group concluded. But how do you do that in a working environment where most people actually treat you like a student? “Establishing a good relationship with your supervisor and colleagues would be a good start,” said a participant. But even when this is not possible, Ph.D. students can influence their working conditions. “Take the initiative,” “Be more selfish,” “Promote yourself,” and “Don’t just consume resources” were some of the other tips that came out during the plenary discussion. Most of the participants also suggested focusing on gaining transferable skills during their Ph.D. work, such as taking communications courses.
Victor Spoormaker, ex-director of the PNN, said that about 1000 newly qualified Dutch Ph.D. students and postdocs are without jobs each year. To Chris Aalberts, vice-director of the PNN, the scientific climate itself certainly contributes to making it difficult for young scientists to get their feet on the career ladder. He explained that if, for a start, there are not enough academic positions, there is also a lack of adequate evaluation of the work of academic staff once they’re in the system. “A lot of lecturers perform only poorly, twiddle their thumbs, and publish hardly anything,” he continued. He proposed the tenure-track system at universities as one that would make staff members more competitive. The performance of scientists would be evaluated based on the “up-or-out” principle after they had been on the staff 5 years”.
All participants agreed that academic staff members should be continuously encouraged to perform at high levels, through tougher selection procedures and constant evaluation. These should be applied as early in scientist’s career as possible, to give young researchers optimal chances to make it in another career should they not pass the selection stage or decide academia is not for them. Although the first real bottleneck is most often met at the level of lectureship, students viewed the M.Sc. as what should be the first step of selection.
As the personal experience of a student at the Netherlands Cancer Institute illustrated, the continued evaluation of young scientists can be very beneficial. Each year, he finds himself in front of an official evaluation board. “I have to present my progress,” he explained, “and the board give me deadlines based on what I should achieve to get my Ph.D.” He felt that this gave him realistic objectives and thus motivation and support. In addition, he explained how he talked to one of the board members regularly about the role of his supervisor. Other students agreed that this was rather rare in the Ph.D. world. Even though they were well aware that the success of their project depended on their supervisors, they said they preferred not to report problems in their working relationship for fear they might get into even more trouble when their supervisor finds out.
Students also agreed that there was a need for standardisation in academic careers and not only for evaluation procedures. When exchanging experiences, students realised there were large differences amongst universities when it came to career prospects and the way young scientists were looked upon. In Nijmegen, for example, Ph.D. students were considered as junior scientists and therefore paid accordingly. Other universities were sticking to the old system, according to which Ph.D. students are still in training and therefore gradually earn a higher percentage each year until receiving a full junior scientist salary in the last year of their studies.
All participants felt the time was right for a revolution in the scientific career world. Insecurity about future opportunities is one of the biggest worries for young scientists in the Netherlands. They are asking for stricter selection criteria and performance evaluation along the academic path to keep research at a high level and give young talent a chance. The PNN will pass on their request, directly to Parliament, along with the afternoon’s conclusions.