News - February 25, 2016

Column: Makeshift career

Stijn van Gils

Asscher says the situation is not that bad when you look at the number of ‘makeshift contracts’ in academia. The Social Affairs minister made inquiries and the universities told him such makeshift arrangements are rare.

I’m sure Asscher is an honest man and the university directors will undoubtedly have tried to tell him the truth but I think his answer is rubbish. Everywhere I look, makeshift solutions are common practice in science. And I mean makeshift in the broadest sense because in my opinion the makeshift arrangement described by Asscher — a firm contract for a few hours combined with a flexible contract for the rest of the week — is pretty straightforward.

I know of much more devious examples. For example, a temporary contract here is exchanged for a temporary contract with a well-disposed research group at a different university. In this way, you can keep people for six to eight years without them ever having a prospect of a permanent contract. Or what about this quote from a PhD candidate: ‘Hey, I’ve got enough time to finish my doctoral thesis — I’m still eligible for nine months unemployment benefit.’ These tricks of the trade are how scientists cobble together their entire career.

But don’t imagine that university boards are going to tell Asscher this. In fact, I doubt the research groups even inform their own university boards about these situations. The researchers in question also keep mum. ‘Weird arrangement? I’m just pleased I can keep doing my work.’

Actually, every scientist is a mini-entrepreneur going to great lengths just to keep their research going. You could even say that it is quite surprising such freelancers get a standard employment contract at all.

Stijn van Gils (28) is doing doctoral research on ecosystem services in agriculture. Every month he describes his struggles with the scientific system.