Two years abroad to get experience, both academically and personally. This is made possible by the now ten-year-old Rubicon grant awarded by Dutch science organization NWO. Three young Wageningen PhD graduates talk about their experiences.
Illustration Geert-Jan Bruins
‘Without my Rubicon I don’t think I would have got my present job,’ says Annelies Veraart. After getting her PhD at Wageningen University, the NWO grant gave the ecologist the chance to work for two years at the Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie in Bremen. There she explored a new field and worked in a team with a range of different expertises and nationalities. ´You learn an incredible amount in those two years. It is the first time in your scientific career that you really think up your own line of research.´
Veraart is one of the 781 Dutch researchers over the past decade who were able to spend up to two years abroad on a Rubicon grant. The grant is named after the river that Julius Caesar crossed to embark on the victory march on which he would later say, ´Veni, vidi, vici´ - ´I came, I saw, I overcame´. For the researchers too, the Rubicon is a first step on a journey that could lead to bigger grants such as the Veni, the Vidi and the Vici – and then perhaps to a glittering academic career.
What the researchers are looking for abroad is a scientific challenge. ´I knew that a postdoc position would be hard work and mean a lot of time in the lab,´ says plant researcher Thomas Liebrand. ´That´s why I wanted a place where I would be 100 percent motivated.´ At a conference he got talking to his current supervisor, a professor at UC Davis in the United States, and then wrote a proposal. This was the kick-off for a highly educational period. After the first year had flashed by – ‘I thought: have I already been here a year?’ – in his second year he could take bigger steps in working on his project and academic network.
Given the positive experiences of Veraart, Liebrand and countless others, it is not surprising that the Rubicon grant is much sought-after. For every application that is honoured there are four rejections. Nevertheless, the continued existence of the grant was uncertain for a long time. When the economic crisis was at its height around 2010, cuts in scientific research were a real threat. In the end, the NWO’s budget remained intact, but the ministry scrapped a number of small subsidies, including the one for the Rubicon grants. ‘We decided then to carry on with the Rubicon programme anyway,’ says NWO chair Jos Engelen. ‘Somehow we had to find the funding for it, and we managed to do so. The Rubicon grants are now in a secure position.’
There might have been a bit of nostalgia underlying this resolute decision. ‘There were a few people on the board of the NWO – in fact I think this went for all of us – who remembered how important experience abroad had been for them,’ says Engelen. ‘Personally, I went to the particle accelerator in Geneva as a physics student, and went abroad again straight after getting my PhD. It was a tremendous stimulus for all of us.’
And the stimulus provided by a stay abroad is not just on an academic level. Young researchers are often also curious to see how they’ll cope in a foreign country. Pleunie Hogenkamp went to Uppsala in Sweden to work as a nutrition researcher in a broad team with a lot of neuroscientists on it. She learned a lot, and not just as a scientist. ‘When you collaborate across cultures and disciplines, the communication has to be even clearer,’ says Hogenkamp. ‘In the first six months I often thought, “that must be clear”, and then it would turn out I had been making assumptions after all.’ Also, Swedish people found Dutch outspokenness hard to take; they prefer to avoid conflict. All in all, it was very pleasant to work in a country with hardly any hierarchy and with generous childcare provision – Hogenkamp had two babies in that period.
Liebrand too was keen to experience the frictions involved in a stay abroad. ‘Here at UC Davis I noticed that the culture is more individualistic and hierarchical,’ he says, ‘but the attitude to money is more easygoing.’ Cliches about the American work ethic turned out to be true. Where in the Netherlands Liebrand was sometimes reminded to take some time off, in Davis it is perfectly normal to work all weekend. A short explanation by Liebrand about the limited opening times of the Wageningen research building Radix (recently a subject of discussion in Resource) caused some shaking of heads among American colleagues.
For the NWO the Rubicon grants are a way of fostering academic talent. Yet the recipients of the grant do not automatically steam on towards the top jobs in Dutch science. Only 14 percent of them go on from the Rubicon to get a Veni grant, the next rung on the grants ladder. The people involved are not sure why that is, but they do know that by no means all ex-Rubicon holders apply for a Veni. Some of them stay abroad. ‘One of the ideas behind the grant is to give you a chance to see whether research is the right thing for you,’ explains Engelen. ‘You could also decide to say goodbye to the academic world.’
That is not what the Wageningen Rubicon trio have in mind though. They like the idea of a scientific career. Veraart knew in fact as a PhD student that she wanted to work for the Netherlands Institute for Ecology. And thanks to her Rubicon, that is what she is now doing.
Who got her PhD in the Aquatic Ecology chair group at Wageningen University
Where to: Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie in Bremen, Germany
Now: Postdoc microbial ecology at the Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO)
Who got his PhD with the Phytopathology chair group at Wageningen University
Where to: UC Davis in California, US
Now: Got an extension to stay one more year
Who got her PhD with the department of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University
Where to: Uppsala University, Sweden
Now: Moving back to the Netherlands in two weeks, looking for a job in academic nutrition research or research & development