Science - October 31, 2013

‘Don’t have a team full of strikers’

Albert Sikkema


Four years ago the university introduced a new career policy for scientific talent: tenure track. But the programme is not uncontroversial: does this one-size-fits-all trajectory do justice to the diversity of the academic world? As a committee scrutinizes the rules of the game, Resource checked in with five of the first candidates. How are they faring?

Jacqueline Bloemhof Operational Research and Logistics
Aiming for a personal chair in Sustainable Linguistics.

Three years ago Bloemhof had just arrived in Wageningen from Rotterdam. She has three children and she had a contract for 28 hours but she spent an average of almost 40 hours a week on her work. ‘You need that to meet the requirements, which are stiff,’ she told Resource at the time. Her reward came two years ago when she was promoted to associate professor (scale 1). ‘One of my PhD students has graduated and there are five more in the pipeline. At the moment I am working on my portfolio for the big evaluation for a personal chair. It feels like I’m preparing for the Olympic games. You have to qualify and you could always do more or better.’

The prospects were never exactly terrific for young scientists before tenure track was introduced. You came on board as a researcher and then you just had to wait and see where the ship of your career would take you. If a position became vacant somewhere you were in with a chance but if all the old hands just sat tight, your career could get stranded regardless of your qualities. In practice many young scientists hopped from contract to contract, without any idea of where that would lead to. Tenure track, which came over from Anglo-Saxon academia, has some clear advantages to offer in this respect. It gives talented young scientists, and established teachers too, a chance of a career. Promotion is no longer a random game of musical chairs but depends on objective quality assessments. That is much fairer and better for the university, agree both friends and foes of the system.

Staff members who come in at the assistant or associate professor level are evaluated every three years on their publications, their teaching performance and their acquisition of projects and PhD students. The criteria become more stringent as they climb the ladder. After two temporary contracts of three years, they get tenure and the end of the road is a personal chair. Unless you fail to meet the criteria, that is. In that case you are invited to look for another job: ‘up or out’ is another name for this scientific career ladder. Although this does not of course apply to current incumbents who voluntarily sign up for tenure track. There are now 141 lecturers who have embarked on tenure track: 92 assistant professors and 46 associate professors. Three candidates have already reached the final goal and are now personal professors. An unknown number have fallen by the wayside.


Arjan de Visser Genetics
Aiming for a personal chair in Experimental Evolution.

Three years ago in Resource, De Visser expressed concern about his imminent evaluation because he had not supervised many PhD students and had not published very much. It turned out there was no need to worry. ‘I came through the evaluation no problem and was promoted to associate professor scale 1. It took a lot of preparation but in retrospect it was very good to have to write my vision down. Next year I have to come before a committee that will evaluate whether I should get a personal chair. I do feel under pressure through tenure track. At the start there was a lot of pressure and it had a negative effect on the work. Now I am no longer constantly thinking of tenure track, I enjoy my work more.’

Career tigers
So what has become of the criticism that was heard four years ago when the new system was brought in? At that time opponents of tenure track foresaw a grim doom scenario of an ‘every man for himself’ university in which egotistical career tigers destroyed collaboration in education and in research. That prediction has not come true, say those concerned. Most of those of tenure track seem to be very well aware of the importance of collaboration in science. What is more, professors make sure that tasks in the chair group are fairly distributed, says Liesbeth Ruyten, who works with the tenure track staff in Environmental Sciences. Another criticism at the start was that the evaluation criteria for tenure track were too stringent. This seems to have panned out better than feared. Ruyten sees many candidates in Environmental Sciences who meet the criteria easily. Only in the social sciences did the criticism seem somewhat justified. In these disciplines it sometimes seemed to be difficult to meet the requirements, especially those for acquisition (how much project funding and how many PhD students you bring in). Six lecturers at the Leeuwenborch withdrew from tenure track partly for this reason. The criteria have now been adjusted and most pass with flying colours.


Gerry Jager Human Nutrition

Aiming for a personal chair in Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour.

This ambitious psychologist moved from Utrecht to Wageningen three years ago to become an assistant professor. She was attracted by Wageningen’s career policy but did not yet know much about nutrition. Now she feels thoroughly at home in Wageningen. Jager now supervises five PhD students, two of whom she brought in herself. She was assessed in March this year and promoted to assistant professor scale 1. ‘On the hard criteria I scored fine and the committee was very positive about my performance and vision. I am on target.’ The next step is promotion to associate professor on a permanent contract. ‘You get three years for that but I want to do it faster. Next year I am going to apply to the NWO for a Vidi grant. If I get that I can apply for an evaluation for an associate professorship. But it is no pushover. Since I’ve been on tenure track I’ve started acting more strategically. I always check whether something is up my street, and who I will be working with. I make sure I don’t do too much teaching.’

Young family
In many ways, then, tenure track seems to be doing the job it was intended to do. That is clear too from our discussions with five scientists who have experience of the trajectory. They featured in Resource when they started out. Now, three years on, we checked in with them again to see how they were doing. Their stories suggest that tenure track has ensured them a clearer career path, but that the system is in danger of creating some new bottlenecks itself. And the main reason for this is that there is just one trajectory, with just one final goal. That does not do justice to the diversity of ambitions among scientists and needs in the chair groups. For example, tenure track leads to a chair, whereas many scientists are quite happy in the role of associate professor. Why, then, force young scientists to go ‘all the way’? Imke de Boer is one of those who question the approach. She flourished on tenure track and is now full professor of Animal Production Systems. So she can evaluate the new career policy both as a participant and as a supervisor. She takes a balanced view of the process. ‘If I was young now I might not have started on tenure track. I worked three days a week for years because for me time with my family is important too, as well as nice. Tenure track came at the right time for me, because my oldest children started on higher education in 2011.’ She is aware of the high requirements for the natural sciences. ‘I now have two PhD students who have just had a baby. If they want to go on, they have to get on tenure track. That puts an awful lot of pressure on you on top of the demands of a young family.’ From the professor’s point of view too, De Boer sees how restrictive tenure track’s uniformity could be. ‘My chair group is doing great and I will soon be able to appoint three young people on tenure track. But I am torn: should they all go on tenure track? You don’t want a team full of strikers.’

Petra Derkzen Dropped out

Derkzen was assistant professor on tenure track at Rural Sociology but she dropped out this year and has taken another job outside the university. Why? She would rather not discuss it, she says in an email. Talking to Resource three years ago she already mentioned the doubts she had about an academic career when she had to apply for her own job after two temporary contracts. ‘I don’t know whether I want to be personal professor.’

Teaching load
Similar views are expressed by Gerry Jager, who teaches Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour. Now she is on tenure track she is not allowed to spend more than 40 percent of her time on teaching. That is a problem because the teaching load in her group is growing fast. ‘Last year we started a new minor that is attracting a lot of students and besides that, the Master’s in Sensory Science is growing fast too. In fact we really need a teacher with tenure. But the rules oblige us only to give tenure to people on tenure track, who cannot spend more than 40 percent of their time teaching.’ The growing teaching load is problematic elsewhere too, as Jacqueline Bloemhof can testify. She is associate professor in Operational Research and Logistics, and on tenure track. ‘We have to supervise more students and new courses are being added. Who is going to develop the curriculum and teach the courses? The permanent staff have enough on their plates. We would very much like to appoint new teachers, but not necessarily on tenure track. In which case you can offer very little in the way of career prospects, unfortunately.’ That’s because the rule is: only those on tenure track end up on a permanent contract.


Imke de Boer Professor at Animal Production Systems
Did a year on tenure track as associate professor.

Of the five tenure trackers profiled in 2010, De Boer is the only one who is already full professor, a meteoric career that was not foreseen. ‘When my predecessor retired I had just started on tenure track and I didn’t apply. But the first round of applications did not produce any suitable candidates. Meanwhile I had started to give it some thought. I felt the chair group had been marginalized and I thought I could do better. So in the second round in 2011, I applied. And I got it! What matters to me is still the substance of our work, sustainable livestock farming, but as full professor I am much more of a manager than I was when I was on tenure track. But it’s been a nice surprise; I enjoy it more than I had expected to. I notice that my colleagues accept me in this role and I can see a new dynamic in the group. We are streaking ahead and everyone is working hard. We had 12 new PhD students and the number of publications has doubled.’ 

Alternative route
It would seem then that tenure track does not offer everyone the right prospects. This may explain why the system is largely limited to newcomers. Sitting staff can volunteer for it, but are doing so less often than expected. A committee will soon be studying why that is. Perhaps they could take Jacqueline Bloemhof’s suggestion on board. She argues for an alternative tenure track route. ‘Not everyone wants to be a personal professor. I envisage an alternative route in which you are promoted to associate professor level, with lower requirements for acquisition but solid ones for education and research. A partial tenure track route like that could put the chair groups at ease.’   

Photo's: Guy Ackermans