Science - January 13, 2011

'Permanent job for scientist is a question of luck'

A study shows that luck is often the decisive factor in academic careers. Universities do not have an effective careers policy.

Researcher Barbara van Balen investigated the careers of talented scientists for the Rathenau Institute. She interviewed 21 talented academics, university scientists highly respected within their field. She asked them to name someone as talented as they were but who had nevertheless left the academic world. That gave her the names of 21 people who were talented enough to become scientists but who had eventually chosen a career outside the university.
One PhD student had a committed supervisor with a wide network and had no difficulty climbing up the career ladder while another encountered all kinds of setbacks: the first supervisor died, the second became a minister and that was followed by cutbacks in the faculty.

Agreements not cast in stone
Universities' HR policy is also questionable, says Van Balen (who incidentally does not name any specific institutions). When a dean or senior manager leaves, their successor takes little notice of any agreements that have been made. One of the 'lost talents' had reached an agreement on the criteria he would have to meet to be appointed associate professor. Twice, when he'd met those criteria new criteria were added. That did not exactly encourage him to be loyal to the university.
'It is difficult to plan an academic career', says Van Balen. 'Young researchers often think: I'll never be able to buy a house or start a family with all those temporary jobs. One of the people I interviewed had 23 consecutive temporary jobs.'
Van Balen says universities should give their scientists permanent jobs more often. 'But they are reluctant to do that as it is difficult and expensive to get rid of someone then if they are not good enough.'