Wetenschap - 29 augustus 2013

The V-factor

Rob Ramaker

The Veni grants are the ultimate ticket for young scientists wanting an academic career. But the road to a Veni is a stressful business that comes to a dead end for 85 per cent of the applicants. Resource followed three Wageningen candidates for six months and was with them when they heard the final result.

In In most sectors, reaching the top is a subtle game in which opaque skills and dubious tactics seem to be the deciding factor. But not in the academic world. Here, there is a clearly laid out route to the top with distinct stages: PhD, postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor and full professor. The main filtering process takes place in the first two categories: only one third of postdocs end up with a permanent academic job.

The best ticket to such a job is a Veni grant from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). You use the grant to fund your own research, which guarantees you work for several years. That brings you a step closer to a permanent university position, which can eventually lead to a professorship. The fight for Veni’s becomes fiercer every year and young researchers realize this all too well. The application process has become a nerve-racking exercise that tests the candidates eight months long. What is it like for them, going through this process that has such a significant impact on their futures? This year, Resource accompanied three scientists on their quest for a Veni.

December 2012. The candidates
Colette Broekgaarden, a Plant Breeding biologist, is competing for the third time. She was eliminated straight away the first two times. She found that particularly hard to take in 2010 as she had thought she was ripe for the Veni’s. ‘I’d hate it if I didn’t get through the first round this year,’ she says. The biologist wants to investigate how whitefly, a pestiferous insect, suppresses plants’ resistance. Entomologist Niels Verhulst is also looking to get even. Last year, his plan to see whether mosquitos transfer malaria from apes to humans was judged as outstanding. But his dream fell apart during the presentation: ‘I immediately got into a weird discussion with one professor. I had been expecting her question and even had some slides prepared. I thought it would be easy but she didn’t understand my point and I couldn’t get it across to her.’ Goodbye Veni. He is having another go this year. This is the first attempt for innovation researcher Frans Hermans. He wants to examine how the discourse, or language, that clashing sides use in scientific debate changes as the relations between stakeholders shift. To improve his chances, Hermans took a preparatory course and formed a writing group together with other candidates. Despite that support, he struggled with the proposal: ‘You spend a long time floundering.’ Even so, he is pleased with the final result and sees it as ‘a useful exercise’ even if it gets rejected in the end.

Broekgaarden, who took the same course, also found it a difficult process: ‘There are often times when you think this will never work out.’ She was satisfied with the result afterwards. ‘I feel now that I did everything I could have done.’

Colette Broekgaarden
Colette Broekgaarden

The writing process was a lot simpler for Verhulst. He just polished up his old proposal and resubmitted it. He is cautious about his own chances: ‘I will be able to give a much better estimate once I see the assessment.’

The three Wageningen scientists are among more than a thousand researchers in the Netherlands submitting a proposal. Ultimately, 155 will get a grant, around 15 per cent. They can expect funds of up to 250 thousand euros, which will let them work in relative freedom for three years. When the Veni was introduced in 2002, the success rate for applicants was around 25 per cent, but that rate has been falling slowly since 2008 to its current level of 15 per cent. While the funding organization NWO has increased the number of Veni grants, the number of applicants has increased much faster, so more and more PhD students and postdocs are missing out. A striking feature of the Veni - and its successors the Vidi and Vici - is that they are personal grants. Not only is the proposal itself assessed, the scientists are also told whether they are good enough to do the research. ‘That’s quite unnerving,’ says Broekgaarden. ‘They say some pretty critical things in the rejection e-mail: not enough publications, not enough international experience, mediocre CV.’ This time too, around half the applicants are assessed as ‘unpromising’ by the committee. Their proposals are not even handed on to the independent academic reviewers.

February 2013 The first elimination round
Good news. Our Wageningeners are through to the next round. All three of them. But the referees’ comments put a considerable dampener on the good mood. Niels Verhulst: ‘You scroll through the document and see: first one good, second one OK, but the third one’s lousy. Then you go “Oh noooo”.’ In his case the third assessment was a B, which means his plan was ‘good’ but not ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. ‘I’m doomed,’ he grumbles. Even so, he still immediately schedules a brainstorming session for the follow-up strategy. Broekgaarden found the result even harder to take. Her first referee has given UF, which stands for unfinanceable.  

While WO has increased the number of Veni grants, the number of applicants has increased much faster

It immediately ruins her mood. ‘I was so shocked by that UF, I didn’t even read the rest. I just closed my e-mail and went home.’ She only read the comments one day later. They contained the good news. The anonymous reviewers find her CV good, for example, and three of the four referees find her idea interesting. Number four gives a poor review on the grounds of criticisms Broekgaarden dismisses as ‘bizarre’. ‘A crap move,’ she complains. Her ‘PhD buddy’ Erik Poelman thinks she definitely still has a chance. She herself barely dares hope any more. In the end she sighs, ‘At least if I get rejected I won’t have to do that interview.’ Hermans is also unhappy with what he sees as the subjective nature of the assessment. One referee has no criticisms but still does not give him an ‘excellent’. Hermans has the disadvantage that the individual reviews get a relatively large weight as he only has two. ‘They were both quite positive about the content,’ he says ‘but I have an A and a B whereas you really need an A+.’ ‘I don’t have that much chance,’ he concludes. ‘It’s touch and go. But I’m an optimistic person and I still hope I’ll get that invitation.’

Verhulst is also grappling with the contradictory remarks. For instance, one reviewer praises his experience with natural aromas whereas another finds that expertise lacking. ‘How can they be so different?’ he says. ‘This is so frustrating.’ That is why the three scientists are pleased they get a chance to set things straight in a letter of response. Verhulst, Hermans and Broekgaarden send in their responses in early April. This is followed by weeks of nail biting while the committee decides who will be invited to give a presentation.

May 2013. The presentation
In early May, the long-awaited e-mail appears in their inboxes. ‘Had given up hope,’ mails Verhulst, ‘but I have been invited for a Veni interview after all.’ Broekgaarden is also through to the next round with a chance to present her plan. Frans Hermans, on the other hand, gets bad news: ‘I got a message last Friday [...] that I won’t be getting an invitation,’ he writes. A bit later, we are sitting drinking coffee in his department’s common area. He seems resigned. ‘I knew it was only a small chance. So it’s not entirely unexpected. But it’s still a pity.’ He has had a long think about the weak points. ‘I don’t seem to be able to summarize my research in one or two sentences, which shows it hasn’t been thought through enough. I also may have concentrated too much on my personal obsessions and not enough on what’s interesting from a scientific viewpoint.’ He has also had a setback in his private life. That puts the rejection into perspective: ‘You shrug your shoulders and get on with your life.’

Frans Hermans
Frans Hermans

Hermans is now considering the option of submitting an improved version somewhere else. He will have another chance to compete for a Veni next year but that coincides with the end of his contract. He will probably try something different before then, because he still wants to continue in the academic world.

Meanwhile, Broekgaarden and Verhulst are preparing for their presentations. This shows once again how much time and energy goes into a good application - possibly to no avail. Broekgaarden took a presentation course in April and is now training hard for her talk. At the end of May she gives a practice talk for her own department. That is a tough reality check because the presentation goes unexpectedly badly. Broekgaarden is devastated and goes back to square one, making changes and practising. She does a second practice talk one week later. In a small office, she gives a ten–minute talk in front of two colleagues she knows well: professor Ton Bisseling and Henrieke de Ruiter, a policy officer who assists Veni applicants. Munching on cupcakes baked by Broekgaarden, they give detailed comments on her presentation. They also discuss all possible doom scenarios, attacks and eventualities. It is actually rather enjoyable and Broekgaarden is upbeat and determined afterwards. ‘I had recently become really fed up with the presentation, but that feeling has gone. As far as I’m concerned, they can call me up now.’

A few days later, Broekgaarden is on the train to Utrecht. She swam a few lengths in the swimming pool in the morning to calm her nerves. She finds fellow sufferers sitting in the NWO waiting room: the applicant before her and the one scheduled after her. She listens to music, also partly to calm her nerves, until someone comes to get her. In a small room, she takes a seat opposite ten high ranking scientists. The room seems packed and claustrophobic. Broekgaarden gets ten minutes to give her presentation. She starts talking while the scientists stare at their laptops or watch her with poker faces - consciously or not. In the interview, most of the ‘disastrous questions’ she had practiced do not come up. And before she knows it, she is outside again. ‘I was shaking like a leaf,’ she says, ‘from relief or something. It was really weird.’

She had promised herself a shopping trip as a reward, but nothing much comes of that plan. ‘I was completely exhausted.’ Afterwards, Broekgaarden is in a good mood. She knows she pulled out all the stops. Verhulst is also satisfied when he comes out. He rarely gets nervous when giving presentations and everything went smoothly this time, unlike last year. He has certainly improved things compared with the disappointing assessment, but is it enough? ‘I give myself a 50 per cent chance,’ estimates Verhulst. ‘If I’m not among the winners, so be it. But it won’t be because of me. A shame that one referee gave me a B.’ Now they have given their presentations, the candidates can no longer improve their chances. All they can do is wait for six weeks. It is a particularly warm afternoon in early June and Verhulst is sitting at a pavement cafe talking about his fieldwork in Kenya. He is circumspect when the conversation turns to the Veni, but pleased the process has nearly ended. Applying for a grant introduces a lot of uncertainty. ‘There is a lot of emotion involved. Every time you get rejected, you are left with a sour feeling.’ He thinks the stress comes not so much from the extra work as from the pressure: ‘You don’t know whether you will be able to keep your job.’ He would also like a more clearly defined, secure future. ‘I’m 34 now and if I get the Veni, that will give me another three and a half years. Then I’ll be 37, 38. I hope I’ll have the prospect of a permanent contract by the time I’m 40. I don’t want to be “postdoc hopping” until I’m 50.’

Three goes will be enough for me. It takes up so much time, going through that lottery again

It also bothers him that his wife is dependent on this uncertain future. If he is rejected for the Veni this time, he wants to try for one more grant. ‘Three goes will be enough for me. It takes up so much time, going through that lottery again. Then it will be time to try something new.’ He has recently been looking at different jobs, both inside and outside academia. He regularly sees vacancies for jobs he can see himself doing, which gives him confidence. ‘I love science but if it doesn’t work out, there’s a nice job out there waiting for me.’ That dilemma rings a bell with Broekgaarden, the other scientist still in the race. She is in a good position on paper. Her contract only ends in October 2014 and in addition to the possible prospect of a Veni, she is also in the running for a job at the Radboud University Nijmegen,where she is one of the final two. But the situation is more fragile than it seems. Her current project is not going well: the plants are no longer resistant, for mysterious reasons, so she is not getting results. Also, her contract cannot be renewed after 2014. So if she misses out on both the Veni and the job in Nijmegen - a plausible scenario - she will suddenly be facing a very uncertain future. ‘Then I’ll have nothing, that’s right. Perhaps I’ll have to do something completely different.’ She does not see the point of continuing with an academic career then. ‘You end up with that temporary-contract business again.’

July 2013. The result
The period of uncertainty and waiting lasts until mid July. It turns out to be tough going. Early July, Verhulst sends an e-mail saying he phoned NWO to find out more about the result. But in vain. ‘The tension is growing. Discussed the apes again today in our lab meeting, it’s strange doing that when you don’t know whether you’ll ever be starting the study.’ Two weeks later, the long-awaited moment finally comes. The committee’s assessment: ‘Very good’. ‘Got the Veni!’ says a ‘happy Niels’ in his e-mail. Verhulst even gets interviewed on the Dutch TV news programme that day. The period of doubts, only a few weeks ago, now seems an eternity away. His future is secure for the next four years. That is a big deal and he sold his house immediately to buy a new one. There is still no news from Broekgaarden. She had already been rejected for the job in Nijmegen. ‘A huge blow,’ given that she was more or less counting on it. She was ideal for the job, but the committee found the other candidate that little bit better. It seems her worst-case scenario is coming true. The next day, we get an e-mail in our inbox after all. The text says simply: ‘I GOT IT!!!!’.

Photo's: Guy Ackermans