Nieuws - 10 februari 2011

Up or out: the trials of the tenure track

From post doc to professor with a personal chair in twelve years. The tenure track system, which started last year, offers young academics the chance of a career. However, it also puts a big emphasis on performance and evaluation. What do the new tenure track researchers themselves think of it?

Petra Dekzen

The investigation into tenure track researchers comes up with some surprises straight away. Many people associate the tenure track with researchers in the science subjects who have no trouble getting their DNA research into scientific journals with a high impact factor. But the majority of the sixty-four researchers who started on the tenure track in Wageningen last year are social scientists or environmental scientists. Very few researchers in Animal and Plant Sciences are taking part due to a lack of vacancies. Another striking fact is that 42 percent of the participants are women.
Tenure track offers the participants promotion to a higher salary scale every three years, provided that they obtain high scores for their teaching, publish frequently in top scientific journals and win contracts for research projects that allow them to supervise PhD students. The criteria become tougher with every move up the career ladder. The aim is for them to build up their own research group. Staff who are not on the tenure track will no longer be eligible for promotion.
The introduction of the tenure track led to considerable commotion last year. Critics said that making such demands of individual researchers would reward egotistical behaviour and hinder collaboration. Even so, both critics and advocates agree on one thing: at least Wageningen now does have a career policy. It is not possible to build anything up when you are going from one temporary contract to the next without any proper job prospects. The tenure track will enable the university to retain talented scientists . It means they have a chance of a career.
Twenty researchers at Leeuwenborch have transferred onto the new career track. One of those is Jacqueline Bloemhof, who was appointed Associate Professor at the Operations Research and Logistics chair group in October 2009. Four PhD students need to obtain their doctorates under her supervision within the next five years if she is to meet the tenure track criteria. 'That is not realistic because it really means that that I would have had to have started with four PhD students straight away.' She is currently supervising two PhD students and there are vacancies for two more. But she is not exactly getting nervous. 'I have a permanent appointment, just like I did in Rotterdam. My goal is to be a professor with a personal chair and there is plenty of time to get there.'
Many Dutch universities have introduced the tenure track over the past few years but each university has taken a different approach. There is no tenure track to become a personal chair professor in Rotterdam but there is in Wageningen. Furthermore, everyone has to meet the full-time criteria in Rotterdam whereas Wageningen adapts the criteria to match the working week. Bloemhof, who works twenty-eight hours (i.e. 0.7 FTE), has to meet seventy percent of the tenure track criteria. This rule particularly suits women with young children.
Rat race
Career opportunity or rat race - who was right? One year after the system was introduced, the reactions from those involved are mixed. Gerry Jager joined Kees de Graaf's Sensory Aspects of Eating Behaviour chair group in September. She is a psychologist from Utrecht University. 'I was attracted by the Wageningen career policy. The criteria are tough but my ambition is to become a professor and this will give me that chance.'
However, there are also lecturers who have been pretty much forced to join the tenure track. One of those is the sociologist Petra Derkzen. When her second temporary contract ran out she was allowed to apply again for her own job. But this did mean she had to join the tenure track. That approach explains the large number of tenure track lecturers at Leeuwenborch. Derkzen met the entrance requirements and she now has a permanent appointment. However, there are also social scientists in the tenure track on temporary contracts. They are under much more pressure as the criteria are demanding.
Me or the group
These tough individual criteria mean many tenure track researchers feel they have to make a choice. Should they go for their own career or should they serve the interests of the research group? Derkzen is currently participating in a European project with many partners and she is involved in three courses. In tenure track terms this means lots of meetings and few publications. Her appointments committee advised her to cut back on the meetings, give priority to her personal career and focus on the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Derkzen is ignoring that advice. She needs the EU network to develop her new discipline - the sociology of food. She has opted to give priority to the group with the risk that she might not meet the criteria.
Jager has noticed her approach has become less ad hoc since she got her tenure track contract. 'I have become more strategic in order to achieve my goals. When the subsidy application I had helped with was granted, I said to the professor: I want something in return for this. I don't know whether I would have done that without the tenure track. I don't see that as egotistical. After all, I'm the one who will be held to account for my results. You have to be assertive.'
The researchers have to achieve their individual objectives but neglecting the group is not an option. And it is  the permanent staff who determine what is acceptable behaviour in the group; the very people who - with a few exceptions - were against the introduction of the tenure track system. They do not see the tenure track as an opportunity, says Jager. 'They are more likely to think that if someone with tenure track gets promoted, that is at their expense.'
Imke de Boer spent years working as an assistant professor at Animal Production Systems. In September she was promoted to associate professor in the tenure track. 'This system gives you the opportunity to get ahead.' She is working hard on securing projects and she expects to meet the criteria for her next promotion in three years time. But she is putting in an extra day a week. 'I don't want to shirk the group work. There is obviously an element of truth in the criticism that you put yourself first in the tenure track. I also give practicals in the lab, I am not being let off the hook. That is why I work over 45 hours a week rather than the official 32 hours.' Others are more selective. 'I try to keep a good balance between teaching and research', says Jacqueline Bloemhof. 'That means making choices because otherwise I won't have enough time for projects and PhD students.'
Meanwhile, all the vacancies are still being filled on the basis of the tenure-track ideal - from postdoc to professor holding a personal chair in twelve years. Except that there are more tenure track appointments than there are professorships. That will eventually become a source of tension. Take Kees de Graaf's successful new group. Another tenure track researcher has been taken on besides Gerry Jager and a third will be starting this year. 'I am collaborating with them', says Jager, 'but we are also rivals as we can't all three become professors in twelve years time. The university says in principle it is possible. But our group would have to have an enormous growth spurt so in practice it is impossible. That is quite an issue, especially if there are more vacancies in the next few years. You are now selecting people for entrance who all want to climb up the career ladder. That could lead to discontent.'
In six years' time the achievements of Jager and her colleagues will be evaluated by the appointments committee for associate professor posts. Will it be 'up or out' then? Pim Brascamp is a member of all the appointment committees for associate professorships in the Sciences Groups. He makes sure teaching quality is taken properly into consideration. 'We need to assess whether these people are capable of becoming professors with a personal chair within a few years', says Brascamp. He says he has been surprised by the high quality. 'We have more talent than I realized, by which I mean people who are good at both teaching and research.'
But how are they going to deal with the problem? 'The 'up or out' rule seems inhuman', says Brascamp. 'I am advocating a fairly flexible approach to the facts. At the same time, not all candidates will be able to progress up the career ladder as we don't have the money for that. I should point out that the tenure track is also intended to encourage job transfers. If we don't want to carry on further with someone we have to look for something else for them. After all, you should see it coming if somebody won't make the grade.'
Jacqueline Bloemhof
'Requirements are tough'
The econometrician Jacqueline Bloemhof has been working in the Operations Research and Logistics chair group since October 2009. Bloemhof focuses on sustainable logistics. 'We have invested a lot of time in securing PhD projects.  I am currently supervising two PhD students and there are vacancies for two more. They are needed too in order to meet the publications criteria. You have to publish at least three articles a year in top journals.'
At present, Bloemhof officially works 28 hours a week, but how many hours do she really work? 'Nearly 40. You have to in order to meet the requirements as they are tough. I work a lot in the evenings and weekends; that's when I get the time to read and write. If you are a passionate about your work it is not so bad to have to do this outside office hours.  I have three children aged between 9 and 15. I have Wednesdays off, which enables me to combine work and family life.'
Imke de Boer
'Not another 23 years as assistant professor'
Imke de Boer spent sixteen years as a lecturer at Animal Production Systems. Last year, she reviewed her situation. 'I am 44 and do not want to spend another 23 years as assistant professor. The tenure track gives you the opportunity to get ahead.' She develops methods for assessing the sustainability of livestock farming systems. 'What mainly motivates me is the content; I want to set up a research domain. I am not finding it easy but as long as you are enjoying it you can manage.'
De Boer has three children. The youngest is fifteen and the two oldest will be going to university next year. 'The home front is important too but the children can look after themselves now. The number of PhD students and publications has increased now that I am working four days a week instead of three.' How many hours does she work in practice? 'On average 45 to 50. But I will stick to the 0.8 FTE, otherwise I won't make the criteria.'
Gerry Jager
Criteria not always clear
Psychologist Gerry Jager joined Human Nutrition as an assistant professor in September. Jager knows a lot about how memory functions, and about reward stimuli and decision-making in the brain. Nutrition is new for her. She has a three-year contract with the possibility of six years. 'They are asking a lot of me. I have to obtain ten publication points a year, which means two or three publications in reputable journals.  I will manage that. The teaching criteria - good evaluation scores - are also achievable. I am now getting training in teaching. But the requirements will become more stringent in three years time.' She is now supervising a PhD student and will soon be getting a second.
She is ambitious and takes the criteria seriously. That leads to questions as the criteria are not always that clear. 'I get more points for a scientific publication where I have made a 'substantial contribution'. But what is substantial? No one can tell me that.'
Arjan de Visser 'I don't think they will be quite so strict in practice.'
Arjan de Visser, who works at Genetics, already started on the tenure track back in 2008. He wants to become a professor with a personal chair in Experimental Evolution. He will get his next appraisal at the end of this year. Will his performance be sufficient for promotion from Associate Professor level 2 to Associate Professor level 1? He will have to submit his scores for teaching, research and winning new business, hold a presentation and have an interview with the appointments committee.
The burning question is then: how strict are these criteria? If he sticks to the letter of the law he will soon have to supervise eight PhD students. 'I don't have them and that's not what I want either. At the moment I am collaborating mainly with postdocs. Three new PhD students are about to start. That could be a difficult issue.' Furthermore, he publishes mainly in top journals but he does not have that many publications. The question is: will the quality compensate for the slightly low quantity? 'I don't think they will be quite so strict in practice. Why should you get rid of an associate professor who is doing his job properly?'
Petra Derkzen 'Giving more priority to personal career'
Petra Derkzen is assistant professor at Rural Sociology. 'I had to opt for tenure track last year if I wanted to carry on here.' She easily met the entrance requirements as her PhD dissertation on regional development produced five publications. She is now making a transition to food sociology. 'We have acquired a major EU project precisely in my new field of research. I am supervising two PhD students in that project. I have to write PhD proposals and produce four top-level publications every year. The committee felt that I should give more priority to my personal career in order to achieve that. I would like to develop my field of research and I enjoy teaching, but I am not sure if I want to be a personal chair professor. So much can change in ten years.'