Organisation - January 13, 2011

Whether academics get tenure is a matter of chance

Scientists' careers are governed by chance, according to the latest research in the Netherlands. And the universities lack an effective career policy.

Researcher Barbara van Balen examined the careers of talented researchers for the Rathenau Institute.
She interviewed 21 promising university academics with a strong reputation in their field. She also asked them to name someone equally talented who had left academia. This gave her the names of 21 people who were good enough to go into research but had ended up outside the academic world.
One researcher had a doctoral supervisor who had an extensive network and had climbed the ladder with no problems at all, while another had had all sorts of bad luck: the first supervisor had died, the second had become minister and then the department was hit by cutbacks.

Agreements are not kept
Universities' career policies are dubious too, says Van Balen, although she does not name any institutions. When deans or other managers leave, their successors often take no notice of agreements already made. One of the 'lost talents' had agreed on what he had to do to become an associate professor. When he had fulfilled all the requirements, new criteria were added - not once but twice. Not very good for his confidence in the university.
'It is difficult to plan an academic career', says Van Balen. 'Young researchers often think: with all these temporary jobs I'll never be able to buy a house or start a family. One of my interviewees had had 23 different jobs in succession.'
Van Balen feels that universities should offer their academics tenure more often. 'But they are very cautious about that, because it is difficult and expensive to get rid of someone again if they do not prove to be up to scratch.
 

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