'The lack of recognition for important roles is often a reason people leave academia'

What happens when academics get the space to specialise in one of the domains that universities fulfil: teaching, research, societal impact, patient care or leadership? Maastricht University and the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences are currently diversifying career paths for academics. Their Recognition & Rewards chairs, Rianne Letschert and Victor Bekkers, share their stories.

Rianne Letschert (©photo Luc Hommes)

Victor Bekkers (©photo Michelle Muus)

An important ambition of Recognition & Rewards is to enable academics to diversify their career paths. Some might focus on teaching and the development of the curriculum for a few years, while others might choose an impact profile. This means they would spend more of their time and energy on making sure the findings of a research group make their way into society – be it as new technology, a new approach to fighting loneliness amongst the elderly, or by participating in the public debate about the way the colonial history affects current structures in society, for example.

Two institutes currently undergoing this transition are Maastricht University (MU) and the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). At ESSB, academics can choose to focus on research, education, management or impact for a few years and will be assessed based on their work within that profile. MU is in the process of a similar transition for the entire university. Rianne Letschert, President of MU, and Victor Bekkers, Dean of ESSB, talk about their motivation, how the transitions are unfolding and the steps they envision next.

First off, why is the diversification of career paths necessary?

Rianne Letschert: “This one is for you, Victor.”

Victor Bekkers: “I think this is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, when I became dean a few years ago, I had many conversations with staff and noticed they were struggling with the notion they had to be an all-rounder who excels in education, research, fulfils management roles and works on social impact, etcetera. Meanwhile, I also noticed that for teams to deal with all that is expected of them, it is necessary to distribute the workload. To divide tasks based on what people’s qualities and affinities are at that moment.”

‘The people working for us are the only capital we have at universities, and we need to be diligent with them.’

Rianne Letschert: “Yes, that sounds very familiar. On top of that, I also noticed frustration from academics that so many different efforts are expected of them while they often only receive recognition for one of them: their research output. This emphasis on scientific publishing has grown and grown over the past 25 years, with the policy to make universities more reliant on research funding from institutions such as the Netherlands Organization for Scientific research [NWO] and European Research Council [ERC]. The lack of recognition for other important roles frustrates people and is often a reason for them to leave academia. And these are talented people that do meaningful work and that we cannot afford to lose.”

If this diversification is a success, what will the university look like then?

Rianne Letschert: “To me, it will mean that people have been able to develop themselves in different domains and have also received recognition for that. Although this is not only about upward promotion, an important symbolic manifestation of this would be that you would see people appointed as full professors based on their work in other profiles than just the research field. So for their qualities as teachers or leaders or for their contributions to the societal impact of research or in patient care when it comes to academic hospitals. Simultaneously, we would have made the shift to team science in a way that acknowledges team efforts much more than we see nowadays. But that is something for the long haul, right Victor?”

‘Diversification of career paths means professionals can choose to commit to the roles within academia that they feel the most affinity for.’

Victor Bekkers: “Absolutely! You see a lot of attention going towards the concept of these profiles, but the next step is to focus on team science. How do these profiles complement each other in fulfilling the different roles a team has in education, leadership, etcetera?”

And what would a successful transition mean for society?

Victor Bekkers: “Society would reap the benefits from universities that not only provide them with valuable fundamental insights into every imaginable topic but also through universities paying thorough attention to educating future generations of citizens, to the challenge of life-long learning and also contributing to the critical debate taking place in society. For example, scientists from our faculty studied the motivation of, and challenges faced by, the people in municipalities around Rotterdam to participate in the energy transition. These are scientifically relevant insights, but also valuable for municipalities trying to make the energy transition a success. Therefore, it is of great societal value if people involved in research are encouraged to ensure municipalities can use the resulting insights. These outcomes would further legitimise the value of academic institutions in society, something which in turn of course is meaningful for universities.”

The Algemene Onderwijsbond [The General Union of Education] argued in an article on ScienceGuide that diversification would mean that even more is expected of academics, further increasing the workload. How do you react to that?

Victor Bekkers: “Diversification of career paths means professionals can choose to commit to the roles within academia that they feel the most affinity for, rather than being expected to excel in all these different roles. So that would entail the opposite of increasing the workload. Furthermore, I think from the point of view of the union it is also positive if academics are enabled to develop themselves horizontally in different roles, rather than being pushed into this blueprint of the excellent scientist who goes from Veni to Vidi to Vici. So I think it is important to stay in dialogue with the union to make sure we understand each other correctly and I know this dialogue is currently taking place.”

What are other challenges going forward in this transition?

Rianne Letschert: “People in our field are very mobile. So we need to make sure there is a level playing field between faculties and between different universities, so that choosing a specific profile in Maastricht or Rotterdam won’t harm your career chances in Amsterdam or Groningen, for example. And of course this also applies to other countries, which is why we put such effort into sharing the Dutch approach in international fora.”

How can this challenge be navigated?

Victor Bekkers: “The non-committal, orienting phase is over, and we need to make sure that all parties involved are on board. Within universities, between universities and – as much as possible – also between different countries. To achieve that, it is important to continue emphasising the importance of this transition, and the heads of universities should be the strongest advocates for this. We need to encourage this change, without falling back into rigid blueprints, leaving space for different universities and faculties to shape the change in a way that is fitting for them.”

You are both pioneers of the Recognition & Rewards programme. What is your motivation to dedicate time and effort to this?

Victor Bekkers: “As a Public Administration scientist, I not only believe this is the way forward towards a healthy and vibrant academy, but I know that if an institution fulfils different roles, you need to incorporate these into your personnel policy.”

Rianne Letschert: “A few years ago, when I was a research group leader, I got frustrated by the fact I could not offer a permanent contract to many young and talented people because they did not have enough ‘earning power’. They were not the type of academics who fitted this Veni, Vidi, Vici Talent Scheme. But they were very valuable for us, for example in helping shape a new master’s programme. As an institution that bears the responsibility of providing new generations with high-quality education, we should have or create the financial capability to value these people. Letting them go is such a poor and short-sighted personnel policy, also because it takes a lot of time to start over with new people who we had to onboard. So I thought it was a waste of capital. But also from a human perspective: this is not the way I want to treat people who put so much effort into their jobs. The people working for us are the only capital we have at universities, and we need to be diligent with them. It frustrated me so much, I realised I had two options. One was to leave academia; the other one was to take on a leadership role in Maastricht and try to make a difference from within.”

More information about career paths? Please contact Bianca Langhout (project manager Recognition & Rewards EUR) at bianca.langhout@eur.nl and/or Daphne Snackers (project manager Recognition & Rewards Maastricht University) at daphne.snackers@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

In this video Rianne Letschert, President Maastricht University, explains her motivation and perspective on the programme and highlights the importance of leadership development.

Diversifying academic careers at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences and Maastricht University

At the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, academics can choose one of several focus profiles. Besides the traditional profile, where 60% of one’s time is dedicated to education and 40% to research, academics can choose an education profile, with 80% education and 20% research, or a research profile, with 75% research and 25% education. Furthermore, they can opt for an impact profile, focusing on creating societal impact through research and/or education, or a management profile, putting time and effort towards organising and leading the academic process. Academics make their choices in dialogue with their supervisor and in agreement with the managers, for a period of four years. They document their plans and ambitions within their profile and discuss their development in regular evaluation sessions with their supervisor.

At Maastricht University, a university-wide agreement towards a similar approach to diversify career paths has been reached and different faculties are working out the details of implementation.

Choosing a management profile

Methodologist Marike Polak chose a management profile at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences when she became associate professor and chairperson of the faculty examination board.

More comfortable

“Working at a university, I had to take on many different tasks,” Polak says. “Things such as the work for a faculty examination board could feel like a chore, especially when work weeks are so full that this kind of task would often take place in the weekend or evenings.” This experience changed when Polak started in a management profile. “It makes such a difference! Before, my work for the examination board was additional work, not something that was recognised as the more important part of my performance. Now it is at the heart of how my performance is perceived. It means I feel more comfortable giving it the time and attention it deserves and that is an energising experience.”

Intended learning outcomes

This mentality means Polak can be diligent in her work for the examination board, and that subsequently has its impact on the teaching taking place at the faculty. “We had a professional training together with programme directors to reflect on the intended learning outcomes of our programmes and how to ensure that these outcomes are achieved. The enthusiasm and inspiration it triggered with the participants were tangible, and that trickles down through the entire organisation.”

Work as teams

Polak sees that people around her are hesitant to opt for profiles with less emphasis on research. “And I can understand that. Our faculty is quite far along in this diversifying process, but it is not yet clear how my management activities will be valued at other universities.” For her, that was not a consideration that stopped her from opting for the profile. “I do enjoy doing research. I currently supervise a PhD project about the analysis of the data from a new diagnostic instrument to help understand both the strengths and weaknesses of people with personality disorders who seek professional help. But I always want to do research in collaboration with others, playing to my methodological strengths. This, however, is not the research profile that will help me obtain large personalised research grants, which are what traditionally determine the evaluation of academics. I therefore think it is good that academics work as teams in which people are allowed to focus on different aspects of the academic work, depending on their own ambitions and strengths.”

For Polak, the ongoing transition is invigorating. “Working at the university is like participating in an elite level sport, it is very demanding. But that’s not a problem if you feel inspired and recognised for your work, which for me is currently the case.”

Podcast series 'At the top!'

The Young Academy recently launched the podcast series ‘At the top!’. In six episodes, top scientists discuss the themes of the Recognition & Rewards programme in relation to their own careers. How do they look back on the system in which they became successful? The conversations focus on the different roles in the academy, the role of leadership and team science, but also about open science and the definition of research and teaching quality. The podcasts are recorded in Dutch. The various episodes can be listened via Spotify.