‘Don't be ashamed of wanting to excel as an educator’

(From left to right) Assistant professors Peter Ruijten-Dodoiu, Wouter Ellenbroek and Rob Mestrom.

Three Eindhoven University of Technology based assistant professors from three different departments have one thing in common: an intense passion for education and the ambition to build a successful career as an educator at their university. Thanks to the education profile in Recognition and Rewards this is finally possible.

Thorough groundwork preceded the writing of this article. This could be seen as illustrative of the path on which assistant professors Wouter Ellenbroek, Rob Mestrom and Peter Ruijten-Dodoiu find themselves. In their academic careers they have reached the crossroads between research and education. Thanks to Recognition and Rewards they can follow their educator’s hearts and, by choosing the education profile, can build a career at the university. As this profile is still in the pilot phase, they are among the first to take this route.

After a preliminary chat they are keen to work on an article about their choice to pursue education. Either with no hesitation, or with some trepidation. “Speaking openly for the first time about what you want…that’s quite something, isn’t it?” explains Rob Mestrom, assistant professor in the Electromagnetics group at the TU/e Department of Electrical Engineering. “And it means leaving the well-trodden path at the university.”

‘A prof said, “you don’t want to churn out lessons for a living, do you?” But that’s precisely where I can make an impact.’
“Why is that?” asks Peter Ruijten-Dodoiu, assistant professor in the Human-Technology Interaction group at Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences. Mestrom replies: “There’s a traditional career path at the university and everyone follows it: you do research, supervise PhD candidates, write papers, apply for grants and then you’re promoted from assistant to associate professor, and finally to full professor. People in education are often viewed as oddities. A professor once said to me ‘You don’t want to churn out lessons for a living, do you?!’ But that’s precisely where I can make an impact.”


“The biggest barrier is still that stigma, the feeling that by making this choice you’re conceding defeat,” confirms Wouter Ellenbroek, assistant professor in the Soft Matter and Biological Physics group at the Department of Applied Physics & Science Education. “Don’t be ashamed of wanting to excel as an educator.”

Ellenbroek had no doubts at all about going on the record about his passion for education. “I’m long past believing that choosing an education profile means you’re batting in the B league. Even so, I know that when you decide not to apply for a Vici grant or an ERC Consolidator grant, there’s a haunting sense of throwing in the towel.”

“To get on in your career as a scientist, you have to apply for one personal grant after the next. I found that system off-putting. It revolves around the achievements of a single individual and that’s not how I do science. I prefer to work in teams and that’s how I’m building my profile. Luckily, I have a dean who fully supports my ambitions,” says Ellenbroek.

The right mix

Mestrom likewise feels supported by his dean and the chair of his group. “I’ve been umming and ahing about my career focus for the past three years,” he says. “But it only started gnawing at me when Recognition and Rewards was introduced two years ago. That’s when I decided to go for the education profile.”

Mestrom: “My ambition to focus on teaching is also supported within my group. We complement each other. My manager is working on valorization and applying for grants, I assist him, but focus on innovations in education. It’s something you have to keep on talking about within your group.”

‘In any group, in order to be successful, you need all sorts of people.’
“That’s what gives the group its mix; they need you as much as you need them,” concludes Ruijten-Dodoiu. “You have to look at the tasks from the group level. Who’s doing the research, who’s doing the innovation in education, who’s ensuring impact – the narrative the group puts out in the wider world. In any group, in order to be successful, you need all sorts of people.”

‘I get a buzz from organizing and delivering education’

In his room in Flux no fewer than three education awards are on display. “I’m proud of them,” says Wouter Ellenbroek. He is currently an assistant professor (UD1) and wants to take the education profile route to an associate professorship (UHD2). As principal investigator (PI) he researches soft materials, like polymers, and does a lot of simulation work in his group, Responsive Soft Matter.

“Most people stop spending entire days programming once they become a PI, but I found it useful to stay a little more involved in the practice of research. For me, science is a team sport and working like this gives me more time and space for education tasks.”

PI model

Eighteen months ago his department, Applied Physics & Science Education, introduced the PI model, as it is called. “As an assistant and associate prof you can choose to focus on a research or education profile. For me, the model meant I wouldn’t have to wait that much longer before I could step up to associate prof.”

By then his education career had already taken off. “I get a buzz from organizing and delivering education, and that was noticed within the department. I was assigned more and more roles on the organizational side of teaching.”

Telling stories

Offering young people the best possible education and preparing them for what they will do after they graduate, that is what motivates him. “It’s wonderful, standing there in front of an audience of 180 students in a lecture theater and having 2 x 45 minutes of interaction with them. I enjoy telling stories, explaining things. When something sinks in or – quite the opposite – when something isn’t clear, you see it. I’m happy to explain it again. It’s in my nature.”

Ellenbroek was a member of the curriculum committee that shaped the recent curriculum renewal of the bachelor’s program. He’s the chair of the examination committee and is involved in five courses. “I have a teaching-related task every single quartile. I’m always busy with education. For many of these courses I teach only a third of the lectures, but I spend time marking papers in every exam period and I carry end responsibility for three of the five courses. So I have plenty to do,” Ellenbroek observes, smiling. “My priorities lie in education and I’m pleased that the choice to excel as an educator is available within my department.”


“The new PI model offered me a way out of an impasse. I was increasingly in the position of being the co-applicant on research applications, and the research profile for the PI model recognizes that role; you no longer need to be the lead researcher.”

“It’s better if I do research in the role I now have, than as the researcher in charge of everything and leading a large group of people. Working like this, I have more to offer the university than in the role of the traditional physics professor.”

The road to promotion

Moving up within the education profile from, say, assistant to associate professor requires a fair amount of preparatory work. The candidate must submit a research statement, a teaching statement and a narrative curriculum vitae before they can ‘go before a BAC’. Here, you have to defend your promotion before a Promotion Assessment Committee (BAC). “In these documents you have to look back and look head, but the level of detail required in these statements is still not entirely clear to me,” says Ellenbroek.

He spoke with the HR advisor about how he needed to approach this. “But they were new to this, too. I’m the first person in our department to do this, so I’m a bit of a guinea pig.”

After the summer Mestrom wants to work towards his BAC, “then hopefully I’ll become an associate professor sometime within the next two years. This is pioneering work; we don’t yet know the ropes, but we all want it to succeed,” says Mestrom. “Its success also depends on putting the right people up before the BAC.”

‘That’s how it works in science: first you do the job, then you’re given it.’
All being well, the doctorate of Ruijten-Dodoiu’s first PhD candidate will be signed, sealed and delivered sometime after this coming summer. That will give him the long-awaited check he needs to become eligible for UD1. “At every step on the ladder you’re met with a checklist of requirements. Neither passion nor intrinsic motivation will fill it in. I’m busy preparing the documents they’re asking of us and dovetailing them to my education profile. Then I hope to be able to go up before the BAC in the fall.”

“I feel like I’ve spent the last couple of years functioning at the level I’m now applying for,” says Ellenbroek. “That’s how it works in science,” confirms Ruijten-Dodoiu. “First you do the job, then you’re given it.” “I’m in no hurry,” says Ellenbroek, “although I get a lot of verbal appreciation and it would be nice for once to see it in writing.”

‘My aim is to be able to work where my heart lies’

Rob Mestrom is assistant professor (UD1) in the Electro­magnetics group of the TU/e Depart­ment of Electrical Engineering. He is PI in the field of neurostimulation and works on other biomedical applications of electromagnetism. “I work in a small niche within our group.” The work that excites him most is teaching and driving forward innovative education. For teaching a large second-year course he has thrice been voted best lecturer. After completing his postdoc, Mestrom spent five years coordinating the Automotive bachelor’s. He is doing pioneering work in innovating the bachelor’s education offered by his department. He wears his educator’s hat when he is assessing candidates – under the old system still, incidentally – as a member of the Promotion Assessment Committee. And he will shortly become the responsible lecturer for a new physics course for first-years.

Top tools

He derives great satisfaction from tutoring bachelor’s students. “They are the future of our society. I enjoy inspiring them, motivating them,” Mestrom says. His humor and empathy stand him in good stead in this work. “I teach very conceptual courses, like electromagnetism. You have to underpin that with lively examples. When you’re teaching any large group, you have to cater for each person in that group, be able to explain the material in multiple ways. One person will respond to practical examples, another will want to see the theory written out on the board. Leaving no one behind, getting everyone enthusiastic, that’s something I see as a challenge when I’m lecturing. And every year I introduce something new in the courses I teach.”

Balance in a team

Mestrom now openly expresses his preference for education. “I have several colleagues whose hearts lie in education, but they wouldn’t dare say that out loud. Not yet. In any team, balance and diversity are important. Let people play to their strengths. Are you good at securing grants? Then let’s have you doing that. Are you a terrific educator? Then let’s have you teaching. My aim is to be able to work where my heart lies.”

Publishing about education

“The education profile is much broader than just teaching,” says Ruijten-Dodoiu. “I’m also researching innovation in education and building an international network in the field. I go to education conferences and I publish articles on Challenge-based Learning and other innovations in education, like those that were introduced at innovation Space. Is that something you both do, too?” he asks the others.

“It’s certainly a wish of mine,” says Mestrom. “I want to know, for example, how a new method impacts students and their success rate. You have to run a course a number of times before you know anything for sure.”

Subfields and niches

Ellenbroek: “You can only become a full professor once you’ve gained an international reputation for your innovations in education. So remarkably few people are going to make the grade. It is much easier to make a name for yourself in research, with its many subfields and niches. If you work in a very specific area, everyone in that field knows who you are; you keep running into each other. Education is a much broader field, so it’s more difficult.”

Ruijten-Dodoiu doesn’t believe that things are all that different for them as education innovators. “If you’re looking for specific, you can go to conferences in our own field, engineering education. I’ve already been asked a couple of times to give a presentation at an education conference.”

Ellenbroek: “I spend 70 percent of my time on education and 30 percent on research, even so more people know me for my research.” “Then it’s time to publish something,” says Ruijten-Dodoiu. “I started moving in that direction here on the campus, talking about ISBEP and Challenge-based Learning. This summer, for example, a CBL conference is being held at TU/e. I’ll be speaking, together with a colleague, and that will no doubt lead to more invitations to talk about our methods. It’s one step at a time.”

‘I’m thrilled to be part of the journey students make here’

Peter Ruijten-Dodoiu is assistant professor (UD2) in the Human-Technology Interaction group at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences. His research focus is the design of social skills in the artificial intelligence of the future.

For many years now Ruijten-Dodoiu has been involved in innovations in education, he coordinates the innovation Space Bachelor End Project (ISBEP) and is one of the hard-working driving forces behind Challenge-based Learning at the university. During MomenTUm 2018 he won the accolade TU/e’s Best Bachelor’s Teacher.

Formative role

It was during his years as a PhD candidate that he discovered where his passion lay: in education. “Our students are with us between the ages of 18 and 24. That’s an intense period in which they leave home and start building a life of their own. As a teacher you play a significant formative role in their lives. Really, they arrive here just out of childhood and when they leave, they enter the job market. I’m thrilled to be part of that journey. A little while ago I became a father myself and that adds another dimension to how I interact with the students. My sense of wanting to take care of the new generation has been given a boost.”

Natural route

Ruijten-Dodoiu worked fulltime at TU/e as a lecturer once he had gained his doctorate. “Research wasn’t in my remit, but I was doing some anyway. I supervised a lot of students and I published work I’d done as part of my doctorate. In those two years I worked harder than ever in order to build up a reasonable profile, in addition to the twelve courses I was involved with as a lecturer.”

He was eventually promoted to UD2, and he hopes to be able to step up to UD1 this fall, when – in all probability – he’ll ‘deliver’ two of his PhD candidates. “Until I’ve got that box checked off, I’m ‘stuck’. I’ve had the permanent job for ages, the only difference is seeing it reflected in my salary.”

“But,” he adds, “it’s okay. Even though I’m ‘still only’ a UD2. I’m doing what I enjoy and I get plenty of encouragement.”

The future

When asked ‘Where will you be in five years’ time?’ Mestrom answers dryly. “I think by then you’ll be sitting here with two UHDs and a UD1.” Then, seriously: “I hope that by then I’ll be enjoying my work as an educator as much as I do now, and enjoying due recognition. There’s no shortage of ideas for innovations, you know. A bachelor’s course that integrates math with applications within Electrical Engineering; a master’s course – medical device design – in which engineers learn to work in compliance with the latest medical regulations. Five years from now I’ll have validated and rolled out these ideas, and I’ll be working at departmental level on vision and policy.”

Mestrom: “I’m not necessarily looking to becoming a full professor asap. I’m very satisfied with what I’m currently doing and I don’t want to give up the teaching and contact with the students. It’s here that I feel I can make a real impact.”

“Whether I’ll be a professor in five years’ time, that’s something for the long term. First of all, I need to make UHD2, hopefully this year,” says Ellenbroek. “If things move fast, I wouldn’t rule out aiming for UHD1. But I’m not in any hurry, although it would be nice not to stop hearing ‘You’ve been here ten years and you’re still an assistant prof?’”

Program director

Ellenbroek very much enjoys the organizational side of education and sees himself as eventually becoming program director for his department. “Over the past five years I’ve taken on more and more tasks in education and it’s work I thoroughly enjoy. I feel valued. If the position ever falls vacant, I’d be an obvious person for them to consider.”

“I hope that in five years’ time I’ll have gained a national and international reputation as an expert in the field of testing in Challenge-based Learning and that we have been able to persuade other lecturers of the importance of CBL and other innovations in education,” says Ruijten-Dodoiu. The dream position in this scenario is that of program director. “But more than anything I hope that I’ll still be doing things I enjoy. Let’s wait and see what position goes hand in hand with that.”

‘It’s inconceivable that someone so driven to innovate in education would get stuck as a UD.’
“It would be crazy if you didn’t become a UHD,” says Ellenbroek to Ruijten-Dodoiu. “If this university takes Recognition and Rewards seriously, it would be inconceivable that someone as driven to innovate in education as you are would get stuck as a UD. That would be strange. And there’s a message here: This career path doesn’t come in just one shape and size. You have to be able to develop and grow in the direction you enjoy and in the work you’re good at. Do that and the university has the most to gain, too.”