Recognition & Rewards

“There is nothing wrong with giving each other compliments”

If it were up to Leiden University PhD candidate Max van Haastrecht, there would be agreements on more diverse and independently designed thesis supervision arrangements, in line with the Recognition & Rewards programme. He also makes a case for better personal relationships within academia. “Interpersonal relationships are essential for this culture change.”

By way of introduction, can you tell us something about your PhD research?

“My PhD programme is about validating a cybersecurity app designed for the small retailer segment of SMEs: bakers, hairdressers, greengrocers and the like. European funding has been allocated to facilitate cybersecurity measures for this group. We set out to build an education and support system alongside an app, because we know that many people in the target group have little affinity with technology. I was also involved in training programmes for students who wanted to help local hairdressers with the app. And there were all sorts of educational elements. I am now in the last six months of my PhD programme, working on my thesis. Before starting my programme I worked outside academia, in a bank’s fraud detection team. That work had some common ground with conducting research, but there was a strong focus on short-term current issues. I like to take a more long-term perspective. And, perhaps rather untypically, I really enjoy teaching.”

Are you satisfied with the supervision of your PhD programme?

“My supervisor is a great person to be working with. He gives me a lot of space and freedom. I happen to be a person who needs that. If you are someone who needs a lot of structure, things might not work out that well. In my case, they certainly did. We meet about once a week. That is not as often as before; we used to have a rather more intense working relationship because of my organisational role in the project.”

How do you decide what to focus your research on?

“This is driven mainly by practical considerations, especially in the beginning when we developed and validated the app. Over time, my own ideas and findings from previous research also began to play a role. Validation in particular piqued my interest. It is a more complex field than I thought, so I ended up delving more deeply into that.”

In your view, what is the ideal PhD programme?

“I do not believe there is an ideal programme – it all depends on your individual preference. I am positive about my own PhD programme. I am also very happy that my supervisor agreed I could join the University Council for two years on behalf of PhDoc.

“I do not believe there is an ideal programme – it all depends on your individual preference.”
During my programme, my supervisor was promoted to full professor at Leiden University. I started with him at Utrecht University and moved with him to his new employer. Because of the move to Leiden, I have been teaching less than I would have liked. In Utrecht I had more opportunities in that respect, because my supervisor’s routine allowed him to make room for that. Thankfully, serving on the University Council made up for that missing element in my PhD programme.”

What areas for improvement do you see when it comes to recognising and rewarding this route?

“Basically, you know that a PhD programme is going to be tough. Whether you like your programme really depends on your team of supervisors. A PhD programme is made up of many elements, which means you will need luck and cannot take a positive experience for granted. Take it from me: a lot of people are that lucky. I hear mostly positive stories.
There are also problematic cases, though. We are trying to do something about that, but the system does not help. If there is a mismatch between you and your supervisor, it is very difficult to have a satisfactory PhD programme regardless. Teams of supervisors in which you are not dependent on just one person only work on paper. The supervisors are each other’s colleagues; they are unlikely to let each other down even if there is a complaint.”

Could you think of a better arrangement?

“It helps if PhD candidates get to interact with people in academia who are not their immediate colleagues. In many of our departments, PhD candidates involve coaches or mentors who have no links to the programme concerned. This could be a member of academic staff or of support and management staff. This approach works well because the threshold is low and – other than in the case of a confidential adviser, for example – it has a preventive effect. A confidential adviser is not usually engaged until there is already a problem.
I think we can make a lot of progress by severing the link between PhD candidates and supervisors. My supervisor is currently my manager, who decides what teaching I do and how much time I can spend on peripheral matters. It is debatable whether a supervisor should be involved in all this. What you often see in practice is that someone has acquired a budget for their research and regards the PhD candidate as their assistant. The system is not designed to ensure a good relationship.”

In the culture barometer, PhD candidates were generally quite positive about their development opportunities and supervision. At the same time, awareness of the Recognition & Rewards programme is rather low, as confirmed in the Rathenau Institute’s report ‘An uncertain start’, which was published in April. Moreover, some of the conclusions in that report on similar issues were quite different. It revealed, among other things, that PhD candidates experience considerable publication pressure, have no clear view of what is expected of them and suffer from a hierarchical, closed work culture.

“I think this is because the questions in the barometer do not cover everything. Purely quantitative questions make it difficult to find out what is really going on, or to determine why some groups are more positive than others. If you enter into a real dialogue, I think you are more likely to get some really useful insights. I think many PhD candidates are unfamiliar with the Recognition & Rewards programme and completed the barometer with an open mind. Perhaps this actually makes the PhD candidate category more representative than other job categories. In the report on the barometer, I read that the assumption is that colleagues who feel less recognised and rewarded were especially inclined to complete the questionnaire. Many of the objectives that Recognition & Rewards aims to achieve seem to resonate positively with PhD candidates. Take the rules on the number of publications for a thesis. According to most PhD candidates, such rules are nonsensical: it should be about quality, not quantity. Officially this is no longer a rule at many universities, but unofficially there are plenty of supervisors who still apply it.”

Is it desirable for PhD candidates to become more familiar with the Recognition & Rewards programme?

“It would be great if Recognition & Rewards were more widely known among PhD candidates, precisely because they support the programme and applaud many of its principles. More effective engagement with them would send a strong signal to the rest of the academic world, because you would show that there is a very large group of young people who are enthusiastic about this. In practice, it is often difficult to reach out to students, but in Leiden alone there are two thousand people who could be mobilised on the subject. You just have to engage with them; sending an email is not enough. Each faculty, each department, has its own representation, which often organise events that you can join. You have to work with PhD candidates and do your best to let them know that Recognition & Rewards also exists for them.”

Change inevitably generates scepticism. What is your view on the fear that Recognition & Rewards will make it impossible to excel?

“I understand that fear. I know the argument that if we stop focusing on individual excellence, individual excellence will stop. I disagree, though, because I think it is based on a lot of wrong assumptions. The focus should be on answering research questions, on expanding knowledge for the benefit of society – not necessarily on maximising our impact. I think there remains a lot of room for people to develop and achieve personal success. I like this quote from C.S. Lewis: True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. I think the fear stems from the idea people may have that with his programme they will end up being worth less.
“You have to work with PhD candidates and do your best to let them know that Recognition & Rewards also exists for them.”
But it is not about devaluing your own qualities; it is about being a little less concerned with yourself. People have a very individual focus, whereas Recognition & Rewards, in my view, is about rising above yourself. No one is arguing that winning a Spinoza Prize is not a wonderful achievement, even if you have exploited PhD students for 30 years to get this far. Or that being awarded a five-million-euro grant is not a great accomplishment, despite the bulk of the work being done by a few postdocs. But, please, think of yourself less.”

Do you yourself recognise and reward people?

“Yes, I do. Of course, given my position a bit lower down the pecking order I am unable to offer any hard benefits, like a pay rise or promotion, but I do make an effort to let the other person know that I like what they are doing. I send them an email or make a personal comment. To be honest, I learnt this during my time outside academia. I had a manager who was very good at person-oriented management. Positive feedback from your immediate colleagues is incredibly valuable. In academic circles, many people still find this difficult. During a staff meeting the other day, mention was made of something that had been developed to which I had contributed. That was it, just a factual announcement. It is not that I crave a pat on the back, but I am quite sure the manager in my previous job would have called me on stage to say: ‘Max made sure it became a success’. This is about recognising commitment other than of a purely academic kind. To many people, this remains distant music.”

Do you also give compliments to people above you in the hierarchy?

“Yes, definitely. People within the academic community are generally very critical. This is good, but in a way it is also tricky. The appointment of a vice-rector by the Executive Board attracted a lot of criticism recently. Many people were very disappointed by that choice. In my view, it was actually a very strong decision for them to admit they needed help with complex tasks, and I said so in the public meeting. I also mentioned this personally to the Board. These are the kinds of executives you might think are at the top of the hierarchy, where they already have everything they want and do not need any compliments. However, that did not prevent me from expressing how I felt about it. I believe that interpersonal relationships are essential to the culture change we are aiming for with the Recognition & Rewards programme. It would be very nice if we could move to a culture where it is normal to give compliments, while retaining a critical attitude. People are always afraid of sounding vague when giving compliments. In my opinion, there is no need to be afraid of that. People will certainly remain critical. There is no need to be severe and it is not useful either. Still, it very much remains part of our culture. Take the reviews you get after submitting an academic paper. It is not difficult to find reviews that are unnecessarily harsh. “It is better to tackle the issue this way” sounds a lot more constructive than ‘This is crap and not worth publishing’.”

Looking ahead, have you considered the profiles that have emerged due to career diversification? Or are you no longer interested in pursuing an academic career?

“I would like to stay, also because I really like teaching. I have yet to experience how open universities are to a person like me. I know it is not yet common in natural sciences to make strides with a teaching profile. I do want to be able to develop personally, become a manager perhaps, and take on extra responsibilities. In natural sciences, it is normal to do two postdocs with only research tasks, in projects in which you have no management tasks and do research chores for someone else. That is not what I aspire to.”

Max van Haastrecht is a PhD candidate in Cybersecurity at Leiden University’s Leiden Institute for Advanced Computer Science (LIACS). He is a member of the University Council on behalf of PhDoc, a party representing the interests of PhD candidates and postdocs. Van Haastrecht studied Econometrics at the University of Groningen (RUG), where he specialised in operations research. He then worked in the corporate sector for 1.5 years as a data analyst for fraud detection.

Striking results of the cultural barometer related to PhD candidates:

  • PhD candidates are underrepresented in the response.
    • Almost 70% of PhD candidates said they were not or are hardly familiar with the Recognition & Rewards programme; this is probably one reason why PhD candidates are underrepresented in the response.
  • There is relatively little awareness among PhD candidates of the five ambitions set out in the position paper. At the same time, there is strong support among PhD candidates for those ambitions. They particularly value the efforts to diversify and dynamise career paths.
  • A large proportion of PhD candidates rarely, if ever, talk to colleagues about Recognition & Rewards.
  • Compared to other job categories, PhD candidates feel more recognised and rewarded than average for the work they do.
  • PhD candidates are more likely to experience positive changes on policy, systems and culture as a result of the Recognition & Rewards programme than colleagues in other job categories.
  • PhD candidates are least likely to feel that their work contributes to the goals of their team and the institution. They are also less likely than other job categories to find it stimulating to work with colleagues whose skills are different from their own.