Recognition & Rewards

“You have to demonstrate that you are suitable for an academic career”

Postdocs need more supervision when it comes to shaping their academic career. This is what postdoctoral researcher, Richte Schuurmann, argues. “As a postdoc I sometimes feel like I’m in a vacuum: what is the way forward? What do I have to do exactly? If it’s a career in science you’re looking for, you need more points of reference.”

It wasn’t easy to find a postdoc for an interview. Undoubtedly that says something about the position many postdoctoral researchers find themselves in: bearing a heavy workload and being highly dependent on others. Eventually, Richte Schuurmann put himself forward to reflect on the main results of the Recognition & Rewards culture barometer for his job category. He has been a postdoc at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) since 2018. He studied technical medicine at the University of Twente, where he obtained his doctor’s degree certificate in 2018. During his doctoral programme, he and colleagues at the Anthonius Hospital in Nieuwegein developed a method that can predict stent leakage in the aorta. After obtaining his doctorate, his co-supervisor – since promoted to full professor – asked him to ‘move’ with him to the surgery department at UMCG with the aim of setting up a research group there. He has since been working there for almost six years. “As a technical physician, I try to bridge the gap between the technician and the doctor. For this, I work in the context of the hospital. All the research projects that we do are appliable to the clinic.”

Can you tell me a little more about your daily work?

“My daily duties include coordinating research done in our department, raising funds and making sure everything goes smoothly. As a research group, we currently have nine doctoral candidates who conduct the research. I am their co-supervisor and am responsible for their daily supervision. I also supervise students when they graduate. In addition, I hold guest lectures regularly and I am involved in the Biomedical Engineering course. I am in the unique position given that my postdoc appointment is semi-permanent. In fact, I’ve become more like a senior researcher.”

You’re also the chairman of the Postdoc Council. How did you end up in that position?

“I missed the contact I had with my fellow postdocs when I was working in the surgery department. I heard through the grapevine that a postdoc council had been set up at the UMCG. I joined it because I was keen to expand my network. I’ve been the chairman since 2023.”

Why do you believe it’s important?

“Generally speaking, PhD students are well represented and know where to find their peers. Postdocs are more likely to be left to their own devices. They have to actively look for support. In the meantime, the provision of information for postdocs has improved significantly and postdocs are also offered courses. It’s still difficult to get this information out to all postdocs. A substantial group of postdocs are hidden from view; we as the Postdoc Council don’t have sight of them. The challenge for us is to represent that group too.”

Can you be of assistance to them?

“The Postdoc Council at the UMCG is actively involved in the issue of what the academic career policy should comprise. We are asked about our vision. For the rest, we meet with the dean every six months. They do take us seriously.”

Postdocs come in all shapes and sizes. How do you view this job?

“I work in a clinical department. Patient care is the primary task; understandably, that is the main focus of all the attention. Research actually comes in second place. Because of this, there is less of a framework that postdocs must stick to.

“As a technical physician, I try to bridge the gap between the technician and the doctor.”
As an example, I don’t have many peers, which means that I have to find my own way. I’m definitely encouraged to do so, but at the same time it can certainly be difficult. For instance, if I want to go to an international conference, it’s not so easy for me as a postdoc to join in: that’s the domain of medical professors after all. There is quite a gap between being a full professor and what I do as a postdoc. For me it’s not very clear what that intervening period should consist of.
From my position on the Postdoc Council, I see many people getting a two or three-year appointment with the task of securing a Veni scholarship or something similar and developing their own line of research. To qualify as an assistant professor, a postdoc must pass a basic teaching qualification, develop demonstrable leadership qualities, supervise PhD students and often take additional courses, such as the Basic Course in Regulations and Organisation for Clinical Investigators (BROK®). A postdoc is often a ‘jack of all trades’.”

What is the significance of postdoctoral research for following an academic career path?

“Being a postdoc puts you in an ideal position to demonstrate that you are fit for a career as an academic. Needless to say, this job involves quite a lot of work, especially if you also have clinical duties. You need to know something about everything: about the legal aspects of clinical trials and what you can and cannot do with patients from an ethical point of view. As a technical physician, you have to be familiar with the Medical Devices Regulation (MRD). So in terms of content, you spend a lot of time keeping up with all these developments. Besides that, you also need to develop as a researcher, leader and lecturer. A lot of postdocs are confronted with this issue: what am I meant to focus on? Are all the aspects equally important? Or will it suffice to just meet the basic requirements?”

What appeals to you the most in the Recognition & Rewards programme?

“Personally, I think it’s great and a good thing that the qualities of academics are more widely recognised and appreciated. It suits my own career, in which I steer the middle course between two worlds: science and the clinic.”

The results of the culture barometer show that a significant proportion of researchers know little or nothing at all about the Recognition & Rewards programme. The same applies to medical specialists. Does this sound familiar to you?

“I can imagine that that’s the case. Medical specialists are generally preoccupied with providing care. That’s their top priority. Medical specialists who combine this work with an academic career often don’t have the time to delve into the university’s policies properly. The same applies to some of the postdocs. On the one hand, you have postdocs who are properly embedded in a research group or laboratory, and are busy with research fulltime. They are very similar to postdocs at universities. This group probably gets a much more direct idea of what’s going on from a policy point of view. Another group of postdocs are usually part-time researchers, for instance in a clinical department. They are therefore further removed from academic policy.”

For the rest, it seems as though researchers feel that they don’t get the same level of recognition and reward as colleagues in other job groups. Why do you think this is?

“It depends by whom you would like to feel recognised and rewarded. In an international environment of researchers, it’s really quite difficult to get recognition and rewarded. It often involves a network of people who know one another well; it’s difficult for a postdoc to become part of the group. Getting recognition and appreciation from your own group depends on the supervisor and the group. And getting recognition and reward from the institution is another matter. If someone ticks all the boxes, will that person be promoted to assistant professor? Or will they have to secure their own scholarship first? I believe that all of these aspects play a part in whether a postdoc feels appreciated.
“Postdocs are more likely to be left to their own devices.”
Some postdocs are fully occupied with following an academic career. They are completely focused on this. If they fail to eventually get funding, they would have worked extremely hard for two years only to have to leave after all anyway. I can well imagine that they don’t feel recognised and rewarded for the work they have done. So a lot depends on the results you achieve at the end of your period as a postdoc. PhD candidates, on the other hand, are recognised and appreciated for the dissertation they produce. Besides which, you get recognition and appreciation when you are further along in your career and are part of a network. In a way, a postdoc misses out on both of these aspects: the end goal is often unclear and everything depends on whether you can take the next step.”

Researchers mention that they have experienced relatively little change as a consequence of the Recognition & Rewards programme. Why is this? What would you specifically like to see changed for postdocs?

“As far as I am concerned, a competitive setting is part and parcel of academia. You have to decide who may shape an academic career and who may not. What would help postdocs is if they were offered more guidance. A coach or a mentor who can explain the rules of the game comes to mind. As a postdoc I sometimes feel like I’m in a vacuum: what is the way forward? What do I have to do exactly? If it’s a career in academia you’re looking for, you need more points of reference.”

What is your view on the diversification of career paths?

“Paradoxical. What you have to comply with is becoming less clear. There are more final criteria that you can or should meet to a greater or lesser degree. You are no longer judged specifically on the number of papers you’ve published or the amount of funds raised. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time you have to make sure that those who have taken a broader perspective are not rejected for that very reason. It is harder to judge someone’s performance if there are no clear grades to go by.”

What is the alternative?

“The UMCG uses four profiles for its academic promotion policy: research, education, healthcare, and society and valorisation. My perception of this is that the difference between the four profiles is not that clearcut. For each profile, you are assessed on conducting research, publishing articles (preferably in high-impact journals), securing funding, supervising research, teaching and generating social impact. In effect, what you do is introduce nuance in your own personal narrative. This raises the question of whether every researcher has to be a good lecturer, and whether all assistant professors should be responsible for raising funds.”

What do you think should be given precedence: systemic or cultural change?

“I suspect that there is no uninterrupted progression from postdoc to assistant professor, from assistant professor to associate professor and from associate professor to full professor. Once a full professor has been appointed, that person stays in that position for a very long time. This can be at the expense of the number of jobs for young researchers. Maybe we should distribute these jobs more equitably and by doing so offer more leeway for assistant professors and associate professors. Some postdocs may be quite happy to be an assistant professor for a while, followed by being an associate professor. Others aim to become a full professor as quickly as possible and to hold on to that position. By awarding the right to supervise PhD students to assistant professors and associate professors, you recognise and reward the first group of postdocs.”

And in terms of culture?

“It is evident that there is less emphasis on the number of publications at the institutions. On the international stage, however, you still have to publish as much as possible, preferably in high-impact journals. In that sense, cultural change is problematic. You have to measure yourself against your international peers.”

The Rathenau Institute recently published a hard-hitting report on the position of young researchers. How do you feel about this report?

“Take advantage of your postdoc period to explore what you really want.”
“The group of researchers is very diverse. I acknowledge that the period as a postdoc is a stressful time, full of uncertainty. What should you be focusing on? What are you judged by? How can you get good guidance in this? At the same time, it depends on how you deal with those uncertainties and how much you aspire to have an academic career. And therefore how much stress and disappointment you go through if you don’t manage to get one. Fact is that postdocs’ prospects of an academic career are limited.”

What must we do with the findings of the report?

“It is important that supervisors create realistic expectations. That’s the best way to help postdocs. They should be given two options, so to speak: either you pull out all the stops to shape an academic career, or you don’t. And if you really are keen to get somewhere in academia, you have to meet the criteria. In other words: work hard and prove that you’re worth it. If you’re not prepared to do so, then don’t choose academia, otherwise you’ll just get frustrated. Perhaps we should distinguish more between a pre-academic path and postgraduate path.”

Researchers are concerned about the impact of Recognition & Rewards on their own careers, for instance, when switching to a different institution. Do you share this concern?

“If the programme is properly embedded on a national level, this shouldn’t be an issue. At every university there is a demand for assistant professors that are keen to teach. I think that if you want to become a prestigious scientist, it is more difficult to position yourself internationally if you’ve come from a teaching background.”

How do you see the future? Would you like to continue with your career in academia?

“The intention this autumn is to see if an assistant professor position would suit me Personally, I have no problem with step-by-step promotion and not following the talent track. In other words: taking the next step when I’m ready for it.”

Finally, what is your message to the reader?

“Take advantage of your postdoc period to explore what you really want. Get advice on this. Seek out your colleagues, engage in conversation, join the Postdoc Council. That is the only way to find out whether you really aspire to an academic career and how you can shape it.”

Richte Schuurmann is a postdoctoral researcher at the UMCG. He studied technical medicine at the University of Twente, where he obtained his doctor’s degree certificate in 2018. During his research, he developed a method to predict whether a patient is at risk of a leak through a stent in the aorta. His interests include technical medical research in surgery, including vascular surgery, and medical imaging. Schuurmann is the chairman of the Postdoc Council at the UMCG.

Striking results of the cultural barometer for the researchers job category (including postdocs):

  • More than 50% of the researchers stated that they know little or nothing at all about the Recognition & Rewards programme.
  • Researchers believe that diversifying career paths and making them dynamic, and achieving a balance between the individual and collective, are important.
  • Compared to other job groups, researchers feel less recognised and rewarded for the work they do; over 10% report not feeling recognised and rewarded at all.
  • Researchers are less inclined to recognise positive changes to policies, the system and culture as a result of the Recognition & Rewards programme compared to colleagues in other job categories.
  • Compared to other job categories, researchers are more likely to say that their ambitions are taken into account.
  • Many researchers are concerned about the effects of the Recognition & Rewards programme on their own careers.
  • Researchers often have to contend with financial insecurity; they also see few opportunities for promotion.