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Researchers choose life

The academic exodus

A career in academia means making a lot of sacrifices. Many researchers at the UG end up throwing in the towel, disillusioned. ‘The university was built on men who had no other obligations.’


René Hoogschagen

Door René Hoogschagen

15 September om 11:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 September 2020
om 11:30 uur.
René Hoogschagen

By René Hoogschagen

September 15 at 11:03 AM.
Last modified on September 16, 2020
at 11:30 AM.
René Hoogschagen

René Hoogschagen

Freelancejournalist
Volledig bio
Freelance journalist
Full bio

‘Doing a postdoc is easy’, says Els van Rooij. ‘Anyone who’s done a PhD is capable of doing postdoctoral research. You’re simply postponing making a choice; you don’t have to think about the world outside academia.’ But finding a job after your PhD ‘isn’t that hard’, in her experience. A postdoc at the UG up until a few weeks ago, she was offered a new position within a month.

‘You can do so much more with your skill set’, says Alicia Brandt. She did postdoctoral research in England and the Netherlands for seven years, using a Veni grant to fund her final two years. ‘But you don’t know any better.’ After all, very few people who leave the bubble of academia return to talk about it. ‘Your professor doesn’t know anything about the outside world, either.’

Fight to the finish

Brandt and Van Rooij initially took the logical path, but in the end, they gave up. Who can blame them? Research done by knowledge institute Sofokles showed that 31 percent of university scientists are completely exhausted at the end of the workday. 75 percent says the pressure to perform is too high. Recently, it turned out that RUG staff works a total of ten thousand hours of unpaid overtime a week.

‘PhDs are always asking themselves if they’re good enough’, Van Rooij realised when she was doing research into PhDs’ well-being. ‘But it’s not about that. It’s about perseverance. You have to ask yourself if this is what you want.’ For her, it wasn’t.

It’s not about whether you’re good enough

‘If your performance isn’t up to scratch or if you don’t have the ambition to work hard, there are others who do’, says UG alumnus and former university council member Klaas Hermans. His career took him from Groningen to Leiden, through Stanford and Rotterdam. Last year, he started his position as a data scientist at a health insurance company. ‘It’s not that I don’t understand’, he says, ‘but it’s pretty harsh.’ 

People have been calling for something to be done about the pressure to perform. Rianne Letschert, rector magnificus in Maastricht, wants scientific staff to be evaluated differently: there should be less of an emphasis on publishing articles, and more on other qualities, like teaching.

Van Rooij doesn’t think things are going to change any time soon. ‘Anyone who’s experienced the same thing I have ends up leaving. The culture is maintained.’ This also scares off people who aren’t very competitive, says Brandt. ‘The university was built on men who had no other obligations.’

Family

‘My whole life was geared towards me becoming a scientist’, says Dirk Bakker. When he finished his studies in Semitic languages at the UG, he did a PhD in Leiden and did postdoctoral research for another six years. ‘I was just lucky that there were projects to be done.’

‘It’s not the biggest field’, Bakker explains. ‘Everyone knows everyone. That’s what I love about academics. It kind of feels like family. That’s how you end up working on projects. People know what you’re interested in.’ Not that he was handed his opportunities on a silver platter; he still had to apply for positions. But people knew what he was capable of.

Nevertheless, he too chose to take a job outside of academia. ‘I could have been more active in looking for new projects’, says Bakker, ‘but I was sick and tired of it. I’m just not that passionate about research. And I was forty years old at the time. That’s the right age to have a look around and see what else is out there.’

A little crazy

‘Some people have no issue with this lifestyle’, says Bakker. ‘They live for their job and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have work. They’d probably do it for free. But it takes a specific kind of person. You have to be a little crazy.’’

‘It varies’, says Hermans, ‘but some professors absolutely won’t allow people to work only four days a week. I can’t really fault them, especially when there are people who work six days a week.’ On top of that, deadlines don’t care how many hours you work. ‘Academia can be harsh.’

I’m not going to give up my whole life for an academic career

If Herman truly wanted to have a career in academics, he should have raised his own funds or gone abroad to do something very interesting. But he’s created a life here in the Netherlands: he has kids, friends, his own house. ‘I’m not going to give all that up for some academic career. I’m not ambitious enough.’

Rowin Meijerink was. He did postdoctoral research at Berkeley, Caltech, Leiden, and in Groningen, at the Kapteyn Institute. He published seventy-five articles, but his career refused to flourish. It wasn’t because his research proposals weren’t up to scratch. ‘My assessments were always good, but it’s a political game as much as anything.’ He realised that non-theoretical research was given priority. As were female researchers.

Nasty games

Researchers increasingly find themselves fighting over funds. Only a small fraction of applications actually gets funded. The smaller your research field, the greater the chance your application is being reviewed by your competitor, among others. ‘Competition is fierce’, says Meijerink, who now works on chip machines for ASML.

‘The fiercest’, confirms Alwin Stegeman, former associate professor at the UG. ‘I hated all those nasty games people played to mess with each other.’ One colleague would tell him something bad about someone else he was working with, since he refused to choose sides. ‘If things like that take over, people start having the wrong priorities.’

‘If you want a position in academia once you’re finished with your postdoc, you have to fight for it’, Van Rooij says. She learned this from presentations by successful academics. ‘They’d have a list of everything that was important: publications, experience abroad, collaboration with top researchers, a presence on Twitter. You have to get involved in all sorts of things, make sure your research results are applicable in practice, etc., etc. I was like, who even has time for all that?’

Bakker refused to meet all these requirements. ‘I’ve always looked for positions that involved mostly research, and not too many other things like teaching or administration.’ Stegeman wasn’t game either. ‘I didn’t necessarily want to be a professor. I want to focus on the actual research.’

Quit on time

After his studies, Stegeman stuck around in the Groningen world of academics. He was first awarded a Veni grant and then a Vidi, but his subsidies dried up and he was pushed out of his research bubble. Continuing would be a hassle: more education, less of his own research. After an academic outing to Belgium, he found a job with a company that does traffic flow calculations. ‘No one cares about boosting one another’s ego there.’

No more publishing papers. Heaven

‘Quit before you turn forty’, says Meijering. Because the longer you wait, the harder it is to change your mindset. Brandt agrees. ‘You’re kind of an entrepreneur within the academic world’, she says. ‘Everything is just me, me, me. On the outside, the focus is more on groups.’

You can come back, says Brandt, as long as you find a job that’s closely related to your field of research, and you continue to attend conferences. But once you’ve been out for a few years, it’s almost impossible to return.

Return

Bakker stays fairly up to date, since he works as an editor for academic publisher Brill, which means he reads a fair number of relevant research reports. ‘But you have to maintain your contacts’, he says. ‘If you let those fall by the wayside you have to start from scratch.’

Apart from Bakker, no one wants to return to academia. Certainly not Van Rooij. ‘When I got the phone call that I got the job…’ She sighs deeply. ‘I loved that I wouldn’t have to publish any more papers. Heaven.’ She’ll be working at the TU Eindhoven as a quality assurance agent. 

Meijerink has come up with his own solution: he does research on his own time, together with a retired professor. ‘I visit him once every few months and we have a lovely time writing a paper together.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

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