‘Too many disposable scientists at universities’

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If you want a stable career, you’d best search for anything but science. Positions for postdocs, especially, are getting scarce. What’s going on with all these temporary contracts, and how damaging are they?

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Steven de Rooij has officially been a scientist since 2008. Since then, he’s only had temporary employment contracts. At the moment, he’s working as a postdoc at Leiden University, doing statistics research on a three-year contract. When he graduated from his Master’s in theoretical information technology at the University of Amsterdam fourteen years ago, he had to choose whether or not to do a PhD. “My professor told me I had to think about it. He said, ‘If you want to have a reliable, stable career, I’d discourage it’,” De Rooij reminisces. The advice surprised him, and he chose to do a PhD anyway. “I was excited about doing research. I wasn’t worried about my future career, so I started out in high spirits.”

There’s no such thing as permanent positions in science anymore

Nine years and four temporary postdoc positions later – at the TU Eindhoven and the Amsterdam Center for Math and Information Technology, among others – De Rooij understands his professor’s warning. “Looking back, I’d have to say he was right. There are so few permanent positions, and they’re in such high demand.” He doesn’t know yet what he’ll do after his current contract runs out.

But he doesn’t think he’ll get a permanent position anywhere. “I’ve applied for positions as assistant professor a few times in the past couple of years, but they select ten out of a hundred applicants, people with tons of publications and a lot of international experience.” Aside from two years spent at Cambridge, De Rooij has no research experience abroad, which doesn’t help his chances of finding a permanent position.

De Rooij calls his situation tricky, but he’s not constantly stressing out. “I’m a pretty relaxed person by nature, but it’s not always fun. It’s hard to start building something – socially, too. You end up at a university, where you’ll meet colleagues who leave after short periods, too. So you stop investing in these social relationships, and that makes it rather lonely.”

“I’m a little disappointed about how things are going in science. My father, an emeritus professor of history, shaped my expectations. If you performed well, and got to know the right people, a good permanent position would come along easily. But those were different times.”

High percentage of ‘flex-scientists’ is bad for science

It’s a situation more and more young scientists find themselves in, according to scientist’s union Vawo. The Vawo has been fighting against the ‘flex’ jobs at the universities for years. According to chairwoman Marijtje Jongsma, the percentage of ‘flex scientists’, including PhD candidates, is currently around sixty percent, with all the associated consequences: disability isn’t insured as well as it could be, there are holes in people’s pension savings, and large groups of highly educated people are living in uncertainty. Last but not least: it’s bad for science.

The Vawo receives a lot of complaints about this, and pressures universities to ensure a higher level of career stability. “As a scientist, you spend years developing yourself, becoming an expert in your field. You don’t want to be a ‘disposable scientist’ – you want a permanent position.”

With a five-year contract, you’re still a temporary employee

Thanks to pressure from the unions, 2015’s collective university agreement (cao) includes the statement that the massive growth of temporary contracts needed to be stopped: a maximum of 22 percent of all educational vacancies was allowed to be meant for a four-year period or less. That sounds like good news, but in practice, universities can use a plethora of tricks to get around these agreements.

“Some universities offered many of their staff five-year contracts, which formally gets them below that 22 percent line. But with a five-year contract, you’re still a temporary employee. We wanted people to get permanent positions, but that’s still not happening,” Jongsma explains.

The tenure track, in which young scientists work hard for a handful of years to prove they’re good enough for a permanent position at the university, is an example of a contract that lasts for more than four years. Universities promise great chances of getting permanent employment, but in practice, the odds aren’t as good, Jongsma claims. “In Anglo-Saxon countries, the tenure track is a permanent position: it’s either up or stay. But in the Netherlands it’s different: if you don’t manage to reach your planned goals, you can hope for a permanent position, or else it’s just tough luck. It’s either up or out, here.”

Lecturers are forced to switch between universities ever so often after a short period of teaching. “Everyone in our circles knows the stories of young lecturers, tipping each other off about job openings. In this way, they ‘hop’ through the entire country,” Jongsma says.

Our passion is our Achilles heel; with a mindset like that, you get squeezed dry

Developments like this paint a bleak picture: why would anyone want to try to start a career in science anymore? Aren’t there just as many chances at work in different sectors with just a Master’s? “That’s true,” Jongsma says, “But anyone who, after ten years – bachelor, master, PhD – still wants to become a scientist, has already proven to be passionate about the work. Our passion is our Achilles heel, because a mindset like that is what gets you squeezed dry easily.”

In some disciplines, a career in science is the only option after a PhD, says professor Andries de Grip, director of the Maastricht Research Center for Education and the Labor Market (ROA). “If you get a PhD in, for instance, economics, sociology or administrative science, you can easily find work in business or government. But if you’re a linguist or a historian, that’s a less obvious choice. You’ll have to consider that when you start your PhD.”

Universities need to be more transparent

The fact remains: as a postdoc, it’s harder and harder to get a permanent position. De Grip agrees with Vawo-chairwoman Jongsma in that a tenure track should offer some kind of guarantee. “Universities need to be way more transparent. If they’re clear about the requirements beforehand, they won’t be able to simply sack their scientists. That’s still happening too often.” Still, the ROA director says a longer temporary contract, of three to six years, seems reasonable enough. “A period like that would offer many development opportunities, and if you’re doing it right, there should be enough options available afterwards.”

De Grip acknowledges that the amount of temporary contracts in science is a problem, but adds a footnote. He says it’s not realistic to count PhD students in the total number of flex scientists. The sixty percent mentioned by Vawo sketches a distorted view, he says. “In the Netherlands, PhD candidates are employees, and that’s a privilege that PhD candidates in many other countries don’t have.”

Aside from professional soccer, no industry has as many temporary employees as science does

Do scientists even have cause to complain? Isn’t a temporary position simply a natural part of increased flexibility in modern times? No, De Grip says. Science would benefit from a larger permanent core of people. “For employers, it’s clear: temporary contracts have the advantage of being able to switch, and as a disadvantage that you’re barely investing in knowledge and continuity. But that last bit is so, so important for universities. Now, they’re turning into organizations with an upper layer of older staff, and a large group of young, ever changing employees. That’s not beneficial to the university’s continuity.”

Vawo chairwoman Jongsma is used to hearing people say society is becoming more and more freelance-based, and that today’s labor market just is that way. “But outside of professional soccer, no industry has as many temporary employees as science does. Even in large corporations, the average percentage of temporary employees is rarely higher than 15, 20 percent.” It’s a glaring contrast with the university’s 40 percent (excluding PhD candidates). According to Jongsma, the academic world is becoming more hourglass shaped: “The upper part, consisting of professors and associate professors who, almost without exception, all have permanent positions. In the lower half, there’s the nomads. The old-school academic, with a permanent contract, dividing his time fifty-fity between research and teaching, is an endangered species these days. It’s bizarre that we seem to be okay with this situation.”

Tekst: Matthijs van Schie/HOP

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