20 May 2021

Change is around the corner. Career paths are being redefined at Radboudumc. But what does it mean for young researchers? I set out to answer all your (my) questions with the help of Guillén Fernández and Sandra Heskamp.

Many of us start a PhD track dreaming of being a professor one day. But more often than not, life doesn’t turn out that way. Only 30% of PhDs proceed in academia, and only 12% of those end up in junior faculty positions, just 0.5% becoming full professors in the end, according to a United Kingdom survey. We are usually not exposed to this fact early in our research careers. Therefore, we rarely bother thinking about opportunities outside of academia until it’s too late.

Every PhD student needs clarity and proper career guidance, both the majority that will leave academia and the few who will continue. With this in mind, a new scientific career path scheme was designed for Radboudumc (see the figure below). As a PhD candidate who is unsure whether to stay in or leave academia, I had a lot of questions about the new scheme. So, I knocked on some doors (sent skype invitations). Guillén Fernández, the current scientific director of Donders Center for Medical Neuroscience and future quartermaster for the to-be-formed Research Institute, and Sandra Heskamp, professor of nuclear imaging and former chair of the Radboud Postdoc Initiative, were happy to answer my questions. They are actively involved in the new planning and the transition period to come. Let’s hear from them what is changing, why it is changing, and what it will mean, especially for PhDs and postdocs.

Transparency and expectation management

Ozlem: Why is a change needed?

Guillén: There are 3 main reasons. First of all, it is difficult to find enough young, talented people for research. It might sound strange because there are a lot of people for a limited amount of positions. But apparently, Radboudumc is not attractive enough right now for talents to stay or come. We are losing people that we would like to keep or get. Therefore, it is essential that we look at our career policies and how we can best support researchers. So, this is a way to make things more attractive.

Secondly, highly educated people feel much more pressure and have more mental health problems than their peers. The situation is suboptimal. Clearer expectation management, a more transparent path, and better predictability of the future would reduce uncertainties and stress.

Lastly, within the Radboudumc, we have a focus on internal promotions for our researchers. But that means that for mid-career arrivals, we don't always provide the right opportunities in growing within our organization. This is not necessarily negative, but it is not helpful in terms of diversity. With a straightforward, central process, we can plan ahead to safeguard diversity.

Ozlem: What are the most critical changes compared to the current way of doing things?

Sandra: The most important is the existence of clear and transparent career paths. Young people should know what to expect if they want to stay in academia. Giving them realistic expectations and opportunities is critical. We need to be honest with young people early in their careers. Also, we want to change the status-quo of judging the academic career path as better. If you go ‘out of science’, some people still perceive this as a failure. But actually, we need good scientists in other positions in society. We should support people to make a decision on what fits them best.

Guillén: Most of the PhDs will not end up in academic research. We need scientists in all types of leading positions. According to a 2017 analysis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 0.6% of the working-age population in the Netherlands has a PhD, compared to the 1.1% OECD average. We need many PhDs; it’s crucial for our economy. For a postdoc, the situation is different. We know that the longer a postdoc period is, the harder it is to find a new job elsewhere later. For this group in particular, it is very important that we clarify the possibilities at an early stage. With the career paths, we make it clear what the purpose of all these positions is.

Emphasis on experience abroad

Ozlem: In the visual for the new schema, there is no arrow between PhD and postdoc positions? Are we actively encouraged to leave after a PhD?

Guillén: If you want to follow the academic path, it is highly recommended to leave. It is not forbidden to stay, but it shouldn’t be the default. This is actually beneficial to the career for you as a young researcher. Gaining experience outside of the Radboudumc makes you an even greater added value for academic institutions at a later time.

Sandra: To be clear, we are not kicking people out. For instance, I’m supervising a very talented PhD candidate at the moment, and I’m trying to help her find a lab abroad where she can go for a postdoc position. I have to think ahead about opportunities for her to come back afterwards. But learning new things in another lab abroad is a crucial step to becoming a group leader later in your scientific career. As supervisors, we need to help young researchers to make the right decisions for their careers.

Guillén: If you come back, you’ll be more competitive if you have been elsewhere. More network, publications with different people… As an institute, we would like a dynamic exchange with postdocs, so our network and diversity get better. This is encouraged for both the candidate and the supervisor. It is convenient to allow a PhD who has all the experience to continue in the same group. But in the long term, it is better for both parties if the PhD temporarily spreads the wings.

Ozlem: What’s in it for a supervisor when their PhDs leave?

Sandra: New collaborations and more extensive network abroad. We can write grants together with the new groups of our former PhD candidates, we can exchange other students later. It’s long-term planning.

Guillén: It shows the quality of a research group where their people are going and coming from.

Ozlem: Sandra, you personally had an experience abroad after your PhD. Could you tell me about it?

Sandra: Yes, I’ve spent some time at the Technical University of Munich. I’ve only been there a few months; still, it was really important to me. I learned two things. One is the scientific content that I used when establishing my own independent research group here. The second is how I wanted to lead my team. I have seen good examples, but also a lot of things that I wanted to do entirely different. How to organize, how to supervise my own group, etc. You don’t have to go to the US for two years, but you have to do something to get new insights.

Ozlem: Any negative sides of the experience?

Sandra: Apart from missing my friends, no, not at all. I set new collaborations that have already lasted for years. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I stayed in my own lab.

Ozlem: If I want to continue my postdoc here, for some reason, will it still be possible?

Guillén: The supervisor with the grant is always the one making the hiring decision for a postdoc. The department might ask for a valid explanation (family reasons, visa, health, etc.), but no one will block it if there is a good reason.

Sandra: For the tenure track, every department used to have its own rules. Now there will be a central hiring committee. And one of the critical criteria is international experience. It would be more challenging to get into the tenure track if you did everything here, although not impossible.

New hiring criteria: scientific quality and leadership skills over numbers

Ozlem: What are the other hiring criteria?

Sandra: Scientific quality. We won’t focus that much on the number of papers or h factor, but you have to do meaningful high-quality science. This can be research benefiting patient care directly but also more fundamental research. Leadership potential is another important criterion. Are you helping your PhDs to find a good position in another lab? How are people who left your group performing? And lastly, networks. Which again ties back to international experience.

Guillén: Also, the research line has to fit the strategy of the institute. There is no check on the strategy at the moment. If you fulfil the criteria technically, you’re in. That will change. If we think this is not a good place to do a particular type of research, if we already have many people focusing on that topic or don’t have any related patient care, it doesn’t make sense for that person to join us.

“The neglected species” a.k.a. postdocs

Ozlem: PhDs have a wide variety of course offerings here. I love that we are not only pushed into focusing on scientific skills but also to improve personal and leadership skills. But I don’t see as many opportunities for postdocs. What opportunities are there, and what are the plans for the near future?

Sandra: Excellent question! Actually, some of the PhD courses are also open for postdocs. You just need to spend some time looking for what is available. The biggest problem is the way that research is organized. PhDs belong in graduate schools which organize a lot of good events and courses. Postdocs don’t fit in there. Dagmar Eleveld is now putting much effort to help postdocs, and a lot of information about events and courses can be found on the website of the Radboud Postdoc Initiative.

Guillén: Postdocs are an often neglected species. They always fall in between; they’re on their own. Even our HR system does not define postdocs well. So, sending an email to all the postdocs is almost impossible. The term “postdoc” was introduced for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship in the 70s. It was a fellowship, not a position. Over the years, they somehow replaced all the middle-level staff scientists. Now it means all kinds of things. We are aware of this issue, which is precisely why we want to bring attention to this with the new career plans.

As you may know, the research organization will change. In my new role as the quartermaster for the new research institute, we have created a work package about a postdoc program that we want to implement. We want to train and inform the postdocs well in the new organization. The career opportunities for them will be very transparent. Relative to the number of senior positions, we have too many postdocs. Too many people are trying, getting stressed out, with no realistic chance. We need to tell this to them from the very start, and inform them about the kinds of positions outside or other positions here such as staff scientist.

An attractive new position: staff scientist

Ozlem: Speaking of staff scientists, what exactly is it? Where does it stand compared to a postdoc and a technician?

Guillén: These are scientists; they have a PhD. But they prefer to have a different position, a supportive function. They don’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight. This requires another set of talents. A staff scientist can be more inward-oriented, securing the smooth operation and good development of the methods and supervision.

Just like the tenure track, staff scientists have 3 levels. It is a position that is incredibly valuable but does not currently exist. So, it's really not a lower position as some may have thought. It’s just for the ones with different talents and different perspectives.

Sandra: Postdocs are still on the path to become independent scientists. Staff scientist is a permanent dependent position—someone who will stay there and support research for a long time.

Ozlem: In terms of paygrade, how does it compare to a postdoc?

Guillén: Initially, the same grade as a postdoc. It increases as you go along the path.

Ozlem: So, staff scientists can be the daily supervisors of PhDs. Right now, this task is mainly on the shoulders of postdocs. Are you trying to take some pressure away from postdocs?

Guillén: Not really. It is also essential to get this experience for postdocs. If they are an independent supervisor in the future, they need supervision experience early on.

Ozlem: Will staff scientists be responsible for obtaining grants?

Guillén: They can, of course, contribute to grant writing. But they don’t have to obtain their own.

We can’t change the whole system, but we can help people find the correct positions.

Ozlem: When I first read about this new system and looked at the chart, it stressed me out a little bit. I agree with all your arguments now. But it is an up-or-out system. It does seem a bit competitive and stressful. What do you think about that?

Sandra: We don’t want people getting stressed about it, but we also have to be honest. Science is a competitive field and we should not hide this from young people. Still, saying “I’m afraid I’m not going to make it, so I’m not even going to try” is wrong too. If you love science and you are good at it, the new scientific career paths should help you to find the right position, but we cannot change the entire system at once.

Guillén: This is actually less stressful than before, for two reasons. First, the committees will let in only a certain number of candidates. We will plan ahead and not hire much more than we can accommodate in the tenure track. In a way, this will create less internal competition. Secondly, if you talk to people who have recently become professors, more or less everyone would tell you that it was an awfully long, entirely untransparent, and non-linear path. It has been an opaque system so far. A clear and transparent approach would be less stressful.

Career guidance every step of the way

Ozlem: We keep talking about finding the right place for everyone. Will there be any career guidance every step of the way?

Guillén: The graduate schools and postdoc office would play an important role there.

Sandra: Also, the mentors for tenure trackers. In the tenure track, you need to write a personal performance plan for every 5 years. The mentor is there to listen, discuss, and advise on the progress. HR is always available for guidance on formal procedures as well.

Guillén: Additionally, like the training and supervision plan (TSP) for the PhDs, there will be a personal development plan (PDP) for postdocs. We are already using that in the Donders Institute. We also have to organize better events. We have a mostly inward-looking perspective. By inviting people from outside the academia for events and workshops, we can change that.

Ozlem: Will PDP be obligatory for postdocs?

Sandra: Probably not. I’m not in favor of making it obligatory. Postdocs need to take their own lead more than a PhD. We can offer tools, and we should, but they have to decide what they need themselves.

Let’s not forget diversity

Ozlem: There is now explicit attention on hiring female professors along the tenure track. What is the strategy for the lower levels?

Guillén: At PhD and postdoc level, it’s pretty balanced. We lose women in the steps of the tenure track. It’s not an easy problem with one solution, and there are more dimensions to diversity. Gender is just one aspect. We know that in a knowledge- and creativity-dependent job, the more diversity, the better. Change in transparency and the ability to steer the central committee will hopefully help. We will try to make the positions as inviting for everybody. We have to do better. Dutch universities are very international, but ours is not enough. We are working hard on this with the Internationalization Plan 2020-2025, in which we look at how we can take steps within education, health care and research.

Sandra: Indeed, it’s not just men vs. women, but a lot more. It would help if Radboudumc invited people from abroad to apply for positions.

Guillén: We have very successful foreigners as professors, however, we didn’t hire most of them from abroad but from other Dutch institutions. We don’t often take the risk of hiring someone directly from abroad. I experience this resistance in hiring committees. But we’re improving. When I started as the research director of the Donders Institute more than 10 years ago, we had 2 female professors. Now we have 16, 5 of whom are from abroad, and 2 are women of color. I am incredibly proud of this, but we still have to relentlessly work on it. The new scientific career path will help us in this regard because we will have a central overview of all hires and promotions, allowing us to set specific goals in terms of diversity for each year.

After the discussions with Guillén and Sandra, things are much clearer for me, and hopefully for you too, now. Overall, it appears that the scientific career path fits seamlessly with the plans for the new organizational structure of research. Many changes are waiting for us in the upcoming few years, as these policies are finalized and implemented. We, as the newsletter team, will do our best to keep you informed throughout this process.

Interview by Ozlem Bulut