University

Five years of toil and no job

Crushed by the tenure track

Obtaining a tenure track position might sound amazing. When you’re good enough, you know you’ll end up as a professor. But you run the risk of getting a burn-out. ‘The pressure to meet all the demands is so destructive.’
By Miranda ten Wolde / Illustration Kalle Wolters / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

How does tenure track work?

Tenure track is a phased career path that the RUG implemented fifteen years ago to attract young, talented researchers. Researchers start as university lecturers and receive a temporary contract.

After five years, a faculty committee determines whether they have met the demands set. If they have, they are offered a permanent contract and a position as associate professor. A new evaluation follows after four to seven years. If the committee is satisfied, the tenure tracker becomes a full professor. If the committee isn’t satisfied, the tenure tracker retains their position as associate professor.

The number of tenure trackers at the RUG has increased greatly since 2009. Back then, there were 109 tenure track employees spread across the faculties (apart from the UMCG, which falls under a different type of administration); in 2018, there are 329. And as usual, there are more male than female tenure trackers (183 versus 146).

‘This isn’t your regular nine to five job. There was a time when I worked every night and every weekend’, says developmental psychologist Marijn van Dijk. She started in a tenure track position at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. She is currently an associate professor. ‘Whenever I took my son to his table tennis games, I would bring my laptop so I could grade my PhD students’ papers.’

In other words: being a tenure tracker is hard work. Anyone who doesn’t meet the performance criteria after the first phase simply loses their job. This puts a lot of pressure on people.

‘Any lights you see burning at the faculty at night are those of tenure trackers’, says Lammertjan Dam, associate professor of finance at the Faculty of Economics and Business. He, too, is on the tenure track. ‘I haven’t taken a summer holiday in years because I stayed home to work on my articles for publication.’

Demanding

The performance criteria are very demanding. Each faculty can decide for itself which demands tenure trackers must meet. They all have to prove themselves when it comes to education, research, valorisation, and organisational and managerial tasks.

Hinke Haisma said the criteria felt like a straitjacket. In 2009, the nutritionist got a position as a Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences. ‘The pressure to meet all the demands is so destructive to research, not to mention people’s mental well-being.’

She also had a feeling that because of her multidisciplinary research she wasn’t quite where she was supposed to be. In 2015, this contributed to Haisma’s burn-out. ‘Only then did I learn to sort of ignore those restrictive criteria. Now that I’m an associate professor, I’m actually able to do that. It’s given me the peace and the freedom to engage in proper research.’

Research grants

But the biggest problem tenure trackers face might be trying to get research grants. ‘It doesn’t matter how good your research proposal is. The chance of getting a grant is extremely small’, says Van Dijk. ‘There are so few funds available, and we all want our share. It takes up so much time!’

Dam adds: ‘In our field the chance of getting a grant is sometimes less than ten percent. The RUG will train us in writing and presenting promising proposals, but other universities train their people as well.’

Any lights you see burning at the faculty at night are those of tenure trackers

In 2012, Haisma earned a Vidi grant from research financier NWO, but she sometimes wonders what made other proposals so much worse than hers. ‘So much of it is just luck. It’s like a lottery.’

At the same time, grants are extremely important: anyone who doesn’t manage to collect sufficient research funds will not receive a promotion. It could even lead to the end of your academic career. Dam: ‘The real drama happens during that first phase, when people lose their jobs after five years of working hard. Some of them will have just had kids, since that’s the age most tenure trackers are at.’

Potential

This includes Christian Zuidema. In the two years since he started his tenure track position at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, he has married, become a father, and moved house. Can these things be combined with his demanding job? ‘It’s not like I have a choice. We simply had to find a way to make it work, like all young parents do. And you have to make sacrifices for work, to show that you have the potential to become a professor. They are important people.’

The real drama happens during that first phase, when people lose their jobs after five years of working hard

His main problem is the lack of customisation options. ‘There’s absolutely no way for us to compensate. People who are lacking in research skills simply get fired, even if they’re great educators. And then the faculty loses a good teacher. They should really pay more attention to us as individuals.’

Dam understands the rules. ‘The system has to be as transparent as possible. But I think it would be a great solution if they went a little easier on tenure trackers, maybe making them meet only seven out of ten of the demands.’

But if a tenure track job is so hard and the demands are so high, does the system even work? Figures published by the RUG indicate that 62 percent of tenure trackers that started or were part of the track in 2009 has made it to professor. Of the entire group, 14 percent are still working on it, and 22 percent has quit in the meantime. ‘That means the system is pretty successful’, says HR policy adviser Frank Nienhuis.

Drop out

Nevertheless, almost a quarter of tenure trackers dropped out prematurely. Some of these are people who didn’t make it through the first ‘inspection’, but others quit of their own volition. ‘Especially German colleagues’, Dam says.

‘German universities know that the Dutch demands are high and that anyone who’s worked here will be a good employee. So just before the tenure track decision here they’ll offer German tenure trackers a position with a much higher salary back home, and they’ll guarantee their partner gets a job, too. It’s easy to see why people would take that opportunity.’

Dam has also seen tenure trackers leave when they know they won’t make it to the next phase. ‘They’ll leave to prevent getting a stigma. If you don’t make it through that first phase in Groningen, Maastricht or Utrecht won’t give you a second chance.’

If you don’t make it through that first phase in Groningen, Maastricht or Utrecht won’t give you a second chance

The RUG had made adjustments to the system quite often since they implemented it. More tailor-made options have been made available since the the evaluation of 2016, says Nienhuis. ‘There’s now room to take “life events” into account, such as pregnancy, parental leave, or care for a family member. We don’t want people to postpone having children. That would reflect poorly on the RUG as an employer.’

Solutions

The faculties are also looking for individual solutions. ‘Some faculties don’t expect people to actually honour the NWO proposals, as long as the proposal that was submitted was accepted.’

Moreover, the system is transparent. ‘The things colleagues in Germany of Sweden have to do to get promoted… It’s all just favouritism’, says Dam. ‘Or the university strings them along for ten years, only to suddenly fire them. The people there would love to have a tenure track like we do. It’s kind of like capitalism: it may not be perfect, but it’s the best option we have right now.’

Not everyone agrees with this. ‘I think the tenure track system is due for a major overhaul’, says Haisma. ‘The pressure is too high. That’s detrimental to the tenure trackers’ mental well-being, and therefore to academics.’

Nederlands

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