Sjoerd van den Heuvel

To transfer from a research university to a university of applied sciences has been one of the best decisions in my career.

Sjoerd van den Heuvel

Associate Lector (University of Applied Sciences Utrecht)

Name: Sjoerd van den Heuvel
Master's degree: Organisation Studies (Tilburg University)
PhD degree: HRM (Tilburg University)
Current position: Associate Lector (University of Applied Sciences Utrecht)

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your PhD?

During my master’s program Organisation Studies at Tilburg University, I noticed I wanted to experience how organizations actually worked in practice. It was pretty clear to me that I wanted to start my career in consultancy, since this industry enables you to experience a variety of organizations in different industries in a relatively short period of time. At the same time, I wanted to deepen my knowledge. You can do that in all kinds of ways of course. But my professor asked me to try and publish my master’s thesis, and around that time my brother also started a PhD program. So I combined these two jobs. My idea was that whereas organizations have a ton of data but have a hard time making sense out of it, researchers know how to analyse data, but often have difficulties in getting data. A win-win I thought.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

Although the PhD project went smoothly, I believed it was pretty tough. Three days a week I worked on consultancy projects, and consultancy is not really a 9 to 5 job. And I had two days per week available for the PhD. In practice, many weekends and holidays were used to work on my PhD. I didn’t have children back then, and didn’t live together with my girlfriend yet, so that enabled me to spend a lot of time on it. But whether it was a very healthy period… no, not really. So, that was challenging. But looking back at this period, it was worth every minute of investment. Of course, if I would need to do it all over, I would do things differently. Like saving considerable time by being less perfectionistic, start the project with a blind-typing course. But now, I think I have the best job in the world and it wouldn’t have been possible without the PhD.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

In the years after my PhD I worked both in practice and in academia. In the last years before making the career step to associate lector I was an assistant professor in academia. However, as said, my profile is right in between practice and academia, so I very much missed this combination. For me, writing papers didn’t give me the feeling I made a maximum impact on practice, on organizations. So, at one point in time I replied to a vacancy at the University of Applied Science Utrecht. At the same moment, I was asked by a university to consider a tenure track position. I found it extremely tough to make a decision. Because I know what working at a university entailed, but the world of an applied university was completely unknown to me. Also, many people at universities don’t speak very positively about universities of applied sciences. Even though they are not really familiar with these institutions and most of the time have never worked there. Perhaps particular prejudices and ideas about status also play a role here.

So, with fantastic support from the director of the institute that was hiring an associate lector, I started my voyage of discovery. I attended lectures, spoke to students, and spoke to other associate lectors. And after this ‘research’ it was clear to me: this is the place to be for me. And really, it has been one of the best decisions I have made in my career. I have provided a lot of education for both students, and especially many professionals. I was heavily involved for several years in the development of a Master of Science program in Data-Driven Business. That’s what I meant earlier: many people at universities don’t even know that universities of applied sciences also provide Master of Science programs, that are accredited in 100% the same way as the programs at ‘traditional’ universities, in accordance with the same European Qualification Framework, and by the same accreditation institution, the NVAO. Long story short; I am so happy that my unfamiliarity with universities of applied sciences, and prejudices from others, didn’t stop me from making this transfer.

Personal growth: Why does this position fit you?

The position fits for me because on a daily basis I work on making an impact in practice. And for me it is in now way more tangible than it was before. Closer to practice, and sometimes even closer to reality I would say. For example, technological developments are going so quickly, you better be in the same place as where this magic happens. For me, research plays a completely different role than it used to play. I now supervise a PhD student, also to keep up with the latest literature, and I supervise master students in their thesis-projects. Furthermore, given that my field of expertise is on people analytics and data-driven business, I help organizations and professionals with their analytics approaches in the broadest sense of the world. Because of my academic background, I really feel I can make an impact there. It is rewarding.

The takeaway: What can others learn from your story?

Perhaps many people simply don’t know whether or not they want a position as an associate lector, simply because they are unfamiliar with the role itself, and universities of applied sciences in general. So my advice is: allow yourself to explore it, and see if it fits you. Don’t be driven by traditional perceptions of status, just find the context that fits you the best and makes you happy. And when that is the case, you will also find out the salary is two levels higher than you would start with as an assistant professor at a regular university. In other words, many reasons to explore with an open mindset.

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