Professor (University of Groningen)
Read Rian's story
During my PhD, I focused mostly on the PhD itself. I don’t remember having a very structured path or clear vision on a future academic career that I explicitly prepared for. On the other hand, when I started to do my PhD I already knew that I enjoyed doing research very much, and when I did my teaching tasks as a PhD student I rather enjoyed being in the classroom as well. So, I guess it was also not a surprise that I was drawn to a career in academia.
Academia is not for everyone and it is difficult for almost everybody; persistence and the ability to deal with (negative) feedback are very important for success. Persistence I have plenty, but I still find it difficult to handle negative feedback and rejection at times. Academics are judged all the time and evaluated for their individual output (publications, student evaluations). It is easy to compare yourself with much more successful colleagues and that can be discouraging.
An additional difficulty has been the balancing act between family and career. Raising three sons has certainly slowed my progress on the career ladder. I think having a well-filled social life has also saved me to some extent, because it is easy to lose yourself in work otherwise. I am quite proud that we moved to Sweden with the family because of my appointment at Uppsala University; all of us had a great time in the almost ten years we lived there and learned much from this international experience.
If you ask me how I succeeded in becoming a full professor I would say that first, I managed to produce an interesting line of research and published this in good journals in my field. I think that is the first requirement for full professorship. Second, I have taught diverse courses, in terms of topic, level and the way in which they were taught and I am rather good in the classroom I believe. In addition to this, I have very soon taken on managerial or service tasks, first for example in a programme committee, and currently I am the director of the graduate school for our faculty, but I also organized an international conference in my field. I think this mix of experiences and capabilities have enabled me to get the promotion to full professor.
But if you ask me how I learned to deal with my uncertainties, I would say that I have made use of my network, both within academia as well as in my private social circles. I will never fret lonely in my office after receiving a rejection, but will talk to a colleague, first to share my frustration and then to start the “what next? – thinking”. I thoroughly like working in teams so I have also tried to find teamwork in all three domains of research, teaching and management. Finally, I think I have grown my self-confidence through (small) successes. If I was not aware of them myself, there have been others to point them out to me.
I think that I am good in this position because I know how to do good research, how to develop interesting courses and programmes for students at different levels, and how to organize this. I still have time to do research, but I have to admit that the management tasks do eat away my research time often. This means that it is hard for me to collect new data, or to learn new analysis techniques for example. However, through teamwork with co-authors or through supervising PhD students I still participate in research projects and play a role in theory development, data analysis and in writing articles.
I like being where I am now, because it enables me to support the careers of young, starting academics. I said earlier, to succeed in academia you have to be able to deal with negative feedback, even failure. Realizing that this is the same for everyone and sharing my experiences with others have helped me to learn to be resilient in this respect. I do not believe that just working hard, or many hours, will get you to the top of the career ladder. You really have to like what you do, and that includes teaching or other tasks like management or impact activities.
My story further shows that it is possible to combine a full time academic job with having a family. I am not saying it is easy; there will be times where you are juggling to keep all the balls in the air, you may go slower than others around you, but it can be done. You can even say yes to a foreign adventure; this will help your career and give the whole family a life-experience. I do realize that a supportive partner who can align his or her career with yours is necessary, but you can always go for shorter visits to grow your international network.
I did my PhD during the pioneering era of genetic engineering (1980-1985). New techniques were popping up almost every month and it was my ambition to contribute to this revolution. During my PhD I used all international contacts within my reach to acquire the skills in this new technology and to solve prompting research questions. After my PhD I was offered several post-doc positions, but I decided to join a new research unit in a biotechnology company in order to turn my knowledge into practice and contribute to novel health products.
Although I liked academia very much after finishing my PhD, I noticed that for fulfilling my research ambitions at that time, Universities really did not have the money nor the speed for taking decisions. In the company this was the opposite. Many years later, after having served for a US biotechnology company and having finalized a number of successful projects, I found myself at a crossroad that offered me some alternative career steps. The Institute of Pharmacy at the University of Groningen, which largely missed the genetic engineering revolution, was looking for a molecular biology professor to teach the novel developments and biotech products to their students.
At the moment that the University of Groningen started their search, I had a visiting professorship at the University of Nottingham and at the University of Leiden, next to my industry job. That very much increased my visibility. When I was offered the position of professor, I realized that money and speed for taking decisions was still a big issue at the universities. Therefore, I used a number of my company contacts to start up projects to bring external money to the university, allowing me to have a flying start. It took tough negotiation with the university for them to agree to provide me with suitable laboratories. Unfortunately, it took up to 3 years after my start until that promise was fulfilled, but you cannot have it all at once.
I am now reaching the last part of my career and research plays an important role every day. I am managing a large research group with 4 other independent principal investigators and I supervise my own small group of PhD students. Up to now I have supervised 60 PhD thesis completions, which illustrates the research intensity of my daily activities. I have served as the director of the pharmacy institute for several years, which was an interesting interruption. Supervising young students and PhD candidates is the most rewarding activity I can think of.
The first important element that you need is to be passionate! Have passion for novel developments in the field and be curious. Current advancements in research are very much made in collaboration, so you should be outgoing and mobile. I had worked at 6 different laboratories (in 3 different countries) before I moved to my current position. As universities always have to adapt their curricula to changes in the outside world, there are always chances for people with experience in society or industry to rejoin academia. They are able to translate societal questions into research questions and teaching goals.
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