Scientific researcher at National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
Read Tom's story
Name: Tom Jansen
Master’s degree: Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety (PCRS) at Twente University
PhD degree: Environmental health risk perception and -communication, a collaborative project between the Amsterdam UMC/VU University and the RIVM
Current position: Scientific researcher at Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
I have always been driven by curiosity and an intrinsic need to be of added value to the people and society surrounding me. A long interest in ‘people’ and how we think and behave has led me to study Psychology at Twente University. When I started my study, however, I did not have a clear goal in terms of career in mind. Nor did I ever think about my capacity to acquire a PhD degree. In the master’s track in Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety (PCRS), I was presented with a research topic that intrigued me and intrinsically motivated me to build my career on.
I got a chance to start a PhD position at the RIVM because at an early stage of my master’s track I informed my supervisor I was interested in continuing in academic research after my graduation. With this knowledge in mind he forwarded me a possible PhD position which I eventually got. From this point on I’ve studied judgment, decision making and communication about environmental health risks.
Doing my PhD project required quite a personal investment. At the same time I have learned a tremendous amount during that period. Lessons learned are not limited to becoming a scientific expert in my field. I have also learned a lot on a personal and social level. In my current position I still benefit from and build on this experience.
I tend to feel unsure at a job interview. I find it hard to relax and just be myself. I tended to cope with this by excessively preparing for the interview, which nearly led me to miss out on my current position.
Making clear - at an early point in my master’s track - that I wanted to conduct PhD research in the field of PCRS. This essentially led my supervisor to forward me a PhD position at the RIVM. After my contract ended, I maintained close contact with former colleagues at the RIVM. My current position I owe largely to that. Through them I knew a relevant department would likely grow. I eventually applied for a vacancy through werkenvoornederland.nl and was hired.
In terms of competences, tasks and substantive knowledge, the Rijksoverheid explains what is asked in a (desired) position. Checking https://www.functiegebouwrijksoverheid.nl/ can give insights into whether a function fits you and can help you draft, for example, an application letter.
Conducting (social scientific) research is my core business at the RIVM. In my research I address social scientific aspects of societal challenges related to a healthy living environment, food safety, occupational health and safety, the energy transition and so on. Working as a social scientist at the RIVM gives me the chance to contribute to a variety of topics. This makes my work very diverse, interesting and relevant.
Related to this, is working closely with other researchers from biomedical, natural and data sciences such as toxicologists, epidemiologists, biologists and so on. The multitude of expertise that is necessary for addressing societal issues, makes working in teams dynamic and interesting.
Maintaining networks, talking to people and making your interests clear helps a lot. PhD research can be quite intense, but if you want to continue your career in research, you will learn a lot besides substantive knowledge, that you will apply in your daily work for the rest of your career. Relax and be yourself during a job interview. Don’t try to cover every possible question – you can’t predict how and what is going to be asked.
I wanted to do scientific research, but also be in touch with students. So for me a position at a Dutch university seemed ideal. When I finished my PhD, I acquired a teaching position at the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, at Leiden University. Later, I got the opportunity to work there as an assistant professor. So I got the job that I always wanted! But in time I realized it wasn’t what I wanted any more.
Working in academia is amazing and rewarding, but the workload is high. At that time, I found it hard to keep my work and personal life balance in order. I also felt I wanted to do research that had immediate impact and importance, while as an academic the focus is more on long term research. In my current position I really like the fact that I can immediately help others with my research and give answers to questions that are relevant at that moment.
Being an assistant professor was an accomplishment, something I created for myself and worked hard for. I was where I always wanted to be! It took a while to mentally let go of that image. At some point, someone told me: “sometimes when you are at the top of the ladder and you look around, you realize the ladder is positioned against the wrong wall”. I had to rediscover what I wanted. Leaving also felt like taking a step down. There definitely is a prejudice against applied scientific research being ‘less’, while I know now it is just as important. We are the connection between the practical workplace and science.
It took me a while to accept the idea of leaving academia. I had a career counselor who helped me and stimulated me to think about other career paths. She made me ask myself: do I want the job that fits my ideal image or will I look for something else that makes me happier and fits better with who I am as a person? What helped me was the fact that I already collaborated with the Dutch National Police during my time at the university.
What I really like about my job is the variety of tasks and topics. Part of my job as a researcher at the Dutch National Police is to take interviews, analyse data, write reports and make factsheets. But I also coordinate the criminology internship program and supervise a student. Because I work on multiple researches at the same time, each research is in a different phase. For each research and task I work together with different colleagues. This makes my work very versatile.
The output of my research is different from what I was used to in academia. In academia it is expected to have an article published in a high end journal. The police prefers short reports or factsheets which hold information that everybody understands quickly. That requires a different skill set. Social skills are important as well in my job, because I have to connect with people across the organization. This makes my job very interesting.
I’m still really happy that I made the step and love the fact that I can do so many different things that have a positive impact.
Look for possibilities outside the university as well. I always thought that my only possible next step was a postdoc or associate professor position. Do not let that idea cloud your decisions. Talk to people about your uncertainties and plans, do mini-internships and look for something that fits you as a person and not only focus on ‘the ideal picture’. And perhaps most of all, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There are so many great jobs out there, you just need to take the time to find yours.
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