Don’t underestimate the goodwill factor

A successful career in science is more than just talent and hard work. The goodwill factor can also make or break a career. Two professors reveal which workaround they have found to help young researchers advance in the extremely competitive world of research.

credits: van santen & bolleurs

Tekst: Merijn van Nuland, beeld: Van Santen & Bolleurs

Becoming a professor is an uphill struggle. At each rung of the research ladder – from PhD to postdoc and from assistant professor to professor – a considerable sifting takes place. Only a tiny percentage of all first-year university students reach the absolute top of the Dutch knowledge economy. A question of expertise and sheer persistence? Not entirely. An almost invisible but ever-present aspect of an academic career is the goodwill factor. It makes a world of difference whether a supervisor takes sole credit for the research or really puts the PhD student in the spotlight. Do you gain a lot of trust from your superiors or do you encounter resistance at every step? Such subtle interactions can make or break careers.­­

Teamwork and team spirit

That goodwill factor takes on different forms and appearances. For example, Nobel Prize laureate Ben Feringa immediately placed a photo of his entire team on social media after the announcement in 2016 to show that this Nobel Prize was for everybody. ‘They are the ones I feel most proud of,’ he later told King Willem Alexander. ‘It is a huge privilege to be able to work with these young talents every day.’ Other researchers "play" with the order of authors in publications and make young scientists first author slightly more often. That often means a professor deliberately stays in the background.­­­

Research consists of more than just individual performances

NWO spoke to two professors who have each found a workaround to help young researchers advance in the extremely competitive world of research. They show that it is more than just individual performances and that teamwork and team spirit can in actual fact be part of the university.

The team of family sociologist Renske Keizer (red dress) at the Erasmus universityThe team of family sociologist Renske Keizer (red dress) at the Erasmus university

Taking a step back as a professor

At NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) they make smart decisions about the order of authors in scientific publications. That is the only way you can do justice to the scientific group work, opines director Henk Brinkhuis.­­­

‘If you sail on a large sailing boat then you need more than just a captain. You need people for the sails, the ropes and all the other individual parts of the vessel. Only then can you propel that boat forward. The same principle applies to science. In the international assessment system the focus often lies on individual performances, grants and prizes. But behind the scenes, science is nearly always teamwork. A mere individual can achieve little, certainly in my discipline.’­

‘In my career, I've always tried to help researchers advance. I do that, for example, by thinking carefully about the order of authors in scientific publications. Which young researcher is at a decisive point in his or her career? Will it help if we make that person first author? This could be a crucial push in the right direction to help a PhD obtain a tenured position.’­­­

‘This approach sometimes gets in the way of individual ambitions. Not everybody can be the first author. But at NIOZ, you need to be aware that we carry out group work, if not, it would be better for you to go and work elsewhere. And that applies to me too. For an individual grant from the European Research Council, for example, it may very well be better if a researcher does not continually operate under the wings of a professor. So, in that case, I do not put my name in the scientific publications even if I did contribute to these. This recently happened for an article about paleo-oceanography.’

Taking a step back as a professor

At NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) they make smart decisions about the order of authors in scientific publications. That is the only way you can do justice to the scientific group work, opines director Henk Brinkhuis.­­­

‘If you sail on a large sailing boat then you need more than just a captain. You need people for the sails, the ropes and all the other individual parts of the vessel. Only then can you propel that boat forward. The same principle applies to science. In the international assessment system the focus often lies on individual performances, grants and prizes. But behind the scenes, science is nearly always teamwork. A mere individual can achieve little, certainly in my discipline.’­

‘In my career, I've always tried to help researchers advance. I do that, for example, by thinking carefully about the order of authors in scientific publications. Which young researcher is at a decisive point in his or her career? Will it help if we make that person first author? This could be a crucial push in the right direction to help a PhD obtain a tenured position.’­­­

‘This approach sometimes gets in the way of individual ambitions. Not everybody can be the first author. But at NIOZ, you need to be aware that we carry out group work, if not, it would be better for you to go and work elsewhere. And that applies to me too. For an individual grant from the European Research Council, for example, it may very well be better if a researcher does not continually operate under the wings of a professor. So, in that case, I do not put my name in the scientific publications even if I did contribute to these. This recently happened for an article about paleo-oceanography.’

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