‘Academic structures do not promote collaboration; you enter a funnel only intended for climbing the academic ladder.’

Jasper Sluijs is assistant professor with the Public Economic Law chair group at Utrecht University School of Law. In 2012, Jasper was awarded his PhD cum laude by Tilburg Law School, subsequent to being a Fulbright Scholar at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. At the Recognition & Rewards Festival in January 2021, Jasper felt himself to be among likeminded academics, and during the speed dating session with Rianne Letschert, he shared his experiences transitioning from practice to academia. The question is what the supposed ‘gap in his CV’ yielded him after five years’ worth of practical experience. We met with Jasper to interview him about his experiences.

Looking back on his time as a PhD candidate, Jaspers views it in a positive light. ‘I really loved delving deeply into a subject. Since my research topic (on the necessity of European broadband regulation) was highly relevant to policymaking as well as being untouched in an academic sense, I really had the chance to be part of the debate in society and fully engage with policymaking. I didn’t have to stick to my desk but was invited to speak at conferences and expert meetings. I was able to break new ground and really have an impact. At the time, I thought that this was something every PhD candidate could do.’

Jasper did experience his PhD track to be a solitary affair. ‘You’re only responsible for the work you publish and the courses you teach. I never really learned to collaborate and carry professional responsibility. Working on a PhD is like entering a funnel, and it gets even lonelier when you proceed to a post-doc.’ Jasper chose to forego post-doc opportunities and leave academia for private practice.

‘I still don’t understand why they hired me’ Jasper confesses. ‘As far as professional skills were concerned I was a novice. You might be pretty smart if you hold a PhD, but in a professional sense I didn’t have a clue. Project management, billable hours and working efficiently – these things were all completely new to me, I was slow as a snail.’

Jasper worked in consultancy, where has was expected to finish projects and draft reports on a monthly basis that he was used to spending a year on as an academic.  He learned to deal with the major financial interests of clients. ‘I learned things that I never would have in the academic world, such as collaborating with others. Only as a team will it be possible to meet your client’s demands. Academia is less focused on collaboration: you need to distinguish yourself from your peers to land that research grant or postdoc position.’

‘Consultancy showed me that if you work together, you can do much more interesting things. It improves the quality of your output, you work faster, and you engage more perspectives in your work.’

Despite a somewhat rocky start, Jasper was able to forge a career in consultancy. But this meant that he became increasingly less involved with substance, which is a primary interest to him. ‘That got me thinking. Management may be rewarding, but not without the opportunity to work on substantive issues too.’ Jasper began considering a transition back to academia and eventually ended up at Utrecht University.

‘They were willing to take gamble on me in Utrecht, that’s truly what it felt like.’

By then, Jasper had worked in private practice for five years. He found out that in academia this is referred to as ‘a gap in your CV’. ‘I gave up a permanent, well-paid position for a one-year contract. But it was what I wanted: I was in search of more substance and autonomy, and now I have the opportunity to voice an opinion without being tied to a client.’ Jasper has been with Utrecht University for nearly three years now, yet he still regularly has to explain ‘that gap in his CV’. ‘I gained a lot of relevant project management experience, so I know my stuff. Still, not having published for five years is considered more important in determining whether I can lead a major research project by external funders.’

Jasper does feel truly at home at Utrecht University. Throughout the interview he emphasises that this is not a negative tale, but one of opportunity. ‘I enjoy working here and feel appreciated for what I do. But of course I still want to move up the chain to have more meaningful impact. For now I’m trying to set a good example organically by seeking out collaboration and working in a more project-based fashion. I would love to foster sustainable change at my university, so that collaboration becomes the norm, not the exception.’

‘One of the greatest things there is, is to see the penny drop in students.’

Working solo on research only yields Jasper a modicum of satisfaction. ‘You work on something for quite some time, but the satisfaction is a lot slower in coming. A year down the line, your article is published and then that’s it.’ Jasper gains more satisfaction from collaborating during research, linking research to teaching practice and attempting to achieve societal impact in research projects. ‘One of the greatest things there is, is to see the penny drop in students. And we are doing pretty well for our students. We give a lot of assignments that they have to collaborate on, both during tutorials and as an alternative to a classic exam. But then there comes the thesis, followed by the solitary funnel taking you from PhD to postdoc to research grant and ultimately professor.’

The funnel means that many people (re-)entering academia with a non-standard CV are unable to adjust and end up leaving. ‘This leaves the group of solitary career academics over-represented, which leads to a kind of monoculture.’

When Jasper heard about the Recognition and Rewards programme, he felt acknowledged. At the Recognition & Rewards Festival he spoke with others who find it important that meaningful change take place in academia, which left Jasper feeling he was on a bandwagon. ‘I really think it’s a good development that the MERIT model is receiving attention in Utrecht at various levels, and that it is leading to action.’ It comes as no surprise to Jasper that this is only happening one step at a time. According to him, this is an organisational change that should be expected to take five to ten years. The Utrecht University website has all the latest developments concerning the Recognition and Rewards programme, including the new vision on it.

Where does Jasper see himself a decade down the line?

‘By then there should no longer be a two-track system with research on the one hand and teaching on the other, and the prevalent academic culture will prioritise collaboration. Fundamental research will still be very important, but ideally no longer in isolation. Of course you need to be able to do things on your own, but if the premise is intense collaboration, you can enrich each other as researchers.’

This also means putting other policies in place, with the incentives organised differently than now. ‘Currently people are being trained who don’t really know how wonderful it can be to work together. They distinguish themselves with solitary work. And this is not in keeping with the diversity in qualities that the modern academic truly requires.’

In the meantime, Jasper is continuing to foster cooperation and share his experiences with anyone willing to lend an ear.

This article was published in Dutch as well, see here.

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