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Carel Stolker: ‘Young researchers, you’re not alone’

Young researchers have been particularly affected by the coronavirus measures. They’re concerned about whether they’ll get their PhD or postdoc project finished on time, now their research has been at a standstill for months. What effect will such a delay have at the start of their academic career? And what is Leiden University doing to alleviate some of their concerns?

At the start of the corona crisis a number of practical matters had to be organised as rapidly as possible, such as how researchers could access their data from home, how they could manage running experiments in labs and whether some of the huge pieces of equipment could be left unattended now everyone had to work from home. Now that the acute phase of the crisis has passed and it is clear that the situation is likely to continue for a considerable time, other issues and problems are coming to the fore. One of these is the finding that the coronavirus restrictions are impacting PhD candidates and postdocs particularly hard. This is the outcome of an inventory by Young Academy Leiden. Below, three young researchers talk about their situation. 

Extra critical for young researchers

Karin Horsman is chair of the ‘Research in times of corona’ project group. ‘There are a number of reasons why the situation is extra critical for young researchers,’ she explains. ‘These researchers often have temporary contracts, and there’s pressure on them to complete their research project within the time specified. Some of them are also involved in teaching, and the recent transition to online teaching meant a huge amount of extra work. Added to that, many of them are at an age when they have young children; over the past months, childcare has taken up a lot of their time.’ A third point is their concerns about the future. ‘That’s nothing new for this group; every PhD candidate will undoubtedly have been wondering what the rest of his or her career will hold. But now this group may also be facing an economic crisis, and they’re worried whether, when they apply for positions in the future, they’ll be penalised for the delay or adjustments they’ve had to make to their projects.’ 

Sanne de Vet, PhD candidate, Education and Child Studies

‘My research has already been more or less at a standstill for three months. Not surprising, because one of my areas is children’s start and development at daycare, and all the crèches were shut for two months. We also visit families in their homes to film family situations and take saliva samples. None of that is possible right now. And it’s not just the delays that are a problem: some of the children we’ve been tracking have become too old for the age group we’re studying, or they’ve already started daycare, so we’ve missed part of their development that we were intending to follow. Some participants have also dropped out. I’m really worried: will I be able to deliver research that’s of a high enough quality – assuming I’m able to carry on with this study shortly? Or will I need to start with a completely new cohort, and possibly with a new research design? And how can I do that when I’m already into the second of the three years I have available?

I really do understand how complex it is for the University at the moment, but I have the feeling that the decisionmaking about research is very slow. We have to wait for general rules: green light for everyone to be able to start again. But every research project is different and it may well be that some things are already possible, under the current guidelines. As a university, you need to have confidence that people can make their own protocols and come up with a proposal for going forward. You can approve or reject the proposal, but that takes less time than how things are being done now. Researchers don’t have the time to wait, and the waiting is going to have an impact on the quality of the research.’ 

Alleviating effects of delays

Rector Carel Stolker agrees that these issues can cause a lot of stress. ‘First of all, I want to let all our young researchers know that we understand their concerns, and that they’re not alone. The problems caused by corona are very real, although, having said that, some PhD candidates and postdocs have been able to work at home little in the way of delay. But for those people who are experiencing delays, or who have other concerns, we’re taking all kinds of measures to alleviate their situation.’ Stolker is also tackling these issues with his colleagues from other universities. ‘Obviously, this crisis isn’t confined to Leiden. All the Dutch universities together are making strong appeals to the Ministry to come up with national measures for this group of academics.’

National lobby

‘At the same time, we and other universities are working with funding organisations such as NWO and ZonMW to have contracts extended,’ Horsman adds. ‘And we’ve started lobbying the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education. With postdocs, we’re often hampered by legislation that excludes an extension: these contracts are subject to a legal maximum and after that a permanent contract is the only option.’ Extending a contract for a fixed period isn’t possible under the present law. ‘We’re also asking the supervisors of these young researchers to see if they can come up with solutions to these issues too. Maybe the research design can be simplified or shortened, or you can do something about the number of articles a young researcher is expected to produce. And then we have to make sure that these researchers won’t be penalised for this later.’ Now that the University buildings are slowly opening up again, there’s another measure the University is taking: the deans of the different faculties are giving priority to young researchers with temporary contracts, so that they can pick up the thread of their research again.

Tim van Polanen, PhD candidate, History of Law

‘I have an appointment for six years, and so far I’ve been working on my PhD for eighteen months. I can do my research fine at home: the archives are closed, but a lot of sources are available digitally. My problem has been that I’m still living in my student house. I have to work, eat, relax and sleep all in my room, which is just 15 m2. After a while, the walls really do start closing in on you. And there are another six people living in my house, so it’s been really hard concentrating on my work. I talked to my supervisor and the PhD counsellor at the Law Faculty about it, and they were really helpful. Now I can work a few days a week – on my own – in the office. It may seem like a minor practical point, but it makes a big difference for me! If I could give my fellow PhD candidates a tip, it would be to talk to their manager or supervisor if they’ve got problems. It really is possible to make individual arrangements.’ 

Every situation is different

Each researcher is in a slightly different situation, as the stories of these young researchers show. This can range from not having access to a lab for experiments to not being able to have contact with your test subjects, or from having to look after children who can’t go to school or the crèche, to not having a place at home where you can work. ‘Individual arrangements are an important principle for the project group,’ Horsman explains. ‘Everyone has different needs. Some people are tearing their hair out while others can see the positive side of the situation: now, finally, they have the time and concentration to finish writing their dissertation, as the Rector has said before. That makes finding solutions extra complex.’   

Individual solutions 

But even with individual solutions, it’s still a complex puzzle, Stolker agrees. And then there’s something else: ‘Everyone understands the concerns of young researchers and the problems they’re facing, and, of course, we want to help. On the other hand, everyone in society is affected by this crisis and it’s simply not possible to avoid all the problems. And we have no idea how long it will last. As the government relaxes some measures, problems can suddenly disappear. That’s why we are now concentrating on these most urgent cases.’ 

Report problems and concerns

Stolker wants to stress to all young researchers that they should report their problems and concerns to their manager or supervisor. ‘Have a serious discussion, be open and honest about what you’re up against.’  Horsman adds: ‘The more people tell us about their individual concerns, the better idea we will have of the issues. Be clear about what the problem is because that will help us look for solutions.’ 

Bjørn Bartholdy, PhD candidate, Archaeology

‘My field is experimental archaeology, and I need to be in the lab every day for the experiments I’ve planned – including the weekend. Limited access to the labs is now allowed on weekdays, but it still means I can’t make any progress. Not only that, I also have a young son of 18 months, who can’t go to the crèche, of course. That’s another reason I haven’t been able to get on with my work over the past few months; my partner and I were able to share looking after him, but we don’t have a separate area to work in at home, so concentrating on work is a real challenge.

‘I’m already several months behind with my project. Fortunately, I can talk to my supervisor about my worries, and she understands that I don’t want to change the direction of my research just to make sure I finish on time. I want to finish what I started. That gives me some concerns because I don’t know what the possibilities are for extending my contract. I hope the University will come up with creative solutions. As an example, if a full extension isn’t possible, you can still give people access to a workplace and the library. Not everyone needs all the same facilities, so it’s a good idea to see how you can distribute the available resources as effectively as possible. At the same time, I have to say I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the people who are having to try to resolve these issues; it’s a daunting task to be faced with.’ 

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