Rector wanted


The contract for my current postdoc expires on December 1st. Over the past couple of months I've been applying for jobs, looking to become an assistant professor.

These kinds of job interviews are often conducted like speed dates with an inbuilt numerical disadvantage. Three to six individuals who, unlike the applicant, all know each other, spend thirty to forty-five minutes firing questions at you, until you're suddenly told: “The time is up. Do you have any further questions you need to ask?”

Before every interview I listened to the number ‘Solicitere’ ('Applying for a Job', in Dutch) by a band called the Janse Bagge Bend. A punk song full of nihilistic lyrics about a dire job market sung in the dialect of the Dutch province of Limburg. Translated into 1980s slang it would go something like this: “Yer prospects fer the few-cher are nuffin short of crap. Even with that HE qualy, what you worked so bloody hard at. [...] On the dole, that's probly where you're gonna spend the next few years.” It was my way of indulging in a little bit of expectation management.

Although I don't expect to spend the next few years ‘on the dole’, the step up to assistant professor is proving a challenge. The positions are often fairly specific for a generalist like myself – or should I say ‘multidisciplinary talent’? In terms of length, a fair number of job titles come in somewhere between half a sentence and a haiku, like this one: Assistant professor in Remote and In-situ Monitoring of River Droughts and Floods.

Whereas in other sectors you can't find staff for love nor money, there's more specialist academic talent out there than there are jobs. Under the motto ‘for every vacancy there's some PhD character’, the job requirements are many and varied: a PhD in field X, Y articles published in top journals, a number of programming languages. Because I usually couldn't check all the requirements, I'd just give it my best shot:

“Did you write that letter already? Seventy-four letters!”

That's why I started looking at more general vacancies – they seemed less out of reach. Fewer specific, technical requirements, but more soft skills. Among the assistant prof positions I spotted a gem: ‘Rector’ at TU/e – a short but powerful job title.

And why not? TU/e seeks an ‘outstanding scholar’ (I'm awesome) who can build on the strengths of TU/e (I know this place inside out) and can encourage effective collaboration between research, education and impact (I know plenty of teaching staff, researchers and canteen staff). Moreover, I'm completely authentic (exhibit one: this article), I'm approachable (and cuddly) and I'm someone who 'connects' (my tweets are great). Inspiring? Of course! Who doesn't recognize themselves in terms like these – you don't even need a PhD.

“Hey, did you write that letter already? Seventy-eight letters!"

In what sense ‘connects’? The ad didn't specify. I think it means you have to find a good balance between the big bucks and the people at your university. Suppose a group of students holds a demonstration against Shell and next thing you know, they are being manhandled into paddy wagons and charged. As a university, I don't think you'd be getting any brownie points for connecting. When you've got students at a couple of departments who are keen to work for these big companies and other students holding up placards, the fact that these companies are paying big bucks doesn't mean you should wash your hands of the second group.

I'm not going to apply for the rectorship just yet. I've got another iron in the fire and hope to announce some good news before too long. And even though the ad for the rectorship emphasizes soft skills, the position is still a genuinely academic one: you don't get a permanent contract as a rector, just a temporary appointment for four years. We're all in the same boat. “Did you write that letter already?”

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