Radboud University

Blog 6: What defines an academic?

What is an academic? Do you only count as an academic if (part of your) work is doing academic research? Or can you also solely focus on science communication, outreach, and teaching, within an academic setting? Since obtaining my PhD in 2016, I have done exactly this. Being employed as a postdoc in a research group, I did not do any data collection or analysis, nor did I write a first author paper. Instead, I developed myself as science communication and outreach manager for several European research consortia and have been actively involved in many academic courses and teaching activities. This unique profile fits my talents and interests and is a good addition to the expertise we have within our research group. But it has also been a constant struggle to define my role, function profile and career perspectives.

This year, I finally obtained a tenure-track assistant professor position with a primary focus on teaching. A new career track that is currently being developed in the Radboud University Medical Center, and that is being piloted in our department. This function at least recognizes and rewards part of my work. It allows me to have a permanent position, and it provides perspective. I believe that the Recognition & Rewards movement has been a great contributor to this, in addition to a lot of internal political work by my supervisors.

Several challenges remain, however. First, the exact criteria for an ‘assistant professor with a focus on teaching’ are far from clear and currently still under development. What am I evaluated on? The tendency of university boards to focus on publications and grants is still very present. Should I publish about education and obtain teaching grants, even though I have no background in educational research? I have noticed that obtaining a teaching innovation grant was a huge help in being taken seriously in academia, much more than positive course evaluations for instance.

Thankfully, I was allowed to write my own five-year plan, to set goals that fit the direction that I want to go in. Still, it felt a bit odd to include science communication objectives in a tenure-track teaching plan. What does an academic science communication career path look like? Nobody knows. Science communication is still mainly the work of either researchers that do this in their free time, or of communication professionals that are considered non-academic personnel. It is up to me to define reasonable objectives and milestones, without having any examples.

So, all in all, I’m piloting my way through the new Recognition & Rewards system. I am grateful for the opportunities this has provided for me; I wonder if my position would have been possible 10 years ago. Recognition & Rewards also helps me to identify myself as an academic, despite the non-traditional job profile. At the same time, it is a constant struggle to find my path through the existing system of job profiles, contracts, and career tracks. The recognition is there, but the system for reward is still very vague.

~ Jeanette Mostert