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Hanneke Hulst on realistic expectations for researchers: ‘Let’s stop expecting people to be experts at everything’

‘Am I setting a good example myself?’ Hanneke Hulst wonders. As Recognition and Rewards project leader, she maintains that we should stop expecting researchers to be experts at everything, even though she herself keeps a lot of balls in the air.

Besides her work for Recognition and Rewards, Hulst also plays an active role in the Young Academy, and since 2021 she has been Professor of Neuropsychology and Department Head in the Health, Medical and Neuropsychology section. Even though she spends sixty per cent of her time on management tasks and teaching, in the remaining time she is pursuing her research on improving the cognitive functions of MS patients. ‘I enjoy all  these different activities; I soon get bored and I need new things to keep myself occupied.’ 

Publications as holy grail

In her work ethic, Hulst is inspired by her PhD supervisor Jeroen Geurts, now Rector of the Vrije Universiteit. ‘He truly was a man of many talents: he wrote books, and was on the radio. When I looked at him, I thought: wow, I want to be like that too.’ Geurts soon asked her to join the new Recognition and Rewards team, of which he was one of the initiators. ‘He was one of the authors of the position paper on the topic, so I got involved right from the outset.’   

The idea that researchers should be assessed across a broader range of skills seems perfectly logical to Hulst. ‘Why do we only look at the number of publications or how much funding researchers bring in? Why is that the holy grail? There’s so much more to the job of a researcher.’

‘Why is the number of publications or how much funding a researcher brings in the holy grail?’

Teaching, for example, or communicating the results of research to the general public in the form of a book or a podcast. These are all currently expected of researchers, Hulst stresses, but they are not always included in their performance assessments. ‘The upshot of this is that you have to be able to do all of these things, but it’s just not possible to do everything a full hundred per cent. Let's stop expecting all the many and varied skills to be embodied in one person; it’s better to diversify and make sure that all these different skills are present within a team. If we do that, we’ll be encouraging researchers to work together rather than trying to get them all to fit the same mould.’ 

Academia isn’t a machine

 Hulst is in her element in the academic world.  ‘I’m intellectually challenged, and I can have an impact by studying different problems. But I also see a lot of work stress and uncertainty in the young generation of researchers about a permanent contract. As a result, many new postdocs leave the academic world to pursue a career elsewhere. ‘I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing, but I really would like them to see the academic world as a serious option;  not as a machine where you have to produce paper after paper, or get a funding application out of the door at breakneck speed, but as an environment where people can develop their talents and inspire a new generation of scientists.’

‘I see work stress and uncertainty among young researchers about a permanent contract.’  

Concrete steps

Restoring academia as an attractive workplace for young researchers: what will it take to make that possible? ‘First of all, there has to be support for Recognition and Rewards. We need to make sure that all levels of academia understand just how important this is. It's going in the right direction. It is now a national and even an international movement. In my department, everyone knows about it, but that’s because I talk about it a lot.’

Hulst is keen to take concrete steps, which is no mean feat in a world where theory reigns. ‘I want to experiment, introduce new policies through trial and error. During P&D interviews, for example, not asking any more about the number of articles a researcher has written, but how they contribute to the aims of the institute and the department where they work. It also means taking seriously those people who want to pursue an alternative career path, for example within teaching. It’s important for academics to realise that they are part of a bigger picture, and that they think about how they fit into that picture.’

‘Management isn’t just something you do as a sideline.’

Another concrete step: ‘Give everyone who has a managerial role a leadership training course so they have the chance to develop the skills to do the job well.’  Hulst herself took a Personal Leadership course with the Topvrouw organisation, and she works with a coach to reflect on difficult decisions. ‘Management is a major part of my job and I want to show how you can be a good leader in a healthy culture. But that’s not just something you do as a sideline; you need to devote attention and time to it.’

Dissertation written in the garage

As much as she enjoys her work, Hulst sometimes cannot avoid the pressure of her new position. 'As an escape, I go horseriding three times a week, on Queen, a black forestry horse. When I go into her stable after a tough working day, all my worries often disappear.' It doesn’t always work right away. ‘If I'm stressed, she also gets jittery: a horse mirrors how you feel. That's confrontational, but also something you can learn from.'

‘We spent our evenings together, with my partner working on cars while I typed my dissertation.’ 

It's not only on the heath in Hilversum that she's able to unwind, but also with her partner, two cats and three chickens in Huizen. 'Mark and I met while I was doing my PhD. He’s very practical and likes tinkering with cars. He made me a little desk in the garage so I could write my dissertation there. That’s where we spent our evenings together, with him working on cars and me typing articles. Each of us was absorbed in a different world, but we were still able to talk to one another between times.' Even now that her dissertation is finished, there are times when she cannot avoid spending the evening working. 'Then I always try to choose the fun, content-related tasks, simply because I get a lot of pleasure from that kind of stuff.’  

‘Sometimes you have to work overtime, but it shouldn’t be the norm.’    


The advent of Recognise and Rewards coincides with a generational shift; young researchers do not simply accept overtime as inevitable, nor do they  take a poor work-life balance as a given. 'That’s really different from when I started as a PhD candidate 15 years ago. I think it’s a good development, but on the other hand I hope we can also keep some flexibility. Sometimes you do have to work overtime to write a revision for a paper, or get the final details for your teaching right, although I completely agree that it shouldn’t be the norm. There’s a lot more awareness that now, as well.' It’s something people think about seriously these days.

Recognition and Rewards will help here too, she believes; nobody will be expected to do everything any more. ‘It does mean, though, that we will have to learn to make choices and let go of the idea that we have to be able to do it all. As project leader for Recognition and Rewards at the Institute of Psychology, that’s going to be my priority in the coming years.’

Interview: Anne Holleman
Photo's: Suédy Mauricio

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