Stan van Pelt used to work as a researcher at the Donders Institute until he decided to change course and become a journalist. He has been an editor at Vox since 1 September. Stan is in charge of the science portfolio. How does he view his old field of work now? This is part 2 in a series of columns about journalist versus scientist.
18. This number stands at the end of my U-number in my employment contract as science editor. It stands for the number of appointments I’ve had at this university. What makes this one different from all the others? It’s a permanent contract.
In the past I always had temporary jobs. I started my first job in 1997, as a student assistant for biology work groups during my study. Later I held PhD and other research positions. Each extension, even if it was just for six weeks, meant a new contract every time. Sometimes I’d been unemployed for six months or worked elsewhere. Then the contract counter goes back to the start again, at least according to the ‘Flexwet’.
Numerous scientists spend half their career or longer in this way going from one temporary job to another.Research institutes don’t hand out permanent contracts easily. Only two out of five scientists have permanent employment. ‘There’s no structural financing to take people on permanently’, I was also told several times. It is this premise that has made ‘science’ an extremely competitive environment. Survival of the fittest.
Now, things are different. All in all, I’ve got about two years’ experience in journalism and suddenly there’s a permanent job for me at the university. For support and management staff at the university – 45% of all FTEs (!) – the situation seems to be completely different. When vacancies are advertised you frequently see: ‘Contract term 1 year with a view to permanent appointment’.
In my eyes this is a strange contrast. At the end of the day these euros all come out of the same university pot as the salaries for scientists. Why don’t we appoint secretaries, project leaders and student advisors using strict, competitive tenure-track procedures too? An absurd idea of course.
After all, according to my current colleagues a permanent contract after a few years of performing well in a job is just normal. It’s what you’d expect from a decent employer. For me at the moment it feels like an unheard-of luxury. But perhaps this mainly says something about how unusual the situation is that I previously considered “normal”.