Giving a voice to young academics
Maastricht Young Academy (MYA) serves and represents the interests of academics in the early to mid-stage of their career. Outgoing chair Katlijn Haesebrouck and new chair Vanessa LaPointe on the struggles this group faces, systemic problems, as well as the importance of Recognition & Rewards.
“MYA wants to give a voice to young academics,” says Katlijn Haesebrouck, herself a young academic and, indeed, outgoing chair of MYA. The organisation was founded four years ago by then rector Rianne Letschert and included 12 members, two from each faculty. Haesebrouck has been a member since 2017 and was elected chair in 2020. “We’re a diverse group,” says Vanessa LaPointe, the new chair, “but we’re all people who want to leave the place a little bit better than we’ve found it.”
MYA now counts 18 members and is organised into four teams focusing on policy, science communication, interdisciplinarity and internationalisation. Their activities include outreach activities targeted at citizens in the region, setting up a grant for interdisciplinary research, organising trainings for intercultural communication and advising the Executive Board on e.g. Covid measures.
“The policy meetings tend to be a bit dour,” laughs Haesebrouck. She was fonder of the outreach activities such as ‘Picture a scientist’, where they screened a movie on women in academia, followed by a panel discussion. “We also organised a local chapter of the global initiative ‘Growing Up in Science’, a lecture series during which e.g. Rianne [Letschert] talked frankly about her failures, struggles and doubts – which was really helpful and inspiring to many of us.”
Young(ish) academics to the fore
While they are often invited to collaborate with the Executive Board, MYA also offers unsolicited advice on pressing topics in the form of position papers or letters. “The leadership of UM seems keener than most to listen to and engage with young academics’ concerns,” says LaPointe.
Despite the name, LaPointe is not that keen on the word young: “It’s really more about the stage of your career you’re at relative to finishing your PhD.” The uniting factor is the set of problems faced by MYA members and those they represent. Haesebrouck says she has “learnt a lot just from talking to other MYA members about their experiences but also how different faculties and universities do things.”
“It was actually quite comforting to see that my problems aren’t that unique,” explains LaPointe. “Obviously everyone has their own set of circumstances, but from what we’ve seen, young academics all struggle with the workload – all the other problems tend to derive from that.” Among those corollaries, she cites a lack of time and energy to spend on grant applications or professional and personal development.
Vanessa LaPointe is an Associate Professor at the MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine in FHML. Her group works at the intersection of biology, engineering and medicine to create cell-based therapies. She joined the Maastricht Young Academy in 2020 and was elected chair for 2022.
Universal excellence too high a bar
“It’s not only about the volume – although that is a problem too – but also the increasing diversity of tasks we have,” says LaPointe. “Even five years ago the tasks were much narrower: mostly research, some education and a little bit of management – now you have open science, outreach, valorisation, societal impact, a general sense of service to the community... People might enjoy some or all of those, but end up spreading themselves too thin and becoming anxious.”
“It’s also roundabout the time when people have children and need to start caring for elderly relatives,” adds Haesebrouck. “And many in our situation try to build a life abroad, which comes with its own set of challenges. Life for young academics is more challenging than those who have moved on to management positions remember it – which sometimes makes it difficult to communicate those problems.”
Recognition & Rewards – really, really
LaPointe also points out that people are promoted according to quantifiable criteria; chiefly scientific publications. Often, they are neither selected nor trained for the skills required in the next career step. “Being a PhD doesn’t prepare you for e.g. supervising students or managing teams.” A call for both relevant training and a re-evaluation of how we evaluate academics: “That is where Recognition & Rewards can be really important.”
MYA was an active discussion partner for Recognition & Rewards. “It holds great promise to help,” says LaPointe, “but the key will be in the implementation.” Haesebrouck agrees: “It’s a fantastic initiative to reward people along different axes, whether research, outreach, teaching or leadership – but it shouldn’t mean that people feel compelled to excel in every arena. Asking people to do it all is asking for trouble.”
Launching from a strong foundation
Are they themselves – both also members of the University Council – not falling into the same trap? LaPointe laughs and agrees that it’s “a self-inflicted problem… MYA takes about a day a week, but I should stress that members are volunteers and can be as involved as their other commitments allow. Of course, it’s tough but the progress we’ve made gives me the emotional energy to keep going and not get cynical.”
Looking back on her tenure, Haesebrouck is “proud we’re on the radar now. People know who we are and how to reach us.” Among the more mundane achievements of the last years was drafting MYA statutes, which she describes as a necessary but drawn-out and surprisingly arduous process. “I’m glad to leave MYA in good shape and in the hands of such a capable group.”
LaPointe looks forward to building on that foundation – and to post-pandemic interaction. “When we discussed academic citizenship online, the term immediately connected with so many people. So one of the first things will be defining it together within our community, town hall style. I look forward to engaging with people. I want people to know that we want to hear them and to amplify their voice.”
Katlijn Haesebrouck joined the School of Business and Economics (SBE) as an Assistant Professor in Accounting in 2016. Her research focuses on behavioural management accounting. Katlijn is a founding member of the Maastricht Young Academy and served as chair during the last two years of her membership (2020-21).
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