How to trigger researchers with blinkers into action

“How can I increase the mobility of ‘my’ employed researchers? How do I get them to act proactively? What would you advise”, Yvette asks when I tell her that I help early career researchers with questions about life and career. We are standing in line after the inaugural lecture of Judith Semeijn, Noloc professor of strategic human resource management. 

As HR advisor at a university, Yvette is responsible for organizing career support and work-to-work structures for an increasing number of researchers who have to move on after their temporary research projects. She regularly worries about the growing body of temporary research staff. The immobility, the inertia of many of these researchers baffles and irritates her. They need to take action if they care about their employability!

Yvette’s responsibility is both financial and moral. Financially speaking, universities pay the welfare of these temporary researchers when they do not immediately find new employment. Morally, the university takes responsibility as a good employer to help these people find satisfying jobs. Why don’t they want to be guided by her career coaches from the work to work department? Why don’t they orient themselves more proactively on their next career step?


Sustainable employability

Yvette’s difficulty concerns sustainable employability. This notion is popular in the HR field and receives a lot of attention from government and research institutes (e.g. SoFoKles Institute). In her inaugural lecture, professor Semeijn pointed out that sustainable employability is a complex concept. Besides strategic resource management it also contains employability, working capacity, vitality, and zeal.

In the research seminar preceding the inaugural lecture, Peggy de Prins explained what this means: as an organization, you need to connect business strategy with a humane approach, i.e. you have to integrate strategic HRM with your mission and values as an organization, with a view to society, your employees and other stakeholders. There is a correlation between good employers and good employees. If an organization really puts the elements of sustainable employability into practice, it will also stimulate the natural drive to self development and self motivation of its employees. Quote Marcus Aurelius


Rather than arguing about being a good employer/employee, and getting stuck in a chicken-or-egg question about who comes first in the correlation that characterizes sustainable employability, take Marcus’ advice: just be a good man (or woman, employer or employee).

If you read this, you probably think: “Well, that’s nice and fine, but it won’t work at my university. We have tried it and researchers are just stubborn. They don’t show up at career events we organize and they don’t want to follow advice when we coach them to new jobs.”


Psychological consequenses for researchers

Yes, I hear you. As frustrating as it may be for you, this is also part of what we suppose researchers to do. We need researchers to not believe established views beforehand, but evaluate them critically, to think outside the box and pioneer on new terrain. If you want to guide and advice them on the next move in their career, the first step is to think through the psychological consequences of executing this duty on the highest level for several years.

  • Researchers have cultivated a professional habit of scepticism and criticism. Willy nilly, they have refined their skills of obstinate persistence and deep focus to push through many failed experiments, confusing data, paper rejections, etc. More often than not, these habits spill over to well-meant career advice. And inconveniently for the researchers themselves, also to the personal level, into their self-reflections and self-evaluations.
  • By the time they approach the end of their projects researchers experience peak performance pressure: they need to finish the project and get those last publications out, while at the same time focussing on developing new projects and applying / competing for grants. This is a stressful situation in itself. To broaden their career perspectives to include non-academic options, and to actively explore those requires a nearly impossible attention split. Most people simply do not have the mental space to pull that off.
  • This mixture of criticism, scepticism, top performance and stress leads to insecurity and fear. It creates blinkers that narrow the vision of these researchers. For their next career step they think in terms of scarcity and competition, a narrow trail with few winners and many, many loosers.

Do’s and don’ts to help researchers

You now have a better understanding of their starting position by the time they have come to talk with an HR person like you. Now, what can you do to help these people move on in their career? To shorten or eliminate their costly limbo time in welfare? Some do’s and don’ts to help them open up to new perspectives and pursue them proactively:

  1. Do not ‘break’ or ‘force through’ the resistance they may have when they feel sent to a career coach that does not appear to understand their situation but whose goal is to get them into a new job as fast as possible. This will only increase their opposition.
  2. Do not force them to focus immediately on securing a new job as soon as possible, or on going after a non-academic career. (They often personally identify with their research topic and with being an academic.)
  3. Do explictly recognize and acknowledge their stresslevel and the resulting blinkers. Do not stop at a verbal level here, but make sure they feel seen and understood. Researchers may be exceptionally smart, but emotionally they are all too human. They are good at understanding new information, quickly see its ramifications, and adopt appropriate strategies. Use this capacity timely! For instance, you can prevent that they enter their jobsearch blindfolded and help them take of their ‘stress-blinkers’ by training them in their pre-final year how to get the better of their stress.
  4. Allow them to relax and reminisce about what they originally enjoyed about their work and other interests. What really makes them tick, personally? Evoke this feeling of joy. Give them trust that they are allowed to dream freely, without ulterior motives on your part, or their supervisor’s, or what is supposedly the norm in academic circles.

Only then will their find new perspectives that they had not considered before, within or without academia. Only then will you appeal to their natural drive for self-motivation and self-actualization/-development. This way, you foster a good relationship with your research employees and the mutual commitment necessary for sustainable human resource management.




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