Our member Pablo Valdivia is a Professor at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen and director of the “Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies”. In this article, he shares his personal view about his professional career in The Netherlands.
My name is Pablo Valdivia. I’ve been living outside Spain for almost 19 years now. I left the country when it was the fifth largest economy in the world because I was offered a job and payment for my postgraduate studies at the University of Nottingham (UK) before finishing my degree. At that time, I was 20 years old and I was disappointed with the lack of structural opportunities offered by the Spanish university, an area in which I wanted to work. When the opportunity to go to the UK arrived, I didn’t think it twice.
For personal reasons, while I was living in the UK and just during the final phase of my PhD, I started going back and forth between Nottingham and Venice where my partner was finishing her studies. Then she got a permanent position in the European institutions in Brussels. So, after a period of travelling between Nottingham and Brussels, I applied for the first available position as close as possible to her and left the UK to go to The Netherlands.
I arrived at the University of Amsterdam in 2010, following the famous eruption of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that collapsed air travel across most of Europe. In fact, I was almost unable to attend my job interview in Amsterdam due to flight cancellations. I got the position of Full Professor of Spanish Literature, which I applied for (Universitair Docent in Dutch) and all the attention from the University. They let me negotiate which days I wanted to teach, how many days a week I would spend doing research, and I was even paid the first months of rent for a brand new studio, which they managed for me, in the Oost district of Amsterdam.
In addition, they gave me the opportunity to develop my own courses and to concentrate my teaching in such a way that I could live in Brussels from Thursday evening until Tuesday morning and give my lessons from Tuesday evening until Thursday morning. While I was in Brussels, I was locked up writing and doing research, so in less than a year my scientific output tripled. I was immediately allowed to participate in administrative committees, train myself and, most importantly, have a pool of resources at my disposal for travel and stays. I remember that during my first year I gave 14 lectures in different countries. Sometimes I look back and don’t know how I did it. It was an excellent time because, although I didn’t know anyone at the University of Amsterdam before, from the very beginning I felt welcome by my colleagues. Especially by the Hispanist Antonio Sánchez Jiménez and the English literature professor Rudolph Glitz. I learnt a lot and quickly. Above all, I soon understood the operating procedures of the higher education system in The Netherlands and this clear awareness about the system and its working mechanisms allowed me to strategically design my career development. The system in the Netherlands has something I find excellent: the clarity of criteria of the UFO and the existence of a guaranteed system of committees to which you can always appeal if you disagree with the decision taken by a particular body or person.
So, I tried not to neglect any of the many opportunities I was presented with. In five years, I went from UD (“Profesor Titular” in the Spanish system) to UHD (“Associate Professor” in English which has nothing to do with the term “Profesor Asociado” in Spanish). At the end of the summer of 2015, while I was one day quietly at our house in Brussels, I received a call from a headhunting agency to inform me that the University of Groningen was very interested in my profile for a Chair of European Culture and Literature. The conditions they told me about were so good that I thought it was a joke and hung up the phone more suspicious than satisfied. Later on, I received an email confirming that the job offer was true. The process of interviews and other tests that I had to go through was quite long, but understandable, because hiring a Full Professor (Hoogleraar in Dutch, “Catedrático” in the Spanish system) is an important decision. In The Netherlands the Full Professor has a Chair, which means that the department is linked to the Full Professor profile and he/she is the only person who has the legal right to supervise doctoral theses. A more recent standard allows some UHDs (“Associate Professors” who meet very specific requirements) to supervise theses, but only on a temporary basis. On the other hand, professors are also line managers, whose responsibility requires them to make a wide range of decisions, from hiring and firing to determining the lines of research on which the entire Chair team plans to work.
At the end of 2015 I obtained my Chair and officially started my work at the University of Groningen in June 2016. I was 34 years old. During the first year in Groningen, I was going back and forth between Groningen and Amsterdam. During that academic year, a position that interested my partner was advertised at the University of Groningen, so she applied and was awarded. After more than ten years of coming and going, we were finally able to settle down in Groningen. Now she works in the Rectorate as Senior Advisor and I work in the Faculty of Arts.
In short, my experience in The Netherlands has been very positive. In Spain I would never have been able to become a Professor before the age of 35. Here, despite the difficulties and deficiencies that the system has, it was possible thanks to the existence of a system that values and rewards professional merit. There are many challenges that southern Europeans, in particular, face every day: nepotism, xenophobia, racism or discrimination. Like everyone else, I also deal with these attitudes in the working environment, but at the same time, I must recognize that there are clear instruments for addressing these problems. Intolerance is not unique to a country, so I consider it more valuable to combat it on a day-to-day basis and with the necessary effort to improve the system. From this position, I believe that we can move forward with a reasonable degree of optimism which, in my case, is based on certain facts. For example, I am not Dutch and at the end of 2017 I was appointed Director of the “Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies”, which is the most responsible position a literary scholar can hold in this country. Another one, I am currently a scientific advisor of the “Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences” and my passport is not looked at to determine the validity of my professional criteria.
This has been my background and experience so far in The Netherlands. I have seen many things and participated in many of the committees in the Dutch higher education system. There are many things I do not like and cannot change. I do not want to present a sweetened vision of reality because such a paradise does not exist in any social or professional environment, nor in any country. However, I must admit that The Netherlands has offered me professional and personal development opportunities which in Spain are structurally impossible because they do not exist.
The main advice I can offer to all those who want to build a career in The Netherlands is to invest time and effort in understanding how the system works (system awareness) and, most importantly, to strike a balance between your aspirations and how to meet the criteria that can make them a reality. Fantasy minds, excessive ego, analytical distortion are bad travel companions for understanding the intricacies of bureaucratic, professional and social mechanisms everywhere. Between 2010 and 2020, after ten years already in the Netherlands, I have seen many, many talents lost through arrogance and self-sufficiency. They are what I call the ‘suicides of the academic career’. The Dutch system is essentially a very complex mechanism based on interdependence and the generation of opportunities. At the same time, this system constantly gives you back an image of the kind of professional you are, as if it were a mirror. Some people don’t accept or don’t like the image they see of themselves in the mirror and they break it, they get frustrated and full of resentment. There are others who stare at that mirror and think that maybe they can do something to improve every day. They are the ones who know their weaknesses and can address them with all sorts of help on the way to their desired destination.
Thanks to The Netherlands, I have been able to develop professionally and personally in a way that I would never have imagined. On the other hand, I doubt that I will spend my whole life here: who knows what other professional adventure awaits me just around the corner. The important thing is to never stop improving and to keep doing what you are passionate about.
Translation: NOELIA MUÑOZ MARTÍN