Goodhart’s law

When a measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure. This may also apply to the PhD criterion within the tenure track system.

When a measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure. This law by the British economist Goodhart may also apply to the PhD criterion within WUR’s tenure track system. The idea behind the tenure track (TT) is that faculty members demonstrate quality in teaching, research, supervision, acquisition, and management in order to take career steps towards the rank of full professor. The requirement to supervise large numbers of PhD candidates within the TT risks making the acquiring PhD candidates a target in and of itself.

Some numbers. To be promoted, a TT-er must supervise a set number of PhD candidates simultaneously, averaged over the past three years. In the WUR departments ASG, AFSG and PSG, 6 to 7 PhD candidates are required for associate professor 1, and 8 to 10 for full professor. In the departments SSG and ESG one needs 4 to 5 and 5 to 6 PhD candidates to move up the two respective rungs of the ladder. A key point: supervision and PhD graduations before those three years don’t count.

On campus there is quite a difference in the numbers: a biologist with an office in Zodiac/Helix/Radix has to supervise almost twice as many PhD candidates as a biologist in Lumen to become a full professor. What about the rest of the Netherlands? First of all, most universities don’t work with averages but include all supervised PhDs, cumulatively over someone’s career. That makes the process less focused on continuously getting more candidates, just to be able to keep that three-year average up. Moreover, nationally the required number of candidates  is markedly lower and many universities do not even have a quantitative threshold.

The requirement to supervise large numbers of PhD candidates in order to be promoted risks making the acquiring PhD candidates a goal in and of itself

What is the rationale for the specific numbers at WUR? I haven’t found a clear answer yet. The funding system is frequently referred to. For every PhD defence a chair group receives about 67,000 euros – a premium from the government. The PhD criterion would show that the TT-er is capable of ‘leading a financially healthy group’. That is a bit of a bitter pill. Within the TT evaluation, acquisition is already a separate assessment category. What is more, no one seems to indicate that the numbers are a measure of quality as a supervisor and researcher. In fact, it is questionable whether you can guarantee quality while supervising so many PhD candidates at the same time .

And there is something else. Since 2016, the premium per PhD defence depends on the total number of PhD defences in the country – when this number goes up, universities receive less per defence. If the incentive at WUR is to maximize our PhD numbers, that’s at the expense of the whole country, including ourselves.

In 2019, the PhD criterion was deemed undesirably high by 38 WUR professors in a letter which urged the Executive Board to amend all TT-criteria. A committee has been installed to review this. A full revision takes time – understandably. In the meantime, could we just go ahead and normalise the PhD criterion in line with the rest of the country? Then we can stay focussed on the original aim of the TT: academic quality.

Lisa Becking is an assistant professor at the Marine Animal Ecology Group, a researcher at Wageningen Marine Research and a board member of the national Young Academy, partly under the auspices of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences. She has an eye for art above and below sea level.

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