In 2021 it was 10 years ago that I took over the chair position of the Plasma & Materials Processing (PMP) group at the Department of Applied Physics of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). Since then I have been leading this research group and I thought that it was a good time now to look back and reflect about this period and more particularly about my way of academic leadership. For those interested, there are a couple of things I want share.
First, it is however good to give some details about the PMP group and the way things were organized within our department in this period. Especially readers from abroad might not be very familiar with the way academic research groups are organized at Dutch universities. Obviously, also differences exist between universities in the Netherlands and even within the departments of our own university. Moreover, the way things are organized is continuously in flux. But below there is a brief description how it worked at our department so far.
The Plasma & Materials Processing group is one of the so-called capacity groups (directly translated from the Dutch name “capaciteitsgroep”) of the Department of Applied Physics. Currently the department has 13 of such groups. These capacity groups differ in size but typically they consist of a couple of principle investigators (faculty members) and a number of PhD students and postdocs. They are often also supported by a secretary and one or more technicians (support staff). The size of the group can therefore be quite considerable (as has been the case for the PMP group) and at other universities they might be labeled as “units” or even “departments”. For PMP, the group has typically consisted of the following over the past years: 4-5 principal investigators (full time), 1-2 principal investigators (part-time, i.e. also employed in industry), roughly 20 PhD students, 10 postdocs, 2 secretaries, and 5 technicians. Furthermore, final year MSc students also spend 10-12 months in the group before graduating. Note that in the Netherlands a MSc degree is required before starting as a PhD student.
The raison d’être of a research group at a university – and hence of the PMP group – is basically two-fold:
- The generation of knowledge
- The dissemination of knowledge
The generation of knowledge is done by carrying out research, the dissemination of knowledge involves presentation and publication of the research results, the collaboration with industry and societal organizations etc., and of course – most importantly! – education of students. The education involves basic physics classes, but also specialized classes related to the research topic of the group. See the objective and the mission of the PMP group below to learn about that.
The PIs of a research group all share responsibility about the performance of the group in terms of research and education. This means that all PIs have their own line of research and contribute to the educational programs provided. The PIs also share responsibility about organizational and financial aspects. This means, for example, that the PIs take care of their own project acquisition, i.e. writing proposals to acquire funding for their research from funding organizations (such as the Dutch Research Council NWO) or from industry. Yet, the prime responsibility for the overall performance lies at the position of the group chair, often referred to as group leader. This group chair serves as primus inter pares although organizationally things have been quite more hierarchal in the past.
During the past 10 years that I served as group chair, there are a few principles I practiced which turned out to work well for the group and for myself. Of course, I also learned many things – sometimes the hard way! – and I found out what is really important and what could be optimized. As said, I’m happy to share some of that for those that are interested.
Investing in people and careers
Obviously, the people are the most important “assets” in the research group. If you really want to achieve something you will have to invest in them. Perhaps it sounds trivial but I’m not sure everybody in academia understands this. With education belonging to our prime business, we of course invest in our students and postdocs through educating them in our field of engineering and science. But as important is investing in them in many other ways. It all boils down to putting their personal growth central. And this not only holds for the students and postdocs in the group, it holds also for the support staff and even for fellow PIs. In my opinion, as a leader, you provide service to those people that are working with you. You facilitate the development of their skills and make sure they can build up a successful career. If the people that work with you flourish, you will flourish yourself. This holds at all levels: also for a PI with his/her students or for PhD students that work with undergraduates, etc.
It is also essential to attract and keep (!) the right people. Due to all kind of reasons, this is not a simple thing. On the fellow PI level, you need to try to attract scientists that are very good and that could outperform yourself. I think you should never have your choices influenced by some fear that this might happen: it is a good thing to have people around you that are very bright and it is very rewarding to contribute to their personal development. It also means that you should spot talented people early and try to keep them, at least as long as it also in the interest of themselves. This is perhaps somewhat easier in a small country like the Netherlands where it is not uncommon that a MSc student continues as a PhD student in the same group and where it is even possible for a PhD student to find a faculty position (and become a PI) in that same group afterwards.
I had the privilege to be in the position to attract some very talented people as PIs either with a full time or a part-time position. I also had the privilege to play a role in building their career, for example by making sure they got promoted to a next level as swiftly as possible. The result is that we have a rather young and dynamic team of PIs now, all very strong in their field and all with a lot of promise for the future. I’m also happy that I could contribute to the career of quite a lot of talented young researchers and in several cases they were able to start a successful academic career. My experience is that this is not something that happens easily by itself. Having people embarking on a successful academic career requires careful planning and also paying a lot of attention to building their curriculum vitae. This not only involves publishing sufficient high-quality papers but also making sure they are well known in the community, contributing to their international experience, having them to apply for personal grants, and nominating them for awards.
A related aspect that I consider very important is showing leadership. This is also not so easy as it might sound. Obviously, as a chair of a group one should not act as a boss of the group. That would really be the wrong starting point. As said, as a leader one should provide service to those people that are working with you. This does not mean that you make everybody happy all the time in the short run. If one wants to do that in his/her job, it is better to start selling ice cream. It can mean that you have to make tough decisions. Yet the interest of the group and its members should always be placed central. It is very much about setting the example (“leading by example”), being consistent and reliable, and having your eyes and ears open. Of course, it is also important to have a vision for the future.
In academia, I don’t think that it works if one tells what others should do. I consider that not academic. People should make up their own mind and find out for themselves how to do that and make the best choices. From making mistakes one learns the most. But it is not that people should be left fully to themselves and it is helpful when others give the example or “an example”. As a matter of fact, when growing to my current position, I always had people that I can considered as my example. Obviously, these were different individuals over the years. Setting the example, also means “practice what you preach”. One needs to show initiative and you need to go first when trying to introduce something new. A good example will inspire others to follow. That is another aspect that you expect from a leader: that he/she inspires others.
What is also very important is communication. Personally, I think this is real pitfall for leaders. I think it easily happens that the communication starts failing at some point. For yourself, all your ideas and decisions are perfectly clear and it becomes sometimes hard to imagine that things are not so obvious for your co-workers. It can easily become difficult to relate yourself to what others experience and know. Communication takes a lot of time. So for a busy person operating on routine for a large part, it is logical to start skipping over communicating important things. Again, if you want to implement something or make an important decision, I think it is essential that you try to take people along with the mental journey you make yourself. Know however also that communication will never be perfect. Realize that you will basically always fail to some extent. Finally, I want to come back to keeping your ears and eyes open. When doing that, be open for criticism. Make sure you solicitate the views of others, especially also those views that oppose your own. Spend a lot of time reflecting and always question your own point of view. Well, I guess these are some important general lessons for life as well.
Aiming for (physics with) impact
Becoming successful in academia also means setting ambitious goals. This holds for every individual PI for both education and research but it also holds very much so at the research group level. The nice thing of a research group as we have it in Eindhoven is that you have several PIs working together and that they all have their own interests, skills, and strengths. This means that you can really build a group in which the PIs can be complementary and where PIs can also easily learn from each other. It means that the performance of the group as a whole can be much better than just the sum of the performances of the individual PIs. Personally, I even think that this is very much the strength of the Dutch academic system. As a PI you don’t have to be a top scientist, top teacher ánd top manager all in one person. It is more important that the group of people is complementary to each other such that everyone can excel in his/her specialisms while there is respect for each other’s preferences and choices. Obviously, it does also require some good inspirational leaders who provide service to the community and who lead by example.
My aim was to lead the group by aiming for physics with impact. In the first place this means teaching BSc and MSc students about physics and show them how fascinating science and technology is (e.g. read here and here about how we implemented challenge based learning in one of our classes). PhD students are being trained to become good researchers in the field of applied physics and its related technologies. Here the aim is to trigger a critical but constructive attitude, make them independent and creative thinkers, and convince them that every individual can achieve a lot when having the right mindset. But leading a research group that aims for impact – in our case for physics with impact – also means that you have to set some targets. High quality of the work is essential and this target should never be comprised. Things do not have to be excellent all the time but setting a high standard is key. At the same time, one should not forget about generating real and sufficient output. In the past 10 years, I have been tracking the output of the group in several ways, e.g. in terms of MSc and PhD degrees as well as the number of publications and patent applications. In the figure below I share an overview of the past 10 years. Tracking these numbers does not mean that we would be focused in reaching certain target values while being blind for other aspects. It just provides some numerical input which is very helpful when reflecting about the performance of the group. It provides a better means to make adjustments in your approaches in an early stage when you feel it is relevant.
Regarding the impact through the quality of the research, I’m personally not so convinced that this can be measured by mainly looking only at the impact factor of the journals where the work is published in. I think that the impact factor is not a very good metric as it mostly reflects the situation in the short term. There is certainly something about quality in the impact factor but to me it also says a lot about what is “fashionable” in research. To really say something about the quality of the research it is important to do a more in-depth citation analysis (see the example in the figure below). This is only something that can only be done well in retrospect. With such analysis the output can be considered from various perspectives and this is something that I consider essential. And although I don’t think it should be given too much emphasis, I certainly think it is important to draw lessons from it. By the way, as a side note: although I think it is important to start recognizing and awarding scientists also in other ways than through publication indicators as brought forward by the DORA initiative, I do think it is valuable and important to consider these publication indicators too.
What is harder to measure, but what I consider as important as the direct scientific impact is the impact that we have as a research group on developments in industry and in society. It is good to realize that people in industry do read publications (but not necessarily the ones in the top-ranked journals) and that they might use the information without ever citing the work. I noted that people from industry often look up PhD dissertations which are made available publicly by the university. There have been several occasions in which I visited a company and saw our publications or dissertations laying on someone’s desks in the office or next to their experimental equipment in the lab.
There exist several indicators that can give insight into the impact outside the field of science. The impact on industry can for example be derived from indicators such as joint patent applications with industry, transfer and licensing of intellectual property, publications in which people from industry are involved as co-authors, projects with industry as well as the direct funding acquired from industrial partners, etc. To my opinion, as the PMP group we haven’t done bad in these aspects at all and this was (for a part) due to the fact that these aspects were given special attention. Collaboration with industry has always been important for our group and it has made us also financially healthy over the years. Moreover, through such collaborations it is possible to make real impact. Several of our “inventions” have been transferred to industry and we have been able to strongly support our industrial partners with their challenges and innovations. It is often not easy to make this clearly visible and tangible, not in the last place as industrial partners often don’t want to disclose too much information as they consider such information competition sensitive . Yet, I can say that several companies made important business through our collaborations. Some small companies might not exist (anymore) when this interaction would have been absent, although obviously their business depends also on so many other aspects as well of course. Our “inventions” can be found back in several “products” that one can buy, being it PERC solar cells, PECVD equipment for solar cells and batteries, ALD equipment , biasing power supplies, etc. As you can see, this transfer in knowledge has been highlighted at several places in this blog.
Stimulating initiative and creativity
A final aspect that I would like to highlight is that I consider it important that a research group stays lively in the initiatives that are undertaken and that creativity is fostered as much as possible. In my opinion, in academia we should “renew” or even try to “reinvent ourselves” continuously in all kinds of ways. One should not become a “factory” that produces people with academic degrees like a conveyor belt and doing the same research tricks over and over again. This means that we should explore new research directions just beyond the edge of our own research domain all the time using our strength in our own domain as a starting point. As a research group we have made a large shift over the last 25 years in a gradual fashion. We started off as a real plasma physics group with little material expertise but now the materials research is very prominent. Through projects on plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) and plasma-enhanced atomic layer deposition (PEALD) we have become a major worldwide player in the field of atomic scale processing (and not always involving plasmas) while our focus on advanced studies of plasma species and plasma-surface interactions strengthened our research on molecular conversion. We are also continuously exploring new application domains. Our research on energy conversion and storage has been expanded to fields such as perovskite solar cells, Li-ion batteries and (plasma) catalysis whereas our research on nano(opto)electronics involves now also studies in the field of photonics and quantum technology.
It is also important to organize events. This should go beyond the involvement in the organization of conferences, which is of course important too. Over the years we organized several one or few day meetings to highlight our research but also to provide service to the community and to introduce newcomers from research institutes and industry. The topics of these meetings ranged from fundamentals of ALD to ALD4PV and from Area Selective Deposition to ALD for 2D materials. Together with Prof. Gregory Parsons, I also started the ALD Academy initiative with the aim to educate students and professionals on the principles, applications and future advancements of ALD and related atomic-scale processes. With our group we also try to put emphasis on generating insightful images, animations and videos. As a matter of fact, I recognized that this is something very educational for students to be involved in: trying to clearly express your research in a graphical way stripping it from all side aspects such that the focus is really on the basics. Some of these images and animations can be found back in the image library on this blog and on our YouTube channel. Mentioning this blog, this AtomicLimits blog is another example of an initiative from our group that allows for a lot of creativity. The ALD database and ALE database are services to the community which are also helpful for our own research and the rest of the blog posts I leave to the reader to explore him/herself. I do want to highlight that this blog has been recognized as a great tool for science communication by the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Science communication is another instructional experience for scientists!
I would like to thank all principal investigators as well as all other past and current group members of the Plasma & Materials Processing group for contributing to the group spirit and to the overall group performance. Special thanks go out to my predecessors Prof. Richard van de Sanden and Prof. Daan Schram.
See also the group page on LinkedIn