What does it mean to be a researcher in 21st century academia? (Edition 2023)


Career management

Target group

This seminar series targets PhD students, young researchers at the beginning of their academic career from all Doctoral Schools, and postdoctoral researchers. No prior knowledge is required.

It is also open to supervisors and other interested academic personnel. We reach out to all faculties (also those with less stringent doctoral schools requirements such as sciences, engineering and medicine). It is organised by an interuniversity partnership between four Flemish universities and one French-Speaking university. In this way we hope to reach a broad and diverse audience for topics that are relevant for every researcher in Belgium, regardless of his/her affiliation.


Young researchers are confronted with questions and considerations that their interest in science did not prepare them for. Today’s academic world is a complex system in an increasingly globalized social and economic context. The aim of the course is to introduce participants to the problematic nature of current-day academic life and to inform them about the structural causes of the challenges they face as young researchers, as well as to help them critically engage with, debate on, and think about ways they can contribute to improving the current state of academia.


The introductory morning aims to encourage participants to discuss and reflect on their own experiences as young researchers, and about the broader social, political and economic context of research. The first thematic session focuses on raising awareness for mental health, especially in regard to the current context and the ongoing pandemic. The following session focuses on knowledge production. The third session centres on a hands-on approach to tackling issues revolving around labour at the university, and what specific actions are undertaken within universities to improve people’s working conditions. During the afternoon of that day, participants will be encouraged to use the critical insights gained in the previous sessions to come up with concrete actions. The last session provides the opportunity to reflect on the whole of the course.


Over the past few years, numerous scholars and university personnel have expressed concerns about research deontology and ethics, increasing publication pressure, mental well-being and the changing professional environment in which academics have to work. The urgency of these concerns was recently recognized by the Flemish government in its coalition agreement: “Research shows that the mental well-being of students in higher education, including PhD students, is under pressure. Special attention is paid to this.” In response, Belgian universities have expressed an interest in raising awareness among the academic population and pointed to the Doctoral Schools as a way of accomplishing this.

This course is an initiative of the ‘21st century slow science academics’ collective that aims to raise awareness and understanding of the structural causes of the challenges facing young researchers, and help them think about ways in which they can contribute themselves to improving the state of academia. In addition to considering the mental well-being of PhD students, the course also addresses the conditions in which researchers work today, which not only affect mental health, but also raise questions about quality, ethics, deontology, norms, conducting research itself and the relationship between science and society/democracy in general. 

The introductory morning aims to encourage participants to discuss and reflect on their own experiences as young researchers, and on the broader social, political and economic context of research. The first thematic session focuses on raising awareness for mental health. The following session focuses on knowledge production. The third session centers on a hands-on approach to tackling issues related to labour at the university, and what specific actions are undertaken within universities to improve people’s working conditions. During the afternoon of that day, participants are encouraged to use the critical insights from the previous sessions to arrive at concrete actions. The last session provides the opportunity to reflect on the entire course.


All PhD students, no prior knowledge is required.

Organizing & scientific committee

This course is organised by a heterogeneous group of scholars from an interuniversity partnership between Universiteit Antwerpen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, KU Leuven, Universiteit Gent and Université catholique de Louvain: 

Kawtar El Abdellati (Universiteit Antwerpen)

Elvira Crois (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Valerie De Craene (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Universiteit Gent)

Pieter Maeseele (Universiteit Antwerpen)

Anneleen Kenis (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

Annelies Van de Ven (Université catholique de Louvain)

Sophie Samyn (Universiteit Gent)

Laura van Beveren (Universiteit Gent)

Emma Verhoeven (Universiteit Antwerpen)

Patrizia Zanoni (Universiteit Hasselt)

Contact person

Doctoranda Sophie Samyn, Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy


Course activities consist of an ‘open space technology’ session, interactive lectures, guided group discussions, and action training. 

The input of PhD students is essential for the content of the course. During the ‘open space technology’ session, participants bring forward their own experiences and reflections that provide inspiration for the subsequent lectures, discussions and action training. Furthermore, this annual course is organised by peers and former participants. Finally, participants are expected to prepare questions and discussion topics based on their reading of provided literature (chosen in consultation with the lecturers and training facilitators).


  • To gain comprehensive knowledge of current debates on a series of topics related to today's role of academic research, such as publication policies and strategies, research ethics, intellectual property regimes, mental health issues, working conditions, etc.

  • To have a critical understanding of the contemporary political economy of academic research environments and academic knowledge production more generally.                                                                                              

  • To acquire critical insight into and awareness of the relationships between academic institutions, markets and society/democracy, and of current responsibilities and societal role of academic research.

  • To formulate critical arguments and engage in interactive debates.

  • To translate the obtained awareness and insights into action in their personal academic environments.

Program Sessions

Friday 5 May, Thursday 11 May, Friday 12 May 2023

18 contact hours

Venue: Université catholique de Louvain, Ghent University, University of Antwerp

Friday 5 May 2023

Location: UCL: Woluwe Pavilion des Conferences

Topic of the day: Raising Awareness for Mental Well-Being

09h30 – 10h: Introduction

We will begin by welcoming participants and stimulating an open interactive environment through short exercises (mindfulness and ice-breaker) facilitated by the organising committee of the doctoral course.

10h – 12h30: Creating a Better Research Environment Part 1

The aim of this first session is to inquire into the problematic nature of current-day academic life through the experiences and knowledge of the participants themselves. Participants will engage with the seminar theme during the session inspired by ‘open space technology’ (OST). OST is used as a method to organise a tiny colloquium at the start of the doctoral course in order to detect recurrent themes and incentives among the participants. Participants can propose any topic related to mental health in academia which they want to address in small groups, such as work-life balance, imposter syndrome, publication pressure, inter-personal struggles within a research group, the challenges posed by global events and the precarity of research careers. Members of the organising committee of the doctoral course will help to facilitate the different discussions and help to record the main points that emerge for use in the afternoon session. The more intimate setting and bottom-up approach (theme-wise) will stimulate the interaction between participants throughout the doctoral course and create a group dynamic, facilitated by the organising committee.

12h30 – 13h30: Lunch

13h30 – 16h30: Creating a Better Research Environment Part 2

During this session, we will move from talking about the challenges in researcher mental wellbeing to thinking about what we can do to change the situation. Our guest speaker Dr. Stéphanie Gauttier from the ReMO Cost Action will engage the participants in a workshop focusing on looking inward and outward to actively develop strategies that would improve researcher mental wellbeing. We will address these in three stages:

The focus of the first part will be to reflect on how we currently manage and engage with our self-care. A self-care inventory provides the participants with information about areas we can focus on to enhance and empower early career researchers to manage their self-care for more positive results.

In the second part, we focus on communication and relationships which highly influence the potential for mental wellbeing and health in research environments. Particular attention will be paid to verbal and non-verbal listening skills and how to transfer and use these as favourably as possible with different kinds of relationships which exist in the research environment to enhance clear, transparent communication.

Finally, the last part will focus on reviewing the systemic issues which influence our mental wellbeing. This encompasses a review of many different types of systems personal and professional and how they all influence and connect to the status of a person’s mental health and wellbeing.

The group will formulate a series of good practices e.g. collective actions by staff, ways in which universities have set things in motion to help out early-career researchers, and possible tactics to keep on moving while working on structural change.

At the end of the day, connections between the experiences of early career researchers and the wider academic context will be made visible by the guest speaker Prof Hilal Lashuel. He will discuss the challenges of faculty life reflecting on the mental health struggles of different bodies within the university that are presented as isolated but are actually deeply intertwined.

Thursday 11 May 2023

Location: Ghent University, Leslokaal 5.3, PAD 1 - ingang 5, Campus Aula

Topic of the day: Knowledge production 

10h – 12h30 and 13h30 - 15h

The core of (academic) teaching and research is the production and reproduction of knowledge. Yet the context in which these take place (institutional structures as well as everyday academic practices) determine to a large extent the kind of knowledge that is produced, and which knowledge is valued or marginalised. In this session we reflect on what counts as (academic) knowledge, and by whom and under which conditions it is produced. Questions of what another university could look like start with questions of which knowledge we aim to achieve, and how this knowledge comes into being. As such, the aim of this session is to expand the way in which knowledge is produced and how knowing is constituted. Questions that will be discussed include:

  • Who is considered a knowledge producer, and where are ‘informants’, or ‘activists’, for example, positioned in this process?
  • Who produces ‘theory’ (versus ‘data’ or ‘experience’), and what counts as such?
  • Who do we produce knowledge for and whose interest do we serve when we produce knowledge?
  • When does knowledge become activism and vice versa, and who decides this?
  • What is the role of academia in relation to students, research participants, and society at large?
  • Who owns knowledge, and with whom is it shared?
  • Why do we undervalue science communication, and is activism one of many forms of science communication?
  • What role can or do citation politics, translations, or open access databases and publications play?

This day will be facilitated by dr. Sibo Kanobana.

10h – 12h: Opening lecture ‘Knowledge production from a decolonial perspective’ followed by a discussion in plenary

12h – 13h:  Lunch

13h - 14h: Participants will be divided in small groups for discussions on specific topics based on photo prompts.

14h15 – 16h: For the last part of the day, participants will be invited to reflect on certain questions related to their own research, also in groups. They will do this by creating zines. Zines are small-circulation self-published works of original and reused texts, images... and can be a powerful way to share ideas which do not fit neatly within conventional academic output.

Friday 12 May 2023

Location: UAntwerpen: Stadscampus (R112 & 231)

Topic of the day: Changing the university from within

10h – 12h30: Changing the university from within

During the session "Changing the university from within", we focus on existing actions in the Belgian academic world and more specifically on the strategies of the people behind them. We want the groups behind the actions to be heard and inspire each other for future hands-on action. During the panel we discuss issues such as decolonization, transgressive behaviour and intimidation, and racism and sexism in higher education. The aim is not to dwell on the specific issues themselves or the specific identities of those involved, but on their different actions and strategies and what they have in common.

For this day, we invite speakers such as Dounia Bourabain (UHasselt, researcher on positionality, racism and sexism in higher education), Katrien Schaubroeck (UAntwerp, feminist researcher specialised in sexual harassment in higher education), and Fien Criel cripping university, expert in institutional ableism). They all perform extra and often unpaid labour to create a more accessible, inclusive or fair version of academia. As they recount the actions they have organised or continue to organise, participants gain insights into the "do's and dont's" of change from within.

12h30 – 13h30: Lunch

13h30 – 16h30: training strategy & action planning ‘Another University is Possible’

In this closing session, led by Tractie trainers, we connect all the main questions raised in the previous sessions and integrate them into a crucial discussion on ‘how another science/university is possible’. Participants are encouraged to reflect on ways in which academia could be organised and developed differently to the benefit of all. Together with Tractie, we explore how action can help us bring about the changes we want. We will discover the different types of actions in the activists' toolkit, exchange ideas and experiences about strategic action planning and try out methods that help us create and plan effective actions. Participants will be encouraged to develop an action or campaign, which will be presented to the other participants.

Tractie is the Vredesactie trainers collective. Their hands-on trainings and workshops help groups to organise more effectively and sustainably in their struggles for change.

Registration procedure

Follow this link for the registration and waiting list. 

Please read our no show policy

Registration fee

Free of charge for members of the Doctoral Schools. The no show policy applies.

Teaching material

Before the start of the course, participants will be provided with reading materials selected in consultation with the speakers of days two and three.

Number of participants




Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

Participants will be evaluated on their attendance of all sessions, preparatory reading and active engagement in the group discussions.