The career of ... Elaine Mak


2001 graduation from Erasmus University Rotterdam
2003 Master's from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris
2008 PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam
2016 appointment as professor at Utrecht University
2023 appointment as dean of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance at Utrecht University

Make choices out of curiosity

Portret Elaine Mak
Image: Bas van Hattum

After a management role, can I ever go back to education and research? This is one of the questions that Elaine Mak considered before applying for the role of dean. She took the plunge and, since September, she has been at the helm of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance (REBO).

Maybe after I’ve been a dean I’ll want to do something completely different but, luckily, the University is committed to giving people the opportunity to switch between different activities and career paths. Who knows, maybe I’ll soon be an example of someone who’s successfully managed to switch between management, research and education. 

Three professors of law
If it was a book or film it would be a bit far-fetched but for Elaine it’s a reality: she is one of identical triplets and all three sisters are professors of law. All in different cities. It’s brilliant fun having two sisters the same age as me. But it’s also good, and in some ways liberating, that we’ve all gone our own separate ways. When I was young I wanted to be a housewife, probably because I saw how my mother ran a busy household with five children.” But when her father took up studying at the age of forty and started his own law farm, it sparked in Elaine an interest in law. 

A PhD, what’s that?
At secondary school a chemistry teacher tried to encourage the sisters to study materials science but Elaine knew what she wanted to do. I wanted to do something that involved people. And law was ideal for that. During my studies it became clear that I had a fairly academic bent — the Bar was not really for me. As a student assistant I was asked if I’d ever thought about doing a PhD. A PhD? What’s that? I had no idea. But I found research increasingly interesting.

Contact really motivates me
Partly because PhD candidates often came to me with their stories, once I had obtained my PhD I was asked to be a PhD dean, a kind of confidential adviser. Sometimes you can only help people further by listening to what they have to say and letting them work out for themselves what they are aiming for. Contact really motivates me and it’s a common thread that run through everything I do. When I’m sitting in the tram in Rotterdam in the morning and I see a series of meetings in my diary, I think: this is going to be a long day. But I always come out happy and with more energy. Clearly, there are also more difficult conversations to be had. Everyone needs to get things off their chest sometimes and I think the dean is the right person to turn to. But eventually you have to get down to it and I move things forward in a constructive way. In my current role I’m no longer as approachable as I’d like to be. But I think it’s important that people can access the faculty board easily and don’t feel distanced from it. I do my best to ensure that that’s the case.

I think it's important that people don't feel distanced

A bit more chilled
Dean, ongoing teaching and research tasks and deputy councillor in criminal cases at the court in The Hague: with such a full schedule, how do you ensure that you get enough relaxation? I like going out with friends and family for a meal or a walk or going to the cinema. And I also think it’s fine sometimes just to be at home and not do a lot. During the pandemic I also took up knitting again. During Teams meetings, when I was off camera, I sometimes sat there knitting, very relaxing. I already have a whole pile of jumpers, and last year I hosted a workshop in the REBO faculty. Apart from knitting, do you have any advice to give students? I’ve noticed that students are often extremely socially aware and want to contribute something to society, but also that they take their studies very seriously and like to study as quickly as possible. I think this is great and is characteristic of our times. But perhaps they just need to be a bit more chilled sometimes. So my advice is this: enjoy life and make choices out of curiosity, not based on what you think a future employer is looking for.