Scientific careers

The path is never straight and narrow

Nadine Szabó and Prof. Dr. Michael Meissner on the spectrometer FLEX. Photo: HZB

Is there a secret receipt, how to become a successful researcher? Do young scientists of today really need advice from experienced researcher or is every career different?

Helmholtz will discuss such questions at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San José. Previously we asked two young scientists from Germany and the United States about their career paths, receipts for success and experiences.

Interview Daniel Ratner

Interview Iris Dillmann

Physicist Daniel Ratner is a researcher at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory operated by Stanford University.

Mr Ratner, before starting work on your PhD at Stanford University, you spent a year at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York in conservation science.

Not really the classic start to a career in physics.Not at all! My career is anything but linear. When I was in college, I never considered going into physics. I was far more interested in the arts and art history. After graduating from college I sent a few applications off to see what chances I had on the job market, and I was actually on the point of accepting a job offer from a hedge fund when I got a call from the MoMa. I spent some time there working in conservation science. So as you can see, I didn't really have a clear idea of where I was headed. But as a PhD is becoming something of a necessity if you want to get anywhere in the art world, I decided to go back to university at the age of 25.

To do a PhD in physics: What made you decide to do that?

I just thought - why not try physics? It could be fun. I was definitely interested in it, although I'd had almost no exposure to it as a child. At the high school I went to, it barely existed as a subject. However, my father is a scientist and I once took part in a workshop a colleague of his organised for students and I think my interests in it stems from there. He somehow managed to make it come alive for me. Strange how things turn out sometimes!

What are your plans for the next few years?

I used to only think a couple of years ahead. But now I'm gradually getting to the age when a bit of career planning seems like a good idea. Although that's actually quite hard to do in research, especially in my field. You can't really gauge what is or isn't feasible.

What makes planning so difficult in the academic world?

There aren't that many professorships around in my area. And if that career plan doesn't work out, you have to decide whether you want to keep working as a researcher and associate without the prospect of tenure. The question of whether you can live with that - whether that is satisfying enough - is an entirely personal one. And of course there's always the big wide world beyond academic research. Many of my friends from graduate school have abandoned research and set up their own businesses or found jobs in the technology sector.

How important is security in your career planning?

I personally don't rate it very highly. I like to be flexible and I tend to get restless when I feel I want to move on. I'm sure that was very different for previous generations. People would keep a single job their whole lives - a situation many people would dearly like to revert to, which I understand. But I imagine that kind of security is a lot harder to find these days because a lot of things just work on a much faster and short-term basis. That doesn't bother me. In fact, I tend to see it as an advantage. A steady job from now until the day I retire would certainly not be my cup of tea.

Are your career opportunities limited to the USA?

Not at all! There's a lot happening in my field in Europe. New research centres are being set up in Hamburg, Switzerland and Italy. I can definitely imagine working in a different country.

If you compare the US PhD to those of other countries, where do you see advantages or disadvantages?

On the plus side, the long American PhD program allows students to dig very deep into their own project, which is great for developing as a scientist. But on the other hand, with so few academic career openings, lots of PhD students end up going into other careers when they finish, and for these students, spending six to eight years in a PhD just doesn't make financial or career sense. I have some friends who did very good PhDs, but still regret their decision to go to graduate school. So I think both systems can learn something from another.

Physicist Daniel Ratner (age 34) is a researcher at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory operated by Stanford University. A career in physics was more of a coincidence for Ratner, who says his ambitions had originally leant more towards the arts. But it was obviously an excellent decision: he wrote an award-winning doctoral dissertation and won the Free-Electron-Laser (FEL) Young Scientist Award three years ago for his work in the field of Linac Coherent Light Sources.

Astrophysicist and chemist Iris Dillmann is a researcher at Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, in Vancouver.

Ms Dillmann, is it true that you originally wanted to be an astronaut?

Yes, absolutely! I was already fascinated by the moon and the stars as a kid. My ambition was to be the first woman on the moon. I was into natural sciences from a young age, too. I actually wanted to study food chemistry and journalism, but this combination of subjects wasn't possible. So I decided to study straight chemistry in Mainz. Then, in the middle of my degree, I stumbled across a series of lectures in astrophysics and cosmochemistry on the formation of the elements in the stars. This topic has fascinated me ever since.

So you took a somewhat indirect route into astrophysics?

I think that chance plays a big role in career planning! It was only through chance that I reconnected with my old love of the stars: I was actually planning to study abroad in Japan for a year, but I wasn't accepted into the programme. So I attended these lectures on nuclear astrophysics and cosmochemistry instead. In the end I wrote my thesis on the topic - which worked at Mainz because the astrophysics group was located within the nuclear chemistry department - and found myself moving further and further away from chemistry.

How far into the future do you plan?

As a student you tend to plan one or two years ahead. Even as a postdoc most people can't look much further ahead, because the positions are all temporary. As part of the Helmholtz Young Investigators Group programme, I was able to plan ahead for five years. This is great as it means you can get some long-term projects off the ground, catch your breath a bit and concentrate on research rather than job hunting. Today, I would say that I don't know about anything beyond the next ten years. In science, the environment can change pretty quickly - you only learn this over time. My position here in Canada is open-ended, but that doesn't mean that the laboratory or the focus of the research here won't ever change and that I can rest on my laurels. If you want to be successful in research, you always have to stay flexible.

You moved from Germany to Canada. What was the deciding factor in this move?

I wanted to take my career further, and I didn't see any opportunity for this where I was. The research system in Germany is quite good on the whole, but only if you are flexible and willing to relocate regularly. Of course, this is a problem for many people. Particularly at my age, the issue arises over how to reconcile a family and a research position. A happy combination of the two is difficult if you are moving every two years. That is no different here in Canada, but another problem in Germany is that there are far too few permanent contracts for people of my age with two postdoc positions under their belt. That is a great disadvantage. However, groups for young researchers such as those provided by Helmholtz, the Emmi Noether Programme or the Max Planck Society are very attractive opportunities to retain good researchers for longer and to offer them career prospects in Germany.

When you compare the research systems in Germany and in Canada, what is it you like about each of them?

In Canada, once you get onto the tenure track at a university, as long as you perform well, your career path is clearly laid out for you: assistant professor, associate professor, full professor - with no habilitation requirement like here in Germany. I wish that Germany had a similar system, rather than this outdated process of W1/W2 professorships, and then having to change to a different university to reach the salary class W3. Also, there are far more professors in Canada so the working groups are smaller. This requires you to work closely with one another and share resources, which promotes better communication. In Germany you sometimes get the feeling that a working group is structured a bit like a self-sufficient kingdom: the professor is the king, and he has an assistant or junior professor as his prince or princess. All the rest - the secretariat, technicians, postdocs, PhD students, undergraduates etc. - make up the royal court. And all around you are the kingdom's defensive walls!

That paints a somewhat negative picture. Do you consider anything about the German system positive?

Of course! There are no student fees, for example - and if there had been I probably wouldn't have been able to afford to go to university. I also like the fact that, in Germany, you have to start deciding on your field of study from the first semester. Here in North America, a bachelor's degree is still much more of a general education. If I had one wish, it would be that Germany had more professor positions and smaller groups. I would also like to see promotions based solely on scientific performance, and not - as is sadly far too often the case - on connections.

In your view, what are the challenges that researchers face?

You have to be creative and always come up with new ideas - you can't just carry on along the same lines as previous research. You also need a lot of patience, in many respects. You mustn't let yourself be discouraged by setbacks. And sometimes you also have to accept that a project requires a lot of time, and that this time might have to come out of your private life: if there is a deadline on Monday or an important ongoing experiment then you might need to put in some hours at the weekend if you can't manage it all beforehand. Once I missed a fairy-tale Persian wedding of a classmate because of this, which still annoys me to this day!

How important were, or are, mentors in your career?

It's definitely important to have an experienced researcher at your side - someone you can learn from as a role model. I had a very good supervisor when I was writing my PhD. He was always in a good mood and I could go to him with any problems at all. That was great. And I have that here, too. I can always approach my boss or colleagues and say: "What do you think of this or that idea?" And now, I'm also finding out what it is like to be a mentor myself, and how important this role can be. During my time at Helmholtz I was part of the Mentoring Programme "Taking the Lead", which helped me hugely with my own career planning. I also talked to a mentor about my decision to go to Canada. I give him a lot of credit that - following long conversations about my frustration in Germany - he advised me to take this step instead of doing everything in his power to convince me to stay.

How do you advise your students in your role as a mentor?

The main thing I frequently find myself saying to my students is: You can do it, have faith in your abilities, don't be afraid to show what you can do. Some women are admirably suited to a career in science, but they don't have enough self-belief. You have to work on their self-perception and self-confidence, not just on their skills and knowledge. Mentoring can be essential at these moments!

Astrophysicist and chemist Iris Dillmann is 36 years old and a researcher at Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, in Vancouver. The focus of her research is the formation of elements in stars, a field of science known as experimental nuclear astrophysics. Until June 2015 she is leading a Helmholtz Young Investigators Group at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt and the Justus-Liebig University Giessen.

13.02.2015 , Janine Tychsen
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