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“Career paths must become more diverse!”

Katja Matthes is Director of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. Photo: picture alliance/Axel Heimken

Katja Matthes applied to be head a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group in 2009, and was successful. Since then the climate researcher has become head of the Helmholtz Center GEOMAR in Kiel. In this interview she gives an insight into how she experienced the early phase of her scientific career, the challenges she faced and what we can do even better to promote young scientists.

What situation did you find yourself in when you decided to apply for a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group in 2009?

Katja Matthes: I had just returned from the USA at the time and had several options. The question was: Should I start another postdoc and look for a topic for it, or should I instead focus on my own agenda for a group? I had already been relatively independently active in international collaborations before and I realized that I had so many ideas that I needed more than one person to implement them. That was only possible with a chair or with my own group of postdocs and doctoral students. The Helmholtz Young Investigator Group offered ideal conditions for me at the time: In addition to scientific independence and excellent facilities, I was also offered long-term prospects here in Germany, so I decided to join the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group program.

What challenges did you face in the initial phase of the group?

Katja Matthes: It was challenging to recruit three people at the same time, who I had to supervise at different locations. In addition, when setting up such a group, you are very dependent on how the first doctoral students prove themselves. After about two years, I had the feeling that things were running smoothly and we were achieving good results. After that, I was soon offered a professorship in Kiel. I was helped in particular by the mentoring from the President of the Helmholtz Association, who introduced me to the organization. I am still very grateful today for the support I received from my mentor and the many exciting insights I was able to gain through the regular exchanges. Being able to exchange ideas with the other Young Investigator Group leaders at the Helmholtz Academy for Executives was also very valuable. It made me realize that others were facing similar challenges to mine and that I was not alone. Solving these challenges together was a formative experience for me and I am glad that some of the contacts I made back then still continue to this day.

What did you take away from your time as a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group leader?

Katja Matthes: The fun of working in a team and the joy of guiding people. It was always my dream to put the content puzzle together with others and then see how we progress as a team. Together we move more and are faster. I would say that I learned this in the context of the Young Investigator Group. All these insights have helped me a lot in my career since and I still think back to my time as a Young Investigator Group leader with great pleasure.

What was it like to be responsible for a team for the first time?

Katja Matthes: It was nice to accompany people in their own scientific careers on the path to independence. I always saw my team members as experts in their own fields and told them: After six months, you must know more about your field of research than I do. In fact, all nine of my PhD students have ended up in really good positions, both in academia and in the private sector.

I was incredibly proud of the first publications and the doctorate of my first doctoral student. Events like these were always exciting for me in the years that followed. I remember that on the way to a defense, my mind was already so focused on the situation that I was flashed in a speed trap for the first time in my life.

From your current perspective, what do you wish for today's postdocs?

Katja Matthes: An academic system with clear career paths. The Young Investigator Group, which ideally combines leading a research team with teaching duties, has done the German system good. What we still need to work on is the question of career prospects. Ideally, we should enable more diverse career paths and no longer focus one-sidedly on the classic professorship model.

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