career column

Career column from the "Nachrichten aus der Chemie"

Philipp Gramlich and Karin Bodewits are founders of Natural Science Careers - a company for career counseling and soft skills seminars for natural scientists. For the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, both write about observations from their consulting work.

Issue 04/22 We're talking about the same thing

In a career workshop we look at job advertisements from the industry. "This ad really isn't written for young professionals," Sam says, sharing her screen. She points to a line that particularly offends her: experience in matrix project management is a requirement. "How could I have gained such typical industry experience during my university days?" At this point I would like to take a closer look at the terms. Perhaps it is the industry jargon that is causing the uncertainty.

"Who of you could draw an organizational chart of your own department?" I ask the group. Partly shocked, partly amused looks. In a typical university department, only a few of the responsibilities are visible in a hierarchical structure. The rest arises from the interactions between members of different groups and individuals. And that is the definition of the matrix structure: projects are worked on by time-limited teams from different branches of the structure. "So you all already have experience working in a matrix, you just call it something else."

I show a graphic by Nick Reddiford, This is based on thousands of questionnaires and interviews with doctoral students and scientists from industry. ?On the left you can see the top 10 skills that academic scientists use to describe themselves. On the right are the skills that the industry desires. Project management is in position two on the right.? I expand the table on the left, academic side. Project management can also be found here, but only in 35th place.

If you are doing a scientific master?s thesis or a doctorate, you are working on a complex project. This includes project management, whether it comes from your gut feeling or a professional infrastructure. Fresh graduates are reluctant to describe their skills in terms such as project management, as they associate them with the world of industry. It's more helpful if you look at the substance of what you've been doing over the last few years; then describe it in terms that the other party is familiar with. This is not bragging, but translation work.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 03/22 Navigating in the gray area

In a workshop we deal with job interviews. Isolde speaks up: "How do I react to questions about children?" "Or to questions about health?" asks Pavel, who had previously spoken openly about his diabetes.

A rule of thumb: Questions are allowed if the employer can use them to assess whether you can normally perform the duties of the job. In this sense, a future bus driver may be asked about her eyesight. scientists often work in laboratories or offices, which is why most health restrictions are not an exclusion criterion. What about people who can do their job but have an increased risk of absenteeism - for example due to a chronic illness like the diabetic Pavel or the parents of small children? This is considered a "general risk of life", so it is a normal part of life. As a rule, these applicants can fill in their position; questions about it are not permitted. ?What do I do if such questions are asked anyway?? Elisa asks.

In the interview, your private life is protected from prying questions. Most of the time, however, these questions are not asked as such. Rather ambiguous statements are made: "I hope you are aware that such a demanding position can hardly be reconciled with extensive private obligations." In this case, the simplest answer is to confirm the statement without anything about yourself to reveal: "Yes, I am aware of that." If such questions are formulated as questions, the employer is breaking the law. You can remain silent, lie or sue in court. Unfortunately, all three options have weaknesses. Employers would interpret into a silence what they want. Lying is also difficult: can you handle it in a stressful situation, and would it even be possible to work together positively afterwards? And who wants to go to court against their future employer?

There is at least one semi-workable solution. You can fire a warning shot and bring the conversation back to basics: "If you can explain how my family plans relate to my work in this position, I'll be happy to answer the question." but don't immediately make threats.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 02/22 What do you really need for a job?

"I would like to discuss two questions with you," I say in a career seminar. ?What does it take to become a good quality manager? And what does it take to become an excellent quality manager?? Paul grimaces before answering, ?Obviously that's a trick question, but I can't think of a better one: First, a love of bean counting. Second, great love of nitpicking.? ?Caught,? I admit, mock-offended. "That was a trick question. I agree with the first part.? In order to become a reasonably useful quality manager, it would be enough to enjoy working precisely and with a passion for detail. But what makes an excellent quality manager? Where does the wheat separate from the chaff?

The everyday life of quality managers looks a little different than many think. Audits are the core of their work. In hour-long meetings, together with those responsible from the respective departments, they examine whether there are weaknesses in the documentation and work infrastructure and how these can be eliminated. Such audits are classic examples of "important, not urgent": Those responsible are usually sitting on red hot coals so that they can devote themselves to day-to-day business again.

?You need a thick skin for an audit like this,? interjects Geraldine. This puts the discussion on the right track. The core skills for developing from good to excellent in quality management are: negotiating skills, friendliness, an understanding and at the same time emphatic manner, the ability to develop pragmatic and compliant solutions with the specialists. To do this, quality managers must be able to think about different areas of work. The requirements of just functioning in this field are different from those of becoming really good at it.

You should carry out such an analysis of the success criteria with a number of job profiles before you decide in which direction you want to develop. This allows you to predict much better whether you could fit into this environment. And when you apply, you will not only present yourself with generalities or copied formulations from the job advertisement. You can then paint the picture of a successful employee who knows what she's getting into.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 01/22 The internet never forgets

In a Career workshop, I would like to shed light on the traces we leave behind on the Internet. I'm sharing an article about an applicant whose application phase was overshadowed by his dazzling Facebook profile: drugs, corona parties and rapidly changing non-platonic acquaintances. After a fit of laughter, Sabine takes a breath: "It's always funny to read something like that, but nobody's that stupid, right?" "I know enough cases of educated people who have acted similarly naively," I reply. A former colleague, for example, called in sick, went to a music festival and posted it on Instagram. This breach of trust was acknowledged with immediate termination.

The virtual world influences our real life. ?What less obvious pitfalls are there, even for cautious internet users?? I ask the group. It takes a little while, but then Eduardo remembers a former colleague who really wanted to work in science journalism. In the second year of her PhD, she attended a conference for which she only had to submit a pro forma abstract. Since she didn't have much time, she frantically copied a few sentences together. In her first interview, she was shocked to see a printout of this very abstract on the table. Such an abstract can serve as a work sample for a whole range of professions.

Outdated profiles on social media or job seeker databases not only look bad, they can also lead to you being perceived as inconsistent. Statements in the cover letter such as: "I would like nothing better than to start my training as a patent attorney with you" do not match the "love for field research" that the same applicant had expressed a year earlier.
It can be just as unfavorable if you cannot be found on the Internet at all - for example if you are applying for a position in a PR or Marketing department. As a result, their ?high intrinsic interest in modern forms of communication? loses credibility.

Modern communication and self-marketing methods are neither good nor bad, they should be used with common sense.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 12/21 Am I a loser?

After a workshop, a participant tries to talk to me. "I feel like I'm a loser," she confides. Is that an exaggerated understatement or the imposter syndrome that is particularly widespread in higher education? In any case, she struck me as the brightest participant in the whole course. "What makes you think that?" I ask. "Well, all my acquaintances of the same age have permanent jobs, get loans to buy a house, while I'm treading water in my project work," she explains. She has already taught herself six languages, but she is only fluent in English and her mother tongue. She always has ideas, but as is well known, there are only 24 hours in the day, which is why she suffers from the nagging feeling of being overwhelmed.

"You're not a loser, you're a starter," I reassure her. Starters are impulsive, creative people who are always dreaming up ideas but have little interest in completing something. "Boring, nothing new" seems to be shouted at them by an inner tormentor. Starters are by no means losers, they just need the right environment that they move into - or that they often enough create themselves because of their personality. Important for starters is the interaction with their counterparts, the finishers. They like nothing better than the submit button when a work package is complete. They are people who create and work in a structured way. Starters cannot do without finishers and vice versa.

What does that mean in individual cases? Only apply to positions where you can express yourself as a starter or finisher. You can still learn a technical skill later in professional practice, but you can hardly change your personality, you have to consider that when choosing the position.
Do you select applicants or put together a team? Then pay attention to the balance between different types, which will always look a little different depending on the task. In a start-up you need different qualities than for a quality management department.

In some situations we have to do what the task demands, for example when the starter has to finish her thesis. As much as possible, you should settle into roles that fit your personality type.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 11/21 What distinguishes the first from the second step

?Jana has real guts,? I hear Bartosz tell during the coffee break at a career seminar. I join the conversation curiously. ?She did her doctorate in our working group two years ago and immediately got a job in industry. Now she has thrown it - without having a new job. ?? Is she brave! ?? Or stupid? ?? Wow, ?whispers through the group.

After the break, I use the case for a spontaneous excursus: ?Is Jana stupid or brave?? I ask the group. ?Raffael from our group could paper his booth with his applied papers, and yet it took him more than half a year to find a job. I am voting for stupid, ?stated Hedwig.

The GDCh statistics show us every year that even highly qualified chemists have to show good nerves when starting their careers. In July, the Blauer Blätter reported that in the first year after graduation, a fifth parked on domestic postdocs, and ten percent were even unemployed. We have seen high enrollments in chemistry courses for more than a decade, while the job market is barely growing. So competition can be tough.

?The unemployment rate among chemists is below three percent, the GDCh numbers seem too high to me,? protests Esther.

It's a common phenomenon: after a difficult career start, moving from job to job usually seems like child's play. In terms of professional life, unemployment is then low. So what changes between the first and the second job search? I see the following factors: Once we have started our career, we have better access to industry-specific networks and learn new skills. And we are getting to know more career options so that it is easier for us to find a niche in the job market. So I suspect Jana is confident about her market value.

Developing such networks from the university and discovering niches in the job market is more difficult, but by no means impossible. Further training, for example through graduate schools, can help. In addition, you can learn something about your options in targeted discussions and make contacts outside of the university.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 10/21 Who will read your application?

We discuss applications in a seminar. ?Here you can see a map of your city. Where is the price per square meter particularly high? ?I ask the group. ?Where a lot of bubbly is drunk and little is going on,? calls Ralf, who knows the city like the back of his hand. Just like in a city, there are also particularly expensive areas in your application documents, namely the places that naturally attract the attention of the readership. The most relevant information should therefore be found there.

?Who will read your application?? I ask further. ?My future supervisor, probably someone with a scientific background, and someone from the HR department,? says Sofia. "And sometimes some kind of algorithm filters the documents for keywords," adds Burcu. So you are dealing with up to three groups of readers. In the case of small companies, only the boss, who is presumably a scientist or engineer, will read the application. In the case of larger companies, this is also done by the HR department, and in the case of the very large, an algorithm. However, the order is as follows: first the algorithm checks, then the HR department and finally the specialist department. The voice of future supervisors only comes into play if the HR department forwards your application at all.

The parts of your application that the human readership first looks at are particularly valuable: The application photo attracts looks, then everything that is high up or highlighted. Only post information there that is of particular interest to this employer. You have leeway, for example by writing a short summary of your profile in three bullet points under the photo or by moving up the most important for this employer under ?Skills?. HR managers pay more attention to motivation and personality, which you should work out for this group of readers. In any case, you should be sparing with jargon and scientific details - none of your readers will understand them. Finally, the algorithm gets its keywords from the cheap parts of your application, for example by listing trivial criteria from the job posting such as "MS Office" in the lower part of skills.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 09/21 Ask someone who knows

"Maybe it sounds like a luxury problem," reports Dirk in a career seminar. ?I already have a job offer at a Finnish company. So I would have to move to another country. How can I know what I'm getting myself into? "

Of course, Dirk searched the Internet for all available Literature about the company and also got an impression in the interview. But what is a facade, what is substance? Then there is the organizational effort and the cultural changes abroad. Not a decision to be taken lightly. ?How do I get authentic information, especially in a short time?? He asks.

Conversations with experts are a tried-and-tested means that luckily also works in times of Corona. Get in touch with people who know more about a topic than you do. In Dirk's case, that would be everyone who has lived in Finland and worked for this company - including at other locations.

How do you do that? An impersonal request to has little chance of success. However, you do not need close personal contact for such an inquiry. Ideally, someone who knows you will lead the contact. But if that is not possible for you, hopefully you will come across personal e-mail addresses or profiles on social media during your research. Then it is often enough if your request shows that you have prepared yourself. You need to express that you want to speak to that very person.

Let's change the perspective briefly: Why should someone devote his valuable time to a stranger?

People like to talk about themselves. You underline the respectful approach with the ?female expert interview?. They are doing you a simple but valuable favor, and they are making you feel effective and useful. And the favor may come back at some point.

Expert interviews are network instruments that are compatible with introverts on both sides. The prerequisite is that they are well-prepared, content-driven individual interactions.

After the conversation, ask for other contacts to talk to. This way, you will put together the answers to your questions through individual pieces of the puzzle.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 07-08 / 21 Write down instead of guessing

We discuss application documents in a workshop. "My list of publications will break my neck when I apply," mumbles Adrian. He focused on a single project throughout his PhD. When his boss submitted the results for publication, he was only in third place among the authors. "I always assumed that I would be the first author of the publication." "Fortunately, you want to orientate yourself towards industry", I interject, "the list of publications counts much less than at the university", and I add: "But let's take a look at how to avoid such situations."

If Adrian had made an agreement with his boss before the project started, he might be better off today. The industry is a role model here: Before a project begins, a project plan is drawn up that defines the responsibilities. It is unrealistic to recreate the apparatus of an industrial company at the university. Academic research is also more open-ended, making it more difficult to make agreements about the future. Could we still achieve commitment without stifling creativity with too much paperwork?

Write down what you have reached an informal agreement with the supervisor, convert assumptions into concrete statements. It doesn't have to be a legally secure contract. An e-mail with which you log a conversation can work wonders: With it, you act as a colleague who is doing others a favor. You can end the e-mail like this: ?Let me know if I have forgotten something or have misunderstood something.? With this minimal documentation you create clarity and can argue with facts instead of assumptions in the event of a dispute. With ongoing, complex projects, you can share a common document in which, for example, the list of authors is continuously and transparently adapted to what is happening for everyone. By making several small adjustments in the current project, you avoid a big argument at the end.

Lawyers argue whether an email in writing is enough to be considered in court. That is not the point when dealing with colleagues. Writing down what you have heard is not an expression of suspicion and does not have to take a lot of time. You appear professional and avoid conflicts through factual discussions.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 06/21 Bitter reading

"I'll be finished with my doctorate in about a year and need a job, until then I'll hardly turn into a superwoman," moans Vera. She's been looking at job advertisements and has fared like many others: Job advertisements are uncomfortable read for self-confidence. They give us the feeling that the positions were created for much better qualified people.

"Superwoman doesn't live in Germany, so don't worry," I reassure her. ?Horst Meier is your competitor for the position. That is the yardstick. ?Job advertisements are not only written for applicants, but are also intended to put the employer in a positive light towards all random readers. Therefore, they often sound more like Superwoman than Horst Meier.

"Onzin," grumbles Wouter, his arms crossed over his chest leave no doubt as to the meaning of the word. ?What about job advertisements in the Netherlands?? I ask him. I am grateful that he made it so easy for me to transition into cultural differences. ?A job advertisement describes the person who will take the position one day. Everything else is ... nonsense. "

Job postings don't sound unrealistic all over the world. If you are applying for a job abroad, you should speak to people who work there to calibrate the requirements in job advertisements.

"But if there is a must-have criterion that I don't meet, then I'm out, right?" Asks Vera. The requirements for applicants are often divided into optional and mandatory criteria or simply sorted in the order of decreasing importance. The gradation between can and must is then fluid. If you meet between 60 and 70 percent of the criteria, your applications will slowly become realistic. Focus your application on your strengths. You do not necessarily have to go into the missing points.

It's different with the must-have criteria: you don't necessarily have to meet them, but you have to address them. Show how you could develop in this direction or how you can compensate for weakness with strengths. Do this in a visible place, around the first third of the letter, so as not to be prematurely sorted out. By doing this, you show reflective skills and are still in the running if the rest of your application is strong.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 05/21 Tell us about yourself

A few years ago I was at my first scientific conference with my knees trembling. How exciting, how nerve-wracking ... A well-groomed middle-aged gentleman approaches my poster without a word and studies it with concentration. I'm not sure if I should speak to him. So it is my guest who takes the initiative: ?Could you quickly walk me through your poster, please?? My explanations are confused. He loses interest after just a few sentences.

After the conference, I'll do some research: a renowned professor from Oxford, whose work we could well support with our methodology. I saw myself as a co-author on one of his publications, but unfortunately he didn't respond to my emails. What a wasted opportunity.

We have to constantly introduce ourselves and our projects. On the subject of ?pitching?, as short presentation formats are often called in English, we find many instructions for polished monologues. Unfortunately, these are not authentic and tend to overemphasize self-marketing. Does it have to be like that?

In a classification, my poster presentation would be level 0: no preparation, stammering. The polished monologue would then be level 1: Prepared, but too smooth. Fortunately, level 2 is quite easy to achieve: we have to care about who we are facing and adapt our explanations. This can be achieved by asking about the technical background of the person asking the question - ideally by asking questions such as: "Is that what you are interested in?"

There is a third level, as I recently experienced in one of my seminars. When I asked them to present their projects to each other, two participants fell into seemingly insignificant chitchat. After a few minutes, I put them to the test and asked what they had learned from each other. ?Sven has just started his second postdoc, which he wants to use as a stepping stone for a spin-off. He has developed a process that prevents fungal growth on surfaces without additional chemicals. It works like this ... ?I was impressed by how much information the two had exchanged in such a short time. That was stage 3: a relaxed and at the same time goal-oriented dialogue.

Self-presentations in monologue form are not ideal, but neither are they useless. Think of these as preparatory exercises for the higher levels.

Philipp Gramlich,

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last modified: 04.04.2022 10:29 H from N/A