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 advice and soft skills seminars for natural scientists. For the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, both write about observations from their consulting work.

Issue 06/21 Bitter reading

"I'll be done 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: 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 folded across 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. When applying overseas, 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 definitely 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,

Issue 04/21 Chatten always works

?Since the pandemic, our doctoral students have no longer had a chance to build up an academic network. Do you have a solution for that? ?Asks a professor at the final round of her Online retreat. I reply: "The pandemic is not so bad for networking!"

Like this professor, I used to travel to conferences a lot. After long blocks of lectures, the really important parts began: coffee break, lunch break, conference dinner. I often wiggled through crowded rooms with terrible acoustics. I chose a high table by chance and hoped to catch an interesting person there. I was constantly in a balancing act: Satisfying hunger, but not speaking with your mouth full, asking a question, taking a discreet bite and then listening with interest and chewing. The timing rarely worked. Instead, it goes like this: receive a question, swallow the canapes whole, answer frantically. The other way around, it can be difficult to concentrate on someone who is chewing on monologues. Not to mention that neither I nor other people smell good at the end of a long day at the conference.

Such problems do not occur with virtual network events. While a casual conversation during a coffee break is not easily reproducible online, there is a lot you can do to network virtually if you adapt your approach. The first step is to familiarize yourself with the technique. Decline invitations if the conference platform looks too self-made and you fear wasting time.

As in a face-to-face meeting, you should also show interest online and ask questions. There is a chat function for this, with which you can ask questions during a presentation, answer questions from others or build on their comments. You can get a taste of conferences for which the effort of traveling would be too great. In addition, there is the social media that support the establishment of contact. Of course, one-on-one meetings are extremely important for networking. Take the initiative and invite people to a virtual coffee or an expert talk: "I would like to discuss this with you further." Your conversation partner will be happy to receive such an invitation, especially if she is not yet in the new one Finding your way around network reality.

Karin Bodewits,

Issue 03/21 Is it all about who you know?

We have just started our network seminar so that most jobs in science and outside of it are given through the personal network. Knowing people is the key to success, I said. "It bothers me," grumbles Max, "that it's all about who you know." But most of them use a combination of network and expertise to get to the top, "I comfort him.

One example is Paul Erdös. He was a mathematician and arguably the quirkiest network icon in the history of science. Erdös worked with over 500 researchers and thus published more than most researchers in their entire life in one year. Solving math problems was a social activity for him. Erdös was great at math and a person who wanted to make other scientists better. He encouraged and helped them. But Paul Erdös was also strange. Time Magazine titled it as "The Oddball's Oddball". Erdös appeared on the doorstep of other mathematicians without warning - in a dirty raincoat and cranked by amphetamines. For a day, a week or a month his more or less voluntary hosts had to take care of this helpless guest. He didn't cook, and he didn't wash his underwear himself. If he suddenly felt like doing math in the middle of the night, he woke his hosts by hitting pots and pans.

?Imagine if Erdös wasn't very good at math. He would knock on your door without warning and wake you up in the middle of the night to do some bills. He would also ask you to prepare food for him and do his laundry. Would you bear his behavior? ?Max starts laughing. ?Probably not,? he replies. "Exactly. Erdös was brilliant, he had something to offer. That's why people tolerated this strange character. "

You too must have something to offer. Develop knowledge and skills that make you unique. Do not lose the will to advance not only yourself but also others. That makes networking easier. Because it's not just about who you know. It's also about what you know.

Karin Bodewits,

Issue 02/21 Is it all about the money?

In a career seminar for doctoral candidates, we discuss various job profiles. ?I've heard that industry is all about money. Is that really true? ?, Says Raffael. "Yes, of course, for what else?" I reply with mock naivety. All organizations have their own success criteria. In industry, money is the dominant criterion for success. "How about your doctor's mother?" I ask. ?What is she striving for?? ?Publications?, Raffael replies after a short pause for thought, ?what else??, Imitating me with the last three words.

When we consider whether an organization is a good fit for us, we need to know its key success criteria and decide whether they are a good fit for us. However, jumping to conclusions should be avoided. The success criterion money does not automatically mean turbo-capitalism or exploitation. Likewise, the success criterion publications cannot be equated with an idealistic striving for knowledge. It always depends on how exactly this success is to be achieved in a specific case: with or without consideration for people and the environment. Publications can just as easily stand on an idol altar like money.

?There are other employers than universities and industry,? interjects Sandra. I agree with her, but reply that we are making the same considerations here too. The public service receives its task - and thus its criteria for success - from the higher-level bodies, such as the ministries. It's about using taxpayers money to serve the community. So far, so idealistic. However, every organization also strives for self-preservation. In the worst case, bureaucracy fights against modernization.

Raffael's last attempt: ?Non-profit organizations. The criterion for success is doing good. What is the negative side of this? ?Here it is again the classic self-preservation. This is evident when NGOs raise funds with maudlin but irrelevant topics.

Understanding potential employers is more work than expected. But this always results in discoveries. Idealistic goals may dissolve into nothing. And the goal of making money doesn't have to automatically lead to heartless materialism.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 12/20 No colloquium

An online application training. Together we put ourselves in the entertaining scenario of sitting in an interview for a position that we absolutely do not want to have. ?How can we screw this up really?? I ask the group.

"At the moment everything is virtual, there are a number of pitfalls," Franziska snorts. ?Camera or face too high or too deep, you immediately look like Hannibal Lecter or like a single large nostril!? The common laughter generates further ideas. ?Start negative, end negative, a classic for spoiling all conversations with pleasure!? Is the next idea. Interjections like "Scolding about the Deutsche Bahn at the start, then about the weather when saying goodbye" follow. "Long and super-specific monologues like in the doctoral lecture", "Neither eye contact nor smile" as well as "Asking about the availability of asparagus dishes in the canteen" fly through the virtual space.

I introduce the second part: ?After five minutes we are almost finished with this exercise. Now all we have to do is turn all your ideas into positive ones and put them in order, and we're already done with our rules and tips.

A friendly small talk to greet you, nothing bothers you in this phase more than focusing on problems. Very often you are allowed to speak freely at the beginning, the request is "Tell us about yourself". A brief outline of your motivation is required here, you do not need to spread your entire life and suffering.

You can foresee most of the questions. For motivational questions, you should be able to explain why you got from A to B on your résumé. You can look up standard questions on the Internet and practice for yourself or with friends. For example, if you are asked about your strengths, then self-praise is not required; just put the facts on the table and let the other side evaluate it. Questions about weaknesses, on the other hand, are about how you deal with them and whether you dare to admit them

Ideally, interviews are friendly, professional and targeted interviews. All you need to prepare is a little time and a little rest.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 11/20 preparation is possible

In a career seminar, I announce that we are getting into the subject of job interviews. "Cool, the most unfair format since the introduction of gladiator fights," bursts out Pepijn. "Thanks for the hint. How do you come to your judgment? ?I follow up. ?It's very simple,? he snorts into his microphone, ?they can search through my résumé as they wish, ask my references and prepare for the interview. On the other hand, I only find general places on their homepage. "

During the interview, usually the first personal meeting between employers and applicants, both sides want to be well prepared and thus make a positive impression. There are a number of possibilities for applicants to find out more about the other side than is superficially visible.

A simple search on the Internet will give you the first information. Of course, the company's website contains marketing texts, but it still provides key points for further searches, such as products or company history. Texts such as scientific publications or patents of the employer are more exciting. And finally: What do the press and analysts write about the company?

You can view economic data at most companies. Depending on the type of company, companies have to publish figures with different levels of detail, which provide insight into financial accounting even without a financial statement. If, for example, the company is invested in a tax haven, you can recalibrate "Our values" on the company website. If the profit margin is low, the company may lack momentum - you will get little money for your ideas. A high profit margin could mean that quarterly results are more important than long-term planning or the health of the workforce.

The best source of information are experts. Ask people who have already worked for the employer or in the same industry. If you can find such contacts through your network, the chances of success are good. You gain insights that usually go far beyond self-portrayal on the Internet.

?Good, so that I can prepare, the gladiator doesn't have to go into the arena naked. But many of the questions that are then asked are ambiguous. I can't see through that, ?comments Pepijn. "We'll look at that next," I conclude and pause.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 10/20 From salary to contract negotiations

In a seminar on job interviews, we open the last part: salary negotiations. We worked out the basics quickly. In the chemical industry, the starting salaries are fairly uniform: Most large employers pay the generous chemical tariff, the smaller ones are almost without exception 15 to 20 percent lower. You can use this as a guide when researching your market value. You ask questions, study salary comparisons and add five to ten percent to your market value, that is your salary expectation. You have to pay attention to two details. The first: Salary comparisons sometimes contain bonuses, sometimes not, those of the GDCh are always all-inclusive.

The second detail concerns the target salary. I ask the audience whether they say a number or an interval. "An interval, I read that like that," replies Sofie. I reply: "If you say 65,000 to 70,000, I, as an employer, would not even notice the higher number, but would rather trade you down from 65,000 to my target mark."

You should never let a company pay you with air and love; however, negotiations are not just about salary. Here is an example from one of my salary negotiations during a promotion: My management responsibility was expanded to include a production team in three shifts. My employment contract originally didn't mention night work, but I wouldn't let my team down in an emergency. But I didn't want to give this concession to my employer. In addition, I wished for one day a week in the home office, the flexibility and the saved travel time seemed attractive to me. Both elements individually were a small concession for each side from which the other could benefit.

So look at your salary negotiations - ideally together with your negotiating partner - what could be valuable for both sides. The possibilities range from bonuses to training or flexibility in all its forms. Ideally, both sides first put ideas on the table without committing to each other. Then you can combine these elements until you reach a good situation. Salary negotiation is then too narrow a term, think better of contract negotiations.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 09/20 Only jobs for specialists?

Franz is dissolved. His partner has an offer for her dream job in the Netherlands up her sleeve. They both want to avoid long-distance relationships. Franz would like to move abroad for a longer period of time, but he is struggling with his applications - after many hours of research he has not found a single job offer for organic organic chemists like him: "In the Netherlands I only ever see jobs for polymer chemists or biotechnologists."

The other participants in the career seminar sit up in their office chairs and stare at their webcams. You seem to sympathize with Franz or are curious whether there is a solution for his case. ?Who the hell needs polymer chemist?? Says Brian, a Canadian postdoc. He's probably the most extroverted person I've ever met. "You know, Franz, you can learn the hard skills."

Brian is right. We can acquire technical knowledge quickly, that's what defines us scientists. While there are some positions that require very specific and difficult to learn skills from day one, these are exceptions. What we do not learn so easily are the soft skills; It takes more than one course to turn someone who takes orders into a leader. It becomes even more difficult when personality traits are missing. In these cases, both applicants and employers should keep their hands off cooperation.

Why is it so difficult for scientists to assess their suitability for a position not only through their technical specialization? It's up to the training. We were brought up at universities in an environment in which purely technical skills are the only success factor. After years of study, we are conditioned to do so. For this reason, Franz sees himself first and foremost as a bio-organic chemist and not as a scientist who has a wide range of transferable skills. You can acquire these at different research objects.

?The scientific subject is only one criterion among several. Don't limit your career options, ?I add. ?Just apply!? Concludes Brian.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 07-08 / 20 competition and cooperation

A short debate on networking in a PhD course. Half of the participants should defend the thesis ?Networking outside of my specialist area is a waste of time?, while the other half argue against it. When we leave the debate format after a few minutes, our own opinions are given the floor. Raffael wants to quickly draw a line: ?It's clear. The closer people work on our topic, the more it pays to maintain contact. ?Approving nod in the room.

I don't want to close the subject anytime soon. ?Purely in terms of intensity, that makes sense.? I draw concentric circles, with ourselves in the center, our own specialization around us in the first circle, then the other natural sciences in the second circle, and then other subject areas further out. I agree with the group that network intensity drops when we look at subject areas that are further removed from our own. "What activities would you strive for in the respective circles?" I ask the group. I can literally read on their faces that the same thought is forming everywhere: ?Networking.? Finally, Theresa, an inorganic scientist who has just started her doctorate, answers: ?With the inner circle, I have to be careful not to close myself gossip, because that's where the competition sits. ?This comment changes the attitude of the other participants from defensive to pensive. ?We are mostly assessed by those in the inner circle, in selection committees or during the peer review of our applications or publications,? adds Raffael. After a few more reports, we get a differentiated picture.

We should of course maintain contact with people from our own specialist area. We are judged by them, we can get advice from well-disposed people and have to think tactically when it comes to competitors.

From a network perspective, the second group has particularly interesting people to offer: our cooperation partners. I know that from my own doctorate. My doctoral supervisor's workgroup was really good at chemically treating DNA. Another group in the same specialty couldn't have offered us much. Cooperations became worthwhile when our molecules fell into the hands of physicists, doctors or biologists.

Philipp Gramlich,

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last modified: 01.06.2021 10:59 H from