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.

NCh 04/24 The ideals of employers

In a consultation, Laura reveals to me her problem with her current employer: "My company is currently receiving a lot of negative press. And there is at least a grain of truth in the allegations." She talks about adventurous constructs in tax havens, raw materials from sensitive natural areas, and Marketing full of greenwashing.

Your working conditions are good: your colleagues form a functioning, friendly team; your tasks are pleasantly challenging. Your manager is actively committed to her employees and their needs and development. At the same time, the company works with controversial means and partners, as long as the legal and regulatory provisions are complied with. This creates an internal conflict among employees: the company's development is contrary to their own beliefs. And Laura asks herself: "Can I still stay with this company, or will it break me?" There is no general answer to this. It should be considered: are there any practical consequences if the employer behaves contrary to your own morals? If the work is perceived as empty or even destructive, this can, in the worst case, lead to burnout - without any overwork.

Even if your ideals are the same as those of your employer, but the rest of society thinks differently, you are constantly being subjected to nagging questions. Standing up for your beliefs can be nice, but it is often perceived as tiring.

Moral conflicts can make it difficult for employers to find suitable employees. This could either lead to wages increasing out of necessity, or the employer could be destabilized by such a long-term problem. In the academic environment, you can make similar considerations. Almost a fifth of third-party funding comes from industry, which as a funder can set conditions. Scientific independence is central for researchers. In addition, it is easier to recruit doctoral students and postdocs if your own research is perceived as useful.

Moral considerations are always deeply personal. Don't push them aside, but ask yourself: Do not only the development prospects but also the moral values ​​of this employer fit?

Issue 03/24 Demographics

In a career workshop, Malaika talks about her move to Germany. "I was really scared to move to a small town like Neuburg. But I was pleasantly surprised: the town is very young, actually like a big university campus. The population is very international, I was able to settle in quickly."

Sometimes the demographics of a place are helpful in getting a sense of whether you might fit in: age structure, average level of education, origin of the population and even voting behavior can provide information.

"Can we make similar considerations for future employers?" I ask the group. "Well, I wouldn't go to Betzler's working group ," says Tim. "He's never had any international doctoral students, most of them even come from our city. I find that a bit provincial." "Can it be a warning sign if the group is very international?" I want to know. Stefan replies: "Hardly anyone who has studied here applies to Professor Schulke. She has a reputation as an extreme grinder, which only the locals know."

In industry, how long employees stay also plays a role. If the throughput is high, this indicates an unpleasant working environment. Due to the lack of continuity, little knowledge is built up. In such a company, you learn less than at employers where employees stay longer. If employees stay with an employer for a long time, three cases can be distinguished:

Employee loyalty, which the employer earns through good leadership and work culture. Does this make it a rigid environment? - Only if employees rarely change jobs within the organization.

Dead end. A few jobs have no logical connection to other areas if you want or need to change direction. This is not the case in industry, but there are jobs in government offices or as a teacher that are difficult to move away from.

Golden cage. Some jobs are so well paid that changing jobs almost always means significantly less pay. Once your life is adjusted to higher running costs, the transition can be painful. Jobs in patents and company Management fall into this category.

Neither internationality nor length of service with the company allow for a judgement on their own. However, if you notice a swing to extremes, consider this a warning signal. You can get this information quite easily by looking at profiles on professional social media such as Linkedin.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 02/24 Overqualified

Karl is at the end of his doctorate - and has applied for a position that is advertised for master's graduates without professional experience. “Why do you think this is a suitable position for you?” I want to know. “With such a top employer, I thought I would have more chances with a position for lower qualified applicants.”

About half of the participants in our workshop think that Karl could be successful with his tactics. However, there are objections: “Don’t they still have to pay you the PhD salary?” asks Maurice. “And would you even be an attractive candidate?” asks Julia.

Being overqualified reduces Karl's attractiveness to employers instead of increasing it. The question will arise: Will Karl get bored after a few months and leave the company? Then the entire recruitment and training process would possibly be invalid. The employer will certainly also think about whether the candidate has a timid personality.

The shortage of skilled workers has now reached the chemical industry. For most applicants, there is no reason to sell yourself short. Only in a few exceptions can an application at a lower level make sense: if you have a career break, are moving from abroad or if - apart from the level of qualifications - the position suits you exceptionally well.

Applications as overqualified people are very difficult to write. How do you allay the employer's fear that you will quickly leave, but at the same time be perceived as appropriately ambitious? Show what appeals to you about the position and what you can learn despite being overqualified. How does this fit with your previous career decisions? Can you paint a picture of an employee for whom it's okay to do simpler tasks instead of making decisions and taking initiative and still - or perhaps because of it - provide valuable service to the team? Outline a growth perspective for your professional future that fits with your past and shows the employer that you will enjoy the position, at least for some time.

By the way: Whether the employer has to pay you according to your qualifications depends on whether the employer is subject to the collective agreement. This is usually only the case with larger companies; for smaller companies it is a matter of negotiation.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 01/24 From small to large

In a consultation with a doctoral student in the application phase, we discuss questions that could come up in the interview: “Looking at your profile, I can well imagine that you will be asked whether you can imagine working in another area.” As usual, she answers simply: “I would like to work on the simulation of catalysts, ideally in the area between a university and a small company.” I pause and we both laugh. “Ok, so I guess I get extra points for 'not flexible',” she sums up with a smile.

With questions like this, employers want to see that your idea of ​​your own professional future is not too fixed - but at the same time that you know what you want. If you say you're willing to do anything just to get your foot in the door with this employer, they'll perceive you as desperate.

My conversation partner concentrates and makes a second attempt. “At the beginning of my doctoral thesis I worked in the laboratory, which I enjoyed. I think it is very important to keep in touch with colleagues who work experimentally. After all, we simulate your experiments.” She recently stopped by the laboratory to talk to a colleague, she says. “He showed me a transition metal alloy that shone gold. I was expecting a silvery color and learned during the conversation that the color can be explained by relativistic effects." Crucial information for her: "That was important for my simulations - if these effects are left out, then my models will no longer be correct. I could certainly imagine moving closer to the laboratory again in the future.”

I'm speechless. This answer is in many ways better than the first: the doctoral student explains her interest in simulation and in the same breath indicates in which directions her interest could plausibly develop in the future. She does this using a real and understandable example, which portrays her as an interested and self-critical scientist.

If you want to explain something, it will be more understandable for those listening if you start with a concrete example. Based on this, you can then derive general conclusions.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 12/23 Where should it go?

“How long can I postpone the decision between industry and a university career?” asks doctoral student Iryna in a career workshop. In a refreshingly direct way, she expresses what quite a few others in the room are also thinking. “I think academic research is great, but I’m also very curious about how things work in industry.”

There are some positions that give you a foot in both worlds at the same time. For example, you can do a doctorate or postdoc in industry. You should clarify in advance whether you are allowed to publish, which is not always the case. At higher career levels there are the real stars who wear several hats at the same time. Think of the professor who sits on supervisory boards and raises money through industrial partnerships. Their counterparts are the industrial science stars, for whom an endowed professorship is being established.

A few decades ago, universities and colleges were even further apart than they are today. This was and is less pronounced in chemistry than in other disciplines. Today, both sides are making more and more efforts to work together. Both sides maintain staff offices whose main task is to serve as a mouthpiece to the outside world and to build connections.

The industry strives to find new products and techniques (technology scouting) and supports academic projects, for example by financing them.

At universities, it's not just the professors who are involved in these collaborations. Many tasks in science management have now been professionalized to support such interactions: think of patent exploitation offices or start-up advice, for example.

Technology parks are significant catalysts for collaboration between universities and industry. University spin-offs often find their first home here. “Where would you locate the Fraunhofer Institutes?” I close the topic. Not an easy question: Fraunhofer Institutes are public institutions, but they are largely financed by industry funds for their contract research.

It will be easier for you if you know early on where your professional home is. But you may not have to say goodbye to a site at all. There are exciting tasks for chemists at the border between university and industry.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 11/23 Chemistry for laypeople

In a workshop we analyze how we can take a lay audience along on the journey through our research. “I understand that we shouldn't throw around technical terms,” begins Max. “But I don't feel comfortable replacing technical terms with metaphors. We’re not at Bild-Zeitung.” Sam adds: “The God Particle instead of the Higgs boson – that’s just sensational, with no added value.”

Terms like God Particle help grab attention. But that's all the positive things have been said. With bad metaphors you get a lot of bycatch on board: exaggeration, confusion or fraying of the discussion into philosophical debates. If the Higgs boson is the god particle, does the proton come from the holy spirit?

“What about Blueprint of Life for deoxyribonucleic acid?” Shixin interjects. That fits better. This allows us to understand how the proteins are coded on the DNA blueprint. Newer findings such as epigenetic information levels are not captured by Blueprint of Life, but this is beyond the reach of a simple image.

Don't be afraid to use figurative language. Some linguistic images are so powerful that they become common language usage. Robert Hooke introduced the term cell as a metaphor at the end of the 17th century when he recognized structures under the microscope that reminded him of small rooms, Latin for “cella”. The optical wave has followed a similar path. Or consider the ecological footprint, invasive species, food chains, or the greenhouse effect—all terms that have, over time, moved from metaphor to common usage.

If you want to develop your own images or comparisons and assess whether it is a good or bad metaphor, you should ask yourself: Does a term just roll off the tongue? Then it's a bad metaphor. On the other hand, if a linguistic image helps to make a subject more accessible to your audience, then it is a good metaphor.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 10/23 Small or large

In a workshop on the topic “Your path into industry” we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of future employers. “More money, more jobs, more opportunities,” is how Bertrand summarizes the arguments for large-scale industry. “This is a great starting point for our discussion,” I thank you. He looks at me as if he had already sealed all discussions with his statement. More money is usually the right thing. Large industry pays according to the chemical tariff, which is generous after decades of negotiations and a constructive relationship between unions and employers: young professionals with a doctorate receive around 80,000 euros, and those with a master's degree receive around 69,000 euros. Smaller companies pay at least 15 to 20 percent less.

“More jobs?” I ask the group. “Per company, certainly, but looking at the economy as a whole I doubt it,” Inge interjects. In fact, start-ups and, in Germany, medium-sized businesses in particular are a driving force for the labor market. The possibilities depend on the industry. Bertrand reports of a summer school run by a pharmaceutical giant that there are “trainee programs, our own training academy, internal career mentors: I don’t know if you can top that.” He's right about that.

However, there is something to be said for smaller employers: they are less visible and therefore have to make an effort to find and retain workers. Many of them make up for their lag behind large industry with flexibility, ingenuity and external educational opportunities.

However, due to the large number of medium-sized companies, it is not that easy to find the right employer. Trade and lobby associations or technology parks help with the search. Companies that have just acquired public funding or venture capital will soon be interested in new employees - this is the time for an unsolicited application. You can use the information about small companies from patents, publications or newspaper articles to make your application there more personal.

In big industry you get a higher salary and a well-known name on your CV. Apart from that, it is a matter of taste whether you prefer a large or a smaller company.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 09/23 Phrases or invitation to a conversation?

“Let’s talk small talk.” The participants in the workshop on self-presentation grimace. “Could you convert your facial expressions into words?” I ask the group. “Well, I'm not thrilled that I even have to deal with shallow chatter at scientific conferences, which also seems to be crucial for my professional success,” complains Jens. “Sorry, it’s up to you whether you stick with empty phrases or develop the conversation further,” replies Jenny, “I love free interaction with strangers.” Irina, on the other hand, fears that she will always talk nonsense.

We can clear up some prejudices here. First: Not everything a scientist says has to be super smart. A “What brings you to this conference?” means nothing other than: “We’re welcome to talk, but we don’t have to.” Consider your efforts to start a conversation as a service to those who don't dare. Second: The disproportionate weight of networking in our professional lives neither undermines meritocracy nor devalues ​​the long years of study. Your core academic qualifications are the foundation for your Career. To score points, however, you need a broader range of skills.

The basic rules of small talk are very simple. Don't start negatively. Nobody cares that you don't like the weather, conference coffee or the delayed regional train. Also, don't go into the conversation with pre-formed assumptions. “It's probably your first time at this series of conferences, I've never seen you before,” is particularly embarrassing when it turns out that the person you're talking to is one of the organizers of the conference.

Take a playful approach and set yourself a randomly selected goal. For example, try to find out whether the person you are talking to is a biochemist, analyst or synthetic chemist. It doesn't matter whether you succeed. The game forces them to make the first move. If you go into the conversation with open questions, you let the other side talk and give them the chance to help shape the conversation.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 07-08/23 Breathe the space

“I'm extremely nervous when it comes to presentations,” admits Simon. “During job interviews I'm even more exposed. “I think the small talk at the beginning is the worst,” he says, summing up his fears.

In fact, the seemingly casual parts of an interview seem daunting to some. Luckily, we can overcome this stage fright. “Okay, then let’s try the simpler situation first, the presentation,” I suggest. “Please come in front of the group and show us the beginning of your last presentation.” Simon immediately begins to speak as he rises from his chair: “Thanks for inviting me to this conference. My talk is about…”

Like Simon, most people find themselves in situations that make them nervous. The speakers want to get it over with quickly and therefore start speaking too early. This creates a hectic start to a presentation – for yourself and for the audience. The speakers are out of breath when it starts and have to do several things at the same time: find a good speaking position, deal with the technology and establish contact with the audience. Such a beginning confuses the audience: Is this already part of the presentation?

In the workshop we practice these first seconds of a presentation. Enter the stage, find a seat, look around the room. At this point we pause for a moment, breathe, enjoy the friendly faces and only begin to speak when we and the audience are ready. Stage fright often goes away when the start of the performance is well practiced.

When we have small talk before a job interview, we also feel a certain rush, want to say something relevant quickly and get confused. Of course, you don't stand in front of the other person for seconds without saying a word, as in our exercise, but you should take time to take a breath.

“Please don’t think that you have to share groundbreaking insights right away during small talk,” I conclude the discussion. Small talk is a warm-up exercise for both parties. A: “Thank you very much, the journey was pleasant” with a relaxed smile is enough. If you can think of something nice, even better.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 06/23 Cooperation issues

In a workshop for prospective group leaders, we deal with the topic of third-party funds. Cooperation with industry has a long history in the chemical industry and is hardly considered disreputable in Germany. If the freedom of research is not restricted too much, most selection committees value industry funds like other third-party funds.

"I'm currently negotiating a partnership with a company," reports Jeff. "But I'm not at all sure whether that's ethically clean," he shares his concerns. "What kind of research do you want to do with industry?" I ask. "It's about developing a detector that the company builds into their equipment," he explains. After a few questions from the plenary, we draw a reassuring conclusion: We found no ethical problems in Jeff's cooperation. If successful, a company will offer devices with a higher resolution, which users will be happy about.

Together we think ahead. Are there research collaborations that are morally more complex than a purely technical development? "Smoking," interjects Rachel. Your comment has a kernel of truth. In the past, researchers were bought to cast doubt on the harmfulness of tobacco smoke, certain drugs, sugar, DDT, alcohol or opiates. This is still the case today: the topics are new, the tactics are the same. The scientific consensus is presented as dubious, unnecessary studies are delaying regulations or bans, problems in switching to clean alternatives are exaggerated.

In our discussion, a line emerges: Most people see purely technical developments as ethically unproblematic. The academic scientist as an evaluation body, on the other hand, raises questions.

Possible problems must therefore be addressed before the cooperation. Cooperation and non-disclosure agreements can be checked by scientists with the support of increasingly professional departments at universities: Is a desired result already specified by the study design? Are the results used selectively based on the answer? And most importantly, will the scientist be muzzled? If you answer these questions in advance, industrial cooperations are an interesting instrument for diversifying third-party funds.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 05/23 The pitch email

During the coffee break of a workshop on the topic of networking, two doctoral students are amused by an e-mail. "Dear Prof. Kohlenforschung, I would like to pursue a PhD at the institute of Schüth." As the workshop moves on, I refer to this email: "If you're writing to someone you don't know, how do you make your voice heard?" Tim, who spent the rest of the coffee break showing the email around, gestures to his phone: "No way."

Every e-mail starts with the most important part, because it is the most visible, the subject line. The common opinion is that the reason for contact should be stated at this point. This is indeed important, but imagine that the subject is: “Postdoc in your working group.” It's quite possible that you'll be one of many and end up on the "Read when I have time" pile for the time being. If you can make a personal connection, include it in the subject line, such as: "Recommendation from Dr. Gizdakis." If the recipient Dr. Gisdakis knows, he will read the e-mail promptly.

In some cases it will make sense to CC a contact person, in others not. This makes your message a little more personal and creates transparency. However, if you have several requests from the same contact person, you should make sure that their inbox does not fill up.
Next, a polite salutation. That sounds natural. But there are plenty of counterexamples: emails with wrong or misspelled recipient names. Finally, in the first sentence of your email, the "why" should come with one or two short sentences. In the next sentence, mention your preliminary work. Consider the brevity of your introduction and the entire email as a sample of work: will it be a time-waster to engage with you, or will it be a well-prepared, efficient interaction? Babblers usually babble on in both written and spoken form.

Close the e-mail, which makes do with a total of five sentences, with your specific request. This point also seems trivial, but scientists in particular often think that their readership can draw this conclusion themselves.

Philipp Gramlich,

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last modified: 10.04.2024 08:59 H from N/A