GAIN conference retrospectively end of Day 114 Sep 2010
Continuing my posts on the GAIN conference, let me jump right back in.
The second break-out session
The second and final break-out of the day was field specific. So as usual for a mathematician, I ended up in the ‘natural but not life sciences’ session. Again, this was one big Q&A, this time with Karin Zach (of the physics/mathematics/geo sciences office at the DFG) as well as a physics prof from Heidelberg (I forgot the name and he’s not in the program, my apologies). I don’t remember all the questions I must admit. One interesting one was how to get Karin Zach’s job. Interestingly enough she told us that most people get to her/a similar DFG-position after their first postdoc and that there’s a high fluctuation especially now that science management is becoming a topic and more jobs appear outside the funding agencies. I asked if the DFG offered any assistance on accessing the funding opportunities within and through the EU which she had to decline. This was one example for a recurring theme that bugged me during the conference.
It was extremely Germany-centric, all about ‘getting us home’ instead of ‘getting us back to Europe’ (let alone ‘getting the best minds in the world’). As much as I understand that circumstances do not allow for an absolutely open approach (e.g. the regulations for the funding agencies prohibit a more open, European point of view) I think it is the biggest mistake and very unfortunate for us, the researchers, wanting to return. One huge advantage of the American system is its size; Europe could compete if only it would want to. This reminded me of the response by Helmut Schwarz to the ‘80%’-question in the preceding session. He replied (referring to the larger (albeit shrinking) tenure track market in the US) along the lines of “Well, but if you get a position in the US you don’t want any kind of position – you want one at a great university”. As true as that may be, it was absolutely not the point. The point is that in the American system, if after all the postdocs at fancy institutions you find that, after all, you won’t be in the top league of researchers in your field then you still have a much better chance of getting a life time position here, say at a small college. Sure, there won’t be ivy on the wall, but it’s a job and you might still be able to do some research, get some funding and above all stay close to your great love, you field of research. At least you have something.
For another topic in the session that I could relate to, let me take you back to the beginning. In the big opening speeches it was repeated again and again that German academic teaching was obviously excellent since there were 400 people in the room witnessing that the American system wants German graduates. Even ignoring the fact that most institutions will welcome you when you bring your own grant money, this is one classical logical fallacy that I would expect every scientist to know – coincidence does not imply causality. In the break-out session I found one possible cause. A lot of the questions began “I also survived the German academic system, …”. And this is a feeling that was (and is) easily confirmed in conversations – people who graduate in Germany do so more often in spite of the quality of teaching. If you survive the system in Germany, chances are that you must be very well trained (and probably auto-didactically).
To end the evening everybody was invited to a buffet at MS’s New England Research and Development center across the street. I had not planned to attend but luckily I had met somebody who was kind enough to force me. The food was surprisingly good and the company more than enjoyable. I ran into some people from Ann Arbor and my lunch companion. All in all, I was very surprised how easy it was to have conversations with these people. I guess we had not only a common situation, but a common mindset.