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GAIN conference retrospectively Day 2

The second day at the GAIN conference was obviously the most intense day simply because it was the only full day. However, the program was well designed which minimised stress and maximised my attention span.

First session

The first session consisted of three parallel workshops. Since some were repeated in the afternoon it was not too hard to decide on two out of three five. In the morning I arrived a little late (thanks to a flate bike tire) at the workshop on “Alternative ways for a successful re-entrance in the German research system”. The session consisted of five short talks and questions. The talks were excellent. The DAAD, DFG and MPG talks were really informative showing all the tools and grants available. Even more interesting were the two other talks. The Potsdam university’s vice-president talked about their strategy for postdocs. He made quite an impression with honest answers and good comparative data. The fact that the university has a specific guide for postdocs was actually impressive (though this is kind of a sad thing to say). His talk was also interesting because some of his comments on the lack of long-term positions got a strong reaction from Krista Sager, MdB. Although the ‘politicality’ of their argument was a bit annoying, the facts were interesting. Apparently, there is a slight chance that finally we could have open ended contracts that can be terminated for economic reasons. This is something that is amazingly complicated in Germany. Since almost all universities are public institutions, their employees have very strong unions and therefore extemely good contracts (also, professor are always Beamte) and every open-ended position is essentially tenure.

This is a problem for two reasons. One, universities are unwilling to give open-ended contracts since they cannot get rid of people if money is tight later. Two, researchers have either too much security or none at all. I did mention the interesting comments by Helmut Schwarz years ago at a Bundestag committee meeting. One thing he said there was that he does not understand, why German universities do not offer jobs via the overhead they acquire from the funding agencies. After all, the total overhead for the university fluctuates much less than on a departmental or personal level. So this extra money should give us extra positions (and investments). He argued that these could easily be open-ended since universities have enough experience to judge how the overhead will develop over the years. If its researchers acquire less and less grants (and hence overhead) then it should be possible to let people go for economic reasons (leo tells me the correct term is “redundancy due to business operations”).

Generally speaking, I don’t understand why everybody the majority in the academic system should get tenure. If the price for tenure is as in Germany – ca. 10% (the professors) have an immense security whereas 50% are researchers with short-term contracts – then it’s not worth it. But open-ended contracts are necessary to give especially young researchers a greater security – just like everywhere else. My impression of my peers at the conference was: we’re not afraid of the competition but short-term contracts discourage immensely. Also, we don’t intend to get stuck on a low-level open-ended position. We want career options because we are ready to make a career.

Anyway, the last talk was by Kerstin Dübner-Gee of the dual career office at the TUM. I had already talked to her at the career fair the day before and her talk included a lot of interesting facts. I really hope more universities will introduce such tools. I think this will easily be the ‘killer application’/service to attract young researchers. Just connecting the partners, arranging informal (job) interviews and supporting the process as a whole; that’s very attractive for a lot of people I know.

talk talk talk

After the obligatory coffee break and another opportunity to stroll through the career fair it was time for talks. The first talk by Anke Burkhardt offered insight into (her) research in the development of academia in Germany. The talk gave a very good overview of the general structure of the system, the amount of money, how few tenured positions we have (as mentioned), the difficult legal situation since the most recent reform has had the federal administration give up almost all ways to do anything about the development of the academic system. Interesting as it was, I would have preferred a shorter talk on the issue. After all, postdocs are a long way from influencing policies, we’d rather hope for more information on how to get to a stable position where we can even think about that. Nevertheless, the talk was very good, albeit (again) Germany-centric. And a very frustrating note: almost all new tools in the system (tenure-track, negotiable salary, lecturer positions) are only ever optional, i.e., those federal states that have made them possible in their system made sure not to require them but only ‘allow’ them. And the (aging?) professorate controlling the universities seems quite unwilling to actually introduce them.

After lunch, it was time for the second talk of the day. Philip Altbach of Boston College gave the only English talk of the conference. His was an amazing talk. A gifted (and I assume well trained) speaker he gave an introduction into the American system as whole. I learned a lot, finally understanding a little how community colleges, public and private universities interact in the States. To pick out one particular topic, I think I was most surprised by his answer to the question why American students/researchers do not often consider going abroad. In his humble opinion the reason for this is that the American market mostly discourages this. That is, except for the top universities an institution will usually fail to acknowledge the quality of such an experience, both personally as well as academically. It really just makes your chances worse; poor Americans, I thought.

The last ‘talk’ wasn’t so much a talk as a panel. Marion Schmidt of the FTD moderated a discussion between the presidents of DFG, DAAD, Helmholtz Society, Humboldt Foundation and Hochschulrektorenkonferenz as well as Thomas Rachel (Ministry of education and research) and Andreas Busch (head of Bayer Schering research). It was probably the most uninteresting part of the conference. On second thought, due to the high quality of the rest this wouldn’t say much, but this was actually a little uninteresting. The discussion was too professional, nobody was ready to discuss their positions openly instead hiding behind durable political phrases. Only the Helmholtz-president tried to break out of that habit, challenging the complacency but even his comments pearled off. It probably did not help that the only head of an industrial research department was only asked very, very few questions. Maybe he could have said more if the moderation had permitted. The questions from the audience were very limited but at least two topics made it into my own notes. One question asked the lonely politician how he assessed the quality of science lobbying which yielded a very diplomatic answer (essentially, it has improved in the last few years but the starting point was non-existentence). Another question regarding lack of long-term contracts led to an almost emootional comment by Jürgen Mlynek (Helmholtz president). He pointed out that the biggest problem was ignored by the panel – the psychological problem, that young researcher do not expect to have it easy but they need to see that the hard work they are putting in will enable them to have a life. That seems to be exactly to the point.

last session

After another coffee and career break the last session repeated the morning workshops. This time I went to the workshop on ‘Nachwuchsgruppen’. The term itself deserves some criticism. It seems to be a German (perhaps European) phenomenon to call everyone who isn’t a tenured professor Nachwuchs – that’s offspring, new blood, younglings, kids, whatever. This enables an attitude of looking down on anybody who isn’t a tenured professor. It’s annoying, it’s disrespectful (think of a non-tenured PI here) and in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon culture where (grad) students are already treated with almost the same respect as everybody else. Ok, enough ranting.

Getting back on the topic, this session was perhaps the best session (and it’s a shame that there were not more of this kind). The main reason was that it gave the next step (in this session, grants for PI positions) a face. This was perfect timing after the aforementioned comment by Jürgen Mlynek on the psychology of things. To meet four researchers that have taken the next step and become PIs with 5-7 years (extendable) contracts was, I think, for most people in the room a very welcomed experience. The talks by Tilman Brummer, Zuzana Storchova, Christoph Eberl and Kristian Kersting were also among the best when it came to quality. They introduced the application process and added the personal experiences of both the procedure and the actual beginning of this next career step. I am wondering if the parallel session (on careers outside of academia) was equally interesting. Judging from the program it was senior executives instead of people closer to the situation of the postdocs present. It was unfortunate that not all of these sessions were accessible. I hope they’ll do it differently next time since I felt that this session was ‘what it’s all about’.

The session concluded the day for me since I did not join the dinner at the German consulate – I met some old friends from Berlin who came to visit Boston that day so I did the other part of networking, instead of new ties I strengthened old ones.