Career development: Have the right feeling

According to this year´s Nature Graduate Student Survey , most graduates worldwide plan to pursue an academic career. In Germany, almost sixty percent of the graduates are very certain that they want to stay in academia, while only ten percent answered that they will very likely leave the academic track.

Within the Cluster Science Days evening program “Life after your PhD” we discussed the questions „Where to go next? – Research worldwide“ and „Academia or industry? – Plenty of possibilities“ with our invited guests from academia and industry. There, we wanted to find answers to questions like “How to decide which path to choose?” and “How to realize the goal of pursuing an academic career?”.


Research worldwide

(image: ImmunoSensation Cluster)

Many young scientists who want to stay in academia plan to do some of their training abroad. Indeed, the experienced principal investigators who partook in our discussion had particularly fond memories of their research times abroad, and when asked for further advice about how to choose which country or city to live and work in, they unanimously answered “Have the right feeling!”

Sandra Groeger from the international office therefore gave an overview of  the support offered by the University of Bonn. The International Office offers a variety of support, including career entry workshops, international competence training, and in-between financing. In addition, the office also co-ordinates with European and international networks and fosters contacts with international institutions and organizations.


How to foster your academic career

(image: ImmunoSensation Cluster)

But the key question remained: How to successfully pursue an academic career and how to get one of the attractive positions in academia. Here, the young PIs pointed out three important things. First of all, networking is really important. You should stay in touch with people you meet and share your ideas with others. Further, you should not be afraid to claim some of your professors’ time and, for example, drink a cup of coffee with them and discuss your work. Secondly, you have to make yourself visible, for example by writing articles, reviews, or giving interviews. Thirdly, getting your own grants is very helpful. For that, it is important to keep track of application deadlines.

All in all it is about keeping your eyes open for opportunities and being active: talk to people, actively foster your network and make your own luck by driving your ideas and research, spreading your ideas and convincing people of their importance.

As one of our guest emphasized very nicely it is important to not see the problems but the opportunities.


Academia, industry or something completely different

When it comes to career development the first question a PhD student has to answer is: “Do I want to stay in research?“. And if so, the second question is: “Do I want to go to industry or stay in academia?“. Here, our guests from academia pointed out: if you are not sure whether to take the academic path or not, you should not stay in academia. Post-PhD life in academia is very challenging and therefore it is important to know what one wants and to be certain about the goal. Nevertheless, as one of our guests reminded, it certainly is a question of what amount of freedom you need in your work life.

The wide array of research within industry means that the degree to which you can bring in and implement your own ideas will also depend on which company you join. Lars Franken, who started in at a Biotech startup company in Cologne some time ago, was very enthusiastic about his work. Lars has to stay in touch with the research in his company and know about the latest developments and hot topics in science. But he also loves the diversity his job offers, which includes project planning, experimental design, setting up business plans, negotiating with suppliers and marketing. He has to connect with people and discuss with scientists about scientific experiments. Lars Franken summed it up as that in industry he can see what he is doing and knows what he is working for. Others, like Chris Woolston a science editor and freelance writer at Nature, pointed out that often a clear reason for switching to industry is that the „get it done culture“ pushes scientists towards results and efficiency, unlike academia, which can be a very inefficient place to do research (article „Uncertain Futures“).

But in addition to research there are many other things to explore and learn for PhD graduates. Anja Pfletschinger, for example, went into scientific project management and now coordinates of the Excellence Cluster Office of CECAD in Cologne. There, she enjoys her new tasks, which mainly deal with communication, organization and public relations. Further, as Rüdiger Mull from the Department of Knowledge transfer and intellectual property rights pointed out in his Cluster Seminar, patent law is a very attractive and well-paid alternative career path. For Graduate Students who aim at totally switching and to find completely new challenges, starting in strategic consulting companies or possibly setting up their own start-up is a popular transition.

All in all we enjoyed a great evening of discussion, with plenty of career advice for those of us doing our PhDs.



Thanks a lot to our guests:


Sandra Groeger International Student Advisor, International Office, Bonn
Anja Pfletschinger Administrative Coordinator, CECAD Cluster of Excellence, Cologne
Lars Franken Bioassay Development Scientist, AyoxxA Biosystems GmbH, Cologne
Luis Spitta Postdoc, Radiation Biology, DLR Cologne
Tomabu Adjobimey Group Leader, Medical Microbiology, Bonn
Juliane Daßler-Plenker Administrative Coordinator, CECAD Cluster of Excellence, Cologne
Dagmar Wachten Group Leader, Molecular Physiology, Ceasar Bonn
Jasper van den Boorn Group Leader, Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, Bonn
Christoph Wilhelm Professor, Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, Bonn
Andreas Schlitzer Group Leader, LIMES institute, Bonn
Michael Hölzel Professor, Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, Bonn


and Catherine Gottschalk for organizing the Cluster Science Days evening program.


Author: Klara Höning