"As a Scientist you may not be very rich, but you can travel the world"
Sometimes as supervisors, you don’t know what students want for their careers or where they want to go; more often, neither do the students. Thus, career talks are great opportunities to answer questions and lead the path.
On June 3rd, a big event of the SFB1032’s graduate program MGK took place. Over 40 PhD students of the MGK, CeNS and NIM listened to 3 well-known and very successful scientists talking about their careers: SFB-PIs Prof. Petra Schwille, Director of the MPI of Biochemistry; Prof. Erwin Frey, professor at the Department of Physics and Prof. Don Lamb, professor at the Department of Chemistry (both LMU). SFBSpokesman Prof. Joachim Rädler, also professor at the Department of Physics (LMU), very successfully chaired the event by smoothly connecting the speakers and the audience.
Prof. Erwin Frey’s story started at the age of 10 when he decided to go on from Grundschule to Gymnasium to do his Abitur, although that was not the future planned for the eldest child of a farmer’s family. He followed this decision against the will of some of his teachers. This taught him a lesson that would be told to the audience many times throughout this event: in science you have to be determined! Prof. Frey went on to study and earn his PhD at the TU Munich and his post-doctorate in Harvard.
His advice to the PhD students concerning a postdoc is: “After your PhD, stop what you did and start something new.” Prof. Lamb added „Postdoc is another chance“. Prof. Schwille completed this advice with „Emancipate! Don’t apply for a position, create a position and become independent“. Prof. Rädler joined the discussion by adding “As a postdoc, follow the same tools, but change the questions“.
Prof. Schwille’s story is one of taking “wrong” decisions leading to a happy end. She said that most of the decisions which brought her to today’s position as MPI director were for the „wrong“ reasons, like choosing the University of Stuttgart for her studies primarily because Stuttgart was close to her hometown and cheap. But in the end, those decisions turned out to be great. She was asked if she had ever considered becoming anything other than a scientist. She responded, “I haven’t considered anything at all, but I knew what I wanted to become: independent“. She did her PhD thesis in Göttingen and Braunschweig, then went on to do a postdoc first in Göttingen and then at Cornell University in New York. Now as one of the directors of the MPI, she can do what she wanted all along: work independently (at least more or less).
Contrary to Prof. Frey, who said he got full professorship after his habilitation at the late age of 40, Prof. Schwille belonged to the first generation of scientists in Germany to head independent research groups straight after the PostDoc level. She got full professorship at the young age of 34.
After having received a permanent position, Prof. Schwille felt time was right to start a family. Now she has 3 children. So does Prof. Frey, whose first child was born during his PhD. Both of the professors emphasized that to have a healthy work-life-balance and a working family life, you need the full support and understanding of your partner. Additionally, Prof. Schwille profited greatly from the efficient child care system in Dresden.
Prof. Don Lamb’s story is one of “love, hard work and chance”. His career path led him from the US to Europe back to the US and back to Europe. Somewhere along his career he met his wife, who was also responsible for some of the paths he chose. After his PhD, he received a Humboldt fellowship and had to face the question of accepting or declining it. A professor he turned to told him this will be a recurring question throughout his life: take the easy path or take a risk! Prof. Lamb took the risk and worked at the TU Munich and then in Ulm until he earned a professorship at the Department of Chemistry of the LMU. Prof. Lamb also mentioned some of the difficulties foreign scientists have to face, like understanding the German university system and that it takes some time to get used to cultural differences.
At the end of the career talk, another interesting discussion started: do supervisors know which students will make it as professors? There are students who are very good but are not the “professor” type, so how do you know to which group you belong to as a student? Prof. Lamb answered this tricky question with: “If you want to make it, believe in yourself. There is no time to worry about succeeding.“ Prof. Schwille’s reply was: “The ones who are determined have a good chance. You need to have the ability to admire, to be thrilled. If you have a good supervisor, go and discuss it with him or her.” Prof. Frey’s advice is: “Be creative, determined and independent.“ Prof. Rädler said the important thing is to observe successful scientist group leaders. ”Don’t copy them, because everyone is different, but watch and learn.“ Asked for his understanding of his role as a group leader, Prof. Frey states: “I believe in the abilities of my group, and at the same time I am critical about their work.“ Prof. Lamb added: “Everybody who comes out of my lab should know how to do science at the highest level.“ The speakers pointed out that you cannot plan your career 100% and that most of the decisions you take are very personal. But if you follow some of the speakers’ advice, you are off to a good start.
A big thank you for this successful first career talk, of course, goes to Prof. Schwille, Prof. Lamb and Prof. Frey for their very different ways of describing their individual careers, their openness in telling stories and answering each and every question, and making this event not just one in a few but a very special one to remember. Acknowledgements also go to Prof. Rädler for doing a great job and to the audience for making the discussion such a lively one. Last but not least, a big thank you to the MGK Student Representatives Florian Thüroff, Fabian Wehnekamp and Mario Teichmann without whose commitment and effort this event would have been impossible. This article ends with Prof. Schwille’s statements: “Mistakes you can’t avoid, you have to make.“ and Prof. Rädler’s last sentence to the PhD students‘ audience: ”We have confidence in you“.