Getting a job in academia

Job advice for early-career researches from an early-career researcher: recollections from a seminar meeting with junior group leaders talking about their careers in academia.

Getting your PhD is only the beginning. For many, the period of research as a doctoral candidate will be the most intensive, challenging, and joyful time of their life. In particular, research in experimental particle physics combines a stimulating environment with enthusiastic and very bright colleagues working on tough problems. All these elements require creativity, coding and technical skills, (time) management, and a large amount of collaboration and networking.

For many, the PhD research will be the first serious encounter with doing research on their own. Admittedly, as a master student you are doing your master project which culminates into a thesis. However, most students are supervised on a regular basis by more experienced researchers and unlike PhD students don’t have the extended period for thinking deep and experimenting with a variety of approaches.

Hopefully, the PhD project ends with a successful defence and the intellectual joy of having written a treatise on a topic on which the PhD is now an expert. There are at least as many reasons for not pursuing a career in science than there are in favour of it. Although the environment and the topic of your work is most engaging and satisfies ones natural curiosity, the job market for scientists in academia is tough.

In physics, a typical career path involves working as a postdoc after having done your PhD. In this fixed-term position, you can gain experience and broaden your view for becoming expert in more topics and more importantly, developing new research ideas.

My path has lead me to DESY in Hamburg, a vibrant centre for accelerator physics, photonics, and (for me) most importantly, particle physics. The DESY group is a welcoming and stimulating environment and collaboration with PhD students, other postdocs and scientists with permanent positions is great. Another perk of being at DESY Hamburg is the strong environment provided by the Quantum Universe excellence cluster, which brings together scientists from University of Hamburg and DESY.

Particularly noteworthy is the level of support for postdocs preparing them for getting a permanent position in academia. A plethora of trainings and counselling offers are provided by the PIER Education Platform for Postdocs.

On the 5th February 2021, a special format was offered for the first time by the  PIER Education Platform (PEP) for Postdocs in collaboration with the QU/CHAMPP Postdoc Council: the 1st Postdoc Experience Exchange Round table (PEER) Meeting.

Here, five successful early career researchers based in Hamburg talked about their personal experience and gave advice on how to get a junior position. All researchers were somehow linked to a physics background and (more relevant for me), most of them even worked in experimental particle physics.

I came into the meeting with a few questions in my mind, such as which grants are particularly appealing and what to keep in mind when applying to them, and how they balanced risky and very likely achievable projects in their applications.

The meeting started with five short introductions. Common themes of their stories were continuous building of leadership in large collaborations by taking over positions with responsibility, writing short-authorship papers as opposed to the large author lists of the collaborations, and doing a postdoc outside of Germany (when aiming for a permanent position in Germany).

The leadership skills are inevitable for leading a junior group, so it is very advisable (and I have to add: also most enjoyable) to supervise PhD students as a postdoc. So are management qualities which can be learned and demonstrated by taking over coordinating roles in collaborations, such as a convenership or the lead of an analysis team. The key word here was the “visibility” in large collaborations.

Writing papers with short author lists can make the difference in an application for tenure or a junior group. Not only do they set an applicant apart from others, they also provide room to demonstrate creativity and own ideas. Two early career researchers remarked how their own “hobby” or side-projects, which they followed and published in small authorship papers, ultimately helped them to get a permanent position. Again, small papers increase your “visibility”.

Finally, being abroad helps in several ways. Firstly, it broadens your horizon by exposing you to different styles of lecturing and supervision. Secondly, some programs of the DFG and the EU are designed to “bring the Germans back to Germany”.

It surprised me, how organically their academic path grew from one project to another. Apparently, it doesn’t hurt to practice your story and think of your “elevator pitch CV” in terms of storytelling. Almost every panelists used words such as “narrative” or “story”. One even admitted, that of course their stories sound very logically and organic: they have practised them over a hundred times in their career.

Speaking of practice: another advice was to sit down and write a lot of proposals. Like a novelist has to write in order to become a good writer, a scientist also has to practice his or her trade. Here, it can also help to read a lot of other successful proposals in your area and to analyse great papers for their writing. As a postdoc, you should think of the bigger picture and think of a research plan for the next years. Having to do the thinking in a grant application is a good way to organise your thoughts (e.g. in your third year as a postdoc).

There are several career options for a permanent position. Almost nobody mentioned the “classical” path: doing a habilitation and applying for a university professorship. Almost all focused on junior group leader positions and junior professorships. In the words of a panelist: “It is much more fun to do the job and demonstrate that you can do it well afterwards than to prove that you will be able to do the job well.” Also, concerning tenure-track-positions: “It is much easier if you are evaluated only against your own performance than against the performance of all your competitors.”

Most German schemes for junior group positions have their deadlines within 6 years after having obtained your PhD. Of the various grants and options, a few were mentioned several times:

For an Emmy-Noether junior group position, there is a tight time window of about four years after having obtained your PhD. In particular the Emmy-Noether program is specifically for fostering talent and considers whether precisely you are the right person to do the proposed research (“individual academic excellence”). If successful, it doesn’t hurt to negotiate with your university if they will grant you the title of a junior professor. If you don’t ask, most universities will not consider this option. For Emmy-Noether positions, teaching is also relevant. Typically, the Emmy-Noether junior group career path is embedded in a university context.

The Helmholtz Young Investigator groups on the other hand have a strong focus on research. After successful evaluation, “tenure” as a staff scientist at a Helmholtz institution can be granted. As the Helmholtz research centres don’t focus on lectures, the focus here is clearly research and leadership.

Finally, the ERC starter grant is a very prestigious way for negotiating a permanent position at a university. Here it should be noted, that you apparently can get blocked for the next round if your application is too bad. Therefore, one panelist suggested to apply already four or five years after your PhD to have a second chance before the deadline of seven years expires. Also for the ERC grants, going abroad can benefit your case in several ways (as discussed above).

The most important advice for your application is to ask successful applicants in your field. You should know them or at least have some connection, such as their institution being the same as your designated institution for your application.

The second most important advice is to stick exactly to the template, if there is such a thing. It doesn’t help if you write your project proposal first and then have to re-write it to adapt it to the template. Also, the template helps you to think over crucial elements in your proposal.

What I found very interesting was the answer of the panelists to my question how they decided the amount of risk in their grant proposals. Here, the advice was to layer the research plan and include some almost fail-safe projects with solid results, based on which more risky and innovative projects can follow. It also is beneficial to include “fallback solutions” or alternative directions to demonstrate that you are aware of potential failure of your projects.

But what if “you don’t make it in academia”? First of all, a career in industry can be equally fulfilling as doing research in a research centre or university context. Is there a thing such as being “too old for industry”? It depends, according to the panelists. If you did relevant research or gained experience with coding, machine learning / data science, fabrication during your postdoc, these years are by no means “wasted”. Otherwise, you need to accept that your salary will be not as good as that of somebody who went into industry right after the PhD.