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Young scientists: a view with obstacles

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Young scientists are more mobile and well educated than ever before. Probably no generation before had such opportunities - and was under similar pressure. An international inventory.

“It used to be a bit more sleepy in the science landscape,” says Dierk Raabe. In the past, that was 25 years ago, when the metal physicist began his career as a scientist. Today he is director of the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research in Düsseldorf. The institute is a scientific microcosm that shows how the professional profile of the scientist has changed: Today researchers come from all over the world and go all over the world, and half of the doctoral students are now women. Internationalization, globalization, flexibility - all terms that describe the new scientific landscape.

This is both a curse and a blessing. A blessing because “everything is very accessible and online, you can go anywhere and become anything,” as the Malaysian mathematician Anitha Thillaisundaram puts it. A curse because the competition is getting tougher, the pressure to perform is increasing, as are the expectations of young scientists: "For every European scientist there are 20 Asian scientists who are just as good," says Raabe, who is already a member of a selection committee of the Humboldt Foundation has reviewed many careers of international junior researchers. The neuroscientist Jan Siemens, 42 and now a professor, also notes in the résumés of the younger generation that the pressure has increased: “More flexibility is expected,” he says. There are 20 years of research between Dierk Raabe and Anitha Thillaisundaram. Jan Siemens stands right between them in his career. Three scientists, three disciplines and three career levels: How has your job description changed?

It is only a stone's throw from Malaysia to Magdeburg

Anitha Thillaisundaram is currently doing research with a Humboldt Research Fellowship at the Chair of Algebra and Number Theory at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. The 30-year-old's résumé bears witness to what is called mobile: Born in Malaysia, studied and completed her PhD in Cambridge, England, research stays in India and Magdeburg in Germany. Düsseldorf will not be your last stop. “If you want to become something in science, you have to be willing to travel to get to good places,” she says, “that's not only nice, but the system wants it too.” To go where you want Interested in research - that has become more natural today than for generations before.

This is also shown by the study “The Global State of Young Scientists” published in 2014 by the Global Young Academy in Berlin. Accordingly, many things are easier for young scientists today than for generations before them: They are better educated and more mobile than their predecessors. In return, however, more is required of them: Mobility not only means being able to go where you want, but sometimes also going because you have to. The uncertainty of career prospects can become an existential question. In fact, the problem of the “lack of predictability” was something that “showed up in all respondents worldwide, albeit for different reasons,” as Irene Friesenhahn, one of the two authors of the study, emphasizes. In Germany in particular, this has a negative effect on satisfaction and creativity: 83 percent of those surveyed described the uncertainty as an obstacle. Because the German system is special: According to the “Federal Report on Young Scientists 2013”, almost 90 percent of the scientific staff in Germany have fixed-term employment contracts - in the USA it is only 14 percent. The German government wants to improve the prospects for young German researchers. The Science Term Contract Act is currently being reformed, which regulates the limitation of employment contracts in science in Germany.

However, it is not just a lack of and uncertain career opportunities that is a problem in many places, as the study by the Global Young Academy shows. Many of the tasks that postdocs in mid-level academic staff pursue in addition to research, such as teaching and organizational matters, would not be rewarded. The publications counted for the ascent. Time is short, the pressure is great, as Dierk Raabe also observes: “I often see young people rotating. Being present at conferences, getting applications through, teaching, supervising students, maybe doing your habilitation, publishing - and then always with the question in the back of your mind whether that's enough. “Everyone would like more time, the survey by the Global Young Academy suggests. But not to work less than the average of 54.7 hours per week. You want to be able to take better care of your own advancement, but also of your students. "Too little time is probably a problem for everyone," says Thillaisundaram, "and not just for us scientists."

In view of all this, private life with looking for a partner and possibly starting a family becomes a special challenge for young researchers. Of course, this does not only apply to science, but here the predictability of a career in the third decade of life is particularly difficult. Having children increases job insecurity and time pressure. “It used to be easy,” says Thillaisundaram, “so the woman often stayed at home. Today, both partners may be very good, ambitious researchers or professionals who pursue a career and have to be flexible for this. ”That changes not only the scientist's existence, but also the partner structures.

Work-life balance instead of a laboratory

The role models are being redefined, "says Raabe," nowadays men too ask more frequently about the compatibility of research and family. "Unfortunately, the solution often turns out to be to the disadvantage of women. “We lose a lot of very good women after completing our PhD. They often prefer a career in industry that seems to allow greater planning, ”says Raabe. But the problem is easier to solve on paper than in reality. If you ask Anitha Thillaisundaram, you will understand why: "For me, science is a bit like learning to snowboard," she says. “At first it needs my full attention. Later, when I'm better, I can do things on the side. But as a woman you can't wait so long to have children. "

Innovations such as more flexible working models and a better work-life balance scratch the classic image of a researcher. Raabe considers the idea of ​​a scientist who only sees research and nothing else to be unworldly: “Fortunately, creativity cannot be measured by the time you put into it,” he says. Jan Siemens also believes that his people are less willing to spend long days in the laboratory. “I try not to judge that,” he says, “not everything that is researched at three o'clock in the morning after 24 hours in the laboratory is necessarily brilliant.” Around six years ago, Siemens was awarded a Sofja Kovalevskaja Prize from the Humboldt Foundation returned to Germany from the USA, initially to Berlin. He is now doing research in Heidelberg and is particularly very satisfied with the financing options in Germany: “This is a real locational advantage.” However, he is critical of the promotion of young talent in this country: “The systems here are often very rigid and hierarchical - large professorships and large working groups for life . There is often no room for the next generation, ”says Siemens. For those who are subordinate to “a hierarchically structured kingdom” at the chair, freedom of research is often only given to a limited extent. It is content-wise and financially dependent, says Siemens. What the neuroscientist would like would be smaller and more flexible working groups instead of large and rigid chairs as well as a kind of basic income for scientists with which they can work: “Then young researchers with good topics also have a chance and can work their way up faster. That would also allow restarts if something is not going so well, ”says Siemens.

Under the pressure of the hot topics

But what are good topics that young researchers should focus on? Are you free to choose? The study by the Global Young Academy documents that research is increasingly expected to be particularly relevant to society. This contradicts the ideal of the free and independent researcher who, if necessary, “must also have the courage to throw two years of work in the wastebasket”, as Raabe puts it. He also observes a greater expectation of the topics than before: “I often feel that public pressure on scientists, such as that exerted by funding organizations or even the government, affects the sustainability of research. There is then a hype that everyone jumps on, see the keyword global warming. But that alone does not make good research. ”No one-sidedness, that's what older people want from younger people. Neither in terms of the topics, nor in terms of life planning and the understanding of happiness in life: “In addition to everything technical, I also want lightness,” says Raabe. "The work should be fun, and you should also make sure that you don't focus on something, like this one career in science, in this one place."

Looking for role models

Anitha Thillaisundaram, in turn, wants the older ones to experience them above all: "Hierarchies are also orientations that show me where the people with more experience are," she says. Jan Siemens also appreciates this: “I have strong role models in the generation before me. I don't always ask them for advice, but I often wonder how they would have reacted in this or that situation. ”The survey by the Global Young Academy shows that mentors are not only important for work - when they are missing , this is a real obstacle on the way to success. The respondents not only consider their supervisors to be important mentors, but also older colleagues, family or friends. The main thing, the study suggests, is that they believe in you.

Despite all the challenges, not just for the next generation of scientists: 66 percent of the researchers worldwide who were surveyed three years ago for a study by the journal Nature are satisfied with their job - even if not always with the conditions. Perhaps it is due to a common motivation that old and young share as well as representatives of different disciplines. “Learning new things” is what Anitha Thillaisurandam calls it. Dierk Raabe calls it a “detective instinct, questioning and searching that only grows over the years”. And for Jan Siemens it is the curiosity and joy in "understanding again and again why something works exactly the same way and not differently."

Author: Leonie Achtnich

This article was originally published in Humboldt Kosmos 105/2016.

Humboldt Kosmos is the magazine of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

About the study "The Global State of Young Scientists"

The basis for the graphics in this article comes from the study “The Global State of Young Scientists” by the Global Young Academy from 2014. Around 700 young scientists between the ages of 30 and 40 who had obtained their doctorate in the past 10 years were surveyed . The participants come from Egypt, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia and the USA. The Global Young Academy was founded in Berlin in 2010 and aims to provide a forum for young researchers from all over the world. It has around 200 members from 58 countries.

Study (PDF)

Global Young Academy

December 2017

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