Today we would like to open a new series of interviews on the Helmholtz Juniors blog, where you can get to know the members of the HeJus, what are their responsibilities and what are they passionate about.
We start with our spokespersons, Elias and Dagmara, that represent us officially outside the HeJus, coordinate all the different groups inside the HeJus and motivate us all the time. Elias comes from DKFZ in Heidelberg, Dagmara from GEOMAR in Kiel and they are spokespersons since February 2016, when they were elected during the annual meeting of the Helmholtz Junior. They were asked some questions about their work, duty and ideas about doctoral researchers and HeJus.
We hope you will enjoy the reading as we did the writing!
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: Would you like to briefly tell us what are you working on in your graduate research?
Dagmara: As a doctoral researcher I work at GEOMAR, the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel. My research is focused on trace metal chemistry in seawater. Trace metals are biologically vital micronutrients to all marine organisms. The ultimate aim of my project is to quantify fluxes of these essential nutrients from the coastal waters to the open ocean.
Elias: I’m interested on molecules that are regulating the intrinsic properties of blood stem cells. For me, they are quite an interesting bunch. They are full of regeneration and differentiation potential, but they are mostly sitting around doing nothing, only working when they are really forced to do so. However, those principally “lazy” stem cells are capable of replenishing a whole organ, the blood system, when they are called for their job.
Q: When have you decided to join the HeJus and how you got to know the association?
D: I became a PhD representative at GEOMAR and through that, I was informed about HeJu activities; it sounded very interesting and I decided to join the Helmholtz Juniors in February after the election to institutional PhD representation.
E: It’s quite a straightforward story: both at the University Heidelberg and within my Helmholtz Center, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) I was already engaged in the representation of doctoral researchers, and by this I also got to know previous HeJu members and the network itself. I was quite curious about the interdisciplinarity of the group and the direct exchange between researchers from different fields of science.
Q: You were elected spokesperson, how is it?
D: Being a spokesperson is a lot of responsibility and at times a lot of work along with my PhD project. However, I enjoy working with a vast group of highly motivated and enthusiastic people across so many disciplines. There are so many different points of views and approaches and it’s a great opportunity to learn from others. It has been a great experience.
E: Fascinating, absolutely! To some people, the position might seem to involve only a lot of tedious discussions and email-writing, without any visible progress. Sometimes that is in part true, but hey! in every “job” there are those days. I’ve really learned so much during this year about communication, science management and, in fact, quite a bit about myself. I think especially by attending big official meetings and by being forced to think more about larger structures and programs rather than specific little problems, one gets a better idea what this sometimes overused “big picture” phrase actually means. Seeing so many bright people working jointly to move something forward and getting all the loose ends of little projects together: it is just very rewarding in the end.
Q: Which responsibilities do you have and how your work inside the HeJus changed?
D: My work didn’t change as I became a spokesperson as soon as I became HeJu ;-)
E: Together with my co-speaker, Dagmara, we’re trying to coordinate all the different topics within Helmholtz Juniors and to enable everyone to achieve our goals efficiently – in the end, everyone at HeJus is a volunteer, and thus we’re also mainly making sure to get rid of obstacles on their way. A big part of this year was spent strengthening the bonds with other research associations. Also, as the face of the HeJu towards the public, we’re the first contact point to journalists and political parties. Apart from that additional duties, my efforts in the working condition group has not changed: I’m still very active in this field.
Q: Do you think the work of HeJus can contribute to ameliorate the doctoral researchers conditions inside Helmholtz Institutes?
D: Of Course it can!
E: Yes, definitely! I think we’re on a good way there. It’s for sure not going to happen overnight, though, and we need more input and feedback from doctoral researchers at the institutions, most importantly via our survey happening in the beginning of 2017. I think we made it quite clear in the discussions with the responsible officials that we are the scientific future of the centers – and not just some cheap labor without a voice.
Q: Do you think the HeJus could be an example for other researcher in other institution inside and outside Germany?
E: Another strong yes here. To my experience, it is very difficult to reach and mobilize doctoral researchers. So many people are complaining about their working conditions or their supervision, but in order change something we must team up! This part of our scientific career is the one phase where you basically should be as free as possible to realize your own ideas, but realistically seen, it is the time of highest dependency for most doctoral researchers. The things we do within Helmholtz also can help to motivate researchers to look beyond their everyday field of work, maybe encouraging to share ideas of science with the public.
Q: What are in your opinion the biggest challenges a doctoral researcher has to face in his 3-5 years at the Helmholtz Institutes?
D: The most common problems that have been revealed across the Helmholtz Association were: lack or poor supervision, depression, unclear contracts, unknown future. Of course all these problems and their magnitude and relevance differ between centers.
E: For the “usual” researcher the most common challenge is simply how to finish the thesis project within the given timeframe, though that is barely worth noticing. That being said, all the other problems arising are often structural, i.e. insufficient funding or problems between supervisors and collaborators or even the classical clash between the professor and their doctoral researchers, due to missed chances for communication. It’s these issues that doctoral researcher representatives like the HeJus can make a difference in.
Q: How could HeJus help and contribute to solve and overcome these challenges?
D: As a Helmholtz Association PhD representation, we always try to work towards the improvement of the doctoral Researchers working conditions. Currently, we’re working on improving the contract situation across the Helmholtz Association. We want all doctoral researchers to feel secure and appreciated at all Helmholtz centers. Also, we’re in contact with Helmholtz Graduate Centre coordinators that have structures and closer connection with the doctoral researchers at the respective centres.
E: In my opinion, the strong dependency of doctoral researchers that I mentioned before is the reasons why Helmholtz Juniors are so important. As a joint network, we can focus much more on general structural problems and on how to solve them, than a single doctoral researcher or even local representatives could. Sure, I could always personally ask for a rise of my salary and be successful, but setting new standards in the field requires to bring forces together. A main strength of HeJu is the sharing of information – problems of doctoral researchers at one center might already have been solved at another. It is much easier to argue with officials about topics of concern for doctoral researchers when you can toss in information and experience from colleagues at completely different institutes. It worked pretty often in the last year.
Q: What are the priorities the HeJus are currently working on?
D: Working conditions improvement, in particular of stipend holders. At the moment we are proposing an improved version of contracts that should be implemented across all 18 Helmholtz Centres. Also, the survey that is planned to be released soon, in the first months of 2017. This will give us an insight into working conditions situation across all Helmholtz Centres and supervision satisfaction amongst all doctoral researchers
E: The top priorities are the survey, working conditions improvment and making the NextGen@Helmholtz 2017 in Kiel (Conference with doctoral researchers of all the Helmholtz centers) happen, in no particular order. There might be some novelties regarding joint projects with PhDNet and the Leibniz representation later this year. Stay tuned for more info on Facebook or Twitter @HelmholtzJrs!
Q: What do you think of the raise of the awareness on PhD frustration/depression science-wide, as well as the long working hours outside contracts (for an example see here)?
E: The whole topic is slowly getting into the attention of media and the science community, which I think is superb, but as long as the “Old skool” Professors just regard this as weakness of a younger generation – À la: “In my PhD I did not even have time to count my working hours, let alone thing about holidays” – little will change. Perhaps, with such a high number of people considering quitting, one might wonder whether there really is a need for everyone to go through doing a PhD project (as it is still required for many jobs in Germany) or if a smaller number of well-connected and optimally supported researchers would be much more efficient. In the end, it’s a job that involves a lot of creativity and I am not sure if being forced to do more than 50 hours a week can really be kept throughout a whole career, without damaging motivation and efficiency.
Q: How do you think we could improve the situation in the Helmholtz Centers, if it is needed?
E: I think we really must get rid of the old thinking of doctoral researchers doing work only for themselves and their education and shift the attention to the impact that our research has. We are working on proper scientific questions, we produce scientific output and by this we promote our Helmholtz Centers and science in Germany. It should be only natural to provide the best support for these highly-specialized workers, if we want to have the best institutions in the respective fields of study. And I think Helmholtz should have those aims for their centers.
Q: Lastly, being a spokesperson, or HeJu, could be perceived as a lot of responsibility and work. Would you tell us the reason why you like it and dedicate your time and why, in your opinion, would be nice for other researcher to join the HeJus?
D: Helmholtz Juniors positions are open for all enthusiastic volunteers researchers across Helmholtz Associated centres that are willing to work towards the improvement of PhD working conditions in general. We are welcoming anyone that has a need and drive to work for the PhD life improvement as a Helmholtz Junior.
E: I am a spokesperson because, by doing this, I have the unique possibility to work with independent, young and skilful researchers on topics completely unrelated with our usual field of science. It is, basically, science seen from a different angle. I learned a great deal within this time and I am sure that I will be able to use these skills I have acquired through my whole life, though “doing the job” seems tiresome at times. We learn a lot doing our PhD anyways, but these extra lessons are worthwhile to be taken. It’s simply an incredibly stimulating way to spend your time and do something useful. You have my definite recommendation for anyone to join the Helmholtz Juniors! You won’t regret it.