European Congress of Immunology – Part 3

In addition to excellent scientific talks, ECI also offers sessions on scientific writing as well as career advice. Today I went to a “Women in Immunology” Career Lunch hosted by the German Society for Immunology. In the session, two female group leaders (Diana Dudziak and Friederike Berberich-Siebelt) as well as the former president of the German Society of Immunology (Hans-Martin Jäck) shared their career paths and answered the questions of all participants. The following points sum up the advice given to young career scientists:

  • Work hard! That one is obvious – you won’t have a bright career ahead of you if you do not put energy and time into it. You need to want this!
  • Get a first author paper from you PhD – if possible. The impact factor is not that important, a good personal reference from your supervisor will be much more helpful to get a good post-doc position.
  • Publication record during your post-doc however is crucial, as this list is key when applying for fellowships and junior group leader jobs after your post-doc. So choose a lab in which all stories are published. Yes, a track record of high-impact papers is great, but what if your project isn’t turning out to be big enough for nature or science? You want a lab head who also publishes smaller studies in lower impact journals.
  • But it’s not just about publications – make sure your CV looks good. Include conference talks or poster presentations. A good tip was to attend smaller meetings, where the chance of winning a poster price is higher – as such awards are great for your CV.
  • Be flexible. Location wise. While going abroad for a post-doc isn’t an absolute must, foreign country experiences looks great on any CV. But not just that, living in a different country will help with your independence – in and outside the lab. It’s also a lot of fun and will broaden your horizon. Again scientifically as much as culturally. Try to also include your family in this – living in a different country is great for kids.
  • A supportive environment is key. Talk to your spouse and family, and see how your career plans can become reality. Can your spouse come with you to the USA for 3-5 years? Or would a sabbatical for a few month, spend apart, be a solution for you?
  • There is never the perfect timing to have kids. But please go ahead and have them anyway – they will become perfectly fine human beings even if their parents work. But plan ahead (especially the women among you) – choose a lab that supports you when pregnant and on maternity leave. It’s not unknown for a new mom to get a technician to perform experiments and in the first few months only come in to coordinate with the technician. You need support to make it work – so think ahead and choose the right lab.
  • Establish a network early on. During your PhD and post-doc, go to conference, approach PI and get connected. This will help you choose the right labs, as you know more people who have been in different labs around the world.

Most importantly all agreed that each career is different and you have to choose your own way. But you need to want to stay in academia as it’s going to be hard, but it’s possible! Get a mentor, someone you can ask to help you with applications, grants and other career questions.

And there is no shame in leaving academia if it doesn’t work out. With the “Wissenschaftszeitarbeitsgesetz” looming over german scientists (this law postulates that scientist can only work for 12 years in academia in Germany, before they have to reach lab head level) – its understandable that people are scared to commit. What if with 38 you do not get the grant or lab head job? You are unemployed and it’s hard to change then. But there are plenty of other jobs where you can still contribute to science: as political adviser (getting rid of the “Wissenschaftszeitarbeitsgesetz” 🙂 ), as grant reviewer, scientific writer or in forensics.

Best of luck to all of you!

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