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I quit my PhD! What now?

This article was originally published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (02-2020)

In a seminar for doctoral students, we look at strong and weak parts of a CV. After we discussed how we can put the many highlights of Elizabeta’s career into the best light, Gregor starts to grumble: “I think I have the exact opposite of all these brilliant experiences.” Twelve pairs of eyes turn on him. Their owners can’t wait to learn what has disgraced his past so much. “Aborted doctorate,” he adds. “Do I just leave a gap there and hope that nobody notices? Or do I write bluntly: Professional loser who didn´t get along with his supervisor?” Uncertain giggles mix with nodding. Nobody envies him for having to place something like that in his resume.


Make an unpleasant decision in a messy situation – a highly relevant skill

for an industry job.

The same Gregor had caused a hearty laugh just half an hour earlier. We talked about the difference between university and industry. He had leaned back, stroked his beard and let us know:
“The most important thing for me is the timeline. In industry everything is determined by tight project management. At university time is measured in, let’s say, geological
dimensions. Projects are running until death separates you.”
Most industrial employers are happy with their doctoral employees. If there are problems, the complaints are always the same: The scientific qualifications are rarely lacking. Rather, companies criticise the lack of adaptability to the new culture in industry and the different way of working.…

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Landing on your feet

Landing on your feet

First published in ‘Nachrichten aus der Chemie’ (03-2018)


“I feel stuck in my postdoc, nothing more than 1-year contracts for the last five years. I am sick of it and finally want to have a secure position, I want to be able to plan my life, at least a little bit.”


With sober assuredness, he replied, “I never thought much about safety. I always felt very employable.”


The seminar participant who expressed herself doesn´t even sound angry, rather exhausted. I can comprehend her feelings all too well. She always gave everything for her work, always heeded the well-intentioned advice from her supervisors and now feels trapped.

At the same time I can´t help but remember the story of a professor, who left a permanent and well-paid position in the pharma industry at the age of 45, in order to build up his own research group at a university. When I met him, I asked him if he wasn´t afraid what might come when his five-year contract at the university would come to an end and he wouldn´t have made the cut to a professorship. Without hubris, but instead with sober assuredness, he replied, “I never thought much about safety. I always felt very employable.”

We all want to work self-determined, without tumbling between unemployment and precarious employment. The motif of this professor was not ‘safety’, though, it was ’employability’. While safety can be measured in tenured positions and contract length, he in contrast was led by the question, “Will I land on my feet if something goes wrong?”…

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Young woman making keep it quiet gesture against a gray background

The pregnancy issue: Don’t ask. Don’t tell

First published in ‘Nachrichten aus der Chemie’ (08-2016)

I was coaching a young lady, who had just handed in her Master thesis when she became pregnant. She did not have a job yet, but her CV was impressive. What is more, she was highly motivated and had the necessary infrastructure in place to handle both motherhood and a career. “Staying at home for a whole year? No, I couldn’t do that,” she said, very determined, “I want to go back to work immediately after my maternal leave, and I can.” She knew that she needed a job to which she could return. I told her that if I were her, I would just apply regularly and not mention the pregnancy too early in the process. “Legally you are allowed to keep quiet until after you have signed the contract, given that you have the necessary infrastructure in place to fulfil all of your job requirements,” I informed her. “Then they cannot withdraw the offer in spite of the pregnancy.” The woman thought it appropriate to put her cards on the table only after the interview but before signing the contract.

Not knowing the law is dangerous

She applied for a university position and was immediately invited to a job interview. During the interview the professor asked some general questions, but was at least equally interested in her private life. She limited her answers to job-relevant information and did not mention her pregnancy.

Several days later she received an email from the professor.…

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Concerned worker looking at laptop screen, thinking about problem solution, risks, company success strategies, person reading financial report. Concept of hardworking, concentration, making decision

Decide: If, then how

Geert looks horrible. His hair stands on end, his nervous and tired eyes speak more than words. “Thanks a lot for letting me vent my problems,” he mutters into the telephone. What he went through in the last few days is often regarded as the main justification for the higher salaries of leaders: the stress that comes with difficult decisions. And the decision, which Geert is facing could hardly be more difficult. One of his co-workers took breaks for hours without clocking these out, a clear breach of trust. He could see in her time log, that she tested this scheme over months. Now, Geert does not know how to react. Why is this so difficult? Because she has to take care of two kids, the family depends on her income.

So why is it that we act against our principles so often?

Just before Geert can hang up the phone, he hears his friend´s voice over the phone once more, “Is there any chance that you can ever trust her again?” “No!” Geert yells at an uncomfortable pitch. Without any further comment, Geert´s friend hangs up.

We often procrastinate uneasy decisions. However, in this way they usually do not solve themselves, but undermine our credibility and cause further conflicts down the line. On a rational basis, most people would agree to take decisions quickly as soon as they have enough facts on the table. So why is it that we act against our principles so often?

“If I can never trust her again, then any future work with her is pointless,” Geert is thinking for himself.…

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