My professor, the career advisor
Published: Februar 21, 2020

First published in ‘Nachrichten aus der Chemie’ (07/08-2017)

In a seminar, we are discussing the application of a female postdoc. “You just said you never intended to have a career in academia. Why did you start this postdoc then?” “My PhD supervisor told me to. She said it would complete my academic portfolio. As the research focus of my PhD was very specific it would be better to develop a second area of scientific expertise.” “Well, can you tell me what kind of job you would like to do?” “I’d like to be an application specialist for an instrument manufacturer. I enjoy tinkering around while collaborating with other people at the same time.” “For positions like that your research topic is irrelevant. What is more important here are the methods you used and, even more than that, your soft skills. Was your supervising professor aware of the fact that you do not want a career in academia?”

To reach the position they are now in, professors have overcome impressive intellectual obstacles. The inherent danger is that they are mistaken for omniscient oracles.

But there is one thing you should not expect from your professors: to act as your career advisors. Their point of view is way too specific for that. Due to the selection criteria, the path to a professorship is usually straightforward and strictly academic, with little room for a detour to the world outside of academia. Plus, professorial self-interest can always get in the way during such informal conversations: Securing the supply of PhD students and postdocs is of course an advantage for the universities.

Therefore, these counselling sessions usually only cover a limited range of your available options – those within academia.

And what do you get out of such career counselling sessions? You will be told how to polish your list of publications, but not how to establish a large network or which means of earning a second income could be interesting for you. That makes your CV almost impossible to sell outside the ivory tower: good grades, many publications, but nothing else that attracts interest.

At technical colleges (in Germany: Fachhochschulen), by the way, you are faced with a different situation. Here, professional experience outside of academia is a necessary condition for a professorship. The professors fulfil an intermediary function between academia and industry, which enables them to provide their students with a more comprehensive picture.