Sunday, December 8, 2013

Professor for one year (week 32): Postdoc programs

In 2012 and 2013, I could take part in the PostDoc Program (PDP) of the University of Zurich.  Eighteen postdocs had been chosen in a competitive selection process.  We met for six workshops during these two years.  Coming from several disciplines, such as film studies, forensic medicine, politics, biology, linguistics, and computational linguistics, we couldn't share experiences and knowledge on a scientific level, but rather our experiences about being a postdoc in general.  Some of us had experiences in interdisciplinary research, some of us had experiences in highly structured environments like chemistry labs.  And all of us had good and bad experiences with supervisors and research assistants.

Being part of this program meant meeting people with very different backgrounds but a common goal: to become a professor in the near future.  The program is meant to help participants to estimate and increase their success in academic careers, to find ways to promote themselves, to understand and play by the rules of academia, and to get to a point where they can successfully apply for professorship.

We talked about different perspectives on teaching and research and about strategic decisions concerning the next career steps.  Each of the two-day workshops was a sometimes welcome, sometimes disruptive break in our daily routine.  Some of us had to answer calls and e-mail messages during breaks or return to the office immediately after the workshops.

However, without the workshops, I would not have sat down for a few hours to reflect on my career as it had went until today or to plan which steps to take and where to invest in order to gain new skills.  We could discuss strategies and tactics for moving towards professorship and try out interview situations and trial lectures. The six workshops on application training, funding, leadership, career paths, publication strategies, and competencies and skills where lead by experts in the field -- professors, coaches, members of the ERC review board, etc.  And all shared their knowledge and encouraged us to ask everything what we always wanted to know.

Of course you could find most of the information by searching the web, but without the course context, I wouldn't have invested the time to do so.  On the workshop days, we could spend the whole day on "daydreaming" a scientific career and got to know what happens behind the closed doors of search committees or funding boards.  And with every workshop going by, I got even more convinced that this is exactly the career I dream of: self-determined research and teaching, leading a research group, advancing the field and the scientific community, and being part of the academic discourse -- with the "field" referring, in my case, to Computational Linguistics and Writing Research.

The program finished in September 2013, but we managed to maintain regular meetings as a group.  I really hope we can continue do this for quite some time, even if some of us start  moving to other universities in other cities and countries.

If you ever have the chance to attend a workshop on career training or even a whole series, don't hesitate to apply.  It may seem a lot of time to invest (and you need all the time you can get to publish, don't you?), but it's totally worth it!

During the program I also found a mentor, supporting me in strengthening and polishing my application documents.  He isn't a member of "my" scientific community, and although it felt a bit odd at the beginning, I really enjoyed those meetings -- I was forced to think about wordings and he helped me to look at my achievements from an outside perspective.  I really appreciated this mentorship!  If you have the chance to engage in a mentorship relation, I totally recommend it.  My mentor even told me that he chose to act as mentor for junior scientists because he had made this experience as a mentee before and he liked it a lot.  That's a great attitude, and I hope that one day I myself can support mentees on their way towards an academic career.

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