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Career boost for postdocs

Kiel University is introducing a paradigm change in the support it gives early career researchers: the goal is for maximum freedom and individual support to bring the best ideas to the fjord and create career prospects.

Marian Hu
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Marian Hu is researching the effects of climate change at Kiel University.

Dr Marian Hu is one of the most promising young scientists at Kiel University. Just last year, the marine biologist and physiologist received €1.2 million in funding through the eminent Emmy Noether programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG). The funding line is the fast track on the journey to becoming a professor. Hu used the money to found his own research group. He wants to use it to find out how cellular mechanisms in marine organisms react to climate change. This two-fold success for Kiel's marine and life sciences probably would not have materialised if Kiel University had not attracted Hu a couple of years ago. 

After completing his PhD in Kiel, Marian Hu spent over three years researching in Sweden and Taiwan before he heard about an unusual offer from the Cluster of Excellence "Future Ocean": €270,000 spread over three years for postdoc research projects. The topic: whatever the researchers wanted. Prerequisites: none. There was only one condition: the project needed to fit into the Cluster's interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach. Hu applied and submitted his idea of researching how sea urchin larvae react to changing pH values in the ocean. He thus combined marine sciences with an approach taken from cellular and microbiology. Another novelty in the process was that a committee selected the projects instead of individual professors, precisely because several scientific disciplines were to be addressed. Hu's proposal impressed the jury. He came back to Kiel.

In the meantime, the Cluster of Excellence has carried out three such "open postdoc calls". The new recruiting instrument is a complete success in terms of its goals: bringing new impulses and research fields to the university and further qualifying researchers after their PhDs - both for working at universities and performing tasks in the industry, economy and public service. "The programme teaches researchers to be independent, and it trains skills that really make academics fully-fledged researchers, " is how Marian Hu describes his experiences. It is not only the postdocs who are taking on a new role as a result of the open calls. Professors, usually the bosses in academic operations, are finding themselves in the role of mentors in this process. The concept also convinced the university management. It wants to extend the programme to all faculties in the future in Kiel University's application to become a University of Excellence and thus continue down the pioneering path which Kiel's marine Cluster has taken in Germany.

However, the new freedom of handling their projects independently does not mean young researchers are left alone. Following the example of the main contact points and postdoc networks that have existed for several years, such as Future Ocean's "Integrated Marine Postdoc Network" (IMAP) and the Graduate Center, Kiel University's new Postdoc Centre is trying to answer individual questions relating to work and career planning for all interested researchers after they complete their PhDs. These questions include: What stage in my career am I at? What is the next logical step? Who should I contact to advance my research topic? What does a fixed-term contract mean for me?

Dr Gesche Braker, head of the centre, dispels uncertainties like these. Her experiences from the IMAP, which she has built up since 2012, help her accomplish that. Around 130 postdocs were recently supported. Researchers can also find out about open positions when they contact Braker. Even Schleswig-Holstein's employment agency has knocked at her door. It wanted to find out about the programme and effective continuing education opportunities for its academic clientele.

The basic idea behind the new type of support for early stages in research careers at Kiel University is performing collaborative and freer work towards finding solutions for the great challenges of the future. Another example is the "Denkraum" think tank, which the university wants to organise using funds from the University of Excellence. The entire university is to submit proposals for socially relevant topics for the think tank. Young postdoc researchers from all disciplines should then be able to apply for grants that liberate them from daily tasks so they can address issues together. Open spaces for exchanging knowledge, encountering and participating. That is Kiel University's offer for an excellent university.

Autor: Denis Schimmelpfennig