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What’s Academia like in the US? – Dr Nelson Y. Dzade

By uczjsdd, on 13 July 2022

Dr Nelson Y. Dzade gained his PhD from in Computational Materials Science from UCL, and is now an Assistant Professor at Penn State University. He kindly took the time to tell us about his current role, his career journey, challenges and about any useful tips for researchers wanting to pursue a similar career.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am currently a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME) at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). I am also a co-funded faculty of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) and an Associate of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS). I lead the Materials and Minerals Theory Group, which sits on the interface of Physical Chemistry, Applied Physics, Machine Learning, Computational Materials Science and Mineral Engineering. My research group specializes in the development and application of advanced theoretical methods (including first-principles electronic structure calculations and atomistic simulations) to unravel structure-property-performance relationships in solid state materials that are of interest for many practical applications in renewable energy generation, including but not limited to photovoltaics, heterogeneous catalysis, and high-capacity battery materials.
Regarding my current organisation, I would say that Penn State is a world class academic powerhouse and an R1 (Very High Research Activity) University in the United States. It is often considered as one of the “Public Ivies”: i.e., a publicly funded institution that is deemed to provide a standard of education comparable to that offered by the elite Ivy League institutions (like Yale and Harvard). Located across 24 campuses in Pennsylvania and globally online, Penn State is one of the largest universities in the US with over 100,000 students and 17,000 faculty and staff. I work at the University Park campus in State College, which is the largest campus and serves as the administrative hub.  The Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering where I am based is a unique department with world-class faculty experts in science, engineering, economics, and statistics as applied to the energy and mineral resources sector. In contrast to traditional disciplinary departments, EME faculty encompass the range of disciplines required for the energy and environmental challenges of today and for the next century.

How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I have always wanted to work in academia, where you’re constantly learning, researching, publishing quality and difference making research works, teaching, and training/mentoring the next generation of professionals –teachers, scientist, engineers, policymakers. My motivation is derived from a quote from Albert Einstein that says “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labours of other men and women, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving”.

To prepare myself for this, after my PhD at UCL’s Department of Chemistry in 2014, I took a postdoc position at the Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, where I worked with some distinguished scholars: Professor Nora de Leeuw, Professor Bert Weckhuysen, Professor Emiel Hensen and ‪Professor Jan Philipp Hofmann‬ on a Dutch Research Council (NWO) funded project. These projects led to several high-impact publications, in particular a high impact paper in Advanced Materials, and in ACS Energy Letters.‬‬‬‬

In 2018, I was awarded the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship for my proposal entitled “Computer-aided design of zinc phosphide heterojunctions for efficient solar energy conversion” which was hosted in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University, UK. With this award I became an independent researcher and established a high-calibre computational-experimental research programme, delivering breakthrough insights into the surface and interfacial phenomena in semiconductor heterojunctions and composite materials for green energy conversion and storage. Through the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship, I developed my leadership and supervision skills (mentored 2 Postdocs, 1 PhD candidate, 2 MChem and 3 BSc project students), created relevant research networks and established strategic collaborations with leading groups nationally and internationally both in academia and industry and produced some high-quality scientific publications. I also received the DUO-India Professor Fellowship Award in 2020, which enabled me to establish high-profile collaborations and exchange with leading Indian Scientists.

All these experiences and skills prepared me for my current position at Penn State. During the last year of my 3-years Innovation Fellowship, I begun to apply for faculty positions mostly in the UK and the US. I was shortlisted for a couple of them in the UK but even though I did not get them, I learned from the feedback I received and improved myself for the next one. The Penn State interview process was a whole new experience for me, it happened during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so everything occurred via Zoom. The last phase of the interviews occurred over two days, including giving a research seminar, a teaching talk, research vision talk, and interviewing with Department Heads, Institute Directors, Deans and Faculties across the department of energy and minerals engineering and the Materials science and engineering department.

Did networking help? 

Although I did a lot of information gathering online, it was always better to speak directly with someone working at the institution that could share their personal experiences with me and other information that I could not find online.  So, I had to first identify potential people I could speak with for informal interviews. I started with people with whom I already have a connection: mentors, people I’ve met at conferences or professional networking events and also on LinkedIn who work at Penn State University. For those I do not have any direct connection with yet, I wrote to them introducing myself and requesting if they have time, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn more about their research work and their department, and take suggestions they might have for someone like me who is interested in joining the department and the University. Luckily for me most of the faculties I reached out to were very responsive and supportive. That helped a lot!

What experience did you need? 

Experience, they say, is the best teacher. The tenure review evaluates a professor’s contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university, so right from the onset the search committee will be looking out for evidence of experiences you’ve acquired over the years that would enable you excel at the post most especially in the areas of research and teaching. You need to demonstrate evidence of publishing high-quality scientific papers, delivering invited scientific talks at national/international conferences, independent grant acquisition, teaching skills, training/mentoring experiences, etc. You will also have to demonstrate your ability to attract or establish collaboration with leading groups across the world.

In terms of selling yourself to employers, it is important to know that the most important part of the job search – the interview, can make or break an opportunity. To do well at selling yourself to employers, it is crucial that you get comfortable talking about yourself. Give yourself permission to talk about yourself positively and to take pride in your accomplishments! Do not appear braggadocious, but you certainly don’t want to sell yourself short or shoot yourself in the foot. In order to sell yourself very well, (1) be a storyteller – Think of an interview as an opportunity to tell your personal brand story. Be animated. Be enthusiastic. Above all, be authentic. (2) Show, don’t tell – Use examples to illustrate the story you’re sharing. Don’t just use buzzwords like “collaborative”, but demonstrate with practical examples. (3) Tailor your accomplishment, expertise/skills, and experiences to meet the hiring department’s needs. Why are you the best fit for the post and what do you bring on board that other candidate may not have.

What were the most challenging parts of the recruitment process?

The difficult bit of the interview process for me was preparing for the research vision talk, as it is quite difficult to know whether the research directions you are proposing fit into the hiring department’s overall strategic research vision. You’ve also got to demonstrate how you are going to fund the proposed research. To overcome this, and prepare an excellent Research vision talk, I had to carefully read the job advertisement again and again to find what lines of research they were intending to strengthen, so I could tailor my talk to address that. I also had to gather information about the different research themes in the department and make sure I demonstrated clearly how my research activities are going to be uniquely different, but can strengthen/complement existing research portfolios in the department.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My job is supposed to be 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. In reality, it’s more like 60% research, 50% teaching and 30% service, and yes I realize that adds up to more than a hundred percent! But my typical day looks like a mixture of these three things.

Firstly, teaching: I love teaching and that’s why I am a professor, instead of working in industry. Teaching loads vary from semester to semester. In my first semester (Fall) at PSU, I co-taught the course EME 301: Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering and in Spring semester, I taught the course EGEE 437: Design of Solar Energy Conversion System and co-taught the Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering course again both at the undergraduate level. Basically, the things that I do related to teaching are teaching, i.e., being in front of a classroom, preparing for teaching, i.e., things like reading stuff and setting up discussion documents, creating slides, setting up course materials, and also grading course and answering questions from students, and giving feedbacks. To be clear, I always endeavour to deliver high-quality and well-organized lectures; I care a lot about my students, thus I also do care a lot about the materials I teach my students.

The next part of my job, arguably the most important part, at least in terms of things like job performance, is research. It’s a big deal and I love doing research, which is another reason I am a professor. I work with my graduate students and collaborators on innovative and transformative research projects and publish a lot of high-quality papers with them. This means mentoring and helping my students, a lot of editing, a lot of feedback, and a lot of meetings. There are a lot of things that come after the research, giving presentations and talks. I really care about publishing scholarship, so I tend to tweet about or share our research results on LinkedIn. Finally, grants drive research, so a big part of my job is asking people for money in increasingly complicated ways. The most complicated way involves spending many months and hours of work writing proposals to ask funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Department of Energy (DOE) to please give me money. In my discipline, not only is bringing in grant money a big part of my job performance and determines in part whether I get tenure, but I also need grant money to pay PhD students.

Finally, service to my department, to my college, to my university at large, and to my scholarly slash professional community: At the local level, this involves things like attending faculty meetings, serving on communities, e.g. the graduate committee or qualifying exams committee, which I currently serve on. And then, there is service to my scholarly slash professional community, for instance, I serve on the Editorial Board of Modelling, Theory and Computational Catalysis, for Frontiers in Catalysis Journal and as Guest Editor, for Engineered Science, Materials and Manufacturing. I also peer-review manuscripts for several of the top-ranked scientific journals.

What are the best things about working in your role?

A tenure-track position at a top-ranked University like Penn State University is often highly coveted not only because it offers job stability and higher pay, but because it offers academic freedom. One of the things I love about my job is you get to pick what kind of research to do and you get to choose your own research team (graduate students and postdocs) and collaborators. I also get to train/mentor and inspire my research students to become the next-generation of experts and professionals. Our students come to us with a considerable amount of talent, and I think my role as a supervisor/teacher is to help them translate those talents into creativity. I try to do this by sharing my passion for knowledge and curiosity with my students, inspiring their creativity, developing their critical thinking ability, and preparing them for the complex world they will face after stepping off campus. I strongly believe in the saying that “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”

What are the biggest challenges?

As with any new adventure, the first few years of the tenure-track position, in particular can be very challenging as you must learn to manage the new divergent responsibilities/demands and the escalating expectations. Thus, one of the biggest challenges is the time pressure, which increases the stress and anxiety levels. You are evaluated on teaching, research and service, and you are expected to meet a certain bar for all three of these criteria and be exceptional in one at least. So as a new faculty member, setting your priorities right and finding time to do the most important and most rewarding things can be very challenging. In higher education, especially in a totally new country with completely different cultural background to the one I was used to, one of the most significant challenges I face is being able to engage with the students individually and what I mean by that is knowing them both as individuals and also the culture and background that they come from. It also involves understanding the different learning abilities and capacities of my students. And because the student numbers can be very large in a place like Penn State, this is quite challenging at least for now. But I strongly believe it will get better with time.

What’s the progression like in the US?

The tenure track is a professor’s pathway to promotion to the promised land and academic job security. It’s the process by which an Assistant professor (Lecturer in the UK) becomes an Associate professor (Reader in the UK) and then a Full professor. A professor who is on the tenure track is expected to go up for a tenure review 5/6 years after starting the position, where his/her contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university will be evaluated.

And is the working culture different in the US?

I’ve worked in the UK and the Netherlands, and now the US, and there are always cultural differences when you go somewhere new, so you have to learn the new rules of engagement. Generally, the US system is incredibly forward-focused. People are very proactive and they are always thinking as big as possible; like, always thinking, what next? It’s great because it keeps you at the top of your game too. But it does feel like everything is faster here, everyone is an early bird in the office. It’s just the nature of the US system really, it kicks things up a gear. Don’t get me wrong, everyone works extremely hard in the UK and the Netherlands too, but I think this does feel like an even faster march! And in Rome, you must do as the Romans do. So I’ve adjusted to the culture, and who knows, maybe I’ll even speed beyond them!

Also, if you’re used to the grant system in the UK, you will find things a bit different here. Of course there are huge similarities, in that funding will always go to cutting edge science that is innovative, risky, but rewarding. But things can be a bit different (depending upon the funding organisation). For instance, in the UK I noticed that for the most part, for fellowships and grants they are largely judging the quality of the research proposal. Whereas here it feels more like fellowships and independent early-career grants are judging not only the research, but also the education proposal. So if you’re used to writing only about the science and how you will develop as a scientist, here you may have to shift the focus slightly. It’s a lot about the science of course, but it’s also about how you are going to use that to educate other people, how are you going to engage with people, even to the secondary school level. How is that research going to start changing people, building people, educating people? So if you write a very excellent research proposal without a very excellent education proposal embedded within it, you may find yourself completely lost.

And there are other small differences in terms of style that it would be good to recognise when putting together US applications or talks. Here, they like things to be very direct. In the UK, people are perhaps a bit wordy, but here, they want you to get straight to the point and be very precise: what is it you want to do? What’s your hypothesis? No flowery build up as there might be in the UK!

What top tips would you pass on to researcher interested in this type of work? 

It is always very important that you:
Take ownership of your project: Your research project is your baby. There will be loss of sleep, and growing pains, but you will develop a special bond with it. You should know more about your research project than anyone else. Get the help you need. Take full advantage of group meetings, other faculties and others in your lab.

Network and find good mentors: No matter what you want to do with your life, networking is extremely important. Networking isn’t just about getting a good job, it’s about positioning yourself to be successful in that job. Identify the scientific community that you want to be in, and get to know that community. Know the leading figures in that community. Attend free local meetings and present posters/talks and attend national/international meetings and engage/speak with potential mentors or collaborators. It is always vital to find good mentors because the best way to accelerate your career growth is by finding great mentors who can help guide you through your early career and beyond. I have been blessed enough to have some amazing mentors such as Professor Nora de Leeuw and Professor Sir Richard Catlow (my PhD advisors) and many others who have been instrumental in shaping me as a person.

Position yourself to get good reference letters: Strong recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else. Good reference letters can get you an interview at least! You need at least three strong reference letters, so take every opportunity to network with collaborators (send regular progress updates, for example), and talk about your research in front of other faculty. Also, speak at joint group meetings or your collaborator’s group meetings.

Develop your soft skills: Note that your PhD/Postdoc position would expand your scientific skill sets, but the most important skills you must gain to secure a faculty position at any University are the soft skills, like effective communication, effective writing, leadership ability, engaging teaching skills, networking, and mentoring skills. Mastering these skills will serve you well no matter what kind of job you want. For instance:

Learn how to write quality scientific papers, and how to give engaging scientific talks: No matter what you do with your life, it is important to know how to do these two things. Take the lead in writing papers based on your research. Take every opportunity to practice giving talks. Whether you are applying for industry or academic positions your job seminar is extremely important. Good letters get you an interview, a good talk gets you the job.

Learn how to write grants and apply for your own funding: Pitching your ideas for money is a very useful skill to acquire. Learn how to write research proposals by applying for your own funding or joint grants. Help your PI write a grant, even if it isn’t on the topic of your research. Ask others to see copies of their successful grants (sometimes they will even give you the critiques). Good grant writing skill is something that can be learned. If you are applying for faculty positions, you will need to write research proposals, and thus you will need new and innovative ideas. Read the literature broadly and attend seminars/conferences.

Learn how to train people: If you want only to do research with your own two hands, you shouldn’t have got a PhD. People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation. So, help in training/mentoring undergraduate research project students in your group. Take the time to show others in the group how to do something. Also, take courses in mentoring and teaching.

For postdocs specifically, plan for what comes after your postdoc: Once you’ve established where you’ll do your postdoc and who will be your mentor, it’s a good idea to do some self-reflection about where you want to go when you’re finished. I think it’s important to start that exploration early on. I personally worked very hard to make sure that I was making progress on my postdoc project but at the same time I was preparing the required materials to apply for faculty positions and Independent Fellowships. The first thing to plan for when you start your postdoc is when to leave it. Postdoctoral fellows need to be strategic, once you get beyond a certain number of years doing postdoc, it’s not a training position anymore—it’s a job!

Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into the current uncertain climate?

If you are a new graduate feeling uncertain about your future, you are not alone. Several other graduates may also be experiencing similar significant and unexpected disruptions to their plans due to the emergence, spread, and long-term impact of COVID-19. Uncertainty about job opportunities and disruption to regular routines can make an already stressful job search feel even more challenging. However, there are several actions you can take to empower yourself and make informed decisions about your future.

Consider short-term or unexpected work in the interim: Depending on your financial situation, it may be necessary to consider short-term work or work outside your area of expertise whiles you continue to search for your dream job. Some of these jobs may not be the type of work you may have anticipated, but having an extra income can help you navigate this uncertainty after graduation with more confidence. Learning to work remotely or in-person during this time could add a rich experience to your resume and give you an advantage in the long run. Showing employers that you were able to adjust to this challenging situation could make your application more competitive. When looking for job opportunities, prioritize transferable skills and soft skills that could support you in your chosen career path. Even if a job is not in your ideal industry, there may be opportunities to develop skills that you can leverage later when applying for future jobs. For example, complex problem solving, remote software use, defusing conflict and communication are experiences that could be added to your resume in the future.

Continue to enhance your skills: As the saying goes “education never ends”. With your university/college courses completed, now is the perfect time to continue enhancing your skills and certifications to ensure that you remain a desirable candidate. This is particularly true if you’re in a field that evolves rapidly. However, no matter what your chosen profession is, continued education demonstrates that you aren’t ready to just wait for an opportunity to happen—you’re making things happen. This type of self-motivation is an incredibly desirable trait for employers (more so now than ever before), and it will definitely help you gain an advantage over the other candidates.

Update Your Information: When the perfect job opening comes along, you want to be ready. Remember, the saying “The early bird catches the worm.” Constantly update your resume and cover letter so you can submit them quickly when you do find a prospect. You should also update and develop your LinkedIn profile, which can increase your chances of being contacted about an opening. Be sure to highlight your skills that are essential for remote working arrangements, such as great communication, adaptability, technological proficiency, self-motivation, time management, and remote collaboration. These skills are particularly valuable to employers in today’s environment.

Life as an academic in Germany

By uczjsdd, on 23 March 2022

Professor Mona Hess gained her PhD in Imaging Metrology for Cultural Heritage at UCL, and she’s now based at Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg, Germany. We caught up with Mona to learn about her career path and current role, and get an insight into academia beyond the UK.

Tell us about your current role

I’m a full professor and chairholder for Digital Technologies in Heritage Conservation at Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg, Germany. With about 13,000 students, it’s the smallest university in Bavaria. I’m also part of the Centre for Heritage Conservation Studies and Technologies, which is an associated research institution, and I still maintain a role as a senior research associate at UCL Digital Humanities.

In my work, I am continuing topics I studied in my PhD and before, and I’m in the forefront of a new topic, as no other chair with my denomination exists in Germany. I’m also the Women’s Officer of the university, so I get a lot of direct interaction with the university’s management team and the Provost and Vice-Provosts.  I often sit on interview panels, so I get to see and contribute to developments and policy of the university. I’m also programme director of a new Masters course in Digital Technologies and Heritage Conservation, which is also unique in Germany. My work and teaching is very technology-based and interdisciplinary, and I am based in the Faculty of Humanities.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

In the final stages of my PhD, I was already very active in the digital heritage community. I attended and presented at conferences, and I knew a lot of academics in the field. Thanks to my supervisor at the time, I was able to work as a part-time Research Manager in the same department after my PhD. I was a bit hesitant to get involved in teaching at first, but I was encouraged to do so by colleagues as they knew it would help me later down the line, and by doing it I learned I enjoyed it. So, alongside my PhD and Research Manager role, I was a PGTA, and I delivered guest lectures on various courses, and co-taught on fieldwork modules. I also worked with some colleagues on a module for the interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL, and I ended up coordinating it (the German in me!).

When it was time to move on from this role, I received some good advice, which was to call people I knew to let them know I was available for other jobs. This is exactly what I did, and somebody flagged to me that the University of Bamberg in Germany was going to commence a new Masters programme, and would therefore be opening up a couple of positions.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing before that. There were moments I applied for roles far below my qualification level, like when I applied to be a technician at the Natural History Museum for 3D-scanning. And I applied for a lot of academic jobs, where I did get to interview, but then didn’t get the job, such as at King’s College and UCL.

Due to multiple job openings I commenced applying for jobs in Germany.  I was sad to leave the UK, but it has turned out to be beneficial on a personal level, as I am now near my family, and it has improved my quality of life – spontaneous excursions in a car into the Alps or within Europe are now possible!  I had three interviews in German universities at three different stages: lecturer, senior lecturer, and full professor level. So I developed quite a good routine in performing in interviews! Out of all of those applications, I was very happy to be selected as full professor here, and I do feel it was the role that fit me and my research best. My time at UCL prepared me well for all of these applications, as it provided me with the opportunity to get excellent publications in high impact journals and acquire solid teaching experience.

In Germany, it’s worth noting that, in the humanities at least, in addition to a PhD, you normally have to have a “habilitation”, which is like a second qualification or “second book”, to be considered for a full professorship. Or you have to have enough publications and experience of winning projects that would be equivalent to that. It’s also worth saying that all of this took quite a while, as in academia in Germany, an appointment isn’t simply made from one day to the next. The whole process lasts a minimum of nine months until you are appointed to a position.

Nine months?!

Yes. It’s a highly monitored and transparent process. Initial shortlisting usually takes two or three months. Then there will be interviewing, and another shortlist. There are vetoing options from members, and the whole process will be assessed, including whether Diversity and Equality has been looked at. There’s always a student representative, women’s officer, and a research associate representative on the board to review this list and offer their opinions. That list will be reviewed by external, unbiased professors, and when these reviews come back, you discuss again who you will put forward to university management, Senate.  It also needs to be passed by the Ministry of Education of the State of Bavaria.

By that point, six or seven months after the initial job advert went out, you might get “a call”. The university management negotiate your terms with you. That negotiation can go back and forth for a couple of months, and finally the university might offer the job to you. Of course, in the meantime, the first-choice candidate may get another job offer and so end up not taking it, or turn down the job offer. If this happens, the negotiation will start again with the second person on the list. So, if you’re the second or third person on the list, you may not hear back on your application for many months after you’ve interviewed, and yet you still may be offered the job.

In which areas can one negotiate?

That will depend upon your role. You can negotiate about the number of staff and their duties (administrative/ research). You can also negotiate on lab space and infrastructure , if that’s relevant to your work. I mainly negotiated the size of my starting grant to buy the equipment I needed. As in the UK, we have bands and spine-points for salaries, but you have conditional additions you can negotiate. You can argue you will take on specific tasks and leadership functions in return for a pay uplift, and the pay is conditional for a couple of years, and if you can prove you’ve actually taken on those tasks, you get to keep it.

Tell us a bit more about the academic career-ladder in Germany

Post-docs on a research associate assignment are strictly time-limited to six years, after which you will usually seek jobs to be appointed a professorship. W1 professorship is equivalent to a UK lecturer/assistant professor, and may have an initial probation phase of 3 years, followed by another 3 years that could lead to tenure. W2 professorship is equivalent to associate professor and is an established role often tenure-tracked, mostly ending in a life-time employment as a state employee. In a W3 professorship, you have a leading senior role and life-time employment as a state employee, and this is my position. I report directly to the provost/ president, and could take on additional duties as dean or vice-provost.

In the UK you might stay in the same office in which you started as a lecturer, and as you gain more achievements you may use these as arguments to move up in seniority, and you become senior lecturer (associate prof), reader, etc based on your promotional criteria and these achievements (acquisition of third party funding etc). In Germany you would usually have to change places to progress, applying for the next role up when it becomes available somewhere.

Are there any application differences you’re aware of?

A few. It may surprise those used to the UK system that in Germany you share how many kids you have and when they were born, if you’re married or not. It may seem odd, but there’s a strategic reason why you might want to list your children, because if you have taken leave for childcare reasons, or for other caring reasons, during which time you didn’t publish, recruiters will take that into account when judging how productive you are in terms of outputs. So, it should be a favourable thing.

We also don’t tend to have pre-programmed forms and tick-boxes to fill in, like those at UCL. Instead, a call for a job would say, please apply with the usual documents. So, my first task when applying in Germany , was to find out what the “usual documents” actually are! You need to give a covering letter, a research concept document, and sometimes also a teaching concept, and the usual academic CV. This isn’t too different to some lectureship applications in the UK. But you’re also asked to submit forms students have given to feedback on your teaching. They want the actual forms, so you may want to bear that in mind when you’re receiving feedback in future. Also, it is unusual to name references. Instead, you might submit work certificates you received from your past employers when you left, where they summarise how you did in the job.

Do I have to speak German to work in academia in Germany?

Yes, it is advantageous, and if you don’t, you might be asked to aspire to learn German within the first three years. There are more and more courses taught in English here, so you may get away with not having to teach in German. But if you really want to be part of the department and institute, you might find small talk and strategic talks happens in German, so you would want to be able to access that.

Saying that, if you went to, say, Munich Technical University, I think the language of conversation would be English, because it’s a larger city and university that draws people from all over the world. But here, a small university in a small town, I think a lot of things would be lost on someone who only spoke English.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

During term-time I’m doing a lot of teaching; two or three modules with small groups of students. The teaching itself takes up 30% of my week, 40% at peak times. And then I attend a lot of meetings of the various boards where I need to be present as the women’s officer, and I do a lot of admin for my research group and as programme director. During term-time research probably only makes up 10% of the working week. The bulk of the research itself takes place in the times between semesters – spring-time and summer time.

After five years in the role I’m getting to the point where there’s pressure to win funding for projects. Although winning third-party funding is has not been mandatory for me personally (unlike lecturers in the UK, who might need to win funding as promotional criterium to move up to senior lecturer or professor), I need it to keep my research staff employment going after the end of the initial starting fund by the university and Bavarian ministry.

What are the best things about your role?

There are lots of best bits! International research in heritage locations, working with other disciplines, continued learning. I love travel, so a particular highlight for me so far was teaching heritage professionals in Havana, Cuba, on 3D-laser scanning and photogrammetry, for two weeks. I really do enjoy passing knowledge and skills onto the next generation via teaching. I also did a 6-month sabbatical in Italy, forging networks at different universities. So, the networking, going abroad, coming up with ideas with new and interesting people, that’s all great. I love bringing expertise, asking questions, and being able to contribute to heritage research internationally.

And the technology is always evolving, so it’s exciting for me to go to a trade fair for survey equipment and feed that passion to observe technology developments. Interdisciplinarity and international connections are stimulating. For example, I won a project to work with art historians and baroque ceiling painting experts in France and Germany, which also requires my French language knowledge to be brought back up to speed.

Another perk is how flexible and autonomous we are in academia. And especially now, there is definitely flexibility of location, and working hours.

And the biggest challenges?

One challenge I face is around the bureaucracy at the university. There are lots of hoops to jump through, lots of forms to fill in and hand-sign, if you want to, for example, purchase something pretty simple. You can’t just go and buy it, you’ve got to have it officially approved.

Sometimes I take on too many tasks, and I don’t think I’m the only one in academia who does that. It’s all stuff I want to do – like reviewing articles for a journal, taking on an extra piece of research, or even contributing to a colleague’s birthday book publication (in German academia colleagues get together and each write a little paragraph in a book for a colleague). So although I’m very flexible in my hours and work place, the workload isn’t light, and I do work on weekends fairly frequently. People do get burnout, and I think that’s the same in academia in any country, I know (mostly from Twitter) that it’s definitely true of the UK.

This subject is my vocation. and even when I’m on holiday I’m always visiting interesting sites or an exhibition and I’ll be thinking about how the exhibition has been constructed and if there’s multimedia etc. So even in my downtimes, I willingly devote myself to work-related things! So I naturally want to be working on this a lot, but I can see others might view the deadlines and workload as a challenge.

Saying that, I have seen academics who work much more contained hours, and the university of Bamberg prides itself on being a family-friendly employer. I do however observe that lately there are meetings at 7pm and that’s easy because you can dial in from home, but it means that people who want a more fixed working schedule or have family might struggle.

Has the current [2022] uncertain climate had any impact?

The increase of student numbers in the time of digital studying without the real student experience is a factor that we see changing due to Covid. But we will return to in-presence teaching in summer term.

Here in Bavaria, due to decisions taken by the government in 2019, we actually have a positive impact within academia still ongoing. We’ve been promised 1000 professorships for the high-tech agenda by our state president, and amongst others, universities are currently recruiting professors with a focus on high–tech and artificial intelligence. Despite all the great uncertainty in the world, it’s actually a good time to become a professor in Germany because a lot of money has been put into creating novel types of positions connected with technology.

Any tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path?

  • Take any opportunities of interesting tasks or roles given to you, even if you feel hesitant. All your expertise from different fields in combination will make your profile more appealing to employers, and will develop your transferable skills.
  • Have mentors and role models who are in the position you aspire to. Seek them out, join mentorship programmes, talk to them often and keep in touch.
  • Seek out opportunities to teach and present your work or research, even if it’s not finished. It will teach you to communicate your work to others, which is part of the academic craft.
  • Become a member of professional networks. Read their newsletters and attend their events.
  • Access UCL’s excellent development courses to prepare you for writing grants and papers, and help with presentation technique, and research methods.
  • Don’t underestimate yourself or be too self-conscious. That’s probably especially important for women, as we tend more often to say, “I’m not ready yet”, or “Nobody will be interested in my ideas/work”. It’s natural to feel that way, but even if you’re feeling like an imposter, the practice will give you that air of having true confidence.
  • Prepare well for interviews. Get knowledge about the institution and the colleagues you would work with. Go through the most often asked questions and rehearse them.
  • Aspire to roles above your current qualification, and dare to apply for them. In Germany, even if you don’t get the role, if you’ve been shortlisted according to the process I described above, you can mention this on your CV. And you will gain valuable application and interview practice. You might even meet people during the application process whom you impress, and who will give you a role next time around.
  • Follow your passion. If you do something that aligns with your passion, you’re more likely to be successful.


Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

By uczjsdd, on 6 September 2021

In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.

  • How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.

  • What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.

  • What’s the progression usually like in academia?

A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.

  • What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?

Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.