„We help young scientists find the right path for their career“

June 15, 2022

Why did IPP found the Career Center for Postdocs in 2020?

We already had our doctoral school at IPP at that time. But there was no offer for postdocs at our institute that prepared them for the next career step. With these young scientists who are employed on a temporary basis, the question is always: Will they get a permanent contract at the end of their contract period – and if so, will they accept it? That was the next step for about 30 percent of our postdocs. 40 percent continued their scientific career elsewhere. And 30 percent looked for a job in industry.

Because we wanted to support the postdocs in finding the right path for them, we applied for funding from the Helmholtz Association's Initiative and Networking Fund – and were awarded the funding. With this, Andrea Kleiber in Greifswald and I as head in Garching set up the Career Center for Postdocs. It was clear to us from the start that we wanted to offer the entire programme exclusively in English, because most of our postdocs are non-Germans.

How can postdocs use the Career Centre for themselves?

We essentially offer six coordinated modules:

  • Career Conversation: These are systematic conversations that every postdoc can have with a supervisor once a year to reflect on their own career development. The supervisor can be the direct supervisor. However, if desired, we from the Career Center can also take on this task.
  • Development of professional competence: To this end, we offer targeted training – for example, for scientific writing, better presentations or preparation for job interviews. One of the highlights was the Basics of Professional Coding course. We launched it because a lot of people are programming great things here. But at the end of the day, there is sometimes a lack of systematic basics that are important for jobs outside of academia.
  • Development of soft skills: For example, we offer programmes to improve self-perception and self-presentation.
  • Career counselling: Andrea Kleiber and I have completed coaching training in order to find out in conversations what the individual needs of the coachees are. Among other things, we work according to Edgar Schein's concept and identify the respective career anchors – i.e. those individual motives or needs that are decisive for a fulfilled professional life. For myself, for example, the main anchor is lifestyle integration. I have always chosen my jobs in such a way that I could combine work and children. In second place for me is technical functional competence – that is, being able to contribute my expert knowledge.
  • Career paths: We show what job opportunities there are for physicists inside and outside of science. Five times a year we organise Career Dialogues, to which we invite former postdocs who tell us about their current jobs and answer to the questions of our postdocs.
  • Information: For example, we have set up a website for the Career Center with extensive information. In addition, every postdoc can sign up for our email distribution list, through which we send out job offers that have caught our eye. Some of them may not be what our postdocs are looking for at the moment. But I have already heard that it's reassuring to see how many opportunities there are for young scientists.

Is there feedback from former postdocs who are now working elsewhere?

We systematically seek feedback by contacting every postdoc who leaves the institute. The other day, a colleague was here who didn't need us because he looked around all the time himself and knew what he wanted. His tip: people should be much more interested in their careers, apply several times a year and also go to interviews to practise. Of course, we are happy to pass on such advice. In fact, only 15 to 20 per cent of postdocs come to us, but this is completely normal compared to other institutes. Those who take advantage of our offer usually say that it has helped them. One scientist told me that the Career Dialogues helped her simply because she could hear what questions other postdocs were asking. So she was able to learn: What do they look for in their career planning? Could that perhaps also be important for me?

What was the biggest success?

We have set up some great things that did not exist here before. Postdocs who come from outside can now, for example, be given a "buddy" for the first two months. This is another young colleague from the same department who can make it easier for them to get started in everyday life at the institute. We have also set up an e-learning programme in which we teach rules for good scientific practice.

And I'm really proud of the fact that two very good postdocs stayed at IPP, even though they were considering going elsewhere. The Career Center is not just there to prepare people for the world outside our institute. We help young scientists find the right path for them. And that also means retaining the best minds when we come to the joint conclusion that a follow-up job at IPP is the right path.

On what grounds did the Helmholtz Association extend the funding of the Career Center at IPP until 2024 in May 2022?

They saw that we had implemented our original concept well. It took a lot of time and energy to set it up. But we have a plan for continuing the Career Center for Postdocs after the funding phase. That convinced the reviewers. Andrea Kleiber and I will continue to do this job after 2024. We will cooperate more with HR and we will get the support of the Scientific Director’s Office for some administrative tasks


About Elisabeth Wolfrum

Elisabeth Wolfrum is an Austrian citizen. She completed her diploma studies in technical physics at the Vienna University of Technology. In 1991 she received her doctorate there with distinction (topic: diagnostics of fusion plasmas). Wolfrum spent her postdoc years at the Jülich Research Centre (Germany), the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (UK) and the University of Oxford, Clarendon Laboratory (UK). In 2000, she joined the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching, where she has since been working on magnetically confined nuclear fusion plasmas – special focus: diagnostics, transport and stability of the plasma edge. 

Wolfrum currently heads a research group for plasma edge physics at IPP, lectures at the Vienna University of Technology, is a board member of the scientific journal "Nuclear Fusion" and a member of the FuseNet Academic Council.

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