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Bringing an International Perspective to Postgraduate Training


When on 2 March 2004 the ESA ROSETTA mission was finally launched on its 10-year journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, I was once again reminded of my deliberate decision to leave research for good. That was two-and-a-half years ago.

In my last research position I had worked as a project scientist at the space research and planetology department at Universität Bern in Switzerland, preparing mass spectrometric sensors for the ROSETTA space odyssey. The aim of the mission was to investigate the comet's surface and atmosphere for new clues on the origin of the solar system. Although the mission was highly interesting and exciting from the scientific point of view, research in the laboratory was rather frustrating: The first data were not to be expected until 2014, long after my temporary contract would have expired. It was the realisation that I would never see the final results of my work which triggered the decision. After more than 10 years in research I had finally grown tired of arguing about highly specialised scientific issues with little relevance to our day-to-day lives.

First doubts about research

Everything had started so well: In 1990 I received my bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I had studied up to the German "Vordiplom" level at the Technical University Darmstadt for the first 2 years of my degree, and in Norwich the third and final one. My PhD thesis in physical/atmospheric chemistry on the Antarctic ozone hole was wrapped up by early 1994 and after another 2 years of research in Norwich, I went to the air pollution laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne for 3 years.

Although I was already having my first doubts about my research career, Lausanne, with Lake Geneva and the Alps next door, was a fascinating place to live, which made the stay worthwhile. It also presented an opportunity to learn French as yet another foreign language. In 1999 I declined two offers of potentially permanent academic posts, in Ireland and France, and accepted the space research position in Bern instead, to live with my future wife, who worked as a midwife near the Swiss capital. In late 2001 the decision was made to leave research and Switzerland behind, return to Germany after 12 years abroad, and look for new challenges.

Taking a few months out to look for a new position was going to be risky, especially then, with the global economy in recession. I still very much enjoyed the international aspects of science and wanted to work more with people, ideally in a multicultural environment. So I looked into a number of possibilities, such as jobs with science publishing companies or with international organisations. I was never specifically looking for a job in an academic institution, quite the contrary, and was certainly not aware that opportunities existed for PhDs in nonresearch roles at universities. Until, that is, I applied for a post advertised in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit as scientific coordinator for an International Postgraduate Programme (IPP) in chemistry at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. After a successful interview I was offered the position in November 2002, for 3 years initially.

In brief, the position of scientific coordinator for IPP is essentially that of a project manager setting up a new, faculty-wide Graduate School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The concept of graduate schools offering English-speaking programmes with a structured curriculum is rather new to higher education in Germany, but in recent years the crucial role of the postgraduate student in research has been increasingly recognised.

Now additional funding is being made available by national organisations to promote high-quality and international graduate education. The objective is also to make postgraduate studies more attractive for foreign nationals by offering more transparent, structured programmes and imposing a clear time limit of 3 years for a PhD. For a period of up to 5 years the graduate school will be supported financially by the German Research Council and the German Academic Exchange Service, after which the programme will be fully covered by the university.

Marketer, recruiter, curriculum developer, quality controller

My position as coordinator is supported by a full-time secretary and involves very many different tasks. I have to be a marketer, designing and organising the production of marketing materials, and presenting the graduate school at conferences and higher education fairs in order to attract students. Then I am a recruiter, involved in the screening and preselection of applications. It's not only potential students who have to be informed about the programme, so I organise information events and communicate with guest lecturers and visiting scientists. I coordinate, develop, and implement the curriculum, in particular developing new modules such as "scientific communication", and prepare guides relevant to the programme.

Furthermore, it's my role to ensure that pastoral issues such as academic and social counselling are taken care of. In an international programme that means offering support with immigration and visa formalities, accommodation and local authorities, and organising intercultural events and German language courses in collaboration with the university's international office. Unless the course is shown to be successful, it won't attract good students so I am developing and implementing quality-control systems, including undertaking scientific evaluation of the learning content with the students, preparing for future accreditation of the programme, composing reports and statistics, and sitting on academic committees. Inevitably there is administration, in particular financial planning and budgeting. And even more inevitably fundraising and acquisition of research grants or sponsors.

Having had personal, extensive experience of academic systems in different European countries clearly helps when it comes to doing the job. Also, the acquired knowledge of the many personal and academic issues regarding study and research in a foreign country is very valuable when setting a new international programme. Fluency in at least English is a must.

Past research work is of less importance, although it forms the basis for the necessary scientific understanding. After 15 months in the job, I still do not miss doing research. Instead of focussing on a highly specific project in a research group, I now have a far broader overview on the entire spectrum of research at the faculty and I very much enjoy my current position at a more central administrative level. The only thing I find hard to come to terms with is the bureaucracy at German universities. In the long run I could imagine working on more strategic issues in higher education, for example, policy development.

With the Bologna Process well under way and to be fully implemented by 2010, the trend to internationalise postgraduate education at the doctoral level is likely to continue. To attract additional students from outside Europe there is clearly a need to improve postgraduate education further and professionalise the recruitment of students. This may present an opportunity for employing more PhDs in nonresearch and nonteaching roles in the coming years. Already, there is a network of 42 International Postgraduate Programmes covering a wide range of disciplines at centres of scientific excellence throughout Germany, most of which employ PhDs as coordinators.

Thomas Koch may be contacted by e-mail.