Document Actions

You are here: Home Online Magazine connect & create A matter of passion

A matter of passion

Jennifer Eßer decided to embark on a career in research – she explains why during the podium discussion “Science: Pro and Contra” on January 22, 2018

Freiburg, Jan 18, 2018

A matter of passion

Photo: Jürgen Gocke

A science career is for many young researchers the absolute dream – but for those who wish to embark on an academic career, they also have to take into account certain risks and burdens associated with it. Dr. Jennifer Eßer opted for science: She is deputy director for the working group “Cardiovascular Biology” and junior group leader for the working group “Vascular Remodelling” at the Heart Center, University of Freiburg – Bad Krozingen, member of SciNet – Junior Scientists and Academics Network Freiburg and is also pursuing her habilitation. During the podium discussion “Science: Pro and Contra – Career prospects for doctoral and postdoctoral candidates? Progress reports. Assessments. Recommendations” on January 22, 2018, she will talk about her experiences. Nicolas Scherger sat down with her for a chat beforehand.

Jennifer Eßer is an active member of SciNet – Junior Scientists and Academics Network Freiburg with the aim of promoting exchange among young scientists at the University of Freiburg. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Frau Eßer, when were you faced with the decision to opt for or against an academic career?

Jennifer Eßer: I have known since I was in high school that I wanted to enter the research field. I decided to study biology because I was interested in microorganisms and genetics, but quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted to do biomedical research instead. At the end of 2009, I completed my PhD. At the time we had so many interesting projects running that I decided to just keep going. Starting in 2012, I participated in the mentoring program EIRA through the Faculty of Medicine. Only there did I learn from the mentors and other mentees what is possible and what you should do if you want to remain in research - above all, that you should aspire to complete your habilitation.

So for you, any other career path was out of the question?

I once attended an event with my husband to learn about what you can do with a diploma, such as biopharmaceutical research or pharmaceutical clinical trial management. But I thought to myself: Oh lord, how boring! That’s not for me. So it was clear that I needed a PhD. After all, it has to do with passion. I just love experimental research – and if it does not work out at some point, another possibility will open up.

 As a natural scientist, you would have had the opportunity to switch to the private sector later. Did that thought give you a sense of security?

No, because I was told if I don’t get a PhD as soon as possible and spend a year abroad, I won’t have a chance in the free market. But I have since learned that that is not necessarily true: I have already had requests from companies as to whether I might take over a laboratory management position. I believe that it is important to acquire not only subject-specific knowledge but also key qualifications such as leadership or software skills at the university. A former colleague of mine, for instance, works in HR in a position she got based on her analytical skills.

Which factors do you find particularly harmful when embarking on an academic path?

One common topic is fixed-term contracts, some of which are very short-term. It is difficult to work under such conditions because in the back of your mind you are always questioning what the future holds. The past few years, however, a lot has been done to make academic careers easier to plan, such as junior professorships and the tenure track. Another issue, especially for women, is how to balance career and family life. For those who want children, they have to reach that decision on their own regardless of security  - but we female researchers typically have children very late because having a family mean it is more difficult to go abroad, for example. In addition, as a postdoc, it is difficult to remain independent over the long term and to constantly raise funds for your own job because there are only a few personal funding programs in Germany.

How are you able to combine both your career and family life?

I just do it. My son is nearly three years old and it helps a lot that as a researcher I can freely allocate my working hours. If I have to leave by 3pm, I leave. If I have to work on a Sunday, then I do that too. In academia I not only appreciate the freedom I have with my time, but also the substantive freedom. I like that I don’t have to fulfill client demands, but rather I can decide for myself what to research. My working group is a type of shielded space for learning in which I can act independently. In that way I feel quite prepared for the next career step after my habilitation.

What are you currently working on?

We are currently investigating the zebra fish, how its vascular system develops and which factors play a role in the differentiation of arteries, veins and capillaries. If we can understand how these signaling pathways work, we may be able to find better treatments for vascular system diseases in the future. I am also planning to submit my application for habilitation. The procedure takes about a year, I have learned. So I will remain here, but my long-term goal is to get a professorship.

You are an active member of SciNet – Junior Scientists and Academics Network Freiburg. What do you want to achieve with this network specifically?

My main thought is that we don’t know each other at all and we want to change that. PhD candidates that are not in a graduate school work primarily for themselves. No one knows how many postdocs there are and everyone has to find their own way. Therefore, we want to create the opportunity for young scientists from all faculties to meet and exchange ideas. From that, interdisciplinary projects can develop and we can help each other with practical issues such as how to best apply for funding and what kinds of support options there are for researchers with children.

Have you felt a bit like a lone wolf yourself?

I am a biologist, but I got my PhD apart from the Faculty of Biology in a medical department. Because of that, I barely caught wind of anything the other science graduate students were doing. And as a postdoc directly after my PhD, I had no clear idea what would happen next. Someone said to me: From now on you are a research mercenary and you can go where you want. Someone else said: You have to go abroad. But I had to ask myself: why?

Did you go?

No. I had funding and didn’t want to leave my project in a lurch. Maybe I would have decided otherwise if someone had told me back then: You have to do that because then it will open doors for further funding options when you return. But I wasn’t at that point yet in my mind. Now I am lacking that time spent abroad, but instead I have attended multiple international conferences in which I have gathered experience and have developed a network.

What kinds of things would you wish for young researchers to receive in order to get even more support on their career path?

Overall I think it’s great that a lot has been done to improve that in the past few years. But there is still a lot to be done. It would helpful if we had a code of practice to keep in mind on the path to academia and access to available information options. Beyond that, it would be nice to expand mentoring programs and course offerings for acquiring key qualifications. Transitional support would be very important: In experimental research, published results are the basis for raising new funds. But the review process can take forever. Sometimes financing gaps happen. In order to close that gap, a fellowship would be ideal. And finally while it is good that presumably PhD candidates will be represented as their own status group in university committees according to the new State Higher Education Act in Baden-Württemberg, it simply cannot be that postdocs don’t receive this status too.

“Science: Pro and Contra – Career prospects for doctoral and postdoctoral candidates? Progress reports. Assessments. Recommendations”

The event is a part of a series, “On Research, Teaching and Career Paths – Future Prospects at the University of Freiburg” taking place on January 22, 2018 starting at 7pm in the house “Zur Lieben Hand“, Large Hall, Löwenstraße 16, 79098 Freiburg. The following will engage in a discussion on the podium: Prof. Dr. Jule Specht, Institute of Psychology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and spokesperson for the Young Academy, Dr. Sabine Behrenbeck, Department head for higher Education in the Wissenschaftsrat (scientific council), Dr. Andreas Keller, deputy representative and head of the organizational area for higher education and research for the union for education and science and Dr. Jennifer Eßer, deputy group leader “Vascular Remodelling“ at the University Heart Center – Bad Krozingen and member of – Junior Scientists and Academics Network Freiburg. The event is open to the general public. It is free of admission and no registration is required.