I’m no longer Hanna

June 24, 2021

By Tilo Mathes

If you follow science Twitter, you have likely come across the hashtag #IchbinHanna over the last weeks. The hashtag refers to a fictional persona, Hanna, who is the subject of an explanatory video about the German Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG). This law regulates how long aspiring academics, depending on their so-called career qualifying stage, can remain employed on fixed-term contracts at public institutions in Germany. The video, originally released (and later deleted) by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, follows Hanna as she moves through different stages of her career in a series of limited-term contracts and extensions in line with the WissZeitVG.

The law’s intent is positive: it’s meant to prevent exploitation of junior academics, encourage promotions, and create equal opportunities for newcomers to German academia —and thus ultimately foster innovation. However, in an academic environment like Germany’s, the results may be different (or even the opposite) of what was intended. As many researchers have shared, permanent positions at German universities have become extremely scarce and are mainly available to candidates at the professor level. But highly skilled science workers are needed to do research and lab work. And as a result of the WissZeitVG, these specialized, highly educated scientists now find themselves in a cycle of moving from institution to institution without ever having a permanent contract.

As a former researcher myself, I think I’ve been Hanna, too — and it’s a big part of the reason I left academia after earning my PhD and working for years in the lab. I deeply empathize with the feelings of disappointment and rejection that the researchers have expressed on Twitter. What I find particularly frustrating is that the video recommends better career planning as the only solution to not entering the cycle of endless temporary contracts. But this seems to ignore reality on multiple levels: aside from the perpetual lack of permanent academic positions, everyone in research knows that there are a lot of things that are outside of your immediate control.
Work-life imbalance
After earning my PhD, I was eager to put my work into practice wherever I could. This led me to take several post-doctoral stints throughout Europe and in Japan. But moving from place to place isn’t always desirable or practical if you want to put down roots.

For a large part of my post-doctoral phase I worked in two places, leading a project in Berlin and working in the lab in Amsterdam. The nature of the work at a shared spectroscopy infrastructure (LaserLab Amsterdam) allowed me to batch the time in the lab and analysis work, so that I was able to work a significant chunk from Berlin — home to my newly formed family.

In many ways, my work life was going well. I’d been able to acquire a significant amount of funding for my research, I ran a small research team, and we were publishing well (I think) with many international collaborators. But this professional success was coming at great cost to my personal life.

I often jumped on the first flight Monday morning from Berlin to Amsterdam and returned with the last flight on Friday evening. Being away from home for five days at a time was difficult for everyone involved — and I eventually reached a point where I didn't feel comfortable having my family make compromises because of my career.

As I started to look for other options, all I could see was more of the same. I considered moving permanently abroad, but this may have been a difficult move for the family to make: aside from the complicated logistics and coping with daily life in a foreign language, my partner likely wouldn’t have found a job so easily. (While many organisations support the partners of people they hire, there’s not much they can do if your partner works outside academia.) Therefore I focused mainly on opportunities within Germany, where (due in part to the WissZeitVG), there’s an “up or out” attitude — either you figure out a way to get a rare professorship position relatively quickly, or you’re stuck moving from limited contract to limited contract.

More experience, fewer opportunities

Another factor making me question my career path was the increasing inflexibility I was experiencing. As I became more experienced and specialised, I found myself more limited in my prospects, with fewer opportunities to fit into existing institutional portfolios. This in turn also made it more difficult to acquire funding for projects or break into new areas of research; as is the case for many established researchers, I struggled with breaking out of my self-made research bubble. And in an environment of scarcity, it’s not just about how well you do your work — it’s also about how well you and your research fit into grant cycles and institutional growth plans.

At the same time, I found funding options drying up before my eyes. As I moved further and further past my PhD years, I was no longer able to take advantage of career development grants or start-up packages that would allow me to gain momentum for my research and in negotiations with potential host institutions. I could easily see a future where I had many exciting research ideas but nobody to fund or host them.

And as my faith in a sustainable academic research career was going down, so was my commitment to go all in. When I had the opportunity to leave the researcher life, I still felt torn between leaving behind what I accomplished so far, the knowledge and expertise I acquired, the friends and collaborators I made — and a general feeling of failure. In the end, the choice still felt good. A friend of mine, also still in academia back then, used to say that they felt happy for everyone making the jump into a more sane and plannable future.

Is an academic career really “plannable”?

Better career planning may be necessary to have success in the German academic system — but is it really reasonable to expect young researchers to plan their entire future in three- or six-year contract blocks? Who knows which positions will emerge or become vacant in the future? Who knows up front which track of their research field will become “hot” enough to be competitive in funding applications? Who knows if their research produces results that are deemed valuable by the community in a certain timeframe? And if we all knew that and planned our research activities accordingly, what room would remain for true curiosity and true creativity in research? Aren’t those even more important drivers of innovation?

In my current role as Community Relations Manager at ResearchGate, I’m lucky to have the opportunity to interact with our members, get acquainted with their research, and help tell their stories. And while a lot of great science seems to happen by chance — through a random meeting with a key collaborator or a last-ditch attempt at gaining funding that worked out — I can’t help but wonder about all the research that doesn’t find a home.

I still think there is a lot of untapped potential in the researchers who are eventually dissuaded from entering an academic research career, particularly with the societal challenges ahead to create a sustainable future on this planet. In that sense, I personally wish for a world with fewer barriers to research careers with academic freedom, more opportunities for researchers outside of the classical faculty track (particularly in Germany), and equitable access to funding, independent of how long you’ve been in research.

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