Academia's Bittersweet Box Of Chocolates: (Tr)eat With Caution!

Author: Vanessa Hübner Edited by: Dejan Draschkow, Luiz Guidi

The topic is as hot as it has ever been in Germany: job security as a scientist. Most academics jump from short-term contract to short-term contract, often including several location changes and insecure funding – and then, still face an uphill battle to land a permanent position in academia. Becoming a professor means having status and job security for the first time in an academic’s lengthy career and in the German academic system it is long, risky, tiring and often self-sacrificing. This is why the German Federal Ministry for Research and Technology adopted the so-called “Nachwuchspakt” in June 2016. This new program aims to create more tenure-track professorships to facilitate career planning for young researchers and to eventually constitute a lasting change in the German academic system. With the changes, the educational system would become strong and sustainable while still remaining competitive and help young scientists to return to what they are best at: planning and predicting.

The famous sentence from the movie Forrest Gump "Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get" is a true prediction for everyone’s life and career. More so for our guest speaker Prof Melissa Vo, who provided some insights taken from her own life as an example at the SIUConversations event that took place in Frankfurt on April 19th. Professor Vo is the head of the Scene Grammar Lab at the Goethe University. In her talk, she told our audience how she became one of the most beloved professors and highly appreciated researchers in the field of visual attention and scene perception at the young age of 33 (www.scenegrammarlab.com).

“It all started with a spark.”

After her Master’s degree working on language and emotion, Prof Vo went on a long backpacking trip around Southeast Asia. Although she did not pursue science during this trip or publish papers to promote her career as a young researcher, she sees this experience as one of the important steps to become the person and scientist she is today. It shaped her thinking, it made her leave her comfort zone and it helped her find her own interests. During her PhD studies, Melissa found her spark in scene perception and, since then, pursued her passion for science as a postdoc in Edinburgh and Boston. Her research experience at the Harvard Medical School was her professional and personal “game changer”: During her time in Boston, Melissa had the opportunity to widen her horizon on a scientific and personal level, build new networks and – at least during her time there – manage to solve her “two-body-problem” since her husband was working at nearby MIT.

But despite all these intriguing experiences, something was missing – her work-life balance was skewed towards work, most of her friends and family were still living in Germany and there was no prospect of a tenured position yet. So, she came up with a research plan and applied successfully to the DFG-funded Emmy Noether Grant. The pivotal moment, however, was an interview for a full professorship in Cognitive Psychology at Frankfurt University and an offer of a tenured job at the age of 33. The past few years as an independent researcher and professor since then have been exceptionally rewarding for her – she pursues a career in science, she can untangle the questions of visual attention and memory and moreover, she identifies and connects well with her team and students. Still, on the personal level, she described it as a rough time because her husband had stayed in Boston for two more years and transatlantic marriage is neither a box of chocolates nor a piece of cake. Things improved recently after her husband became an assistant professor at the Neuroscience Institute in Rovereto, Italy, so that the transatlantic marriage became transalpine. Now, she is pregnant with their first child and there is still no ultimate life plan regarding what will come next.

So, since Melissa achieved what only a few people can by making it to professorship at a young age, is her box of chocolates full of sweet, nougat-filled pralines? No. While explaining her intriguing path to become a young professor, she told the audience that this journey has been an accumulation of ups and downs, hard work and tough decisions, favouring professional or personal life over the other, depending on which stage of life. But at the same time, her talk was an encouraging glimpse into how the excitement of gaining new knowledge, creative exchange with like-minded colleagues and friends, and all the hard work and extra hours can finally pay off to pursue a life-long career in academic research.