June 30, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:59 pm by mariawolters

This is a submission to July Scientiae.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who do you see?

A failure and a disappointment! You see, I got my Abitur (highers, A-levels, high school diploma) at 18, one year early because I had skipped a grade, with straight As. I went on to do a double major in Computer Science and Communication Research & Phonetics at Bonn, where I finished my Computer Science studies in record time with an A grade average. I then completed my PhD in three years while working full-time as a lecturer and publishing at good conferences. My teaching load was 2-3 courses per semester, sometimes co-taught. Some of the conference publications I achieved had equal status to journal publications in my particular field. People expected me to continue on the path to Full Professorship. I was supposed to start work on my Habilitation. This is a kind of second PhD that the German university system requires before people can be appointed to professorships. (It’s sort of being abolished somewhat half-heartedly, but in reality, people still demand it, especially in humanities faculties. Don’t get me started.)

Instead, I went sideways and joined a small start-up company for three years. I gained invaluable experience, but my research slowed down. It slowed down even further when I left industry and moved sideways again into clinical phonetics – only picking up in the last couple of years once I had been working constantly on a number of grants with great teams. I have stopped considering a Habilitation and am working part-time so that I can spend time with my two children. In doing so, I have forsaken any hope of the job security and prestige of a German full professor. I won’t be a government employee and I won’t get all those extensive benefits when it comes to pensions and insurance.

In another mirror, I’m a resounding success. I am in the enviable position of being able to work part-time, very flexible hours, with people who know the constraints of parenthood, in a very family friendly school, with many other female computer scientists who have children. I have published extensively in the past 2-3 years despite two children aged 3.5 and 1. I can forge a career as a self-funded research fellow, a path followed by quite a few people in my School, and a path that is very difficult in Germany. I am no longer constrained by the requirements of an archaic university system. This allows me to concentrate on research outputs that are valued by the global research community. I work at the best Informatics School in the UK with people who are leaders in their fields. I live in a beautiful city in a great small country, Scotland, with plenty of high quality child care opportunities. Being a mother gives me independence. Should my research career falter, I’ll retrain and try something else while taking care of the kids – I won’t be short of things to do. As it stands, I’m funded until the spring before my young son starts school, and I have plenty of exciting plans.

Which mirror is right?

Well, I am happy.



  1. Patchi said,

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

  2. Flash said,

    Great post!

  3. Flickamawa said,

    Both mirrors sound pretty good to me, although the second sounds like the type of amazing situation that’s incredibly hard to come by, at least in the US where I am. I’d feel fortunate just to be near quality affordable childcare!

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