June 30, 2009
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.