’Enthusiasm is the most important thing of all’

Stefanie van Ophuysen on career prospects both within and outside the University

Insights into the work of doctoral students and postdocs in Münster: discussions
Insights into the work of doctoral students and postdocs in Münster: discussions with peers, experiments in the laboratory and research with sources. © Uni MS - Victoria Liesche / Michael C. Möller / Johannes Wulf
In spring this year, the Münster Centre for Emerging Researchers (CERes for short) celebrated its launch as a central academic institution at the University of Münster. It represents an important contact for aspiring researchers, because the CERes team offers numerous qualification measures, as well as professional advice and coaching, on all’aspects related to doing a PhD and to the path towards a professorship. In this interview, Prof. Stefanie van Ophuysen, the Scientific Director at CERes, talks about the time during a doctorate and about current developments in promoting doctoral students and postdocs.

After graduation, there are a lot of career paths to choose from. One of them is to do a doctorate. Who is this an interesting option for?

Many students already notice while they are undergraduates, or while they’re writing their final paper, that they are passionate about a topic and enjoy getting to grips with a scientific question. A doctorate offers a good opportunity to acquire specialist knowledge, and at the same times it enables a student to carry out scientific work independently. In some fields - for example Biology, Chemistry or Medicine - a doctorate is almost standard when working outside the academic system. Irrespective of the goal you have when opting to do a doctorate, the intrinsic motivation - in other words, enthusiasm for the research topic you have chosen and getting pleasure from the scientific or academic activities involved - is the most important thing of all’if you embark on a pathway that lasts several years and is sometimes a rocky road.

Do students acquire any other skills, apart from specialist expertise?

They certainly do! Many people are not aware of how comprehensive the portfolio of skills is which they acquire while doing their doctorate - skills which qualify them for careers both inside and outside the academic system.

For example?

Think of a doctorate as a project: it needs systematic, planned preparation and implementation. This includes a time plan with defined targets and milestones. Analytical thinking and a creative approach to problems are just as indispensable as the use of different techniques and tools. The ideas you have need to publicised and presented - not only to a specialist audience, but also to the public. And last but not least, the scientific work involved also means constant collaboration, which means that social competences are important. All these skills are called for not only within the University but also outside it.

How has doctoral students’ training changed over the past few years?

We can speak of a change in academic cultures. Nowadays, many researchers leave the oft-cited ivory tower at an early stage and exchange views with people from other disciplines and from the public. Interdisciplinary networking, as well as looking beyond the boundaries of your own field of research, are becoming increasingly important. Also, the range of so-called structured doctorate training on offer - for example, research training groups - has grown steadily. In comparison to individual doctorates, structured programmes offer a fixed curriculum with individual supervision, a fixed duration and - depending on the programme - regulated funding.

Do such programmes also exist at the University of Münster?

We have a large number of offers - for example, the graduate programmes at the two Cluster of Excellence, ’Mathematics Münster’ and ’Religion and Politics’. Or In various faculties there are also EU programmes from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding line, such as Doctoral Networks and Innovative Training Networks. In addition, the University offers excellent programmes for career development for postdocs, such as the COFUND project ’Migration, Diaspora, Citizenship’.

According to a recent survey conducted by the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, around two-thirds of postdocs and doctoral students with fixed-term employment contracts are thinking of leaving the academic world. Do these figures alarm you?

The University of Münster has over 800 completed doctorates and 50 habilitations per year, which is a constantly high level. So... no! We are not alarmed, but we closely watch developments in Germany as a whole and we use these as a basis for the offers we develop here.

Who are these offers aimed at?

We offer advice and support not only to anyone who is interested in doing a doctorate, or is already working on one, as well as to postdocs, but also to their supervisors. As an internal academy, we support these groups on a variety of qualification pathways. In doing so, we currently have three focus areas: good scientific practice, health and well-being, and internationalisation. It’s important to us that we have offers for different career paths in our repertoire. After all, we know from studies that, in the end, a good 80 percent of academics actually embark on careers outside university after they have completed their doctorates.

In other words, only 20 percent manage to remain in the academic system...

I think the word ’manage’ is wrong. The notion that if you have a doctorate you have to make it to a professorship - because otherwise you will be deemed to have failed - is no longer relevant. Universities do, admittedly, train academics - but for many different goals.

Which are...’

They become qualified to take on responsibility in society, to stand up for democratic values and to think critically. This is important for all sorts of areas: whether as a curator in a museum, as someone working in a public authority, or as a journalist on a newspaper. We at CERes strengthen people on their individual paths and create space for their personal development.

Interview conducted by Kathrin Kottke This article appeared in the University newspaper wissen leben No. 4, 12 June 2024.

Translated by: Ken Ashton