After two years in Freiburg: Lessons learned.

About two and a half year into my current position as independent researcher at the University of Freiburg, Germany, I thought it was time for reviewing how things are going. I started out in August 2015, in an empty office with an empty desk and the mandate to build up an industrial ecology research group from scratch. During the last two years, there have been lots of ups and downs, but now, I feel I have arrived in this position and I am quite happy with the progress that is being made. Lots of interesting and relevant research is happening, the teaching is set up and running, the first own funding secured, and with the database and Sankey app we are contributing to building up community tools.

There is no blueprint for how to build up a research group from the ground up, and I have the profound privilege of being able to define the track I want to follow by myself. That means I am solely responsible not only my daily workload and schedule but also my entire agenda, including research topics, methods applied, courses taught, proposals written, people hired, students supervised, and collaborations entered. Having so much freedom sounds like the basis for having a fun time, and I can definitely confirm that. It feels like running a startup company within the Uni. But it also means a very high workload and a lot of responsibility, not only for myself but also for the team of researchers that I lead, the students, and the research community that I am part of. Of course I feel substantial pressure, stemming both from my own ambitions and from the system via the competition for funding, recognition, and tenure requirements. Fortunately, the latter are vague enough to be compatible with a wide array of research biographies and agendas. But the old antithesis of freedom and necessity needs to be reconciled, and the quest for a meaningful place in the wider research ecosystem and society as a whole needs direction.

Several jobs in one position

In my current position, I have three duties: researcher, teacher, and manager. I find myself constantly overbooked, as being a researcher alone is a fulltime job, and the requests for more teaching, supervision, management, and other services are constantly coming in. If you are not strict in handling (read: declining) them you quickly find yourself with another two or more fulltime jobs. It is neither required nor actually necessary to publish ‘as much as possible’, to teach all year round, or to respond to all supervision requests. Also, I am fortunate and surprised that there is only little admin work to do. I get great support by our secretariat and the dean’s office, and can at most times focus on outcome and not on processes.

Still, I need to fit all the remaining pleasant and less pleasant tasks into a decent daily, weekly, and yearly schedule. There are synergies among the three jobs, of course, but in order to do a great job in any of the three areas, you need to invest first and foremost two scarce resources: time and nerves. To allocate them wisely, I regularly reflect on whether I make the right choices regarding prioritisation, the setting of my own agenda, and other big and small work decisions. In short: whether I am making something great out of the freedom that I was given.

In a long-term perspective, I rank the importance of the three jobs as follows: first, research, then teaching, then management. High quality and relevant research has the most lasting impact of the three jobs: it radiates out into the scientific community and into society, secures funding for the team, and enables me to teach on the forefront of what is happening. It also happens to be the only of my three jobs that I am actually formally qualified for, and is the basis for my professional development. In teaching I can make some unique contributions, too, which also feed back into my own work as I learn a lot while teaching, educate part of the future workforce in the team, and contribute to educating experts in industrial ecology both nationally and internationally. For most of my management duties I am easily replaceable and there is also some busy work that the formal university system brings along. Still, I learn a lot and want to contribute my fair share to the self-governance of academics.

In the short-term perspective the importance, or urgency, of the three jobs is the opposite: Management duties often involve imminent issues or deadlines, which means that they have a tendency to interrupt the daily schedule. Teaching comes next, but it follows the semester rhythm and most of the work here can be planned ahead and scheduled. On the contrary, there are hardly any deadlines related to my research, plus that research is slow, partly erratic, devoid of instant gratification, and requires utmost levels of self-motivation and ample time to concentrate. The tension between long term importance and short-term urgency makes up an ideal stage for procrastination.

Long story short, to reconcile long-term aspirations with short-term needs I decided to take on the following working time split: own research: 25%, research with the team and contribution to the research of others: 25%, teaching: 25%, management and community service: 25%. I do not keep track of my working hours with the exception of the management and community services, which I limit to 15 hours per week on average.

The good side of that split is that it helps me to balance the different fields of work and enables me to allocate time to my own research even in very busy weeks. The downside of that choice is that the completion of urgent management and partly teaching tasks may get delayed and I cannot perform fully on the teaching and management areas. But I can make an effort to have those two run smoothly even with limited time commitment.

I honour my commitments. At this stage, I have little room to manoeuvre as the number of exciting collaborations, teaching, and supervision engagements I entered is quite large already. That means that I need to decline a large fraction of all incoming requests for collaboration, service, and supervision, simply because the opportunity costs (the time and nerves not available to other activities I already have a stake in) are too high. That is unfortunate and often bothers me (and others, I guess), but necessary.

Science and consulting

An interesting feature of uni-based researchers is that we often do not charge for our work, because our salary is already paid for by tax money or third party funding. That means we can use our experience and other scientific capital to give free advice and consulting, which cause some to think of us as a low-cost option to get external input. That is nice in general as many scientists tend to be helpful and are able to provide valuable input to ongoing processes, but it is also problematic because there are many consultancies whose business model is to charge for exactly that service, and it often can distract us scientists from doing our own work. What is the way out? Monetisation is one way to tackle the problem, meaning that you put a price on your consulting services to control demand. I chose to take a different approach, which lies in developing a research agenda that is sustainable and strong, and then align collaborations and service requests to it and decline those that don’t fit. As a side effect, this approach forces me to constantly refine and strengthen my own agenda. I only engage in consulting work when it can be hooked up with master theses and be delegated to students.

Formal or informal collaborations, projects

Virtually all of my good experiences with collaborations stem from informal settings where a group of scientists, already funded by ongoing projects or from internal funding, gathered around an interesting topic and contributing truly complementary inputs. On the contrary, my experience from working on research projects was mostly negative, as I found myself in situations with unclear or unfulfilled leadership and/or with badly defined or infeasible work descriptions. To me, the choice between the two collaboration modes boils down to the question whether an informal and ad-hoc collaboration with the best people you can get hold of outweighs the benefits of having funding via a project, which means that most of the work can be delegated but is done by a team most of whose members you haven’t chosen and where the actual work is often done by junior researchers left with little guidance. According to my experience, in quantitative sustainability research the prestige of running projects is often not matched by the quality of the projects’ outcome.

Here in Germany, I see a tendency that sustainability researchers define themselves in terms of the projects they were/are involved in more than in terms of the actual project outcome. Structure seems to matter more than content. Is that a symptom of a crisis of sustainability science? Does it mean that actual project outcomes are so difficult or boring to communicate that people give up to even try?

No matter what the answer to these questions are, I am quite happy that most of the work carried out in the group is self-defined for the time being, and I make an effort to make sure that the results of this work will be a genuine and relevant contribution to our field industrial ecology.


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