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Some Ideas about How to make a Scientific Career


I am often asked about the career in science. Scientist are individuals and therefore no general rule can be given. It also differs between countries and subjects. Becoming a scientist, or aspiring to be one, usually derives from a natural curiosity about the world around us.

However, here is a typical

Timeline for faculty at major research centers and universities

  • Undergraduate/Graduate Studies (~5 years): Goal: Obtain good grades, become involved in science to acquire experience and gain focus; stipends

  • PhD Studies (~3-4 years): 3 papers in scientific journals (1 published/accepted, 1 submitted, 1 in preperation), take basic courses in graduate schools, become a tutor for students, be involved into some development of methods, learn the scientific language. Example: ESSReS, Courses at AWI. Hints: Choose active research groups, build first network, organize research stays, regular committee meetings, etc.

  • PostDoc (~5-10 years after PhD): publish about 1 first-author publication/year, co-authorships, supervise students, involvement into proposal writing, give invited talks. Other activities that might be helpful: convene a session at a conference, become involved into writing of a a book chapter, become a referee for a scientific journal, develop methods like Earth System Models or statistical analysis tools, carry out interdisciplinary activities. Link to funding, temporary positions through the DFG

  • Tenure track, application of Junior research group (~5 years after PhD): publications (h-index>5, 1 first-author publication/year, at least 5 first-author publications, several co-authorships), invited talks at conferences, convening a session at a conference, supervision of students and teaching activities (including a publication where you are the supervisor of a student), PI of research proposals (applicant/co-applicant), major developments of methods. Other activities that might be helpful: involvement into a book, regular referee work, a single author publication, a high-impact publication, a community publication (e.g. for CMIP/PMIP). Check several formats and deadlines (Emmy Noether, Helmholtz, ERC starting grant, BMBF, Leibniz etc.). Similar to the head of Junior research group is a Junior professorship.

  • Tenure/Senior Scientist/Lecturer (~10 years after PhD): publications (h-index>10, m-index>1.0, 1 first-author publication/year, several co-authorships or main supervisor of a high-impact paper), research proposals, Student/PhD supervision, above mentioned criteria like methodological aspects, becoming an editor of a journal/book series, involvement into selection committees, reviewer committees for theses or reasearch projects, project management and outreach activities, reasonable knowledge of the local language. For orientation: procedures at AWI

  • Professor level (~15 years after PhD): publications (h-index>20, m-index>1.5, about 1 first-author publication/year, several co-authorships or main supervisor of a high-impact paper), several teaching activities, writing major research proposals, supervision of students, see also above mentioned criteria, see e.g. academics. In former times a Habilitation or equivalent was required (basically a second thesis plus teaching), now the way is more through a Junior professorship and junior research group, or just through an excellent research and teaching profile. Specific rules are probably country-dependent.

  • At some research institutions, there might be more ways to get a position which is typically more in the technical area. For those positions, some criteria are the involvement into projects, publications, technical developments, labs experience (more technical, #very limited limited, PhD required), project management, dual career, research stays


Important is that your ideas and interests fit with the research institution. At some institutions, there is a heavy teaching load. Please be aware of the local language and culture. Check furthermore the specific interests and tasks of the institutions! See e.g. at AWI, the polar and marine focus. Your CV is a very important document that sells your skills and abilities to potential employers. This information should enable you to put together the right CV for the right situation.

Here is a link to Nature’s feature Career development: What’s your type?

At many institutions, there exist formal or informal ways for mentoring. At AWI, we offer annual one-on-one meetings (in English or German) to discuss the next steps. Here is the link to the AWI annual Employee-Supervisor Reviews (in German and English). See also mentoring programmes, see e.g. at Helmholtz and the overview at German Association of University Professors and Lecturers.

In the literature, please look at the hero’s journey. Any character, not just the protagonist, can go through a hero’s journey (in German: Heldenreise). One example: Jim Button / Jim Knopf by Michael Ende or Metamorphoses of Apuleius. In a typical hero’s journey you can find elements like The Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing Thresholds etc.

hero’s journey: Jim Knopf

hero’s journey: Jim Knopf

  Some ideas and background matrial which I took from other sources:

Hirsch Index

The h-index is defined as the maximum value of h such that the given author/journal has published h papers that have each been cited at least h times.

The m-index is defined as h/n, where n is the number of years since the first published paper of the scientist

The h/m-index is not often used for PostDocs because it does not describe early stage scientists very well.

Hirsch estimated that after 20 years a “successful scientist” would have an h-index of 20, an “outstanding scientist” would have an h-index of 40, and a “truly unique” individual would have an h-index of 60.

Taken alone the h index has no significance unless for bureaucrats and librarians that believe they can judge a career using a single number because they lack both the scientific culture and the will to judge the quality and impact of each single paper. While the many answers here stating that there’s no connection between a career and h-index are technically correct, it is also true that some institutions and some research audits do place great significance on citations – and in many places, on measuring performance through any and all statistics available. Citations are one of the few ways that institutions use to quickly judge “quality” of research output on an individual level. These indices are certainly used for promotion applications. Although unhelpful, the true answer is ‘the higher the h-index the better’.

Own development and funding

Reflect on what you are good at, and on your biggest areas for development. If you’re not sure, get feedback from trusted colleagues, mentors or friends. This will help you choose the skills and knowledge to prioritise. It’s important to have someone who cares about you and your career. A PhD supervisor should be a mentor, so maintain contact with them even after graduation. Cultivating relationships can result in more opportunities in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ability to get funding came through as the biggest challenge for researchers. However, respondents also painted a picture of an environment where it is easy to become isolated, and where getting adequate support can be difficult.

Other significant challenges included dealing with heavy workloads; time management; navigating bureaucracy; and knowing how to get published in the right journal.

Look out for specific funding calls relevant to your research. Research councils are a good place to start, with sections on their websites requesting proposals.

Further ideas

Choosing a niche consciously is therefore a big advantage and may show your leadership skills. However, avoid a niche which is too small because this may limit your possibilities to get funding.

Having ORCID and Google Scholar accounts will make your work searchable and trackable. This practical guide is packed with advice on this theme. Social media and blogging will also help you to showcase your work.

A warning: These concepts are pretty subjective and derive primarily from experiences in central Europe and may not apply in other parts of the world. Only 3 to 5 % of all PhD holders and about 10% of all postdocs succeed in becoming a professor.

Many professional opportunities come through networking, rather than online. Developing your online persona is useful but nothing can replace meeting people at events such as conferences and seminars. Talk to people both within and outside your field and test your ideas with them.

You see also persons who did something special in science without a typical science career, e.g. Heinrich Interview (english)





Mobility Most research institutions highly value international experiences. A scientist who has experienced the culture of other laboratories, different leadership styles and cultural challenges normally develops a much broader view on science and cultural differences and understands better the challenges that young foreigners working in his/her lab face.

Other good ideas: Advice to a young scientist Allow yourself to ‘waste time.’ The pressure on today’s young scientists is such that many do not dare to leave their workbench or computer to pursue other professional activities, for fear they are wasting their time. Yet it is important to go to as many seminars as you can, Echenique said. “Sometimes, choosing a good research project … isn’t something that comes out of a rational process. … One goes to a seminar on something that seems very remote from one’s theme and suddenly realizes, ‘… I have the tools to tackle this problem.’” Get involved in teaching, he added: It will make you a better researcher. Show interest in the work of your colleagues: that will make you more attractive to prospective employers, Echenique added.

Overall, work-life balance varies a lot in (academic) science. Some people get it, some people don’t, and some people can have it but choose not to partake. This career has the potential to have a better work-life balance than other similarly competitive careers.
Most scientist do not have fixed work hours and hold positions that paid enough to actually enjoy the flexible work schedule. Regarding the quality-of-life, you get to do challenging, interesting, and varied work, generally of my choosing. International teams and travel all over the world is fantastic as well.