‘Unseminars’, post-doc career plans and Glühwein: three things I learned in Heidelberg this week

Training Centre at EMBL, Heidelberg

Training Centre at EMBL, Heidelberg

A careers adviser’s life is not known for its globe-trotting potential.  But every so often, I get to spread my wings outside of even King’s five campuses.

This week I was at EMBL in Heidelberg, working with staff there who are all on fixed term contracts.  They have to leave after nine years, or before, and so some access careers support to help them figure out what would be the best thing to do next.  I’ve been there and to the Cambridge campus, four times now, and the people who work there are great: international, intelligent and full of the possibilities of science.

This time, I met up with a couple of people in Heidelberg, at a social event for scientists (I’ve never knowingly attended a ‘social event for scientists’ before, or wanted to, but it was a good excuse to get to the Christmas Market too).

Heidelberg Unseminar for Bioinformaticians

Heidelberg Unseminar for Bioinformaticians

Have you heard of an ‘Unseminar’?  No, me neither, but it struck me as a good thing. The one I went to was about storytelling: there was some information about the power of storytelling, some practical exercises, and then a chance for chatting.  Why was it better than a standard seminar?  I think because what was valued were the chance encounters with people you don’t normally meet, the conversations you might not normally have had, being had in a structured way.  Learning comes without you really knowing.  Apparently, I learned, Google has ‘unconferences’ in much the same way: participants set their own agenda and invite whomever wants to come and listen to contribute and learn together.

The second thing I learned was that in Germany, a new law or regulation is being passed, changing post-doc contracts.  Currently, if you’ve not made it to Professor 12 years after starting your PhD, you have to leave academia.  What will happen in the future is that post-doc contracts will have to include some idea of a ‘career plan’.  The post-doc will know what a likely career might be for them, at the end of their contract, and their PI will be required to help them develop a plan for it.  Interesting times indeed.

And Glühwein?  Well, I’d not been to a ‘proper’ German Christmas Market before, though it turns out the one at the South Bank this year is pretty representative.  Standing outside in the cold, you need something startlingly sweet and warm to drink.  I’m less keen on the hot dogs that come with it, but to help chatting with colleagues, students and even scientists, it’s hard to beat.

EMBL sunset

EMBL, Christmas sunset