Research consultant job description
Professional spotlight: research consultant
Research consultants work in research without the professional risks of a career in academia. Indeed, the opportunities are often more diverse and promising than they are for young academics.
Research consultants are able to gain a foothold in many different areas: they work at universities, non-university research institutions and science funding bodies, such as the German Research Foundation (DFG), but also in the political sphere, in ministries and offices of members of parliament for instance. "A position as a research consultant is not a sign of a failed career, but rather an important and attractive alternative to a career in academia," says Mathias Pätzold, Secretary General of the Scientific Commission of Lower Saxony (Wissenschaftliche Kommission Niedersachsen - WKN). "It allows you to remain in touch with this world while at the same time working in a professional field that is constantly growing" Pätzold continues.
The WKN is an independent panel of experts that advises Lower Saxony and other northern German state governments on science and research policy matters. Each research consultant working there has a single specialist focus. They prepare expert reports, organise working groups that perform potential analyses for example, and develop guidelines. If specific research units or projects are up for review, for instance, the research consultants at the WKN will prepare and organise the content for the evaluation procedure. According to Pätzold, aspiring consultants should bear one thing in mind in particular: "Research consultants accompany the academics, and support and encourage them but are barely involved in the academic work themselves."
Versatile roles for research consultants
For Stefanie Rohrer, this was clear from the start. She is the research consultant in the President's Office at the Technische Universität München (TUM). "The proximity to science allows me to keep up to date, but I do not miss the work in the lab," says the holder of a doctorate in biology. Her current lead project is a new offer at the TUM: massive open online courses (MOOCs). Access to these free Internet-based courses is unrestricted and any number of participants is able to participate at any time from any location.
Stefanie Rohrer is the contact person for lecturers participating in the MOOCs@TUM initiative and responsible for coordinating the cooperation with American platform providers. The 32-year-old is also the contact person for projects at the TU9 universities. Nine technical universities in Germany have joined forces within this association. Rohrer manages the cooperation on the TUM's behalf, and prepares documents for the general meetings for the university president. She also supports him in his daily work.
Dirk Sawitzky also appreciates the diversity his job offers. He is the research consultant for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group. The historian is responsible for foreign and security policy. "There's always a crisis somewhere in the world," Sawitzky says. His task: to help the parliamentary group determine their position. He follows the latest developments in the respective country and makes suggestion as to which position the parliamentary group could communicate to the public. His sources are national and international news reports as well as contact with employees at the according institutions, such as the Federal Foreign Office and the United Nations. "We deal with a variety of issues and a growing number of countries," the 47-year-old explains. While there is never a dull moment, he sometimes wishes there were fewer trouble spots: "The emotional burden of continuously having to deal with crises such as Syria is extremely high," Sawitzky concedes. "I occasionally yearn for issues that aren't always a matter of life or death."
"A painstaking, results-oriented and independent approach to work is required here"
Given that the situation can change from day to day, particularly the ability to adapt quickly and to familiarise oneself rapidly with new topics are important requirements, Sawitzky says. Those wishing to deal with international matters as he does should also have good proficiency in English and cultural skills. Resistance to stress is also essential. Stefanie Rohrer considers organisational and coordination skills particularly important. "A painstaking, results-oriented and independent approach to work is required here."
Experience in project management can also be advantageous. For Mathias Pätzold, a specialist background is also decisive. At the WKN headquarters, each research consultant is responsible for an expert group in the field corresponding to his or her own background. This often enables a preliminary assessment of research projects and fields by the consultants, and simplifies the search for experts, for example. However, he warns of specialising too much: "Those open to more general issues improve their chances," Pätzold declares.
Opportunities for career entry and advancement for research consultants
According to the WKN Secretary General, the opportunities for career entry and advancement are highly dependent on the size of the organisation. In Dirk Sawitzky's case, they are limited: the flat hierarchy within the parliamentary group means few opportunities remain. "The opportunities are more abundant for those who switch to a ministry," says Sawitzky, "advancement takes accordingly longer though". Depending on the establishment, the positions are only for a fixed period, as is the case for Stefanie Rohrer. In the political sphere, employment is often linked to the legislative period and the success in the next elections - at least it is for those working for members of the Bundestag. Those working in parliamentary groups or ministries are often employed on a permanent basis. Most research consultants are paid according to the collective agreement for public servants. Depending on the establishment and position, the pay lies between pay grades 13 and 15. Depending on the federal state and level (i.e. professional experience), the gross annual salary for research consultants lies between 40.000 Euros and around 68.000 Euros.
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INFO-BOX: Checklist - facts on the role of research consultant
Definition: The role of research consultant provides an alternative to a career in academia. Research consultants support academics, but are barely involved in the academic work themselves.
Career entry: Jobs for research consultants are mainly available in the public sector. They work at universities, non-university research institutions and science funding bodies. Research consultants are also needed in the political sphere - in the offices of members of parliament, committees and ministries for example.
Tasks The range of roles is extremely diverse and highly dependent on the position and employer. Research consultants often assume administrative, consulting and support roles. They conduct research, write reports and expert analyses, and provide recommendations for action.
Requirements A doctorate can be advantageous, though in many cases, this is not essential. Specialist knowledge is far more important, however specialising in too narrow a field can prove a hindrance for some positions. The political views of those wishing to work for a member of parliament or a parliamentary group should not be too far from those of their employer.
Soft skills Research consultants should be able to adapt quickly to new situations. Organisational and coordination skills are also highly recommended. Those wishing to handle international affairs should also have good proficiency in English and cultural skills.
Salary Most research consultants work in public services. Depending on the establishment and position, the pay is between pay grades 13 and 15. This means that depending on the federal state and level, the gross annual salary lies between 40.000 Euros and 68.000 Euros.
Career prospects Positions at universities are often only for a fixed period of time; in the political sphere, further employment mostly depends on the outcome of the next election. Organisations with a flat hierarchy tend to offer only limited opportunities for advancement. The larger the establishment, the most options there are - career advancement can take accordingly longer though.
academics - September 2013
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