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Single-track is passé


Why today's physicists, biologists, chemists et al. have to work in an interdisciplinary fashion.

Single-track is passé© PinkBadger - iStockphoto.comNatural scientists today pursue a wide range of careers - whether in corporate consulting, in the civil service or as science managers
The notion of scientists hiding away in their laboratories for decades, interested in nothing beyond the subject of their research, has long been consigned to the realm of ancient clichés. Today's researchers work in interdisciplinary and international environments; they sell products, manage projects or entire companies. They have careers in corporate consulting, in the civil service, are in demand as science managers, investment bankers or patent lawyers, or they start their own businesses.

As many as three quarters of all physicists today no longer work in their »target professions« but in neighbouring disciplines, for example as computer scientists or engineers. And a full 10% are managers or corporate consultants. This is the result of the survey »Physikerinnen und Physiker im Beruf« (Physicists and their Careers) commissioned by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG). »Although physicists in particular have always been very flexible regarding the industries they work in, the numbers did surprise us«, says Lutz Schröter, responsible for industry, economy and career-related matters on the management board of DPG. Physicists are considered the generalists of the natural sciences, »all-rounders« who may not have their own dedicated industry behind them but are involved almost everywhere where research is conducted and products are developed. They were therefore pioneers of interdisciplinary working, which is today expected of all natural scientists.

Boosted by the switch to Bachelor and Master degrees, this trend is impressively reflected at today's universities: there are, for example, 1300 different degree courses connected to biology; they are listed by the industry association VBIO in its current online study guide to the biosciences and include biochemistry, bio psychology, and bio informatics, but also subjects such as water and coastal management. In practice, interdisciplinary teamwork has meanwhile taken hold almost everywhere. »Our projects always include marketing and sales experts from the outset; they are sometimes scientists themselves, but by no means always«, says Jörg Leuninger, who manages Europe-wide recruiting at chemicals company BASF.

Antje Kückemanns, responsible for executive development at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which employs approximately 7500 scientists at 40 sites in Germany, says: »Of course physicists or biologists also have to be able to convey their results to people outside their disciplines, be it within their own teams or - just as importantly - to the customer. This means they need social skills and the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes«. In general, if one person only speaks in biological jargon, another describes problems through chemical formulae and the third is thinking in marketing categories, communication becomes difficult. Even more so where, in addition to various professions, different cultures are also involved. This is why along with social skills, intercultural experience is becoming increasingly important, particularly for scientists.

Large international employers such as BASF expect high levels of open-mindedness and flexibility from their employees and support periods abroad - within the company or in academia. Not every natural scientist has to go abroad during their training or later, but it can be beneficial. »A chemist in research is not necessarily expected to already have experience of working in two different countries. But the issue is becoming increasingly important for us too«, says Karin Schmitz, head of the careers and jobs market at the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh). And those who work in the applied sciences won't be able to avoid the global market anyway. Entrepreneurial thinking is becoming increasingly important for natural scientists: in order to successfully manage a project, the figures have to add up in the end, and customers must be convinced. Employers are therefore happy to see - and pay for - corresponding qualifications or experience. The Fraunhofer Institutes for example fund MBAs for selected employees. Large companies of course send their staff on internal and external training courses which allow them not only to acquire specialist knowledge but also to make new contacts.

Networks, sometimes beyond one's own specialist community, are playing an even greater role. They are important not only for one's current post and to keep abreast of developments in one's discipline, but (like internships for career entrants) may also open doors to new employment opportunities for experienced scientists. Approximately one in three physicists has found a new job through recommendations or personal contacts, according to the careers study by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. But well-founded specialist knowledge remains the basis of most careers in the natural sciences: "science lite" - a bit of biology in one's Bachelor or four years of chemistry with no doctorate - almost never works. Most natural scientists still start out in research when they join companies, reports Karin Schmitz of GDCh. Once there, they may be offered opportunities for personal development.

»A typical entry-level position with us would be as a laboratory manager. For these roles, we recruit candidates predominantly on the basis of their specialist knowledge«, says Jörg Leuninger of BASF. Only later do careers start taking a wide range of directions: Leuninger himself holds a PhD in chemistry, started out in research and later marketed adhesives in Asia as a business manager. Now he is responsible for recruiting »modern natural scientists« for his employer. Mainly for their knowledge, which no marketing specialist, no matter how experienced, can replace. After all, it is mainly natural scientists who are expected to address the big issues in interdisciplinary collaborations: future energy supply, for example, or the fight against cancer, where medicine depends more than ever on biologists, physicists and chemists.

From DIE ZEIT :: 08.12.2011