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#38 Katrin Franke Story

Katrin Franke, Professor of Computer Science and Head of the NTNU Digital Forensics group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Katrin talks about her decision to pursue an academic career and the reason she moved to Norway.

Published onDec 22, 2017
#38 Katrin Franke Story

Katrin Franke is Professor of Computer Science and Head of the NTNU Digital Forensics Group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

In 2007 she joined the Norwegian Information Security Lab (NISlab) with the mission to establish research and education in digital and computational forensics. In this context, she was instrumental in setting up the partnership with the Norwegian police organization as part of the Center for Cyber and Information Security (CCIS) at the NTNU Department of Information Security and Communication Technology (IIK). Dr. Franke has 20+ years of experience in basic and applied research for financial services & law enforcement agencies (LEAs) working closely with banks and LEAs in Europe, North America and Asia.

Dr. Franke is an alumnus of the Technical University of Dresden in Germany with a major in electrical engineering. After graduating in 1994, Dr. Franke began to conduct research at the Fraunhofer IPK in Berlin, Germany where she worked until December 2006 as a scientific project manager. In 2005 she obtained her Ph.D. degree at the Artificial Intelligence Institute, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

Dr. Franke has published more than 170 scientific articles including one patent. She is involved in the organization of international conferences; the most prominent among them is the International Workshop on Computational Forensics (IWCF).

Dr. Franke is also an IAPR* Young Investigator Awardee in the year 2009. (* International Association of Pattern Recognition)

Getting a PhD is only level 1 in Super Mario. At level 2, we need to reorientate ourselves.

– Dr Katrin Franke, Professor of Computer Science at NTNU, Norway


Tina: Welcome! This is Tina Persson, founder of PhD Career Stories at the third Max Planck Career Fair in Berlin. I have here on my side Professor Katrin Franke, Professor at NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and I have listened to your fantastic seminar here today. Thank you very much for joining PhD Career Stories for an interview about career perspectives. I’m wondering Katrin, why you started your PhD?

Katrin: It’s my great pleasure to be here today. Also greetings and big compliments to the organisers from Max Planck PhD promotion group. It’s for me especially nice to come back because I have been living and working 13 years in Berlin. I was taking my PhD while living in Berlin and now since 10 years I’m in Norway where i became professor.

Why did I take a PhD? Well, the PhD came to me. So the only thing that I always knew I wanted from the bottom of my heart is doing research. I while I was doing my master, I started as a research assistant at an academy of science in Dresden. From there I move on and received a position at the Fraunhofer Society Institute in Berlin - IPK - for production, technology and design. 

Over the years, doing research, I realised, there is only so far I can go with a master degree in my research. Of course, for most of the grant applications and for most of the project leadership positions, it was required to be formally qualified as a PhD. 

Around 1998, so after 4 years as a researcher, I came to the conclusion that I would like to do a PhD in order to reach the next level in my researcher career. 

Then I travelled around the world, visiting six universities, interviewing for PhD positions. Luckily I found a position at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, where I could pursue my PhD studies and at the same time work at the Fraunhofer Society here in Berlin. 

Tina: You have performed a fantastic career, Katrin! We could hear that in the seminar today. But we also know that you have struggled. I’m curious to know, what made you stay in academia?

Katrin: Good question. There are many factors in our life that are out of our control. In particular for young PhD researchers close to finish, we all have been there wondering ‘Oh my God, what shall I do now? What is next? Where to go on from here?’ Because as I said in my talk earlier today, getting a PhD is only level 1 in Super Mario and in Super Katrin. At level 2, we need to reorientate ourselves. To be honest, in 2004-2005, shortly before finishing my PhD, I was not sure that I could continue in academia.

The good foundation I had by then by being 13 years at Fraunhofer was that I had the experiences from Fraunhofer and working for the industry but also working in research. What you know is that either you go to industry or you try to stay in academia. I applied all over the world to find a follow up position that would allow me to do research. I was mentally prepared to go to industry. I got a great opportunity in Norway at a very small college where I could combine or use the experience I learnt from Fraunhofer working with industry and at the same time building up an academic environment. 

So my message for everybody, we have all been there. Don’t cry if you cannot stay directly in academia. Sometimes it’s even good to take a detour in industry because it will give us an exposure and to learn on what is required out there. With new insights you can eventually come back and pursue a second career in academia after pursuing a career in industry. 

And this is what we tell our PhD students today, less than 10% stay in academia. So when we have 100 PhD students today, only 10 or even less can continue in academia. So from the early beginning, look what is out there, spread your wings and also look for opportunities to continue in other areas of our societies. 

Tina: You also mention that you had a career adviser at some point. Tell us more about that. 

Katrin: Yes, this was very early. When I decided that I may pursue a PhD, I also realised I know to little how academia works. What are the criteria to work in academia? So Fraunhofer is very much about content, it’s about research, it’s about solving problems, it’s about delivery. But what are the steps, the career development towards a career in academia? Honestly I didn’t know. It was at the time 2000 so I had already grasped that I might be able to pursue a PhD. So I was at the beginning of my PhD studies and then I got the opportunity to take a special course where young women could receive advice for instance in how to write a CV, what are the criteria for professorship, what are the measures for excellence, how to apply for professorship, and how to negotiate for professorship positions. I took this course in 2001 and I got my PhD in 2005, 4 years later. 

One advice that stuck with me since I’m in computer science is that I should keep my eyes open for positions in the Nordic countries because women in technology are very much supported in the Nordic countries. So when I got the chance to apply for professorship in Norway in 2006, I tried and now I’ve been 10 years in Norway!

Tina: If you were to advice our listeners, would you advice them to start their career development very early on in their PhD?

Katrin: I think yes. Number one and now I speak as a professor, first and foremost, get your PhD research proposal out, get admitted to a PhD program and write your first paper, because then you know how the system works. Then, if you have the possibility, go to PhD research schools or PhD organisations to network and to build a community with your peers. And then I believe it’s very good to know the criteria, the measures, what do you need to produce. If you have a very dedicated supervisor, he or she will tell you, but it’s also good to seek knowledge independently and combine it together with the advice from your supervisor. Remember, your PhD is working towards independence. The last time you will have an adviser by your side is during your PhD. Once you are out of the door with the PhD, you are alone. Very much alone. Then it’s good if you have use the time during your PhD to find ways to educate yourself to be in continuous learning so that the culture shock from PhD to Postdoc is not so big. 

Tina: So what I hear a little between the lines here is ‘Build yourself a network’ - so that you have people that you can ask and contact if you need advise or if you need to expand your field or if you need to learn a particular industry that might be interested in your competence. Is that what I hear between the lines?

Katrin: Well, I think there are different kinds of networks. The first and most important network is of course your family and your loved ones. Remember on one hand that you are very dependent on them but they are also dependent on you and your loved ones may sacrifice their own life or career just for your PhD. So having this harmony at home even in times of struggle I think is very important. 

The next network I think is important is your peers in the lab. Your fellow PhDs, your fellow postdocs, you are sitting all in the same boat. From a culture of sharing within this small environment, the whole group can exceed and they can in a safe and protected environment try out their knowledge and skills. 

The next network I believe is important is in the institute, which is the extended version of the lab. And then the network that you build at conferences dedicated to your field. If you are in the lucky situation that your funding allows you to travel to present your research at a conference, go, spend time, learn from other researchers in the field, broaden your perspectives on the domain and see where others are going. Those colleagues and those friendships that you build at this time, these might be your research partners when you are becoming more senior. When you are applying for a grant proposal, when you are organising a conference, when you are writing a book. 

And then there is the last network that I would like to mention. I strongly believe in the cooperation and impact of science working partitioners, working for instance with the biologists if you are in the domain, or working with technicians, those can often share with you a broad amount of experiences, technical experiences that you have just not earned yet because you are young. Listen to them. It will give you new perspectives on your research project and broaden your horizon and may give you the idea that eventually adheres to a Nobel prize. 

I would say build your own trust network around you on different levels and start with your family at home. 

Tina: Now, you took a decision when you were in Germany to take the chance to move to Norway. How important do you think that this decision has been for your career?

Katrin: My personal opinion is that I wouldn’t be a professor today if I had stayed in Germany. For me, the eagerness to reach out started to grow by attending conferences. By being invited to give lectures at other universities. I saw so many different cultures going to universities in Japan, the US, the Netherlands, Canada and I saw that there are other models of working, other ways of collaborating, other ways of research. And then of course other ways of leading to impact and doing something that stays for longer. 

I dreamed to go abroad shortly after I started on my PhD. I therefore started to read up on what it would mean to go abroad, what support networks are there for people that are going abroad etc. Also very practical requirements such as visa and work permits and so on. And also what is the life cycle of someone going abroad. For instance, it’s fully normal that after six months living in a new country you hit the ground and start asking yourself ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’. In my case this happened when the nice snowy mountains in Norway and the blue sky were suddenly pitch black and I wanted to come back to Berlin in the real civilization and not only live with woods and bush. But if you know that this is completely normal and that the pink clouds turn into desperation after six months and that you just need to carry on and it will be better again, then you may overcome the six months steps. 

For me it really helped to know that this happens to many and so when it happened to me I was just conscious and thinking ‘Now it kicks in, now I need to carry on’. 

Tina: I would like to share the same feeling I had when I came to Germany. The first six months were like a holiday and then the hard work started. But also that it was even harder actually to go back to Sweden after five years in Germany, because I had changed and so had Sweden. So I had the same process going back. 

But we are not going into that now. Instead we are going to round up hear and I would like you to think about and share your three most important tips and tricks for PhD students that would like to pursue an academic career. What would that be?

Katrin: Number one, stay modest, independently of your achievements. Because there will always be someone in the room that is smarter than you. 

Number two, nothing is impossible. Don’t give up or don’t take no for an answer. Question the no, challenge the no. Try to find solutions around the no. And if you are sure there is no workaround, then you can leave it. 

The last thing is that I believe in buddies. I’m going diving and from diving I know that sometimes  if I’m deep under water, my air goes out. And then the buddy will provide his or her spare air so that you will not die. I believe in academia in particular, which is a very tough and competitive environment, you will face challenges much easier if you have a buddy that is sharing air with you. So find you buddy, support each other and build a strong team. It is a culture of sharing that will help you to make a difference. 

Tina: Thank you very much Professor Katrin Franke, professor at NTNU, Norway. 

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