Life [as a PhD student] is a roller coaster – you just got to ride it.
– Dr Johanna Havemann, Trainer and Consultant.
#PhdCareerStories #freelance #consulting
Hello and welcome to today’s podcast on PhD Career Stories. My name is Johanna Havemann and I will tell you a bit about my path up until today.
At this very moment, I am in Cape Town, South Africa and will also pass by Nairobi, Kenya next week. Normally, I am based in Berlin, Germany from where I work as a freelance Trainer and Consultant for Science Communication.
Two hearts are beating in my chest: one for science with its thrill of new discoveries – and the other one for human rights and the environment; which implies that I was often torn between volunteer work and research. At some point I came to realize that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; I say that as a trained biologist, specified in molecular biology.
To me, life is a roller coaster with ups and downs and exciting turns every now and then. Sometimes I drift with opportunities and feel inspired by people around me following their footsteps for a while. Then again I deliberately make my own choices where to turn or on which door to knock next. Even in times of uncertainty I find this an exciting journey and am grateful for every step taken and those to come.
I conducted my undergraduate studies at Kassel University in Germany and continued at Stockholm University in Sweden. Before finishing with the Master’s Degree, I spent a couple of weeks at the Observatoire Océanologique de Villefranche sur Mer, a marine biology research center at the Cote d’Azur in France where I was studying my favorite animal kingdom, the Ctenophores and their remarkable asymmetric cell cleavages shortly after fertilization.
In quest of a PhD position I was keen to explore the world and sent applications far out. A professor in New Zealand invited me over – so I tapped deep into my savings and went on a 2.5 months trip to explore the academic landscape down under. I held interviews in Wellington and also travelled along the East Coast of Australia meeting mostly marine scientists in Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney. Needless to say that I was not only inspired by the beauty of the landscapes but I also came across many different people and their stories.
Back in Europe I engaged in volunteer work for an NGO that defends the rights of indigenous peoples on a global scale. I landed a PhD position at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology – not quite as exotic from it’s surroundings you might think, since I found myself back in Germany; but trust me if I tell you that people in Sweden have a mentality much closer to Northern Germans as compared to those in the South. The topic of my PhD linked back to asymmetric cleavages early on during animal development, this time in the little marine crustacean Parhyale hawaiensis. As a member of the EvoDevo research community – EvoDevo stands for Evolution and Development – our aim was to add a tiny puzzle piece to the animal tree of life; reconstructing it on a molecular basis and thereby proving Darwin and his colleagues at the time both right and wrong.
As a PhD student, I liked to look at a research challenges from different angles employing modern as well as traditional methodologies. Interdisciplinary works always sounded exciting to me and I was keen to learn from other disciplines and relating them to my own work.
In my role as the PhD student representative of the institute I ended up organizing the first interdisciplinary PhD symposium for students from all different disciplines within the Max Planck Society. Funny enough the topic was “Global Changes” also including Climate Change, which hadn’t quite reached mainstream media back in 2006. A keynote speaker from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research held a captivating speech on the threads and global impacts Climate Change already showed and what we would have to expect in the near future. It’s a shame that we (i.e. the global society) didn’t really get very much further in actions since then…
Towards the end of my PhD I received the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs, which finally brought me to the African continent. I conducted work placements at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi in the units for Climate Change Adaptation and GRASP – and in Cape Town at IPACC, a pan-African human rights organization for indigenous peoples.
So how does this now relate to molecular biology, you might wonder. Right, it doesn’t. But it did relate to the other heart that keeps beating in my chest to work towards the improvement of human rights and environmental protection. Many of the skills that I have obtained as a PhD student, I could apply also in my work for the UN and in NGOs. These included database management, literature research, writing science-based articles, project management at large and also media editing.
Note: If you ever consider leaving Academia, do keep in mind that during your PhD you acquired numerous skills that you most certainly wouldn’t list for your academic career. These are commonly referred to as ‘transferable skills’. Be aware of yours and make sure to highlight them in your non-academic CV.
South Africa and Kenya, and also other countries that I visited on the African continent, left a deep impression on me and led to various travels and projects. Going into details would exceed this format so let me just point out my decision to build a network of research and science communication for collaboration between Africa and Europe with a focus on Higher Education.
My work as a Science Communication trainer is filled with joy and learnings with every course. Sometimes it can also be challenging and being self-employed comes with a handful of insecurities. It serves me well for now and gives me a lot of freedom to travel and also structure my days in such a way that I can fill in time with my dog, thus work-life-balance is secured.
Luckily I was able to follow my passions with parents and friends who would always hold my back in every decision and step I took. Also numerous people I met along the way have been inspiring and guided me more or less along my path. So let me conclude with suggesting to you to trust your own passion in life and dare to try new things if you feel the time is right. This doesn’t always have to be a total cut of things, closing one door and hoping for others to open up – which they usually do sooner or later. Rather, check every now and then if time has come to ask a new question to your research topic, reach out to people outside your research community and make sure that you also have non-science friends.
That’s all for now. Let us know if you have similar plans and experiences.