Coordinator of Studies

© Dr. Janina Kirsch

Please describe your current job in one or two sentences

I am the coordinator of studies of all degree programs (B.Sc., M.Sc., Secondary School Teaching) in the field of biology at the University of Freiburg, Germany. My job consists of student and teacher advising, organization of course program and examination, organization of the students’ evaluation and the development of the curriculum.

What academic and / or professional training do you have?

I studied biology (Diploma) at the University of Bonn, Germany and specialized in neurobiology in the group of Prof. Bleckmann. I stayed in Bonn for my PhD, continuing the studies of my diploma thesis. To finance my studies, I worked in the deanery of the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences as student assistant (this turned out to be relevant later in my life). Afterwards, I had a postdoc position in the biopsychology group of Prof. Güntürkün at the Ruhr-University Bochum for five years. Then I moved to Freiburg to work as teaching and training coordinator for the PhD program of the Bernstein Center Freiburg for five years. From there, I changed to the deanery (see how formative student assistant jobs can be) of the faculty of biology for my current job as coordinator of studies.

How and at what professional stage did you get your current position?

If I had to describe the “how” in one word, it would be “by accident”. Part of my job as teaching and training coordinator at the Bernstein Center Freiburg was the development of the curriculum of the Major Neuroscience within the M.Sc. Biology at the faculty of biology (to be honest, that part was self-imposed). In that task, I closely collaborated with the coordinator of studies at that time. When he quit to take over other duties at the faculty, I applied for his job – and got it. Thanks to my job at the Bernstein Center, which was the first one after I “quit science”, I had been able to acquire new and precious skills in science management and administration. I assume that experience with administration, organizational issues, (PhD-)students advising and teaching qualified me best for my current job.

What were the most important career activities / steps that led you to this position?

I find it hard to tell or to pin-point it down to a few. I think every single experience I made in my life just led me to where I am now and I don’t know where they will lead me in the future. During my studies, I just had one goal: become a professor. I did not have any clue about how and what exactly to do to achieve this goals, what problems there might be with respect to temporary contracts, the long time line etc. I simply did not care. At the end of my PhD, I started thinking whether this is the right way for me. My PhD project was not that groundbreaking, I did not publish in science or nature and I was not really sure whether to continue with science or not. However, I also did not have any clue what else I could do, and since I still loved neuroscience, the brain and research in the very depth of my heart, I gave science a second chance. I decided to change university, change group and change scientific approach. Still in neuroscience, but from a different perspective. But, and I think this is the most important strategy: I assigned this “second chance” with a deadline of five years. “If I don’t make it within five years, I will quit science,” I told myself. I was really scared of getting stuck in non-tenured contracts, being a frustrated postdoc, hopping from one contract to the next, always depending on the good will of my bosses and to miss the time point where the chances of finding something different are realistic. Once the end of these five years approached, I realized that I had not progressed much in my scientific development. Again, I did not really publish successfully and, again, my research activities did not have groundbreaking results. As I had promised myself, I started to look for alternatives, even though it was very painful for me to realize that I “failed”. I talked to my supervisors, colleagues, friends and people that also quit science at some point. I tried to find out what I am good at, what skills I have that might be useful in a job apart from research. I realized that I was very good in organizing people and networking. I like to work with people and I am always seeking harmony in the group of people I work with. Before I really started with reading job offers and applying to institutions dealing with scientific management, it so happened that I went to Freiburg, to do some data analysis with collaborators at the Bernstein Center in a joint research project we had at the time. We worked, I gave a talk, we went for dinner and when I told them that I was seeking a job, they told me that they were currently seeking a Teaching & Training Coordinator for the PhD-Program. I met the person currently doing this job, applied, had the interview and got the job – I started six week later! You see, again “by accident”. I met the right people at the right time in my life and they had the right job for me. From there, five years later, it was just a small step (see above) that led me to my current job, the first tenured contract in my life.

What does your typical work day look like?

Perfect for me is the flexible timing of my job. I do not have to be in my office at a specific time (good for me, since I have problems getting up early, which is typical for scientist). I start working between 9 and 9:30, and I typically leave between 6 and 7. I do not have to work on weekends, but sometimes I do voluntarily. It is a kind of habit from my time in research. I can define myself when to do what, and nobody tells me what to do. I simply have to do my job. This is the way I like to work.

I spend most of the time of my work at the computer. E-mailing makes up about 50% of my job. It is mostly e-mails from students asking for advice, e-mails from our professors that want to know how specific things work and whether they can do this or that. It is also e-mails from people intending to start their studies and need advice. Further task are taking care of the website, updating study documents, making the course catalog, setting up the course bookings for the students, assigning them to courses, preparing the data for the evaluation, documenting the teaching load of the teachers, writing the minutes for the faculty meetings. That’s more or less the routine tasks that come in a regular manner. Apart from that, I contribute to task forces at the university level where new study programs are planned, strategies for improvement of the student service are discussed and implemented and other things that appear from time to time. I am also the primary contact person for the University rector’s office when it comes to teaching and study-related issues of the faculty of biology.

What do you like most about your job?

I most like the freedom I have. Of course, there are routine jobs that I have to do, no question, but for me it is important to have clear task to do. This helps structuring the day. Apart from those, I am free to find other tasks myself. I identify problems in the study program and with people, and try to solve them. My daily effort is to make life for students and teachers easier, I try to help and assist where I can. You see, I am still seeking for harmony….

I also love the students that I deal with. It is a great pleasure to help them find their way and to get to know all the different personalities. On the one hand, there are these cute 1st semester “kiddies”, that just finished school and are completely overwhelmed by this big institution “University”. On the other hand, there are straight-forward students who know immediately what they want and what they have to do. This diversity is very fascinating and it is challenging for me to always find the right way to approach with them and to help them to develop further.

Along the same lines, there are also different personalities among the professors and teaching staff I collaborate with every day. I am very lucky that we meet at eye level. They respect my job and give credit to what I how I do. Maybe this is the most important thing that I found in my current job: appreciation.

Is there anything that you like less about your job?

Not really, my job is perfect as it is. Of course, there are periods when I have to do much of the routine stuff with deadlines, but it is great to finish tasks. During my time as researcher, I could only rarely check off things on my to do list. It was always: do experiments, analyze data, write the paper, read papers. You are never done with any of those. In my current job, I can check off things on my to do list every day (and of course I always add new tasks).

However, sometimes I have the feeling of always being short in time. Even in a more administrative job, you are not safe from procrastination, and then I get angry when time flies. Sometimes I wish to have more time for new projects I have in my mind. But I am convinced that I would not be happy in a job were everything is perfect. Humans need to complain to be happy. If there is nothing to complain about, you will find or generate things you can complain about….

What skills are most needed for your kind of position?

I would say that the most important, so-called “soft skill” I need is communication. I have to talk to so many people every day: colleagues, students, professors, rectorate, on the phone, in person, in e-mails. Communication is my working tool.

However, I could not do my job without having the experience of studying myself, doing a PhD and working as a postdoc. This personal experience including ups and downs is highly important when advising students with respect to their future planning. It is also necessary for the communication with the professors. I think, otherwise they would not respect me the way they do.

Last but not least, I know touch typing. This is absolutely helpful and a very helpful tool in my daily life. I just have to think about what to write and not how. Learn it, it’s fun!!!

What will be the most important future challenges for people in positions like yours?

I wish I knew that, so that I could prepare myself. I am sure it is important to stay flexible in your mind. You always have to adapt to changes in the system. University changes, studying changes, people change. It is dangerous to get stuck in routine procedures. Sometimes when you ask people why they do certain things the way they do, you get an answer like: “We have always done it this way”…. For me this is a very dangerous attitude. I always try to ask myself “How can we do this better?” If you have this in your mind, you will stay flexible in your thinking. Why not try something new?

Apart from that: Ask me again in 10 years, maybe I will have a more specific answer by then.

Which capacity that you acquired during your academic training is most helpful in your job?

Along the course of my career, I developed a very positive attitude towards life in general. I try to view problems as challenges. The more challenging a task is, the more proud I am when I mastered it. I also stopped looking back and thinking about what might have happened if I had decided differently at certain time points in my life. I do not struggle with my decisions in hindsight. I know that, at the time, I took those decisions based on the best of my knowledge and on my instincts. Worrying about the past is a waste of time. I know that I can only influence the future – to some degree. Life takes you to a certain place and you simply have to make the best out of it. If you are not happy with the situation, change things. If you recognize you are not good at a certain task, do something about it. Learn new things, improve. Stay flexible.

Is there anything you whished you had studied / done more before you took on this job?

It is always easy to come up with things one could have done or learned earlier. But I am convinced that it is never too late to learn new stuff. There is always parts in the job that you are good at (that’s why you got the job in the first place) and other parts that you are not good at. However, every job gives you the opportunity for further development. Identify where you are not doing so well and face it, do something about it. Take a course, ask for help from colleagues or friends. And, of course: share your knowledge with others.