Completing a PhD at Jülich
The DocTeam is a network for all doctoral researchers (DR) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. The spokespersons are completing their doctorates at Forschungszentrum Jülich and, in addition to their research, are committed to the interests of doctoral researchers.
In this interview, the spokespersons who were elected from May to November 2022 provide personal insights into what it's like to undertake a doctorate at Forschungszentrum Jülich and what work they were responsible for as part of the DocTeam.
Please tell us about how you came to Jülich and why you decided to do your doctorate at the Research Centre.
Johannes: Forschungszentrum Jülich is one of Europe's biggest research centres; thus, it’s hard not to consider looking at positions here. In my case, I found a group and a project, where all my requirements for a PhD, such as methodologies and working on fundamental questions, were met. In the end, however, during my interviews, I had the feeling that I would be a good match with my supervisor, which is the most important, but hardest to “measure” requirement for a PhD!
Julian: I found a project that aligned perfectly with my skills, interests, and ideals. It was only in retrospect that I realized all the other things going on in the FZJ and how big it is, but I´m very happy with my decision.
Markus: I visited a friend during the open day here at the campus. I was impressed by the cooperation between the individual institutes, by the equipment, and by the internationality.
Keeping in mind the experience that you have gained since you started: In your point of view, what are the reasons for undertaking a doctorate at Forschungszentrum Jülich?
Xinyu: For me, FZJ has all the fancy scientific equipment to support you in your research. But I would also say that FZJ takes care of your personal life as well. As a foreigner, FZJ's International Advisory Services provided a lot of help to me and my family. It helped me to settle down quickly and focus on my research.
Samuel: For me too, coming to FZJ was a great opportunity. The research collectives are recognized in my field and the quality of the working tools allows us to dig into the scientific questions in a very exciting way. And finally, even if it did not affect my initial choice, the setting of the campus in the middle of the forest is very pleasant in every season.
Lydia: In addition, there is great support for DRs through our graduate office, known as JuDocS - Jülich Center for Doctoral Researchers and Supervisors. They offer a variety of training courses in writing, presentation, or research data management. I really enjoyed participating in these courses and I think these qualifications are important beyond a scientific setting.
A doctorate is always associated with different challenges and thus offers the opportunity to develop professionally and personally. What has your experience in your doctorate been like at Forschungszentrum Jülich so far?
Julian: So far my project is going well. The skills I acquired during my bachelor and master studies fit quite well to my project. The institute I work with is the most recently founded Institute for Renewable Hydrogen Economy at the Research Centre. It is very exciting to be part of such a big project and to be able to shape my own workplace. The main drawback of my project is that a lot of infrastructure has to be built in order for the project to succeed. However, I enjoy the diverse tasks I need to tackle in my PhD.
Xinyu: My project is going well now, but I had difficulties during the first year, which was also my first year in a foreign country. I had to face obstacles in terms of language, culture, and academic system. Fortunately, I have a good supervisor. She is very patient and helped me every step of the way. Now, I am in the final year of my PhD program.
Markus: We have a lot of freedom in our institute. For example, we can decide very freely about our working hours and which equipment we use for our project. In my institute, we have a good relationship with our supervisor and a good culture of discussion between the doctoral researchers. Everyone helps everyone.
Johannes: Due to the strong theoretical focus of my group, there is little overlap of projects with other doctoral researchers. This can sometimes be difficult, as one gets a little lost in the work, both socially and subject-specific. Still, being surrounded by so many clever researchers means there is always someone to talk to and the opportunity to get a push in the right direction. Luckily, I never have to worry about running out of computational resources, which are crucial for my work, as the FZJ is exceptionally well-equipped with high-performance computers.
You have already mentioned cooperation and networking: What role do these aspects play for you personally?
Lydia: Doing research in neuroscience is highly interdisciplinary. In my institute, researchers from many disciplines - including physics, biology, or computer science - come together. I think we support each other a lot and can benefit greatly from the perspectives of colleagues with different backgrounds.
Samuel: For my part, I find it stimulating to work with other doctoral researchers on a daily basis. We support each other very easily if it is necessary for intensive experiments, for technical but also scientific questions. Finally, I am happy to benefit from the knowledge and tools of other groups, or even other institutes, to together advance further in our questions.
Speaking of networking: How did you get involved in the DocTeam?
Johannes: One of the regular events of the DocTeam is the pizza meeting, where people can catch up on the DocTeam in a casual atmosphere over a slice of pizza. I like to call it the “most expensive pizza of my life”. In the end I did not stay for pizza, but the people and stories told during this event made me join the DocTeam.
Xinyu: As a scholarship holder, I was looking for help to improve my working conditions. I found out that a friend of my colleague is a speaker for the DocTeam. He introduced me to the DocTeam, an organization that has been working on the issue of unequal working conditions. He suggested I join the DocTeam and play my part. So here I am.
Please give us a brief overview: What is the DocTeam and what do you do?
Johannes: We, the DocTeam, are a dedicated team representing all doctoral researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich and within the Helmholtz Association. We commit to the interests of doctoral researchers by improving our working situation, making sure our voice is heard within the Research Centre and offering a space for doctoral researchers to connect and exchange.
Samuel: For all of that, we represent doctoral researchers in different bodies of the Research Centre - such as the Scientific Council - and are in close contact with the Works Council. But that doesn't mean that we are not having fun organizing great events, like the inter-institute football-tournament this summer, outdoor activities, picnics, hiking, movies...
That sounds like a lot of work. How do you organize yourselves?
Johannes: In addition to the six elected speakers, we have several active members in our three working groups (green campus, public relations, and working conditions). These groups address various and changing topics of interest to doctoral researchers. Beyond these permanent groups, we also initiate temporary groups for single events.
Samuel: We also organize an assembly every 6 months where doctoral researchers are asked to vote for the speakers and to propose ideas. Every doctoral researcher at Forschungszentrum Jülich is also welcome to take part in this event.
You said that you are also involved beyond Forschungszentrum Jülich. What was a recent overarching topic you dealt with?
Lydia: Together with Johannes, I am also a member of the Helmholtz Juniors (HeJu) survey working group. We are evaluating the results of the N2 survey 2021, which assesses working conditions, quality of supervision, mental health, and the impact of the pandemic. Our work on the survey is very important because it provides a picture of the situation for DRs in non-university research organizations and shows what aspects of our working conditions really need to be improved.
Johannes: As well as evaluating the survey, I take it one step further and actively discuss the encountered problems and how to improve them with different councils at the FZJ, such as the Doctorate Council and Works Council, the HeJu Working Condition Group, and even unions such as ver.di.
When you think about your work as part of the DocTeam over the past months, what were the highlights and special moments of success for you?
Markus: Many traditions (pizza meeting, sport events, etc.) and connections to important contacts were lost during the Corona pandemic. For me, it was a great success to see that we are slowly returning to everyday life. We have relaunched the DocTeam summer party and are trying to network the new doctoral researchers with a series of events.
Samuel: Yes, the summer party was a great success! We brought together 300 doctoral researchers, in a sports competition between 14 teams representing each different institute, all in a festive and relaxed atmosphere! Moreover, the event was open to all the employees of the campus and it was a good opportunity to create nice memories and connections between the participants.
Lydia: During the Mental Health Awareness month in May, we organized a large campaign to raise awareness on mental health issues in academia. We organized sessions where we could learn about topics related to mental health. In addition, we organized social events to create a room for discussions, share our experiences, and exchange strategies to overcome struggles that we face during our PhD.
One last question in closing: How can doctoral researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich support the DocTeam if they now want to get involved?
Johannes: Any doctoral researcher can take an active role in the DocTeam. They just need to reach out to us!
Samuel: Every first Wednesday of the month, at 12:30 p.m., we organize an online monthly meeting open to doctoral researchers where we present our activities but also invite guests to address a specific topic regarding different aspects of the PhD process (supervision, career, contract, …). We also encourage every doctoral researchers to join the events we organize, to propose new ideas and, why not, become a speaker!
About the interview partners
has a master’s degree in Neural Information Processing from the Graduate Training Centre of Neuroscience, Tübingen (Germany) and now works at the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine - Structural and Functional Organisation of the Brain (INM-1)
has a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China) and now works at the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences - Plant Sciences (IBG-2)
has a master’s degree in analytical and bioanalytical chemistry from the Hochschule Aalen (Germany) and now works at the Helmholtz-Institute Erlangen-Nürnberg for Renewable Energies (IEK-11)
has a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from RWTH Aachen (Germany) and now works at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research - Microstructure and Properties (IEK-2)
has a master’s degree in Physics from the University of Tübingen (Germany) and now works at the Institute of Biological Information Processing - Theoretical Physics of Living Matter (IBI-5/IAS-2)
has a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from the ISARA-Lyon (France) and now works at the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences - Agrosphere (IBG-3)
Copyright images on this page (from top to bottom): (1) Forschungszentrum Jülich / Sascha Kreklau, (2) Forschungszentrum Jülich / Kurt Steinhausen, (3,4)Forschungszentrum Jülich