Dr. Karin J. Schmitz is head of the career service and job market of the German Chemical Society (GDCh, Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker). She talks with Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews.org about why she chose working at a chemical society over the lab, what aspects she enjoys most in her job and and why communication is an important skill for her work.
Tell us a bit about how your career has developed, please.
I studied chemistry at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, and finished my PhD in 1993 in the field of solid-state chemistry. During my PhD I enjoyed doing research and working on things that had never been examined before. But coming to the end of my doctorate I was sure that research and working in the laboratory was not the right thing for me in the future. So I began looking for a possibility to use my chemical knowledge without wearing a lab coat. In addition, the job situation for chemists was very poor at that time.
During my doctorate I had started reading scientific articles written for the public, like in VDI Nachrichten, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, and so forth, and for several years I was a part of the editorial team of the student magazine TNT, published by a chemistry student group of my university. So the combination of writing and chemistry came to my mind, and as the daughter of a journalist mother I regarded this to be a really thrilling alternative to a researcher’s job.
So I started working as a freelance science writer. This was not as easy as it sounds now. I had no idea how to start. I had neither contacts nor did I know anybody who worked in this area, and at that time the Internet was not yet available for getting any kind of information on a certain topic. But somehow I managed to have my first article published in Süddeutsche Zeitung, the largest German national subscription daily newspaper. The article was about biomineralization and I was so proud of it that I made 50 copies of the article (about 48 of them I still have stored somewhere at home).
After an internship at Deutschlandfunk, a public broadcasting radio station in Cologne, where I was part of the editorial team of the daily program Forschung aktuell, I worked as a freelancer for several media outlets like VDI Nachrichten, Deutsche Welle (radio), and others.
Although I liked this job as a kind of translator of complicated scientific topics into a language for the public, I joined Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) in 1995. Working for a big scientific organization was very attractive to me, since it is the center of various kinds of chemistry-related activities, symposia, and publications. And to be honest, changing the very fluctuating income of a freelancer to a regular income was an aspect that should not be underestimated. My job in the Department of Education and Profession had not existed before. This gave me the chance to influence, at least to a certain extent, the definition and focuses of the job and to develop new activities.
What do you do in your current position?
I am head of GDCh’s Career Service. One of my duties is the job market we run. I am responsible for the job advertisements in our members’ magazine Nachrichten aus der Chemie and on our webpage www.gdch.de/stellen.
The other part of the Career Service is to support chemists in various matters of their professional life, especially when they are starting their first job. This, for example, includes our mentoring program, our job fairs, application workshops, our brochures, and other information for students and young professionals.
A third part, which is not related to career service, is my job as the coordinator of the EuCheMS newsletter, which is published four times a year. And finally I am the data protection officer of GDCh.
How much is your job related to chemistry?
I do not deal much with chemistry any more, but sometimes I still need some of the information I learned at university. For example, if a client is looking to hire a chemist as a new employee, we run a search in our expert database. We have to decide which profiles in the database match with the client’s requirements, so we need to know the different fields of chemistry, the analytical methods, and the common abbreviations. And although I do not discuss scientific questions with our members, it definitely helps being a chemist myself; we are thinking the same way and are talking the same language.
What other skills do you need?
The most important skill is organizing and keeping an eye on diverse activities running parallel to one another. Time management is essential to finish an event or publication on time and not to neglect other projects that do not have a fixed completion date.
When in contact with many different people, both chemists and non-chemists, communication skills are important as well. Talking to a chemistry professor who wants to advertise a postdoctoral research position is different to answering a journalist’s questions about the employment market for chemists, and both are different to talking to a mother asking for information about what kind of study would be appropriate for her son or daughter.
What problems or decisions do you deal with regularly?
Apart from the job market, which runs continuously during the year, our daily work depends on the current projects. For example, in spring our annual survey of Germany’s study courses in chemistry and the salary survey take considerable time out of our day. The organization of a job fair starts in winter and ends at the Wissenschaftsforum in September. Last year we spent a lot of time launching the mentoring project CheMento, which started this year in January. And at the moment we are in the final stage of publishing a new brochure.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I have the privilege of creating my own projects, if my other duties allow me the time, and it is great to see a project through from the first idea until the very end. One current example is our new brochure that will be published in a few days. Due to my enthusiasm for journalism, I enjoy creating the basic structure of a publication, writing articles, contacting other authors, doing the editorial work … and finally holding the brochure in my hands. Other examples are our events, such as the job fairs that we organize at the biannual GDCh “Wissenschaftsforum Chemie” trade show. If after months of preparation all the work results in a successful event, then this is very satisfying.
And I really enjoy the cooperation with various people for the EuCheMS newsletter. Growing up at a time when Europe was strictly divided into a western and an eastern part, I am still fascinated by how easy it is nowadays to communicate and collaborate with people from all over Europe and overseas. And it was a highlight to organize the career networking reception we held on the occasion of the fifth EuCheMS Chemistry Congress in Istanbul this summer.
Are there any aspects you would like to be different?
Like in most jobs, there is a lack of available time, and it would be nice to have more time to realize useful projects for young professionals. And, of course, among my daily duties there are some things that I like less than others. But this is the case in all other jobs too.
What has been most challenging in your job?
Some years ago I was asked to take over the position of GDCh’s data protection officer, in addition to my other duties. I have to admit that I was not very enthusiastic about this job, although I regard the topic of data protection as extremely important. But to get familiar with all the laws and regulations was a challenge for me, since the language of lawyers is completely different to what chemists are used to.
Can you give an example in which you deal with data protection?
Yes. For example, in cooperation with the activities of the regional groups of the young member groups of the GDCh (JungChemikerForum). Being in this position is sometimes like wearing two hats. On the one hand, I really appreciate the volunteer work of the heads of the regional groups or young member groups in kicking off diverse activities for our members. On the other hand, I sometimes have to tell them that some activities are not allowed owing to data protection rules (using members’ addresses, for example). But on the plus side, there is an increased awareness and understanding of data protection topics by most of our volunteer officials, especially by the younger ones, and this helps me a lot. And in nearly every case we find a way to run the activity in accordance with the regulations.
What advice would you give to students pursuing a job in a scientific organization?
There is no special preparation for working in a scientific organization. It helps to have some experience in a nonprofit organization, maybe the JungChemikerForum, a sports club, or a political organization. In my case, the volunteer work that I did for Amnesty International during my time at university was helpful because I learned a lot about organizing events, contact with journalists, and so forth.
Did you need to specialize in a certain field or is a general chemistry background sufficient?
A general chemistry background is sufficient. The rest is learning by doing.
Thank you for your time.
Karin J. Schmitz studied chemistry at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, where she also received her PhD.
She started as a freelance science writer working in print and radio. Since 1995, Schmitz works for the German Chemical Society (GDCh, Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker). She is the head of GDCh’s career services and job market.
All interviews of the ChemistryViews.org series “Chemists Talk About Their Jobs“