The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) is “a great place for researchers to work thanks to its outstanding technological resources,” says Dr. Jean-Yves Tano from the Postdoc Office. But for the MDC’s approximately 300 postdocs, their time here is limited. After six years at the latest, they move on to new pastures. This is when Tano, who holds a doctorate in biology, is on hand to help. He coordinates the ASPIRE program (Advanced Science career development Program for Innovation and REsearch), which seeks to provide aspiring young scientists with guidance about the many professional pathways they could pursue.
Jean-Yves Tano (36) grew up in Côte d’Ivoire in Africa. At the age of 15, he moved to the U.S., where he studied biology and ultimately obtained a PhD in cardiovascular disease. He has been at the MDC for eight years – and in the Postdoc Office belonging to the MDC career center since 2018.
If you had to describe the ASPIRE program in three words, what would they be?
Dr. Jean-Yves Tano: Career, development, opportunity.
Who was the program created for?
ASPIRE is for all postdocs at the MDC. The program aims to show them the wide range of career opportunities their doctorate opens up for them – both within and outside academia, in industry or as entrepreneurs. They can choose between courses and workshops in five career tracks: Academic Leadership, Science Management, Science Communication, Industry and R&D, and Entrepreneurship.
A doctorate opens up excellent career prospects. Do postdocs need a program to recognize this?
Sometimes, the wealth of choice can be overwhelming and makes it difficult to decide – especially if you don’t know all the options. Many of those who come to us have reached a crossroads in their careers because, for example, their contract is about to expire. But this is actually too late. We encourage postdocs to contact us and sign up for the program as early as possible.
Why is that advisable?
Germany has a law on academic employment, the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz, which allows young scientists to spend six years as postdocs after earning their doctorate. But many don’t know that a lot of research grants to start one's own group need to be applied for no later than the fourth year after the doctorate. That’s why you should decide as early as possible which direction you want to take – whether you want to stay in academia or do something completely different. Our ASPIRE program helps a lot with that decision. With our support, participants have one year to explore other paths and see what suits them best. They can share their experiences and ideas with others who are in the same position, and the workshops provide them with insight into areas they may not have even known existed before. All of this helps the postdocs look beyond the four walls of their own lab, so to speak. It helps them see the bigger picture.
Flexible workshops with experts
Who is eligible to apply to the program?
The application round happens once a year, usually in February. The applicants must have a valid MDC contract for the duration of the ASPIRE program. So, if you apply for ASPIRE six months before the end of your postdoc contract, that’s not going to work. To apply, postdocs must submit their résumé and a letter of motivation. The letter should outline in detail what area they want to focus on and why. Those interested in pursuing a career in academia should provide details of their publications and presentations, and mention whether and when they have supervised students or had similar responsibilities. Applicants for the industry track should show the extent to which they have already been involved in their preferred sector, taken courses or worked in a company. We are a bit more flexible when it comes to the entrepreneurship track – after all, very few postdocs have prior experience of starting a business. Applicants should also submit a list of workshops they would like to attend. The chosen tracks serve as orientation. However, our experience in recent years has shown that postdocs usually have more than one area of interest and sometimes switch tracks during the program.
Is every applicant offered a place in the ASPIRE program?
No, sadly that’s not possible. In 2018, the program’s first year, we had 16 participants. The following year, in 2019/20, that number went up to 38. For the current year, 2021, we have limited the number of participants to 30 – but we received applications from 40 postdocs.
Do the postdocs have to pay to participate in ASPIRE?
No. The Helmholtz Association funds the ASPIRE program from the Initiative and Networking Fund – as it does all the work of the Postdoc Office. Our ASPIRE program is at the core of the Postdoc Office’s activities.
How much time do participants have to invest?
The program runs for a year at a time. Over the course of this year, the postdocs complete three mandatory courses, each lasting two days. They can then select other workshops on a voluntary basis. The total time commitment for ASPIRE events over the year is approximately two weeks.
Do participants need the approval of their lab head?
No. Participants must inform them, but they do not need their consent.
Is there some kind of final exam at the end? And do the participants receive a certificate?
They receive certificates of attendance for the individual workshops and a final certificate when they complete the program. With the postdocs who have chosen the academic track, we also conduct practice interviews at the end, in which we simulate a job interview to become a group leader.
From the MDC to management consulting
Do you have any examples of careers that you would say were significantly influenced by the ASPIRE program?
Absolutely! The participants are assigned mentors for the duration of the program who can offer them really good advice. In 2018, there was one postdoc whose mentor worked in a management consulting firm. The mentor was very supportive of the scientist and gave her lots of tips for applying to jobs in this field. She is now a successful consultant herself. Another postdoc who applied for the industry track landed a job with a company before he had even completed the program. For both these individuals, their participation in ASPIRE helped boost their careers – in a way that was really tailored to their particular interests.
How did you end up at the MDC?
I started as a postdoc in Professor Maik Gollasch’s lab at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC) in 2013. I had completed my doctorate in the field of cardiovascular research in the U.S. and came to Berlin on a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. But already after my first year as a postdoc, I realized that I was also interested in organizational work beside the scientific research. I talked to my supervisor about it, and he introduced me to Professor Detlev Ganten. I started spending a few hours a week on the team responsible for organizing the World Health Summit, which Professor Ganten had launched. I then moved to Würzburg as a postdoc in the Professor Martin Lohse’s lab, but returned to the MDC in 2016. When the Postdoc Office position was advertised, I applied – and was successful!
What does a typical working day in the Postdoc Office look like?
In addition to ASPIRE, we offer career guidance for postdocs and run a variety of mentoring programs. We also organize seminars and help both the postdocs and the lab heads in their appraisal interviews.
What is it that you enjoy the most about your job?
It gives me great pleasure to see how the postdocs benefit from our work. I was once a postdoc myself and can remember only too well how demanding it was. We also get a lot of really positive feedback. Postdocs tell us how helpful it was for them to participate in ASPIRE and to get a clearer idea of the opportunities available to them with a PhD.
Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig conducted the interview.