Mentoring group

Joined for a time

18 months of postdoc mentoring program at MDC coming to an end – time to review the experiences and impressions.

It is a sunny day in spring; neuroimmunologist Dr. Susanne Wolf and her mentor Professor Ulrich Dirnagl, head of Experimental Neurology at the Charité, cycle through the Berlin Tiergarten. They are on their way from the Freie Universität in Steglitz to the Alte Nervenklinik in Mitte. Susanne remembers: "The 40-minute bicycle trip to my mentor's office gave us the opportunity to also talk about personal matters, in addition to scientific topics. Mr. Dirnagl told me about his skateboard hobby. I was surprised to hear that he regularly trains in the half-pipe, often even before work, and that he takes his skateboard along to conferences."

Exit from academic career: Andrea Solf started a continuing education program in June to qualify as a bioinformatics assistant. Photo: Guido Rottmann, MDC

The mentoring program aims at individual career development. An experienced executive (the mentor) passes on his or her knowledge and experience to a younger junior employee. At the same time, the mentor supports the mentee in her personal development and integration into networks. The MDC internal mentoring program for female postdocs aims at helping them to recognize and use their own potential, to increase their competences and make their decisions for the next steps in their careers. Dr. Andrea Solf, another program participant, says: "We all had the same question: what to do after the postdoc years at the MDC?"

To find out about the next step, the participants first analyze their current professional situation and reflect on their needs. In the further course of the program, they develop individual career options and strategies to achieve their professional goals. The program includes workshops on the topics of management, communication and career development, in addition to the program's key element, the supervision by external mentors from the fields of research, industry and teaching.

The MDC internal mentoring program for female postdocs aims at helping them to make their decisions for the next steps in their careers. Photo: Guido Rottmann, MDC

Gabriele Kollinger, human resource developer at the MDC and responsible for organizing the mentoring program together with women's representative Dr. Christiane Nolte, explains how the program has evolved since its launch in 2001: "At first, it was mainly the female mentor-mentee tandem. Over the years, we have professionalized the concept content and have adapted it even more to meet the needs of the mentees. By now, the program rests on three pillars: the work of mentor (male or female) and mentee, the supporting program consisting of workshops and career consultancy, and networks for the mutual support within the group of mentees. This is augmented by integration into the mentor's professional networks."

The "right" mentor – can also be a man

"At the program start we place great emphasis on finding the 'right' mentor, that is, the 'matching process'," explains Dr. Christiane Nolte, women's representative at the MDC and co-organizer of the program. "The mentees may submit their own suggestions of mentors." By now, a rather large and heterogeneous pool of experts has accumulated for the purpose. The mentors – since the current program round they also may be male – come from all across Germany and cover the full range of the life sciences. "This is something we are very proud of," says Christiane Nolte, "especially when considering that the mentors do this job out of pure commitment." However, the professional position of mentors alone is not the decisive factor for a successful tandem-relationship. Christiane Nolte: "It all depends on the chemistry between the persons involved and the mentee's high commitment." It is important to clearly communicate the respective roles right from the start, to determine what each hopes to gain from the experience and what are realistic expectations. Also, it is important to establish over the course of the relationship a work climate that is characterized by openness and reliability.

On shadowing day, the mentees accompany their mentors at work

Good team for a time: Susanne Wolf accompanies her mentor Ulrich Dirnagl at shadowing day to his work at Charité's "Alte Nervenklinik". Photo: Maimona Id, MDC

Susanne Wolf explains: "It was hugely important for me to be able to suggest my ideal mentor. I wanted to use the program to get to know the neurological research world in Berlin from a different angle." After her several years of postdoc research within the working group AG Kettenmann, she was well acquainted with neuroscientific research at the MDC. "I now wanted to gain insights into neurosciences at the Charité, especially the work of the NeuroCure excellence cluster, and expand my network in that direction. The latter is of particular importance, because I want to habilitate and aim at obtaining a professorship in Berlin," says Susanne Wolf. The cooperation with Ulrich Dirnagl exceeded her expectations, she says. "I was able to gain more clarity about my professional goals and expand these. For instance, I currently am thinking about starting my own spin-off company in addition to an academic career." She would not have dared to take such a step prior to the mentoring program. Wolf: "Professor Dirnagl managed to help me stop being scared of my own courage." The shadowing day was a special highlight for the young scientist: "I was given the chance of accompanying him in his everyday work from morning till evening. That was also the day we cycled from the Henry Ford Building to Mitte." Ulrich Dirnagl adds: "I am glad Ms. Wolf thinks so positively about our cooperation. As a mentor, of course, at the start of such a program, one hopes that one has something to offer to the other party. I will remember our scientific discussions about Ms. Wolf's exciting findings regarding the connection between intestinal bacteria and the brain. This is a highly topical subject."

How career goals can change...

Sometimes, the professional outlook changes during the mentoring program. "At the start of the program I was a relatively young postdoc and wanted to continue in my scientific career," Andrea Solf tells us. "I was even able to envision a position as head of a working group. Yet I was also interested in alternative career options, because right from the start I was realistic about my limited list of publications and the related academic opportunities." What helped her, she says, were the consultations for realizing one's own potential, the related impulses for self-reflection and the survey of her career anchors (professional basic orientation). The knowledge of one's career anchors is elemental for the conscious development of one's career and indispensable for making good professional decisions. "This made me think about how my career goals tie in with my personality," says Andrea. The exchange of thoughts and comparison with other mentees played a major role, in addition to her cooperation with her mentor, Professor Jaqueline Franke from the Berlin Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW) – University of Applied Sciences. "I thought it was highly interesting how others assessed their resources, planned their career and actively worked towards it. I decided to quit academic science in the course of the program. I started a continuing education program in June to qualify as a bioinformatics assistant." Andrea Solf hopes to thus gain opportunities in the field of bioinformatics services for scientists. "Another option for me would be a second study course to become a Master of Bioinformatics," she says.

Gabriele Kollinger summarizes: "Time and again it is exciting to witness how the mentees specify their professional goals within this concentrated period of time and often also advance on a personal level. We have achieved our goal, if every mentee has decided on her next career step by the end of the program and, because of this, has a clearer and more confident view of her future."

A new round in the mentoring program for female postdocs at the MDC will be announced in fall 2014.

Organisers Gabriele Kollinger (3th from left) and Christiane Nolte (6th from left) with the current mentee of the mentoring program. Photo: Guido Rottmann, MDC


Gabriele Kollinger

phone no: 030.9406-3715


Dr. Christiane Nolte

phone no: 030.9406-2222