The uniqueness of the German academic system: my insider and outsider perspective, Part II

Post in: German

On January 9, 2013, I gave the keynote talk at the “Meet the Female Faculty” Event at the Ruhr-University of Bochum. The Equal Opportunities Office and the Internal Continuing Education Office at Bochum team up to offer a special program for women scientists to meet each other and talk about their careers. I’ll present the talk here in several parts. This is part II.

I will give a little background about how I ended up here in Germany. Everyone wonders how I got here, and most assume that I married a ‚Mr. Hofmeister‘ and somehow ended here by default! It is somehow beyond many people’s imagination that the life course of a woman in a foreign country could be determined by the women herself, and her choices, and not by the presence of a man.

It wasn’t for a man. It was in part because there wasn’t one.
I think it’s a point we should ponder: to what degree does the mobility of women – cross national, career-changing mobility – depend on her NOT having obligations to a partnership? Men relocate and bring their women partners along. Women relocate and her man (if she has one) often also has a position, stays behind or goes somewhere interesting himself. Rarely does a woman academic have the luxury of a “trailing spouse.” But often a male academic does.

But so many aspects play a role in the shape of the life course besides the presence of others. It’s how the personal biography intersects with history. It’s where the personal biography and history intersects with the human agency of the individual, meaning what can that individual do at that time, what resources does that person have. It’s the mix of these things, together with all-important TIMING.

The year was 2001. I had just finished writing my Dissertation at Cornell, gave it to my advisor to read, and began a one-year appointment at a local college while applying for positions – tenure track assistant professor positions – mainly on the east coast.

My advisor had the foresight to invite two of her advanced graduate students, I being one of them, to a conference in Germany. It was the closing conference of an important Special Research Center in Bremen on our research specialty, The Life Course. Many ‚big names‘ in our specialty would be there, and since I was on the market, that seemed to be a good place to go for networking. The conference date: 21. September 2001. The date embedded on the consciousness of all Americans alive today: 11. September 2001. Here is where history meets individual biography.

Many scientists did not make it to the conference, and only a handful of Americans came. The Germans were kind, supportive, understanding, and sympathetic to those of us who did make the trip. I was not afraid to fly on the logic that planes are safer after 11. September than they were before. Of those big-name Americans who did come, three mentioned post-docs in the USA to me. Of the Germans present, two mentioned postdocs. Following up after the conference, one offer materialized and got concrete before the others – the one with Hans-Peter Blossfeld, then at the University of Bielefeld. He used an international comparative perspective, one that I did not have. In our talks about the job, he said I could learn, and that he needed the American perspective: I would be responsible for American analyses in the joint project.

Now, visualize this: I am in a one-year position, age 28. I have a dog. I play the harp and have three big instruments. I had never lived in Europe, I had only been here once before the conference. I had two years of German language in high school, which was enough to say something simple, but not enough to understand anything said to me. The decision to leave everything, bring the dog and three harps, take a chance on this post-doc and new boss, and live in a country where I didn’t speak the language, this was a decision not made easily. But a few thoughts crossed my mind:

  1. The German position was more secure.
  2. I was single. Seize the day.
  3. If I hadn’t have taken it, I would always wonder what would have happened if I had. I didn’t want to live with regrets.
  4. I was — and still am — deeply curious about what life in Europe is like.
  5. I was pretty well aware of what life in the USA is like, and the drumbeats of war were getting louder at the end of 2001.

In June 2002, at the age of 29, I came to Germany and started my Postdoc.
In July 2002, my supervisor decided to relocate all of us from Bielefeld to Bamberg.
By October 2002 I was sure I was in love with Europe.
By March 2003 I was sure I wanted to stay and try for an academic career.
By 2004 I was applying unsuccessfully for professorships.
By 2006 I was getting invited to give job talks.
By 2007 I was offered my first professorship, in Sociology with the specialty of Gender Studies at the RWTH Aachen University, which I accepted.
By 2008 I was offered the first vice-Rector position in Human Resources and at the RWTH as the first woman ever in the Rectorate.
Three years later, I accepted a professorship in the Sociology of Work at the Goethe University, where I have happily worked now since 2011.

Along the way, I had my ups and downs, private life, got my hopes up and hopes dashed a few times. In short, life happened, not just science. I’m currently in the middle of the eldercare question, as my parents are facing the so-called “Third Stage” which, in a US context, leaves the individual far more vulnerable than would be the case in Germany.

These are unusual things to say in a “scientific talk” but among us I think it’s important that we be real. By being real, honest, and straightforward about the challenges and demands facing real women at the cutting edge of science in one of the leading science nations. It’s demanding. But there are some special aspects here that make it unique and sometimes even rewarding. I will turn to those now.

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