Landing at Stavanger airport, Norway, on a cold and rainy April afternoon 2 years ago was not something to set my spirits high after 2 weeks vacation on sunny Tenerife. But back at home, the message I found on my answering machine was a pleasant surprise: An invitation for a job interview with Germany's research funding agency Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). I returned their call and we set up a date for the interview--although I was quite skeptical about the job in question: A grant administrator for geosciences.
Many questions crossed my mind: Wouldn't all the paperwork in an administrative job soon be boring? And wouldn't rigid structures at DFG, which I anticipated from my experience as a grant applicant, be frustrating to work in? And finally, would a second career break be a good idea? Just 2 years before, I had left academia where I had been a postdoc working on geologic projects in Namibia and Tibet. Getting a permanent university position, however, seemed like pot luck. So I had accepted a job as a consultant geoscientist with a Norwegian company working for the oil industry.
After a day of interviews at DFG, I received and eventually accepted an offer. Why did I join DFG? A major point is that I simply find it rewarding to work for a nonprofit organization. And I realized that my skills and experiences ideally match the requirements for this job: Broad, rather than specialized scientific knowledge, international experience, both from academia and industry, a wide range of contacts, and pleasure in working together with people both inside and outside DFG. The last point certainly requires diplomatic skills, e.g., when explaining proposal rejections to grant applicants without demotivating them. But these skills are also essential while operating inside a large administrative structure--fortunately, DFG structures turned out to be less rigid than I had feared!
Day-to-day work involves all aspects of the administrative handling of research proposals: requesting additional information, selecting referees, preparation of decisions based on referees' opinions, serving as contact for researchers at all stages, just to name a few. Sounds boring? Fortunately, three case workers do most of the routine paper work for me--without their help, handling more than 400 proposals each year would not be possible. To keep them motivated requires a further skill: Cooperative team leadership. That is not always easy!
And there are some negative points: You will not accumulate riches in this type of job, and career opportunities are very limited. On the other hand, the work I do is independent to a high degree because DFG has an extremely flat structure. A lot of traveling is required--both national and international. In fact, international aspects are becoming increasingly important, especially in geosciences. For example, more than 25% of the research proposals I receive are related to the two large international scientific drilling programs, ODP (Ocean Drilling Program) and ICDP (International Continental Drilling Program). I personally enjoy traveling, but it can be a strain on family life!
Due to the low number of jobs in science administration, it is probably difficult to plan a career in this field. Also, there is no proper training qualifying for this type of work, at least not in Germany. But a wide scope of experience and skills is certainly a prerequisite for a grant administrator.
I certainly do not regret my second career break--not only because April temperatures are 10 degrees higher in Bonn than in Stavanger!