Editor's note: Originally from Slovakia, Jaroslav Mysiak has followed a career characterised by mobility. After doing his Ph.D. in western Germany, he was working in Italy when he was presented with the opportunity to return to Germany--this time to the eastern part of the country--as a Marie Curie Development Host Fellow.
It had been very exciting to become a Marie Curie (MC) fellow, but accepting the fellowship wasn't an easy decision for me to make. The fellowships are held in high esteem, and adding Marie Curie Fellow to your CV can give your career an important kick forward. Moreover, doing research in another cultural milieu, with new people, and possibly working on different topics from before can help one find new research directions.
So why was deciding to take up the offer of a position as a MC Development Host Fellow so difficult? Well, I hadn't actually planned to leave my previous job; the fellowship announcement simply turned up one day on one of the many mailing lists to which I subscribe. At the time I was working in Venice in a private research institution in a multicultural and multidisciplinary group of very nice young people. Although I had only a temporary position, I could have stayed there for at least 3 or 4 years longer for sure. Meanwhile, my wife had a permanent position as a teacher, a job she likes very much. And although following me to Germany hasn't meant that she has definitely had to quit her job--as a civil servant she was able to get a leave for 2 years--it wasn't easy for her to share my excitement.
Factors Behind the Decision
There were several reasons for deciding to take up the fellowship. The interesting research challenges and career advancement were certainly very important. In addition, Leipzig is a beautiful city and I have always wanted to live in a city with a tramway. Some years ago I'd done my Ph.D. in western Germany, and the chance to round out my German experience by living for a period in the eastern part was hard to resist.
In many respects Germany is at the cutting edge of research and technology. Germany invests a lot in research and development, and its research expenditure is already very close to reaching the E.U. goal of 3% of gross domestic product. What's more, recent changes to the law have introduced junior professorships in an attempt to enable researchers to achieve full professorships at a much earlier age. No wonder it is attractive to foreign students--with about 190,000 foreign students in its universities and colleges of higher education, Germany is second only to the United Kingdom as the most preferred European study destination. According to recent research, the typical foreign student in Germany is female, 28 years old, comes from a developing country, wants to finish her studies quickly and, not surprisingly, would come to Germany again. At least I can relate to this last characteristic!
Thanks to my earlier experience I speak German fluently, which has certainly made it easier to jump all the bureaucratic hurdles. And yes, if you plan to stay in Germany for a little while you'll need a lot of patience with bureaucrats.
About the Development Host Fellowships
The MC Development Host Fellowships are available mainly to research institutions in less favoured regions of the European Union, such as Saxony in eastern Germany. They are aimed at developing a new competence and knowledge. Under this MC action, the institutions that wish to develop knowledge in a particular scientific field may host an experienced researcher. Alternatively, the institutions may send members of their staff to other bodies in a different E.U. (and occasionally also to a third) country to acquire new knowledge which may then be developed at their home organisation.
I have joined the UFZ Centre for Environmental Research, which is one of the research centres of the Helmholtz Association, Germany's largest research institution. The UFZ is engaged in applied environmental research and in translating that into policy advice. The latter requires increasing input from the social and economic sciences. At the time of my appointment, I'd been working for several years on the issues connected with the implementation of new water-protection legislation in E.U. countries: the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Its implementation will change current practice in water resource planning in E.U. member countries considerably. The framework aims at harmonising the different approaches to river basin management among European countries, and several research challenges surround its implementation.
The EC has supported the implementation process by funding some dozen R&D projects under the 5th Framework Programme. Before joining the UFZ, I'd been involved in the development of a decision support system aimed at making decisions about water resources more transparent and community-based. I've been given the position in the UFZ as an experienced researcher in the field of environmental decision-making, particularly using the multicriteria decision aid. In addition, my previous experiences and knowledge of issues related to the WFD implementation were crucial for the position. In the UFZ I've been engaged in issues connected with the uncertainty in the hydrological, ecological, and socioeconomic data, models of uncertainty, and how the uncertainties may influence the possibility of achieving sustainable river basin management. And through being here and being involved in the E.U. projects carried out by UFZ, my experience and knowledge is being transferred to the researchers here.
What I've very much liked about working at UFZ is the interdisciplinary character of the research projects carried out here. In the Department for Economy, Sociology, and Law we are analysing the impact of human behaviour on the environment and looking for environmentally and socially sustainable ways of organising human life and economic activity. To design a path to sustainable development, we are working with scientists from different disciplines such as ecology, hydrology, and geography. By addressing policy-relevant research themes, we are in a position to head off criticisms that socioeconomic scientists do not involve policymakers in their research.
As a forest economist, I'd been doing research at the interface between the social and natural sciences for some time before I joined UFZ. Sometimes it is said that natural sciences aim at explaining the world whereas the social sciences try to understand it. I have been quite surprised by how often I've encountered misunderstandings or misconceptions between the two disciplines. You may have heard that economists or social scientists do conceptual, rather than empirical, work or that natural scientist tend to oversimplify reality by sticking too much to the formalism they are trained to use. Amazingly enough, I have found these clichés to be, sometimes, not completely unfounded.
If someone were to ask me if they should apply for a MC fellowship, I would surely advise them to do so. My own fellowship has given me the opportunity to collect research experiences from different disciplines, meet a lot of interesting people, and understand the problems I've dealt with from various viewpoints. And by doing so I've had a lot fun.
Yes, there is a very serious issue related to the fact that at the end of the mobility period it may be difficult to find a suitable position back in one's home country. This is a problem, and it should not be played down. I have tried to avoid it by not losing contact with the institution I'd been working in before and by not specialising in too narrow a scientific field. The reintegration grant, which is a new instrument in the 6th Framework Programme, deals with this problem by helping MC fellows find a position after their mobility period. However, the current rules for applying for the grant might not be ideal. For example, only fellows who participated in an MC action for at least 24 months are eligible, regardless of whether it is legally possible in the host country to get a contract of this length. Also, fellows are excluded if they finished their fellowship more than 12 months ago but still work in the host country.
In the MC Fellowship Association, we are carrying out projects aimed at recognising the career obstacles that face those who undertake MC fellowships, and we hope we can be instrumental in changing them. If you become a MC fellow, then we would be delighted if you would join us!