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Non-traditional academic career paths: How persistence pays off

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Academic career paths are not all the same. People may not always believe in you, which can be demotivating ... but believe in yourself. Success stories come in different flavors. If I would have listened to people telling me how unlikely it would be for me to succeed ... well I did not listen. This is my story.

My career path has been non-traditional, lucky at times, but fun in many ways. Growing up, I played lots of soccer, enjoyed working with tools, mostly building things using wood, and almost never did school home work or kept track of my class notes. I managed to finish school at the age of 16 years in Germany (middle school) with reasonable, but not stellar grades, and it seemed natural to me to pursue a blue collar career.

At the age of 16 years, I started a full-time apprenticeship position in Industrial Mechanics for Machines and Systems for three years at Siemens, finishing with the official degree/certificate. I learned how to weld, solder, file and mill metal, among many other things. I continued working full-time for Siemens in the Power Generation section for four additional years as a quality control manager in a calibration laboratory. My work consisted of calibrating mechanical measurement devices, such as micrometers, thickness gauges, calipers, thread plug gauges, among many more, that were used to manufacture gas turbines.

During the four years that I worked as a quality control manager, I went to night schools, finishing a technical high-school diploma, and studying one semester of computer science and three semesters of mechanical engineering, although never finishing the latter two. The technical high-school diploma qualified me to study at universities of applied sciences (technical colleges), but I had become less interested in mechanics, and more interested in philosophy, psychology, and sociology. This is tough to find at universities of applied sciences.

There is one university of applied sciences in Germany that offers a Communication Psychology degree. I applied, but failed to get in because my high-school diploma grades (despite my dedication to actually study) was just short of meeting the competitive threshold. Fortunately, persistence turned out to be on my side. In Germany, you are entitled to an education by law, and one possible way to find out whether a university has more spots available than originally announced is by suing them (which luckily is relatively cheap in Germany; costing ~150 Euro for the steps I took). So I did, and a few month later I heard from the university of applied sciences that they have a spot for me. I later learned that this happened to be one of the rare, occasional years in which other people did not take up the acceptance from the university, leaving the one spot open for me. I could not imagine where I would be without this bit of luck.

Being 23 years old, I enjoyed being a student, communication psychology was great, and I learned lots. Within the first two year of my studies, I more and more enjoyed the idea of pursuing a career in academia, although, at this point, I only knew that cognitive neuroscience seemed interesting as it combines cognitive psychology with my old interest in technology. However, universities of applied sciences do not offer basic science degrees, and in fact, do not have PhD programs. Because of this, I had been strongly discouraged on multiple occasions from pursuing a career in academia, or at least without an additional MSc degree from a "real" university that would make me eligible for a PhD program.

I ignored the administrative obstacles and discouragement at my institution and spent one semester as an intern at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig (Germany). Based on this internship, I was offered to conduct an MEG study for my diploma thesis (MSc equivalent) at the Max Planck Institute. Although some people at my university of applied sciences were not thrilled by the idea of a thesis in basic rather than applied sciences, I found a professor who just let me do it. But even so, a degree from a university of applied sciences does not directly enable entering a PhD program at a "real" university. I had to have the best grades, take additional classes, and find professors that would sponsor me and believe in me, so that I was finally fully eligible for a PhD program at a university.

From then on, I was on track for an academic career that included a PhD (although even at my defense still hearing some voices say that my Communication Psychology degree is not from a "real" university as if where I come from matters at this stage), postdocs in Germany, USA, and Canada, and has led to a scientist and assistant professorship position at the Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest and the University of Toronto in Canada. I developed a strong interest in auditory cognitive neuroscience in the context of aging, and enjoy working with other creative scientists at different career stages.

Based on the specifics of the German education system, I should not be here. Several people along the way have pointed out that it would be almost impossible for me to pursue a career in academia, often because my degrees did not seem to qualify me sufficiently or because it was all a bit non-traditional. This story is meant to encourage you to persist and to keep pursuing your ideas about your life. This story is also meant to provide an example of how individuals with non-traditional career paths can be successful.

~ Björn Herrmann ~


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