What comes next? - Leaving Max Planck. Staying connected.

by Maria Eichel

April 20, 2017

After a long time of studying, the decision to absolve a PhD comes with its stumbling blocks. Long hours in the laboratory, the library, reading articles, attending meetings, supervising students, maybe engaging in extracurricular activities, and in between, trying to somehow manage a work-life balance. These intense three-to-five-years are often accompanied by the thought “What comes next?”

This is a thought every doctoral researcher knows. Sometimes it is present in the back of your mind, but as soon as your PhD comes to its last phase, everyone - family, friends and colleagues - seems to be asking the same question. Not every one of us considers to stay in academia – the majority decides not to and indeed leaves science. When talking to my fellow doctoral researchers it seems like they all have the same problem: How to gather valuable information about (the thousands of) possible career paths? What additional skills are needed for those jobs outside academia? With whom can you discuss the questions you have in mind? “Career planning” and “networking” are two keywords when it comes to finding, choosing and actually performing the career that suits you best.

The Offspring will dedicate a section to finding answers to those questions and support doctoral researchers by showing you what else is out there and how you can actively engage in finding a suitable solution.

And who better to ask than people who have faced the same difficulties and found their own way? The Max Planck Alumni Association (MPAA) provides a platform of former Max Planck Society (MPS)-associated researchers from all around the globe – from early postdocs to professors, from young entrepreneurs to company CEOs, from the creative talents to the scientifically-committed and beyond. To learn more about the MPAA and strengthen the communication between the networks, I asked two of their members, Filippo Guarnieri and Irene Ferreira, to answer some questions put forth by the Offspring and Max Planck PhDNet (find the full interview and links below).

The story begins in 2013 when Filippo Guarnieri, at that time a 3 rd year doctoral researcher, attended the Visions in Science Conference in Dresden. Motivated by this gathering and exchange of ideas between students and his wish for a future career in mentoring he met just the right person: Birgit Adam from the general administration in Munich. The idea of an alumni association was born and in the end the Max Planck Alumni Association e.V. was established in 2015.

Their vision? To build a community which provides communication inside and outside the MPS, promoting scientific values, supporting young entrepreneurs, and bringing industry and academia closer together. Honoring values, such as cultural exchange, tolerance and equality, motivated professionals to create this association on a purely voluntary basis. To bring together alumnae and alumni, regional groups (RGs) are formed, which provide a regional networking platform that doctoral researchers can also join. Further, common interests are brought together in a so-called shared interest group (SIG) with projects focusing on important areas, such as entrepreneurship, leadership, and social activism. As a discussion platform the MPAA will provide networks on their future website and social media. With a finished infrastructure by the end of 2017 and a growing community, the MPAA will soon be able to launch their first pilot projects, such as mentoring of PhDs and Postdocs by an MPAA member. After being at an MPI for at least 6 months you are eligible to apply for a MPAA membership.

But what is in it for you as a PhD student?

With access to professionals from various backgrounds you can easily network and ask for career advice. If that is not enough already, you can get support via the MPAA Mentoring Program and develop your career and soft skill portfolio with the help of the MPAA Career Network. Last but not least, why not get active yourself? As a volunteer you can already contribute and support the vision of the MPAA by coordinating a group, pilot project or help out as a webmaster. If you want to see for yourself what the MPAA community has to offer, then come to the 2 nd Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Career researchers from August 31st to September 3rd in Berlin – Filippo and Irene are looking forward to meeting us there!

Want to know more? Find information about the MPAA here:

Want to join the next Alumni Gathering 31.08.2017-3.9.2017 in Berlin? Find more information and the registration link here:

Max Planck Alumni Association – Offspring Questionnaire with Filippo Guarnieri and Irene Ferreira

1. How did the Max Planck Alumni Association form?

F.G. The concept of a community of Max Planck alumnae and alumni was first discussed at the Visions in Science conference in Dresden in the fall of 2013. At that time, I was a last-year PhD student at the MPI for Gravitational Physics in Berlin and I was wondering how could I keep in contact with the institute once my doctoral degree was conferred. But not only that. I was very enthusiastic about meeting so many brilliant students from so many different research fields. I envisioned a space where we could continue brainstorming and discussing our ideas, and which would persist after our time at the Max Planck. Last but not least, I was looking for a network of companies and experts who could provide me with career mentoring in case I wanted to transition outside of academia (that is, in the end, happening now, 3 years after earning my doctoral degree). As often happens, you needed the right person at the right moment. At the conference in Dresden I met Birgit Adam, who was working at the general administration and received with enthusiasm my idea of developing an alumni community. The project was first approved in 2014 by then-President Mr. Gruss and was strongly supported by the current President, Mr. Stratmann. The alumni project underwent several modifications and several stakeholders joined our organizing committee. In late 2015, we agreed on the establishment of an independent association, the Max Planck Alumni Association e.V.

2. Who is behind the MPAA?(Who are you? What are you doing besides building up the MPAA?)

F.G. It is a very diversified community. I am working as a postdoctoral fellow in theoretical physics at NORDITA, in Stockholm, but also establishing a company and a start-up. Among the board members we find CEOs and entrepreneurs like Dennis Fink and Norman Gerstner, scientists like Ali Shahmoradi and Ghazaleh Afshar who work at the German IT company SAP. Among the most active members you find professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and professionals, each on their own career path.

3. What is the visionary plan of the MPAA? What visions are your driving force to build up this network next to your regular workload?

F.G. We envision an association that provides the same brilliant atmosphere you can find at the institute. A community that promotes scientific values like open access to knowledge, science divulgation, and one that fosters interdisciplinary communication within and outside of the Max Planck Society. We envisioned an association that promotes the reduction of the gap between industry and academia, in terms of (soft) skills training for scientists, internships, career support, and a space to foster entrepreneurship. Last but not least, an association that promotes cultural exchange and tolerance, with no discrimination of gender, color or religion. This vision and these values are the driving force behind the MPAA, motivating highly-qualified professionals to work on a purely voluntary basis to lay the foundations of the association.

4. How fast do you think will the MPAA evolve?

F.G. We have finished almost all the launching work necessary to open the MPAA to all 100,000 potential members from the 83 Max Planck Institutes. This launch includes: defining a statute that has key features of a successful large-size alumni organization and complies with the German laws; as well as designing and developing a database and a website,optimized for thousands of members. And of course, full-time professionals, like myself, who have undertaken this work in their spare time. We expect by the end of 2017 to be ready from an infrastructure and legal point-of-view. We will then switch gears, and focus mainly on community growth and pursuing our mission.

F.G. Two tools are important to foster community growth: the regional groups (RGs) and the shared interest groups (SIGs). In the regional groups, alumnae and alumni from a specific city (e.g., Munich and San Francisco) meet and organize activities together. In a SIG (e.g., MPAA entrepreneurs), a common goal or interest is the glue of the group. The MPAA database and website will have thus a vital role in the self-organization of these two types of groups, providing a playground for the development of projects in important areas, such as in entrepreneurship, leadership, and in social activism. Because of the diversity in professional backgrounds and interests of our pool of alumnae and alumni, I believe that the MPAA community will soon have an important global footprint.

F.G. And in addition to the RGs and SIGs, which are local communities with their own mission and activities, we also have networks, thematic spaces on social medias and on our website where our members can discuss online. And differently from the Groups, doctoral students can manage an MPAA Network!

5. Are there pilot projects? What are the ideas behind lifelong learning Max Planck Academy and MPAA Career Network?

F.G. We have several pilot projects in our pipeline. For example, the MPAA Career Network is running a pilot on how large-scale career strategy can take place at the MPAA. The lifelong learning project Max Planck Academy is another pilot meant to test if alumnae and alumni can attend (e.g. soft skills or writing) courses at the Max Planck Society. Irene can tell you more about the mentoring pilot program.

F.G. The mentoring pilot program is currently running with mentees of three MPIs in Munich: Biochemistry, Neurobiology and Psychiatry. This mentoring program aims to support PhD students and Postdocs either in turning their idea into a business, or developing their career outside of academia. The program will grow organically to cover all the MPIs. In the near future, both PhD students and Postdocs at all the 83 MPIs will have the opportunity to be mentored by a MPAA member.

6. Joining the MPAA: Who? How?

F.G. The MPAA has a very inclusive policy for membership. Everyone who was at least 6 months at one of the MPIs is eligible to apply for MPAA membership. This rule is also valid for visitors and current employees of the 83 MPIs. Currently, the registration platform is in the beta stage, nonetheless the registration will open very soon. However, one can already contribute actively to the MPAA as a volunteer; for instance, as a webmaster or as a coordinator of either a pilot project or a group. You can find these positions at www.mpg-alumni.de/volunteer.

7. Can you compare the MPAA database to regular career databases like Xing or LinkedIn?

F.G. Both portals have a database connected to user accounts but have different finalities. LinkedIn is a career portal, while our website provides the freedom to members to self-organize in groups, modify their own group webpage, etc., all using a single database. We have moreover implemented features like Google APIs to provide robust geographical statistics and we will provide a sync feature to update your job information directly from LinkedIn.

8. How could doctoral researchers benefit from joining the MPAA?

F.G. One of the biggest challenges faced by PhD students at the MPIs is the development of their professional network outside of academia. This network is essential to help them finding a career outside of academia. And according to different studies, a large percentage of PhDs will have to leave academia. Through the MPAA you can, for instance, access easily different pools of professionals to whom you can ask for career advice. If you are interested in a more formal form of guidance and support, you can have it too either through the MPAA Mentoring Program or the MPAA Career Network that Filippo and I already mentioned. And you can access all these programs immediately after 6 months of your PhD.

9. Is the next gathering of Alumni already planned?

F.G. The MPAA community is already very active. For example, regional groups in Stockholm and Berlin, meet already regularly. You are all invited to attend those meetings. Please have a look at www.mpg-alumni.de/events to find a meeting near you. However, to intensively experience the energy and vision of the MPAA community on a global scale, I have to recommend to you to join the “2 nd Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Career Researchers” that will take place in Berlin. This event is truly inspiring. Filippo and I are looking forward to meeting a lot of you there.

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View