Building a network of researchers: N2

N2 is a network of more than 14,000 doctoral researchers at 193 non-university institutes across Germany.
Interview

Founded in March 2017, N2 brings together three existing networks of doctoral researchers – the Max Planck PhDnet, Helmholtz Juniors and the Leibniz PhD Network. Giulia Caglio and Martin Schmidt, on behalf of N2, explain how, by working together, researchers can help to solve the problems that they commonly face.

The N^2 board
The N2 board. From left to right: Elias Eckert, Konstantin Kuhne, Gulia Caglio, Leonard Borchert, Olga Naumov, Martin Schmidt and Martin Grund

Image credit: Elias Eckert

Why did you set up N2?

For years, the members of Max Planck PhDnet and Helmholtz Juniors attended each other’s meetings, and we had identified areas where our organisations could work together. However, the real change happened in 2016, when the Leibniz PhD Network was established. Using the momentum, we founded N² to strengthen the interactions between the members of the three associations. We aim, in future years, to extend and strengthen our collaboration to different institutions, potentially also outside Germany.

What are you doing to represent the interests of doctoral researchers?

We aim to unite doctoral researchers and make them feel represented beyond their research interest, both inside their institutions and outside, to the public. We work on different levels to do this. Currently, we are setting a joint political agenda that will suggest how scientific work could be organised in the future to attract an even more brilliant and diverse talent pool. In parallel we are tackling the problems related to training and working conditions. For example, we are concerned about the relatively poor-quality training in transferable skills, and the large use of stipends instead of contracts for doctoral researchers.

How do you decide which issues to focus on?

Each individual network performs surveys every two years to identify issues and collect data on the situation of doctoral researchers. In addition, we also talk to our colleagues directly to find out what is important for them and where the shoe pinches. With this information, N2 works to find constructive answers from the perspective of doctoral researchers: for example, recommendations to our organisations and tailored training courses. This helps us to connect our work with the struggles and needs of individual doctoral researchers.

What is your biggest achievement so far?

Founding a new doctoral researchers’ network, and developing a joint agenda that will lead to our political statement. We are also planning a conference in Berlin, in less than 6 months time. It is an impressive effort made possible by the event organisers from the three associations.

What has been your biggest challenge?

A big challenge lies in connecting different doctoral researchers in institutes and centres spread all over Germany. It is very easy for information to get lost, and communication via email, phone and video is prone to misunderstandings. The N2 board tries to overcome this by having at least two in-person meetings per year with the recent and former spokespersons of each individual network. Based on our experiences, these are very important for team building and for deciding on short- and long-term goals. The content of the meetings is then spread through all the different networks to keep everyone updated.

What key lesson have you learnt from your involvement in doctoral networks?

It is crucial to show people that even when things appear to move slowly, they should not be frustrated. We have to motivate them, as solutions need time, and achieving significant results is often a matter of persistence.

What change would you like to see doctoral researchers make that would improve their working conditions?

Too often doctoral researchers feel they do not have the power to change things, or they avoid discussing the challenges that they face in their working environment. We hope that our network will help early-career researchers to openly discuss issues that affect the future of science and scientists, and also encourage them to take action and be involved.

Among the many issues facing doctoral researchers, what is your immediate focus?

We think that doctoral researchers should present their work to the public more often and explain how their scientific contribution benefits society. Therefore, we will hold our first conference during Berlin Science Week (November 6–8, 2017) on the topic of science communication and new ways to communicate. We hope that the event will improve the communication skills of the participants and, most importantly, encourage young scientists to speak up for science. To find out more and take part, visit www.N2JointEvent.de or follow N2 on Twitter (@N2JointEvent).