Christine Kampen Robinson is a recipient of the annual Staff International Experience Fund (SIEF). The award allows staff members to travel and engage in collaborative work with international partners and institutions.

Christine is a career advisor for graduate students in Co-operative Education & Career Action. Through the SIEF, Christine hopes to change the conversation regarding career-path options for PhD students at Waterloo by bringing back ideas, initiatives, and best practices from institutions in Germany.

In April 2017, she visited five universities in four cities across the country, including Hamburg and Berlin. The experience allowed her to collaborate with people in similar roles and learn more about best practices in international relationship building.

What was the purpose of your trip and why did you choose Germany?

In my role as a career advisor, I work with graduate students and postdocs and was interested to learn more about how other schools support especially PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. Germany has a great reputation for career integrated education, so I was confident that they could offer a lot of insight into how I can do my job better. I’m also a curious person and love travelling, so it was a great opportunity. It’s important to build new relationships with people and learn from them.

The trip was also personally rewarding, not just because I love travelling, but because I studied in Germany as an exchange student during my undergrad and worked there for a year. I also just finished my PhD in German here at Waterloo, so I was able to conduct all of the meetings in German, which they were really pleased with. It’s pretty much expected that when you schedule a meeting with a foreign institution that you’re going to speak English. For many of the people I met with, it was unique for them to meet with someone from a Canadian institution and be able to speak their native language.

How did the SIEF award provide professional development related to your role at Waterloo?

At Waterloo, there are 16 career advisors. I’m one of two career advisors that focuses on graduate students and postdocs. The SIEF award allowed me to learn more about the universal challenges these students and early career researchers have, and how other institutions address these challenges. It’s so valuable to learn about other programs and practices because it gives you the opportunity to learn about what we could be doing better at home. It also reassures me that we’re doing certain things exceptionally well.

The SIEF allowed me to represent the University for the first time, which was very exciting. I felt really proud telling everyone I came from Waterloo and that we have opportunities like the SIEF to engage with people abroad. It’s so enriching to have meetings with colleagues and build new relationships with people who are in similar roles in a different part of the world. Three of the institutions I connected with aren’t partnered with Waterloo, so I was their first impression of the University. There’s a lot of responsibility with that, but I was excited to talk about our programs and best practices.

What surprised you most about your experience in Germany, both professionally and personally?

It was so easy to schedule meetings with the institutions in Germany. Everyone I wrote to responded in under 24 hours, including the institutions Waterloo isn’t partnered with. From conversations I had with other SIEF recipients, I know that isn’t always the case. I was pleasantly surprised that the people I reached out to in Germany were as excited as I was.

Something that also really surprised me was that most of the institutions I went to are so decentralized. PhD students aren’t really considered students – they’re not even in the school’s systems. In most cases they’re considered employees, but because they are funded so differently, there is no central system that keeps track of them. They’re disconnected from the schools and have a sole mission to write their dissertations, whereas PhD students at Waterloo have courses, write exams and are still a part of campus life. The funding models in Germany are quite different, and they don’t have tuition fees.

The most rewarding surprise was that I was given permission to use people’s first names in Germany. Using informal titles is a statement in Germany; if they ask you to call them by their first name, it demonstrates an openness and signals a level of comfort and familiarity with the person.

What was the greatest lesson you learned in Germany?

Even in different systems and countries, we experience similar situations and challenges. There’s a perception that if you have a PhD and you’re not a professor, you’ve failed. Unfortunately, this perception exists in Canada and Germany. The reality is that there are so many things you can do with a PhD. Less than 20 per cent of North American PhDs and even fewer German PhDs become professors. It’s important to be a resource for PhD students and postdocs that are looking to make their PhDs a part of their life and normalize moving beyond the tenure track.

What do you want other people to know about the SIEF award?

I have two small children. They’re three and eight-years-old. Travelling for the SIEF program is a long time to be away from your family. You have to make sure support is available not just in the workplace, but at home. But it’s so worth it. The SIEF allowed me to learn about how and why things are different. It was a unique opportunity to meet with new colleagues, learn and share information, and sight see.

Solutions to challenges are best found when you get creative, excited people in the same room so they can share their experiences and ideas rather than trying to do it alone. The trip reinforced my belief that the more we talk to other people, the better we can do our jobs. We can do better things together.

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