NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 19 – Group Leader, Center for Allergy and Environment in Munich, Germany

This is the Nineteenth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Jan Gutermuth

Current position: Group leader (Arbeitsgruppenleiter) of the Experimental Allergy Group, Center for Allergy and Environment (ZAUM), Technische Universität München and Helmholtz Center Munich

Location: Munich, Germany

Time in current position: 1 year

Postdoc: Mechanisms of immunological tolerance and their therapeutic modulation with Stephen I. Katz at NCI

My story: I’m a dermatologist.By the time I came to the NIH, I was in a pretty lucky situation. I had taken a step away from the clinic and had done a Ph.D. equivalent, which at that time was not well-regulated in Germany. Often, our medical doctors are sent outside their institutes for some time because our mentors want us to gain some experience and then come back. This was offered to me. Of course, there’s no guarantee there will be a position for you when you go back. For me, I was not 100% sure if I would go back to the same department or somewhere else.

Job search in a nutshell: I started to look for jobs once I saw my project at the NIH was running well and I was starting to write a paper. I considered staying in the U.S. But I didn’t have a board exam in dermatology that was recognized in the U.S. and I didn’t want to do my residency again. I always maintained contact with my home department in Germany, but I was also invited by other departments to give talks based on scientific presentations. Normally that means they want to interview you. Prior to coming to the NIH, I was active in the German dermatology and allergy scene, so they knew me already. I could have joined at least three or four departments.

Network, network, network: Mostly my conversations came out of real interest. If I’m interested, I will talk to that person. It has led me to the people I need to know. I’m a little bit hurt if someone networks with me but isn’t really interested. Of course, if you’re really good at networking, you’ll do more than I do. For me, it’s like a key and lock: it should fit.

The book How To Work a Room was very helpful for me.

Also regarding networking, I became friends with the Austrian embassy attaché and representatives from the European Union in D.C. They tried to recruit me. Washington has a lot to offer. You shouldn’t only stay in your lab at the NIH. It is such a rich scene with many scientists and politicians traveling to the area.

Keep in touch: I didn’t cut my ties when I lived in the U.S. I went to conferences in Europe and so forth. Likewise, now that I am back in Germany I have kept in touch with the closest people from the NIH. I have a web from the U.S. to Asia from this period. That is a big advantage. The people who hired me want this network.

Advice for job-seekers: The most important thing when you choose your next job, even more than the project, is if you can live with the personality of your supervisor and your colleagues. Even if he is the most important person in the world, if I won’t get along with him, I won’t take the position. Otherwise it can be a real problem.

And of course, don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t put skills you don’t have or languages you don’t speak on your resumé.

Making the choice: Ultimately, I made the decision together with my wife. She’s a commercial engineer. We always find a solution that works for the whole family. I had another offer in Switzerland, but it was a small town and it would have been bad for her, which would be a catastrophe for our personal life and therefore for my professional life. I could have had better-paid jobs, but my wife would not have had a job, or our children might not have had day care. It is important to recognize that the perfect job might not be the perfect whole package.

Day-to-day: This is the job I always wanted to have. I see patients for about 20 hours a week, three mornings in the clinic. The rest of the time, other than meetings and so forth, I’m free to do research. I supervise a number of scientists. I plan projects, write grants and train students. It has become a management position. Moreover, I have moved more into science administration and have to deal with personal matters, budget and supervisory boards like animal welfare.

It’s the best from both worlds. My two chairmen give me maximum freedom. I can do my discoveries, pursue my scientific interests and also practice medicine.

The downside: I would like to spend more time with my family. And playing sports.

Essential skills: Communication skills are the most important part of my job other than the science and methods capacities. Interacting with other scientists and science administration is a major part of my work. Also, I think most problems arise because of communication issues.

Almost every week, there is some conflict you have to resolve or something you have to fight for. You have to do it in a sustainable way; you can’t just scream at people. You have to resolve it so you can still look into the eye of your opponent and maintain a working relationship.

Train yourself up: At the NIH I had a very good mentor and role model in how to lead people and resolve conflicts. I did some seminars as well: “Dealing with Conflict” for an afternoon in Building 1, “Basic and Advanced Project Management” in Building 10, and scientific writing. These are things you really need. I took some courses at Georgetown such as “Introduction to Management,” “Communication in Organizations” and “Introduction to Marketing.”

Adjustments: One thing that was harder than being a postdoc was the sudden responsibility for the future of your coworkers. Other careers depend on you.Also, you can’t just focus on your own interests. And your day gets more busy. You can’t believe it, but it’s true.

I was homesick for the U.S. when I went back to Germany. Luckily I met many people here who went to the same school, and we formed a similar community. I also had to adjust to the stricter German hierarchy.

What’s next: I think I’m good for the next four years. The steps after that involve becoming a director and so forth. These positions are very rare, so you cannot necessarily make local decisions. My next job could be international—in Europe or North America, most likely. Europe is harmonizing a lot, cutting the borders more and more and opening up the workforce.

Jan can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.