Series Kick-Off – Working at the University

Today, I want to present our readers a little insight into the job as research assistant – the kick-off to a series on our daily work as researchers at the university. Basti and I work at the RWTH Aachen University. The university is a huge institution, with more than 40k students and, IIRC, more than 10k employees.
While Basti and me work in the same university and both in the computer science faculty and even share the same Ph.D. supervisor, I think our daily work lives, while sharing some similarities for sure, differ from each others.

To be honest, I started out, as with many of my previous jobs, a little blue-eyed. I love to take on new challenges as they come and try to start out with as little expectations as possible (an attitude I try to keep everywhere in my daily life: Never expect, never get disappointed 😉 ) and had no idea what a researcher really does. Sometimes I even don’t know yet, after three years on the job.

Some of you might pursue a career in the academic field, so it might be a good idea to share some of our experiences with you. Not everyone feels as comfortable starting out unprepared as I do.

Breaking it down, the work as a research assistant comes down to three fields: research, teaching and administration. In most institutions it’s in you contract, how much of your time actually should be spent on which area – but to be honest, in reality this differs hugely from those numbers and fluctuates highly depending on various factors: Are you employed in a project or even two? Conference deadlines ahead? Semester coming to a close? Preparation for a new semester? Your supervised students heading for their deadlines? Sometimes you do 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% administration, but there are times when those numbers are pumped up to what feels like 80-60-15. But I love my job, I love to teach, to supervise and my research projects.

This leads to what I originally intended to be in the focus of this post: My research topic. While all those areas above are serious and important issues, every research assistant has one goal above all: His or her Ph.D.. The motives might differ (separate post on that topic later on), the final goal is the same. To hand in the dissertation one day, the defense and finally the formal acknowledgement of three to six years of hard work.

Initially, I had a pretty hard time to find my field of research. As you might guess from my other post(s) I’m a tinkerer. I learn best hands-on. So I explored the area of physical computing for nearly a year, all resulting in a negative climax on one single day in Darmstadt, an incident I will not elaborate in detail online or in public. After that it took me a short period of time to find a new area to explore, but I found it, in one of the projects I’m officially working on.

But the details about the content of my research area will be part of my next post in this series.

Stay tuned

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