Sharing the caring: biologists Katja and Jan Dierking

What is the nature of your work?

Katja Dierking: I am a staff scientist (tenured faculty member) at the Zoological institute at Kiel University. I am a molecular biologist and study host-microbe interactions in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. My work involves science, teaching, and administration.

Jan Dierking: I am a scientist (relying on 3rd party funding that I obtain myself or via larger projects to which I contribute to fund myself and my research) at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, a federal marine research institute, in Kiel. I am interested in marine long-term data series integrating ecological data with physical drivers. My work involves own research, organizing and leading research cruises, managing projects, and advising students.

Career as a researcher.

Katja Dierking: I studied biology at the Christian-Albrechts Universität in Kiel (where I met my husband) and the Humboldt Universität in Berlin, Germany. I then followed my husband to university of Hawai’i at Manoa, where I conducted the practical work for my Master thesis in the field of virology and then worked as a research associate. I did my PhD at the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille Luminy in France, where I started to work on C. elegans-microbe interactions. In 2009 my husband and I moved back to Kiel. Since then I work at the Zoological Institute at Kiel University.

Jan Dierking: I studied biology at the Christian-Albrechts Universität in Kiel, where I also met my wife. I then went to the University of Hawaii for graduate studies on a Fulbright scholarship, where I completed both my MSc and PhD in the field of ecology, evolution and conservation biology. My main project was an ecological study of the effects of a non-indigenous predatory fish on native reef fish populations. After a year apart, I then followed my wife to France, where I first finished to write up my thesis and scientific publications of my Hawaii work, and then did a 2-year postdoc in the Centre d’Oceanologie de Marseille, focusing on the effects of terrestrial organic material carried by the Rhone river on coastal ecosystems of the NW Mediterranean Sea. When my wife was offered a position in Kiel, we assessed the situation together, and since there were good options for me to continue marine ecological work, we jointly decided to move there. Since that time, I have worked on different projects and obtained own funding for projects in the field of marine biology.

Please describe briefly your family commitments.

Katja Dierking: My husband Jan and I have two children, now 6 and 4 years old. After the birth of my children I spent one year each on maternity and parental leave. Since our children started at the day-care centre at age 1 (and since age 3 Kindergarten), we have shared our family commitments equally.

Jan Dierking: I spent 4 and 2 months on parental leave after the birth of our children, and took over part of the family commitments during my wife’s parental leaves since she continued working to some extent. My wife and I are both working full-time jobs, and we are sharing family commitments 50:50, each covering 2 days per week and the rest of the week jointly, and an approximately equal amount of household chores.

How do you balance your work and family commitments? 

We have a very tight schedule during the week. Each of us is in charge of taking care of the children, including all appointments etc. before and after day-care two days of the week. This gives the other person the freedom to work as long as he/she wants and/or do some sports in the evening.

We then try to spend quality time together, as a family of 4, on the weekend, starting Friday late afternoon. We also take a long (3-weeks) summer vacation and several weeks long holidays a year, during which we usually do not work and do not even check e-mails.

In times of high teaching load and/or longer work travels (e.g. cruises and conferences) of one of us, we are supported by our parents. They do not live in Kiel, but they then stay with us for a couple of days and sometimes up to two weeks and help us a lot during these busy times.

What has helped you?

A good day-care system was and is essential. The support of our parents during particularly busy times. Trust and good coordination between the two of us. The luxury of flexibility you have as a researcher (at least on non-teaching days).

What has hindered you?

It is a constant struggle to combine work and family commitments, and there are times when either work or family life suffers, not to speak of time for each other. Constant family support here in Kiel would make life a lot easier.

What have been the most difficult moments in your career considering family and work-life balance?

The first years with kids, when the time and energy demands were highest for us (including the lack of sleep), but we were both on non-permanent positions.

Katja Dierking: My time on parental leave was in retrospective not ideal, because we did not have day-care or any other support, I was mainly at home, but also had to continue to work. I thus always had the feeling that I should be working and did so as soon as the baby was sleeping or my husband was at home. I thus also could not really relieve my husband during that time. I had to learn that time with the kids is time with the kids. For me it does not work to have the laptop open while my kids are around me.

Jan Dierking: Same as for my wife, the times of her being officially on parental leave but still trying to work. During this time, I dropped off and picked up our first child from day-care each day and took on duties after getting home, which limited time at work and for work, leading to constant stress. In general, being on a non-permanent position, trying to stay competitive on a more limited time budget than many others are a challenge.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Jan Dierking: Compartmentalizing, e.g., in our case, the approach to have two weekdays on which I am responsible for the family commitments and two on which I am not, help a lot. This way I do not have to feel like I should work when I have the kids, because I know I can (hopefully) catch up on my long days, and not like I should be with the family when I am working. To me, keeping weekends and vacations as work-free as possible, and not checking my e-mail, is also important, but that is a personal preference. One other advice is to try to seek support, e.g., from parents or babysitters, early to get periods of relief. Finally, even if the thought of having kids while pursuing a career in research may be scary, I think that it can be done and is worth it J

Katja Dierking: I wish there were more permanent positions for ‘mid-level’ faculty available. When you have kids and your partner also works full-time, you definitely work on a more limited time budget than many others you have to compete with for professorships. In academia in Germany permanent ‘mid-level’ faculty hardly exist anymore (I usually say that I won the lottery). Obviously not everybody can (and wants to) become a professor. The little prospect of ever having a permanent position drives many young talented scientist, who want to have children, away from science. Obviously this also holds true for young talented scientist without children, but I think once you have a child, you feel an even stronger need for consistency and security.

One thought on “Sharing the caring: biologists Katja and Jan Dierking

  1. …and during several supports their parents returned to the experience of lacks of sleep. Nevertheless thez enjoyed those staying with their family

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