Jens Kugele, Ph.D. (C’11)

Current position and institution: Member, Executive Board & Head of Research Coordination, International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC), Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany.

Graduate in 2011
Jens Kugele, PhD

What career path did you take to get to where you are today?

The use of the metaphor “career path” in this question steers my answer in the direction of notions such as linearity, agency, or (career) goals – probably a bit more so than I would have chosen otherwise. That said, I completed a MA in Political Science, History of Religion, and Jewish History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (LMU) and joined the Georgetown University German Department right after that as a Ph.D. student in German Literary and Cultural Studies. From the beginning, my goal has been to bridge disciplines and (transatlantic) academic cultures more generally to study the work of culture. This goal has led me to keep in close contact with colleagues at the LMU Munich, teach seminars there during the summers, and stay actively engaged in a German research network while pursuing my Ph.D. in the USA. During my last year as a Ph.D. candidate at GUGD, I started a position as Visiting Assistant Professor (Assistenz) in an interdisciplinary program at LMU. Two years after that, I joined the research center at Justus Liebig University Giessen, where I am a member of the Executive Board and Head of Research Coordination. I feel very privileged to have a position that allows me to integrate my interests in the interdisciplinary and international study of culture and my interest in working with early career researchers as well as established scholars in the context of collaborative research projects. Additional training in the field of Higher Education & Research Management has helped me with the management and leadership aspects of my position such as hiring and selection processes, assessment, communication, team processes, institutional cooperation, third-party funding etc. Since my position is not an administrative but a research position, I contribute also my own research to the research profile of our center.

Did you consider other career paths, and if so, what were the crucial factors that influenced your decision?

While it has always been my main goal to stay in academia, I have been well aware that the percentage of PhD holders finding employment in Higher Education is very low (less than 10% in Germany). In that light, I have not only focused on positions in research and teaching but would have also considered working towards a position in research management or outside of academia.

What are the pros and cons of a career in your current field?

In my view, the pros of a career in academia and in my interdisciplinary field, in particular, are the privilege to work with colleagues of various backgrounds, ages, and career stages, to work on topics I am genuinely interested in, to combine research and teaching, and to have a relatively flexible schedule. The downside is certainly the academic precarity and the extraordinary geographical mobility required of scholars. Both these aspects can become very demanding for individuals and especially for families.

How did obtaining a graduate degree from the German Department at Georgetown University prepare you for your current position and/or positions that you held in the past?

The phrase “It Takes a Department” in publications on the unique curricular reform (and approach to department work) has become famous for good reasons. Joining the GUGD, I encountered a stimulating, collaborative departmental spirit; a high appreciation for collaborative research; a genuine interest in graduate students’ professionalization; a notion of Ph.D. candidates as early career researchers and colleagues in research projects, teaching, academic service and committee work; and the integration of teaching and research. In my experience, this was an outstanding preparation for my positions afterward.

What skills should current graduate students of the German Department acquire before completing their degree, if they want to pursue a career path in your field?

Competence in and passion for creating meaning across disciplinary boundaries, i.e. languaging their research interests and results to others across disciplinary contexts.

What surprised you the most about your work when you first started? How is your job different from how you anticipated it to be?

Since I have a position in academia, I did not experience a very big transition from my role as PhD candidate and instructor at GU. In my case, the most significant differences were probably the differences between the US and the German system that I had only been partially aware of. This includes the notion of Higher Education in general, organizational structures such as departments, but also academic culture.

How did you experience the transition from graduate school to a professional career?

In my experience, the transition felt fairly smooth and I am convinced this is due to the very thorough education and professionalization at the GUGD where doctoral researchers are treated on eye level and are included in various forms from the beginning.

What were the resources that you found helpful in your search for (non-)academic jobs?

In my case, the move from the US to Germany came with a very specific set of challenges and circumstances. It certainly proved helpful to have built and maintained a strong network “back home” in Germany and to have taught as a lecturer and once as a visiting assistant professor at LMU Munich where I accepted the first position during my dissertation completion phase. Generally speaking, the MLA was an important part of my orientation on the job market and the academic community in general. This goes well beyond the MLA job list and includes the various MLA conventions I attended, as well as the tremendously inspiring experience as a member of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession. 

What other advice would you give to students wanting to break into or establish themselves in your field?

I found that in my field (academia in general and the Study of Culture more specifically), genuine interest, genuine concern and passion for the object of research are of fundamental importance. In addition to that, it seems equally important to find ways of navigating the institutional landscape and to allow enough space for one’s personal life. My advice for (graduate) students would be to think about a career in terms of a portfolio rather than a linear, straight path forward; the notion of a portfolio allows them to include aspects outside of academia and to assess success not only by job offers per se.