Reflections on the GK 1261 ‘Critical Junctures of Globalization’: A panel discussion
By Nicholas Dietrich (Centre for Area Studies, University of Leipzig)
In 1985, the first Research Training Group was established in Germany at the University of Cologne under the title ‘Molecular Life Sciences’ and funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. A year later, impressed by the success of this model, the German Council of Science and Humanities proposed using Research Training Groups to foster young researchers. The model builds on the idea of moving away from the traditional individual doctoral degree by encouraging early independence and making doctoral programmes more structured as well as shorter in duration. From 1988 onwards the Research Training Group model developed rapidly. All funding would come from the German Research Foundation (DFG) whose mission it is: ‘to remain abreast of current developments in higher education … [and] … address challenges such as the need to provide sustainable support for young researchers, the interdisciplinarisation of the sciences and humanities, and support for networking in the field of research’.
In 2006, the Research Training Group 1261 ‘Critical Junctures of Globalization’ (GK 1261) became part of the institutionalization of this model that seeks to make German higher education more globally competitive by capacitating young researchers in the early stages of their career through intellectual guidance and material support. The final conference marked the end of nine years of the programme and the achievement of producing over 50 successful PhD dissertations. While most of the conference proceedings were devoted to consolidating the lessons learned with regards to the broader academic project, the second day closed with an important panel discussion reviewing personal experiences of (former) PhD students and Post Docs employed by the Research Training Group. The panel was guided by a few key questions posed by Professor Helena Flam in order to stimulate an open and honest dialogue on how the Research Training Group model had been experienced by young researchers across cohorts. The discussion thus helped to highlight both positive and negative experiences on the part of the various participants and cohorts.
Dealing with the challenges of a PhD dissertation
The PhD process is a long and arduous personal intellectual evolution. Although the panel only served to represent a small group of personal experiences, some themes did however come to the fore that offer a general perspective. General challenges, beyond researching and writing a PhD dissertation, included: 1) aligning a personal curiosity-driven research project with the broader institution of the interdisciplinary Research Training Group and its evolving umbrella theme ‘critical junctures of globalization’; 2) dealing with the absence of closer relationships with supervisors; 3) in some cases, a perceived lack of commitment of supervisors to specific research projects or the research programme in general; and in other cases 4) the lack of experience of a supervisor in the specific area of concern; 5) managing research and writing in a structured programme with obligatory course requirements not always in line with particular projects; and finally, 6) the challenge of situating the personal project, developed in an interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary environment, within the broader disciplined world of the academic market place.
Positive aspects emanated from reflecting on the challenges mentioned. One of the most enduring aspects highlighted by the panel members was that the Research Training Group had offered a space through which the individual could find solidarity in a cohort of like-minded colleagues struggling with the same broader trials. Research Training Group structures, such as colloquia and the recruitment of Post Docs acting as guides for young researchers, were seen as innovative evolutions on which similar projects could build. All participants appreciated the opportunity to obtain funding in order to pursue their personal goals. The ability to participate in international conferences and field-work not only built experience but also allowed for important personal professional networking. Finally, while working with the ‘critical junctures’ language and concepts did pose challenges, representatives from later cohorts felt that, in the process, they had developed a capacity to engage more maturely in the study of historical and contemporary processes of globalization.
The conference, and the panel in particular, therefore offered a well-needed self-reflexive look at the evolution of the Research Training Group 1261 as a specific academic project and part of the broader Research Training Group mission. It became evident that in organising future Research Training Groups, careful consideration should be given to how the individual projects fit into the parameters of the broader academic research programme. Moreover, it became clear that the relationship between PhD student and supervisor still remains very important also in a structured PhD programme. If well organized, projects such as this one offer students the ability to finance their research, be part of both a larger research programme and a larger group of PhDs working on similar questions, develop independence, and facilitate the building of collegial and professional networks within and beyond their immediate institutional sphere.
 DFG.2010. 20 Years of Research Training Groups: Matrix for New Doctoral Cultures: Innovative, Interactive, International (accessed 23 Jul 2015)
 DFG. 2015. Mission Statement (accessed 23 Jul 2015)
Citation: Nicholas Dietrich, Reflections on the GK 1261 »Critical Junctures of Globalization«: A panel discussion, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.08.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4055.