SOCLIFE: "Research Across Borders"
After nine years of funding by the German Science Foundation, the international research training group SOCLIFE came to an end in 2017. SOCLIFE focused on quantitative cross-national comparisons in the social and economic sciences. The overall research question was how characteristics of individual actors and the national context influence individuals’ attitudes and behavior.
Over the years, altogether thirty-seven doctoral students were supported with 3-year-stipends to undertake an individual research project. Research projects focused on welfare state incentives for maternal labor supply, employment protection legislation and its relation to unemployment, radical right-wing populism, variations in volunteering across societies, or cultural impacts on romantic relationships, to name just a few examples.
The research output of the program is outstanding. Twenty-one dissertations have been defended by now and more will be defended next year. One of the most cited publications is a paper co-authored by Dr. Olga Stavrova on why religious people are happy. It has been published in 2013 in the Social Science Review and analyzes the effect of the social norm of religiosity across countries. Dr. Timo-Kolja Pförtner, as a member of an international research team, published 2015 a study on socioeconomic inequalities in adolescent health in The Lancet, which received wide interest among social science and public health researchers.
Overall, SOCLIFE members were able to publish their research results in a multitude of high-ranking scholarly journals in sociology, political science, (social) psychology, and economics:
American Journal of Epidemiology, American Sociological Review, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative European Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Demography, Electoral Studies, Environmental Politics, European Journal of Public Health, European Journal of Social Psychology, European Societies, European Sociological Review, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, International Journal of Public Health, International Migration Review, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Journal of Economic Psychology, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Journal of European Social Policy, Journal of Social Policy, Party Politics, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Public Finance Review, Review of Economics of the Household, Social Forces, Social Indicators Research, Social Psychological and Personality Science, Social Science & Medicine, Social Science Research, Socio-Economic Review, The Lancet, West European Politics.
Prizes won by SOCLIFE members
The work of SOCLIFE is also mirrored in several renowned prizes that SOCLIFE members received. The German study prize was awarded by the Körber Foundation to Dr. Conrad Ziller for his dissertation “Social Trust in the Face of Ethnic Diversity: The Moderating Role of Economic, Cultural, and Political Contexts”.
Prof. Dr. Alexander Schmidt-Catran’s outstanding academic achievements were decorated with the Hans Kelsen Junior Prize of the University of Cologne. And many of the presentations and publications of SOCLIFE members received best paper awards. For example, a factorial survey on attitudes towards immigrants by Christian Czymara and Prof. Dr. Alexander Schmidt-Catran, titled “Who is welcome in Germany?”, was awarded the prize for the best social science article in German social science journals.
SOCLIFE - graduate's careers
Today, SOCLIFE graduates have found jobs in academia, research institutes, and in the private sector – many of them in Germany, but also in other countries such as Australia, Chile, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, Singapore, Sweden, and The Netherlands. Some of them have attained professorships in Frankfurt (Main), Mannheim, Odense (Denmark), and Tilburg (The Netherlands).
Discussions and encouraging diversity
No doubt, this success is due to the fact that all persons involved, professors and PhD students alike have unchained creative energies and learned from each other, and challenged each other constantly. And it is also due to the fact that a good environment has been created, which stimulated discussions, which created common ground while encouraging diversity.
As Susan Lee (a PhD student from the last cohort of SOCLIFE fellows) remarks: “The advantage of having a similar methodological approach in the program was that the training was directly tailored to equipping us with the skills necessary to facilitate our dissertation projects, while allowing the creative freedom to pursue our own individual research interests. My memories of SOCLIFE will include quality advising, opportunities to meet some excellent scholars, and getting to know interesting people from whom I learned a lot.”
Her words reflect a student perspective, but reinforce those of Dr. Hawal Shamon, who, for several years, has been the managing director in the beginning of the program:
"It´s too bad that SOCLIFE is over. In my opinion, the programme offered many positive conditions for a successful dissertation of the SOCLIFE members, which shows in a successful interim evaluation of the DFG after 4.5 years. For example, SOCLIFE was designed to provide relatively close support for doctoral students from the very beginning. In addition to conventional supervision by the supervisors, the speakers applied for the position of a post-doctoral student, who was to accompany and support the first three cohorts in concretising their research plans. Fortunately, Dr. Romana Careja was a post-doctoral student who was very committed to the role and not only responded as a contact person for the interests of doctoral students, as she also acted proactively. A further element of the close support, which was considered and occasionally enforced by the speakers, was institutionalized exchange, for example through numerous colloquia and workshops. Even though these events have been perceived as ‘time-eaters' by some SOCLIFE members, in my opinion the arguments for an institutionalized exchange are predominant. In this way, SOCLIFE members had the opportunity to gain an efficient insight into' foreign' topics and methods, to get to know people who are familiar with these' foreign' topics and methods. They were even encouraged to come up with new research ideas. The expected incidental 'group effect' of institutionalized exchange platforms is not to be underestimated either. Particularly in thematically heterogeneous, larger and scientific social groups, which are arranged over several cohorts, institutionalized exchange platforms with the reservation of a time slot create an opportunity to get to know colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere or to meet them again. The institutionalized exchange has certainly also helped to improve the understanding of us as a social group. Personally, in my time as Managing Director at SOCLIFE, I was able to learn a lot about different competence dimensions and I will keep SOCLIFE in mind very well. To commemorate this fact, I have already begun to incorporate the characters from the SOCLIFE logo into my presentations and to give them a 'substantial meaning' in the lectures. I would like to maintain this 'personal tradition' throughout my career." (Dr. Hawal Shamon).
Ravena Penning, who has managed the program until its end, sees the value of the program in the quality of those who have been members, as well as in the amount of people who have heard of it and would have liked to take part in it. Unfortunately this is not possible anymore, as the SOCLIFE story has ended, but it is a happy end: "From my point of view, SOCLIFE was a model of success, which has attracted international doctoral researchers in social science, especially in the last few years. After the admission deadline, many applicants wrote to me and hoped for a continuation of the Research Training Group. The contact with the various scholarship holders was very exciting and enriching for me in many ways. Even though there were sometimes small challenges to overcome, I keep a very good time in mind." (Ravena Penning).
Be they far apart or still living in Cologne, graduates and associated members of SOCLIFE are building on what the Research Training Group has given them, and are pushing the borders of knowledge. Equally important, they are always happy to meet each other and learn about where life is taking them: "For me, as part of the first cohort, SOCLIFE is already so far behind. But I'm always happy to see the group again and I also enjoyed the opportunity to talk to scholarship holders who came to SOCLIFE after my time. I experienced the thematic diversity as very pleasant and also the feeling which let me gain a broader understanding of the social science research landscape. I had two very pleasant office colleagues, Pascal and Judith. So I like to remind myself of the SOCLIFE days." (Dr. Annelene Wengler).
Festive closing event
This remarkable success was reason enough for a festive closing event which took place at the Park Inn Hotel in Cologne. The “founding fathers” of the program, Prof. Dr. Heiner Meulemann and Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Andreß, talked about how they got the program installed and what elements were most successful. The former managing director of SOCLIFE, Dr. Hawal Shamon, and SOCLIFE’s post-doc, Prof. Dr. Romana Careja, reflected on how SOCLIFE influenced their job careers. Prof. Dr. Marco Giesselmann, a former SOCLIFE associated member, now professor at the University of Bielefeld and Researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research (Berlin), took a humorous view on SOCLIFE from the outside. The official part of the closing event ended with a panel discussion of SOCLIFE students reflecting their experiences during the program and their transition into the world “after” SOCLIFE. The event ended with a wonderful dinner at a restaurant. "It's a pity that not all former scholarship holders were able to attend the final event, which I experienced as a beautiful and moving summary of the past years." (Ravena Penning).