When using internet search engines on the phrase “Life after PhD” you find (besides the oh so well-known and loved PhD comics by Jorge Cham) many blogs and personal webpages all dealing with life after PhD – but mostly focusing on the world outside of academia. You find pages like “From PhD to Life”, “Career advice and hope for graduate students” , “11 alternative careers for PhD students” , and so on and so forth. Several hits below, there is finally one link dealing with career advices if you want to stay in academia (1). How come? What makes many of us first choose a long and laborious education to then finally switch to something completely different?
Let us think back to the time when we decided to go to University to study our dream profession. We were highly enthusiastic, our curiosity reaching from the deepest oceans out to space and our motivation was nothing less than learning how to cure world’s most threatening diseases or finding a solution to climate change induced environmental problems. Well, maybe a bit over the top, but I guess we all had our plans and dreams at the begin of our university education. And for many of us it was the idea of being an independent investigator and doing discovery- or hypothesis-driven research that attracted us towards doing a dissertation. And then, at some point sooner or later, we discover that an academic career is no ‘walk in the park’ at all.
The survey among Helmholtz PhD Students in 2009/2010 showed that only 9% want to go for a post doc position in Germany, the majority wants to switch to industry or go abroad (2). One of the main reasons is low salaries and the high amount of temporary contracts, which make life planning very difficult. In Germany 90% of the scientific staff has only a temporary contract; the majority of these contracts have a runtime of less than one year (3). A recent OECD study showed that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many of them were postdocs (4).
In England, France or the United States on the other hand scientific careers besides the classical professorship are still customary. But looking closer at articles and blogs from US or British post docs, they as well report a worsening of working conditions. The most common points of critique are low salary, long working hours, little recognition and fierce competition.
But despite this questionable situation, today we have more PhDs worldwide than ever before. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40% (4). The German statistical office reports that more than 200 000 dissertations were supervised in Germany during winter semester 2010/2011 (5). So obviously still many young people, more than ever before, initially accept suboptimal conditions because they want to do their dream job. But even if you accept harsh working conditions and low payment, the competition for academic positions is severe. For every available opening for a tenure-track professorship in the United States, there are roughly seven postdocs (4), and the situation in other countries might not be brighter.
Devastated after reading all that? Don’t be. If you managed to do your PhD in Germany, maybe within the Helmholtz Association or in any other research institute or University, you are privileged! You own the privilege of belonging to the group of people that could choose and afford the education they love. And even if you should decide to leave academia – you are well educated and prepared for all the adventures and challenges that wait for you out there. And if you decide to stay in academia, the Helmholtz Association and other institutions in Germany offer funding to make the start easier. And most of these research fellowships are accessible for international students, too! Find below some info about the funding for early career scientists provided by the Helmholtz association and links to other institutions.
So let me end here with the famous advice from Douglas Adams (valid not only for PhD students ;-)
The Helmholtz Postdoc Programme
“Promote Early Scientific Independence and Equal Opportunities“
What: To enable early career scientists to work independently on a research topic of their own choosing
Who: German and international early career scientists
Qualification: You have gained your doctoral qualification in Germany or abroad within the last year or are about to earn the degree
Duration: Up to 3 years
Application: A new call will be published in spring 2015
Helmholtz Young Investigators Groups
What: To allow young researchers to set up and lead their own research group
Who: German and international early career scientists who want to continue their scientific career in Germany
Condition: You have to work in cooperation with universities, and are given the chance to gain teaching experience and to acquire the qualifications necessary for a university career
Qualification: The programme is aimed at young researchers who earned their doctorate about two to six years ago. German applicants are also generally expected to have spent extended stays abroad.
Other funding possibilities:
German Research Foundation (DFG)
And many more…