Dear Germany letter, from a PhD aspirant

By Guest author on November 10, 2017

Dear Germany,

I hear you’re wondering why so many young researchers are leaving the country to pursue their careers elsewhere. Well, here’s my take on it, from the perspective of someone looking to do a PhD:

Stop underpaying your researchers. Wading through pages upon pages online, the large majority of positions that I find are 50%-65% positions, and limited to anywhere between 1 and 4 years. Mind you, they expect 100% of work. Also, apparently, a favourite: offering applicants that they can do a PhD in a given lab… outside working hours. So, unpaid, and after hours.

Suppose I get one of those 65% positions: after tax, I will very likely end up with a salary that will probably not cover my monthly expenses – let alone putting money aside for emergencies, paying back student loans (!!), taking care of family members, or (gasp! The insolence of those ivory tower academics!) a vacation. But, seeing as 100% commitment to my research is expected, it will be hard to find the time for a second job on the side. And that is not considering the higher taxes a second job involves, or the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that a growing number of studies show that PhD students have a higher risk for depression than similarly “highly educated” parts of society (Leveque et al 2017).

I was recently chatting to a friend who mentioned that she would not be accepting any position paying less than an amount that was 3-4 times as much as even a 100% PhD or researcher position would pay. She has the same academic degree as me, and this would be a junior starting position – but she works in industry, not in academia. That makes all the difference.

And this is a trend that does not stop at PhD students. Limited contracts are the standard in academia, regardless of whether you’re a research assistant, a visiting researcher, a Senior researcher. It makes it really hard to settle down in a place, opt for bigger investments like cars or houses, or start a family. And to top it off, you can only work at German universities for a number of years (currently 12), before you need to enter into a professorship. And guess what, there’s only so many of those out there. This has caused researchers that really enjoyed their jobs and teaching to leave academia to make a living, leaving research poorer for the loss of their expertise and enthusiasm. But people want families, and they need security. And that need is not met.

If we lose talent and brain power, Germany will not be able to compete on the international stage it so desperately wants to play on. If we want to keep research going, we will have to invest in something that will not pay off immediately, and something that does not bring voters running to you with excitement. The reputation that we have as a country that produces solid, trustworthy research only goes so far.

I have spent years working while I was studying to pay my fees and my rent, and I would really enjoy not having to worry about that for a change. I don’t have the ‘luxury’ to be able to say I’ll do it for the ‘glory’ and for the advancement of science (I’m not arrogant enough to consider myself that great of a scientist, and science is too competitive to be an amusement park that I’d pay my life time to enter every day). I have to consider my health, and I want and need to be able to help family members who need my support. I need a stable income for that. And I might also need some money to, you know, live a little, every once in a while.

So, no, Germany, I will not be sticking around for a PhD. I will be looking elsewhere.

Disclaimer: Some of my friends are happy and well off with the pay they receive in Germany. This is just my opinion, and those positions are definitely out there. It’s just that they are in the minority. Also, there’s a host of other issues that plays into this situation, making this tangled mess even worse, like the sharp divide in reputation and, subsequently, funding between the humanities and the ‘hard sciences’, or the fact that there is resentment on why taxpayers should fund science, why kids from the working classes have it so much harder, and the entire Ivory Tower conundrum – but all of these are discussions in and of themselves. —

– Janna Schulze

This post first appeared on facebook as my friend’s fb status. Most of the points that she’s considering are the same as any other PhD aspirant. The honest raw emotion in the letter is perhaps shared by many who are frustrated by the sheer amount of time and energy that it takes to find a good PhD position. I hear especially in Germany these days.
- Suhas

Tags: PhD, academia