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Crisis? Research Goes on Regardless

By Judith Jenner

Many academics can imagine themselves working in the private sector. For engineers, computer scientists and natural scientists the chances of successfully transferring to the private sector remain good despite the crisis, and competencies gained academically also play an important role in industry.

Crisis? Research Goes on RegardlessWerner Brendli, consultant for academic careers at the Agentur für Arbeit in Munich; Frank Stefan Becker, education expert at Siemens
Better pay, greater security, excellent opportunities for development - these reasons induce many scientists to give up research at university or a research institute after their doctorate in exchange for a job in the private sector. "In particular transferring to a company immediately after completing a doctorate does offer broader perspectives in the medium term", says Werner Brendli, consultant for academic careers at the Agentur für Arbeit, Germany's public employment agency, in Munich, adding that such a move doesn't entirely close off the option of later returning to academia, especially not in the technical and economics disciplines.

For engineers, practical experience is also an asset for a professorship

Bertram Welker advises doctoral candidates at the TU-DOC offices for young researchers at Technische Universität Berlin. "In the engineering sciences, significant practical relevance and industry experience are required - particularly for a later professorship", says Welker. Some doctoral candidates already make a preliminary decision on their later career when they choose a topic for their doctoral thesis, he explains: "Those who want to remain at university are more likely to go into basic research, while those aiming for a career in industry will tend to choose an application-oriented topic." Many abilities that research assistants acquire at university are also important in industry; managing academic projects, for example, provides valuable experience for later team leadership roles in private sector companies.

Research and development: no sign of a crisis

The economic crisis seems to be affecting jobs in research and development less than those in other areas. Computer scientists, engineers and natural scientists have good chances of gaining a job in industry. Typical entry-level roles for doctorate holders first entering the private sector are team or project management positions.

Energy provider RWE is even increasing its research and development staff, despite the crisis. "We are looking for natural scientists and engineers, especially from the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, industrial engineering and mechanical engineering", says Martin Pack of RWE. The company's current research projects include, for example, an algae project at its Coal Innovation Centre. "Algae need carbon dioxide to grow. We are examining whether these algae can later be used as energy sources and thus contribute to reducing CO2 emissions", explains Pack.

At chemical corporation BASF, the economic situation is also having no negative effect on the demand for scientists and engineers. "They are always needed - even more so in difficult times. Therefore we have not imposed a hiring freeze, but continue to take on qualified applicants - including in our research departments, of course", says BASF spokesman Christian Siemens. Those joining BASF following their doctorate or postdoc will immediately start as laboratory managers in research. Mentors and specifically tailored further training options are provided to make their career entry a little easier. The starting salary is set in accordance with the collective wage agreement for academics in the chemical industry; in 2009, the agreed minimum annual salary for employees with a doctorate in their second year of employment was approximately 63,000 euros. "We additionally determine individual salaries based on market, role and performance", says Siemens.

Crisis? Research Goes on Regardless Frank Stefan Becker, education expert at Siemens

Environmental technologies as employment drivers

"We currently have 1,500 vacancies, the majority for graduates in the fields of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science", says Frank Stefan Becker, education expert at Siemens. "The job cuts at Siemens mainly affect the administrative organisation, not research and development." Many of the new jobs at Siemens have been created in the field of environmental technologies, where the main focus is on preliminary research, i.e. application-oriented research work. No less than a quarter of the company's 410,000 employees worldwide work in developing, manufacturing and marketing environmentally friendly technologies for energy and transport sector infrastructures. In addition to professional qualifications, graduates are expected to have communication skills, economic background knowledge and basic project management abilities. Those who have some catching up to do in these areas should look around their university: at many career centres, seminars on these subjects are already available to students.

Starting a career in medical research

Unfilled vacancies can currently also be found in medical and pharmaceutical research. For entry-level positions, applicants are expected to have two to four years of professional experience - where the doctorate is considered professional experience. The exception are physicians, who usually complete their doctorates in parallel with their degree course.

Greater freedom of research at university

Despite excellent salary and development opportunities in industry, many young scientists consciously choose a university career. Points in its favour are "freedom of research and sometimes also an enjoyment of teaching", as Bertram Welker of the TU Berlin emphasises. His impression is that the structures are becoming somewhat more permeable - meaning that the choice between university/research institution and industry does not always have to be a decision for life.

academics :: January 2010