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Natural scientists from Germany are top of the pile

by Bärbel Broer

No matter who you ask - be they a scientist or industry manager - the verdict is unanimous: Germany is a centre for the natural sciences. Together with those from the USA and Japan, graduates with natural science degrees in Germany are top of the pile. It is, therefore, no surprise that they are accordingly in demand in the labour market - be they physicists, chemists, mathematicians or biologists.

Natural scientists from Germany are top of the pile© bildlastig26 - Fotolia.comThere is a shortage of German natural scientists, who are always in high demand
No other group of academics is as universally employable as natural scientists. While doctors work mainly in the healthcare industry, teacher training graduates as teachers and lawyers in advocacy, natural scientists - and engineers - are distinguished by employment flexibility. They have career options in a wide range of areas: research and development, biotechnology, environment and software, medicine, financial and business consulting, the patent system, marketing, education and further training.

Demand for physicists

The demand for natural science experts is reflected by the labour market. "Things are looking good for physicists", says Prof. Dr. René Matzdorf, member of the board of directors of the German physical society Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG) responsible for education and junior researchers. What Dr. Matzdorf, the holder of the chair for experimental and surface physics at the university of Kassel, considers good news is something of a worry for his colleague Dr. Achim Hofmann, DPG member of the board of directors responsible for industry and careers: "We are starting to see a skills shortage." As head of development at Heraeus Quarzglas GmbH in Hanau, the world's largest manufacturer of synthetic quartz glass, he knows all about the employment market for physicists, having published the corresponding statistics and analyses for the year 2012 in Physik Journal, the members' journal of the DPG. His conclusion: the number of physicists currently seeking work is extremely low.

"There was a brief increase due to the financial crisis", says Hofmann, "but the number of job-seeking physicists has levelled off to about 1,000." That figure may seem high, but it is explained by applicants between jobs and fluctuations in individual industries. The insolvencies of several solar systems manufacturers, for example, led to a number of physicists being made redundant, he explains. "But many of those quickly find new jobs", says Hofmann, "because physicists are so universally employable." His employer, he cites as an example, has hired numerous physicists who had until recently been working on developing photovoltaics systems. According to a labour market survey conducted by DPG, the number of open, unfilled vacancies for physicists is estimated at up to twice the number of physicists graduating each year. And he believes the outlook for the future is similar: demand for physicists will increase in the medium to long term, he says.

Natural scientists from Germany are top of the pile Monika von Zedlitz is a press relations officer for the industry association Verband der Chemischen Industrie

Specialists in chemistry are especially in demand

The situation for chemists is similar. "Career prospects for chemistry graduates are positive in the medium and long term", states the industry association Verband der Chemischen Industrie (VCI) in response to an enquiry from academics.de. There is demand in the chemical industry not only for chemists, but also for academics from a wide range of natural science disciplines. "At the moment, prospects are especially good for graduates of chemistry-related engineering sciences", says Monika von Zedlitz, press relations officer at VCI, naming the following fields as examples: process engineering, chemical engineering and biotechnology.

Greatly in demand, she says, are experts in specialist areas such as toxicology, electrochemistry, macromolecular chemistry and material sciences. "We are also seeing great demand for specialists in interfacial chemistry and physics", says von Zedlitz. This is because the dynamic development in the interfacial sciences reflects growing demand in nanoengineering: "A field of technology in which German chemical companies play a leading role around the world", explains the VCI press relations officer.

Dual degree courses are on the rises

To counteract the skills shortage, the importance of dual degree courses is increasing. Dual degree courses in the natural sciences and engineering are offered predominantly by universities of applied sciences, and involve cooperations between businesses and universities local to them. "Dual degree courses offer an attractive combination of modern vocational training at a company and application-oriented studies at the partner university", explains von Zedlitz. The advantage for businesses: they specifically select the applicants and are therefore able to retain them in the longer term - at least for the duration of their dual degree course. According to the VCI, bachelor graduates from engineering degree courses at universities of applied sciences have good career prospects. But: "Even in times of the Bologna Process, an independent, one-semester industrial placement should definitely remain part of the degree course", says von Zedlitz and adds: "It is part of the core brand of engineering training in Germany."

Bachelor's degree can be considered "incomplete training"

In general however, the demand for bachelor graduates is limited. The reason is that many industrial companies in Germany consider a bachelor's degree "incomplete training". This is the result of a survey conducted by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft and published in March 2011 under the title "Der Bachelorabschluss in Physik in der Wirtschaft" (Bachelor's degrees in physics in the private sector). The surveyed companies cite "the excellent system of vocational training in Germany, which supplies the labour market with highly trained engineers and laboratory assistants" as a reason for this opinion. They are especially critical of the university bachelor in physics, which according to the survey results is merely considered a preliminary step towards a master's degree; a stronger practical orientation is ascribed to the bachelor's degree from a degree course in physical engineering as offered by some universities of applied sciences. Those with the aim of joining the university physics graduates who are so highly in demand should gain a master's degree or a Diplom. A doctorate on the other hand is not necessarily required of a physicist. "The PhD quota is approximately 50 percent", explains Hofmann and adds: "We hire both people with doctorates and people without them."

Which subjects make up the natural sciences?

Chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology - these are the traditional, established disciplines of the natural sciences. Due to developments in science and technology, the number of interdisciplinary fields such as informatics, biophysics, biochemistry and biotechnology, nanotechnology, bionics, environmental physics and material sciences is increasing. Mixed disciplines such as geography and geology are also included in the natural sciences.

The term "natural sciences" is initially an umbrella term for the individual sciences "that are dedicated to the systematic examination of nature (or a part of it) and to discovering the laws of nature", according to the definition in the Brockhaus encyclopaedia. The natural sciences are part of the empirical sciences that examine animate and inanimate matter. Due to their mathematical approach, they are often known as the exact sciences. The physically and mathematical exact sciences include physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology and others, as well as e.g. physical chemistry, astrophysics, geophysics, meteorology and mineralogy. The biological sciences include general biology, botany, zoology, anthropology, physiology, genetics, molecular biology and ecology. Periphery areas between the two are biophysics and biochemistry.

A doctorate is a necessity in chemistry

The chemical industry association, Verband der Chemischen Industrie, takes a different view: natural scientists who want to work in research and development in a private-sector company must not only have graduated from a university with a master's or Diplom degree, but should also have completed a doctorate. "If you want to work in research, you have to be curious, patient and persistent and have learnt how to work scientifically", explains press relations officer von Zedlitz. The VCI was started to offer grants to support various research projects. Doctorates in industry are, however, the exception, says von Zedlitz: "Doctorates developed from cooperation between a business and a university on the other hand are no longer a rarity."

Soft skills such as teamwork are very important

In addition to a degree, there is another important requirement for finding a job: what is known as soft skills. "Particularly in demand is the ability to work in a team", says von Zedlitz of the chemical industry. "Subject areas are becoming more and more interlinked, so that researchers increasingly work in an interdisciplinary manner." A view that also applies to physicists, says industrial physicist Hofmann: "Project management and teamwork are becoming more and more important. These are often not the greatest strengths of top scientific staff - although they too are necessary skills for solving complex problems". Group work is also highly important in academic research. According to university professor Matzdorf, "a lot of work on degree courses is already done in teams - professors may work on certain projects together with their students."

In addition to the ability to work as part of a team, industry also values an understanding of economic circumstances and developments in applicants. "It is no longer possible to successfully work in scientific and technological fields without this knowledge", says von Zedlitz.

Experience of working or studying abroad is also advantageous for all natural science graduates. Many degree courses already include a period abroad as a standard component. Good spoken and written English is a must, says the VCI press relations officer. "Applicants who have skills in other foreign languages - such as Spanish - are well equipped for employment in an increasingly international world of business and employment."

To our landing page 'Spotlight on: Starting a career in the natural sciences'»

academics :: March 2013