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Postdoc - Not an Easy Path to Choose

By Birk Grüling

Postdocs need to be highly skilled, ambitious, and flexible. In return, they are frequently offered little more than autonomy in their work.

Postdoc – not an easy path to choose© manun - photocase.comNetworking and international research experience are essential for a young scientist's postdoc career
Young scholars with a doctoral degree under their belt (theoretically) have the world at their feet. Industry tempts them with exciting, well-paid opportunities, while academia offers them the chance to delve further into their particular area of research, perhaps even at one of the leading institutions in their field.

"Having a career goal after successfully completing a doctoral degree is vitally important," says Dr Nathalie Huber of the Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance (Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätssicherung - iFQ). "At this stage, in particular, the opportunities available outside of academia seem very appealing." Research facilities in industry and in non-university research institutions (Max Planck, Helmholtz, etc.), often have much larger budgets and offer a greater number of permanent positions. Moreover, in the private sector, a doctoral degree frequently opens doors to senior positions and a good salary.

"A PhD signifies stamina and subject expertise. A person who has completed a doctorate has proven that he or she can engage with a particular subject in great depth. These are skills that many companies value highly," continues Huber. Anyone who is not distracted by such temptations and opts for an academic career will often find a difficult road ahead.

Junior researchers need to establish a presence

"The prospects for secure, well-paid jobs are, of course, considerably worse when compared with industry," acknowledges Dr Julia Pongratz. The 31-year-old geography scholar is currently in the middle of her postdoc period and knows a thing or two about how tough it can be to follow an academic career path. After receiving her PhD with a dissertation on the "human impact on the climate prior to industrialisation" from the renowned Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, she went on to Stanford, where she conducted her own research project.

"Working as a research fellow is free, creative, and immensely fulfilling. It is very motivating to feel that I am advancing science in my particular field," says Pongratz of her decision to work at a university. While working in Hamburg and Stanford, she was also able to lay the foundations for a career in academia: she published numerous well-regarded articles in high-ranking journals, gained experience directing her own research projects at home and abroad, and established good contacts within her field.

Nathalie Huber of iFQ sees these things as important prerequisites for a successful academic career. "For a successful career, young researchers need to make their mark on the academic world, establish a presence, forge a name for themselves internationally, and network successfully."

Postdoc - not an easy path to choose Dr. Julia Pongratz has made a conscious decision to pursue a postdoc career in Germany

A bottleneck in career opportunities

A good reputation as a scholar is no guarantee of a future professorship, however. No other European country has so few academics employed in permanent positions as does Germany. Experts are even talking about a "bottleneck" with respect to the job market for PhDs. "Anyone who does not manage to make the leap into a professorship is often caught between two stools," says Huber.

After 10 years in academia and already in their mid-40s, applicants are not particularly attractive to industry, and permanent appointments to junior faculty positions are rare. Tenured professor or bust? This is rarely the case in other countries. "In the USA, the tenure track system offers junior academics good jobs, with the prospect of permanent positions. Opportunities like these are rare in Germany, however," says Pongratz. In the UK and France, as well, the lecturer and maitre de conferences are both respectable positions open to scholars without the equivalent of the German post-doctoral degree (Habilitation).

Recent studies on the consequences of this imbalance in Germany have found that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable candidates for postdoctoral positions in the country. Around 70,000 postdoc positions currently remain unfilled. The alternatives - in other words, a job at an academic institution abroad or a switch to industry - are simply more attractive for candidates with great potential.

Funding, better working conditions, and new positions

Recently, however, these problems have been attracting attention in Germany, as well. "Change is on the horizon," confirms Huber. "Funding for research has been increased, working conditions are being improved, and new positions, such as junior research group leader and junior professor, have been created."

Postdoc - not an easy path to choose Dr. Nathalie Huber appreciates the working conditions and the assistant professorship. Two great assets for a postdoc's career in science
In addition, there are ever more fellowships and funding programmes available for postdocs from Germany and abroad. These programmes have spurred a number of changes: be it the possibility of carrying out one's own research project over a period of three to five years or the opportunity to lead an entire research group. Nevertheless, this shift is only in its early stages, as Huber explains. "It is still difficult to combine an academic career with having a family, and there are still not enough alternatives to being a tenured professor. Nonetheless, there are clearly positive new developments."

Economic crisis halts the brain drain

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the international economic crisis has spurred a bit of a turn-around. Weighed down by national debts, neighbouring European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece, are slashing their higher education budgets. Even the USA is no longer the land of milk and honey that it once was for young scholars. Budget reductions and job cuts have become part of everyday life there too.

Thanks to its reputation as a stable economic power, the focus is once again on Germany as an important centre of research, and the country can look forward to an increase in popularity among postdocs from all over the world. Pongratz has rejected offers from American institutions and has returned to the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg. It is a decision that the 31-year-old does not regret.

"I'm conducting research on fascinating subjects and working with colleagues who are at the forefront of climate research internationally. I find the working conditions and infrastructure at the Max Planck Institute to be ideal." But it was not only work-related factors that influenced her decision to return. "I feel culturally connected to my homeland, of course. Such considerations have also played an important role in my choice of career path."

For more information please read: Postdoctoral funding opportunities.»

academics :: May 2012