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Professional Spotlight: Postdoc

BY DENISE HABERGER

A postdoc delves into his or her specialist field in greater depth after completing a doctorate, and gains important experience on the path to a professorship. However, postdocs should bear one thing in mind above all else: a strategy to withdraw from academia is highly advisable, for secure positions are rare.

Professional Spotlight: Postdoc © private Stefanie Eyerich was lucky enough to be able to continue working in academia after her time as a postdoc
Stefanie Eyerich's career went like clockwork: a degree in biology in Munich, a doctorate at the Centre of Allergy & Environment, one year as a postdoc in London and one in Munich, and since the start of the year, leadership of a junior research group at the German Research Center for Environmental Health. Eyerich conducts biological basic research and specialises in allergic reactions of the skin. "I always wanted to know how diseases work," says the 35-year-old. She sees the biggest disadvantage of a career in academia in the lack of certainty. She did not shy from the risk though, and instead confronted it head-on with a great deal of courage and determination. "I was extremely lucky though, and the next move has always immediately presented itself," says the biologist.

Very few have a similar experience to Stefanie Eyerich though. While the number of postdoc positions is growing, Sibylle Baumbach of the German Young Academy warns of setting one's hopes too high: "Latest after the postdoc phase, the prospects are extremely bad. The competition gets even tougher, and the number of positions dwindles." The rise in funding for postdocs emits the wrong signal if opportunities for the time after this are not created at the same time, Baumbach warns.

Checklist - Facts on the Role of a Postdoc

1. Definition:

Post-doctoral studies are essentially the phase between a doctorate and a professorship. It is a qualification phase, during which postdocs delve deeper into their specialist field. Positions are typically limited to a period of two years.

2. Career entry:

The number of funding programmes is growing and therefore also the number of postdoc positions. Young academics consequently have good chances of obtaining a position.

3. Tasks:

A postdoc conducts research on a specific topic. Depending on the position, they also have teaching duties.

4. Requirements:

The formal requirement for a postdoc position is the best possible doctorate.

5. Soft Skills:

Besides the academic capabilities, knowledge of project management methodologies can be helpful, as postdocs are often involved in projects. Enthusiasm, idealism and ambition are also important. Spending time abroad can improve the chances.

6. Salary:

Postdocs are either granted a fellowship, or paid as a research assistant. This generally means classification in the TV-L 13 pay grade, so a gross annual salary of between almost 40.000 Euros and just under 41.500 Euros in the first year of work (depending on the federal state).

7. Perspectives:

Postdoc positions are for a fixed period. Theoretically, it is possible to hold a string of postdoc positions. However, the law on fixed-term contracts in higher education and research (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz) sets a few limitations: if the position is not funded by a third party, the contract must mostly end a maximum of six years after the doctorate is completed. Young academics without a permanent contract after this period have barely any opportunities at universities and non-university research institutions. Possible steps after the postdoc phase are a junior professorship, leadership of a junior research group, or habilitation.

Fixed-term contracts make planning difficult

Professional Spotlight: Postdoc © private René Krempkow
One further problem is that the content, duration and parameters for the postdoc phase are not defined. "Post-doctoral studies are academic activity for a limited period of time at a research institution after completing a doctorate," explains university researcher René Krempkow. "It is often a transition phase serving further academic qualification." According to the expert, the postdoc phase ideally should not last more than two to four years, however some young scientists remain stuck in postdoc positions far too long. Krempkow sees the tendency towards fixed-term employment as a major hurdle: "While the law on fixed-term contracts in higher education and research (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz) limits fixed-term employment in academia after completing the doctorate to six years," he says, "at research organisations funded by third parties, it is still possible to be considered a 'young scientist' far beyond the age of 40."

The outcome is an inability to plan and a great deal of uncertainty about the future. "This occurs in the phase in life in which the basis for your professional and private lives is set," explains Anjana Buckow from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The postdoc phase can serve as a useful transition phase though, and does not need to be a "parking" position. "Valuable experience can be gained during this time - through to academic independence," Buckow adds.

Postdocs are mostly paid the same as research assistants

Professional Spotlight: Postdoc © private Postdoc Timo Kehl
Third party funding mostly finances postdoc positions. The postdocs themselves either receive research fellowships for a stay abroad or limited project positions, such as the German Research Foundation (DFG), or are paid by the universities or non-university research institutions. From a purely formal perspective, they work as research assistants and are therefore mostly paid as such. As a rule, postdocs earn a gross annual salary of between almost 40.000 Euros and close to 41.500 Euros in the first year of work (TV-L 13), depending on the federal state. In individual cases, there is also scope for a higher pay grade.

Neither the comparatively low salary nor the rather poor framework conditions for long-term employment deterred Timo Kehl from a career in science. The 36-year-old has been a postdoc at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg since 2011. He specialises in applied tumour virology, and researches animal retroviruses and the possible transfer of these to humans as well as the potentially resulting diseases. While he enjoys his work, he retains a realistic view of the situation, says Kehl. His current position runs for another six months, after which it will be extended or he must find work elsewhere. The alternative is to leave active research and go into administration. For the chances of obtaining a position in this field are good. "I don't want to walk around with blinkers on," says Kehl. "Having a plan B from the start was important to me." If her role as leader of the junior research group is not extended, Eyerich's plan B is still rather vague. She could imagine moving into industry, though. "So far, I have always found a way," says Stefanie Eyerich, and adds: "A high dose of optimism is very important in academia."

Time abroad improves the chances

Those who enjoy the work and already know with what they are engaging should remain true to their goals despite the circumstances, encourages Eyerich. Timo Kehl also does not attempt to dissuade young academics from taking the step into academia as such. It is important to have "plenty of enthusiasm, idealism and ambition" and "not to be put off by failures". Expertise in project management is also beneficial, as postdocs are often involved in projects, Kehl explains. Stefanie Eyerich advises spending time abroad to improve the chances.

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academics :: September 2013