Science Careers – How bad is it?
Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it. – Albert Einstein
Being a scientists is not a job, it’s a mission. You can work on great projects, share your knowledge and combine your passion for science with a job that you like. But actually finding such a job and then doing it seems to be a hard task, especially in Germany.
Academic career in Germany
Especially in Germany, scientists deal with uncertainties of their scientific career: They face long qualification phases for fixed-term contracts and frequent relocations of the work place, which results in high personal pressure. There are two main laws who are of interest here: The Higher Education Framework Act (§57b) and the WissZeitVG. They dictate, that you can stay in your doctoral phase for 6 years and stay in academia afterwards for another 6 years (9 years for medicine). So you got 12 years in academia, after this you need your permanent position. Working on time-limited projects and third-party funds prolongs this time, but sooner or later, you either climbed the ladder to a professorship position – or you are out.
The problem is not the german law, it’s a global phenomenon: All over the world, more people are trained to be scientists, than actually are able to pursue their scientific career. You study, work and graduate to become a good PhD in the life sciences, just to realize that what you worked for half your lifetime is hard to apply, when you finally look for a job. Adam Ruben (author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School) elaborates on this problem in his recent science magazine article.
Academic scientist vs. reality
You have been trained a long time to become an academic scientist – now you realize that you actually would like to do something else. How to decide what is best for you in your current situation? Takes this into account:
Rule 1: Assess your qualifications
Evaluate your qualifications, either for industry or academia. Do you have a good mentor that trained you, recent results that you can show, publications, people that talk good about you in your department? Or do you already have collaborations with industry, connections from former internships or technical qualifications?
Rule 2: Assess your needs
What do you and your family need for living? Industries attract you with bonuses and cash infusions, forms of compensation which are unavailable in academia (e.g. performance-based multiplier). Understand the reward system. Other needs, like your husband/wife also needs a job? There are programs in academia in industry alike and your future employer may have good contacts to the local university and can facilitate interviews
Rule 3: Assess your desires
Desires are not equal to needs. How do you really feel about teaching, publishing, managing, interacting, traveling, negotiating, collaborating, presenting, reporting, reviewing, fundraising, deal-making, and on and on? How do you actually want to spend your time, day by day?
Rule 4: Assess your personality
Although the pace of academia may have quickened of late, it is still stately by comparison with industry, and much more scheduled (so many years to tenure, so many months to a funding decision, etc.). If you are impatient, industry offers relatively fast-paced decision-making and constant change. Are you a team player? The “lone wolf” or “one-person band” may be increasingly rare in academia in an age of collaboration, but it is unheard of in industry, where being able to work in teams with specialized division of labor is essential. It should be apparent, as well, that mavericks and quirky personalities tend to do better in academia.
Rule 5: Consider the timing
Check out how business and academia are doing in the country you would like to work in.
Rule 6: Plan for the long term
One approach is to choose some reasonably long time frame, perhaps a decade, and ask yourself whether you’d be content to have lived through the average ups and downs you’d experience in a given job over that period. In academia, that would include a tenure decision (rate your chances), a lot of grant applications with mixed success at best, and maybe some great students and really significant scientific contributions. In pharma or large biotech, it would encompass a couple of promotions, your own group and maybe a department, at least one merger or other big disruption, and several rounds of layoffs. In small business, it might include a failed startup (or two, or three), an IPO if you’re lucky, and a lucrative exit strategy or long-term growth if you’re really lucky.
Take into account that it is far more easier to go from academia to industry, than back. Good scientists are wanted for R&D organizations in industry. But going back from industry to academia, you would have to maintain an academic-style publication record and CV.
Rule 7: Be Honest with yourself
Take a hard look at your qualifications, with as much objectivity as you can muster, and use these rules to decide where you would be best-suited and positioned for success.
We offer courses in career building for scientists and would be happy to discuss with you, what your options for your personal career are! Here is an example for an agenda for such a course: