Career opportunities for international PhDs and postdocs in Germany

This month we welcome a guest post by Ulrike Schneeberg, PhD, who works as a career consultant, trainer and blog author with a special focus on transitions from academia to industry. Ulrike is the author of the book Monster zähmen (engl: Taming Monsters) that investigates 25 different career paths of people with humanities degrees (so far, only available in German).

As a career coach and trainer, I often work with international PhD candidates and postdocs across Germany. They have excellent research careers. Yet, they come to my seminars because the uncertainty of a career within academia is no longer tenable to them. Many of my seminar participants have started their own families. Some have partners with a good academic job in Germany and no desire for an international long-distance relationship. Others are simply drawn to the German way of life and culture. They all look for attractive career alternatives outside the academic system. 

If you are considering a career in Germany or simply curious how things work for PhDs and postdocs elsewhere, have a read. Although, of course, every seminar participant brings their own individual situation and topics, there are five questions which I hear in every seminar. Here they come:

Q1: How hard is it to get an industry job in Germany with my PhD?

Behind this question hides the fear of negative stereotypes against (ex-)researchers. I’m sure you know the kind of stereotypes I’m talking about: “no practical experience”, “incapable of dealing with tight deadlines”, “rubbish in teams”, “arrogant”, “too expensive”, and so on.

So, are these stereotypes true or not? What do employers in Germany think about PhDs?

One thing that is certainly true (and that is good news for you!), is that in Germany the PhD title “Dr” is a lot more common on business cards than in English-speaking parts of the world. Indeed, in many professional fields, in addition to research and higher education, a PhD title is considered a credential that equips its holder with authority and status. (If that consideration is justified or not is a different matter.) For example, in management consulting, a high percentage of employees hold a PhD – not only because their PhD shows that they are capable of tackling complex problems, but also because the title creates more of a power balance when the young consultant advises senior executives (many of whom also hold a PhD). 

Executives and board members across all industries in Germany are more likely to have a PhD than their colleagues in similar positions abroad. In fact, many people believe that a PhD opens doors to these higher management positions faster than other factors. Income statistics suggest that this is at least partly true: 

SubjectBachelorMaster PhD
Law39.957 €45.121 €78.355 €
Engineering46.011 €49.190 €61.345 €
Natural Sciences43.412 €48.593 €60.521 €
Business Administration39.033 €45.979 €52.436 €
Humanities29.866 €32.583 €38.049 €

Median income with and without PhD according to subjects (August 2017). Source: https://www.gehalt.de/

So, is a PhD only useful if you want to become an executive?

No. There are also specialist industry jobs that require or prefer a PhD., such as patent attorneys, researchers in the pharma industry or scientific librarians. And then there are, of course, all the jobs that do not specifically ask for a PhD, but that are also available for PhD holders. 

And what about the stereotypes mentioned at the beginning?  

Here’s a challenging hypothesis: It is not the stereotypes of HR against PhDs that make it hard to get an industry job, but the stereotypes that you BELIEVE are out there that make it harder or easier for you.

Q2: Do I need to speak German to get a job in Germany?

The short answer: that depends.

The longer answer: it is certainly possible to find high-profile jobs that don’t require you to be fluent in German. Your chances are particularly good if you are a natural scientist or engineer with expertise in a research field that is, according to an HR development manager at a German automotive company I spoke to, considered ‘hot topics’ in their research and development departments. For the automotive industry, current hot topics are: connectivity, automation, sharing and electrification. What are the hot topics in your preferred industry?

You also have good chances if you want to work in a start-up company because in many of them the working language is English and the start-up culture is generally very open towards lateral entrants. This is particularly true if you know how to code. But being a native English speaker with an international (research) network will also be an advantage for all roles that require communication with (specialised) international customers, such as in sales or recruitment positions. 

Q3: What other job opportunities apart from the well-known corporates are there?

When I ask the PhD candidates and postdocs in my seminars where they want to work, they name all the big, well-known German companies: Bayer, Daimler, Bosch, Philips, Lufthansa, Volkswagen, Siemens, BASF. These companies belong to the industries with the highest turnover in Germany: automotive, engineering and the chemical industry/ pharma. 

There’s nothing wrong with applying here, except that everybody does. Thus, competition is fierce and even if you get in, you might realise that the working conditions are not what you were hoping for. So, it makes sense to look at other possible career paths:

1. German Mittelstand

Translating this with “small and medium-sized companies” (i.e. companies with up to 500 employees) would be inaccurate, although this is how the term is most often explained. Because of its positive connotations (family-owned, down-to-earth, etc.), some large companies, such as Bosch, also claim to be part of Germany’s Mittelstand. For your search, the essential aspect should be that these are little known companies in Germany – except in the regions where they are based. Have a look at this (German) career fair website [https://www.karrieretag-familienunternehmen.de/] with a list of all the represented Mittelstand companies. They all need specialists and some of them have research and development departments with international, English-speaking teams. Or browse the Hidden Champions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_champions, small but highly successful companies in Germany.

2. Start-up company

Make use of the open and dynamic culture in start-ups to gain industry experience. Have a look at what jobs are advertised here (https://germanystartupjobs.com/) and do some research on the companies that pique your interest. Get in touch with them and explore your opportunities.

3. Found your own business

You don’t need an MBA to become a successful business owner. What you do need is curiosity and courage – and a lot of the skills you have developed during your PhD. Find business owners as role models and interview them. Or take part in one of the workshops organised by the Falling Walls Foundation, aimed at PhD candidates who are curious about entrepreneurship. (For your motivation: I know someone with a PhD in German Literature (and no scientific or engineering degree whatsoever), who co-founded a company that develops and sells radar modules for the mining industry worldwide.) 

Q4: What?! My CV needs a photo?

Yes. In Germany, employers expect to see a photo included with the CV. In fact, your application might be ignored without one. Although companies are not legally allowed to request a photo in the vacancy announcement due to privacy laws, they want one nonetheless. Employers argue that a CV with photo provides a more complete representation of the applicant and lets them make a connection with the person in a way that’s easier than just scanning words on paper.

Q5: What else can I do apart from answering job ads?

Great question! Germany might have a reputation for being highly regulated and fond of complex administrative systems, so you might be tempted to think that applying to job ads is the only way to get a job. But like everywhere in the world, in Germany too, there is so much that you can and should do apart from answering job ads. In my view the three most essential things are:

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