Career opportunities for international PhDs and postdocs in Germany

Career-opportunities-PhDs-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:

Academia is just one of many job opportunities for PhDs

Featured image for article: 'Academia is just one of many job opportunities for PhDs'

There’s an old saying – ‘when one door closes, another one opens’. I always saw academia as first and foremost a big opportunity – particularly for someone like me, being the first person in my family to go to university. Higher study offered me the chance to learn more, to develop my knowledge and skills, while at the same time doing good work (teaching and research). After my Master’s degree, I took the opportunity to do a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship, both funded by British Academy grants.

From the perspective of a post-doc researcher, a permanent academic job obviously looks like a good opportunity to take. In my own case, I was well-qualified and I had a strong track record in the profession already. So over the course of my post-doc I applied for many lecturing posts, and was interviewed five times at UK universities. Each time I was unfortunately unsuccessful and the post went to another candidate. As I neared the end of my post-doc, academic employment began to look less and less like a good opportunity for me, and more and more like a dead end.

In response, I began to look elsewhere for options, and private companies in the newly-emerging field of e-learning caught my eye. Here was another whole field of opportunity – offering not just job security, but also a much higher salary and the chance to join an innovative industry. After my fifth academic interview rejection, I embraced my newly-found opportunity, and I left academia to work for an e-learning company, building web-based training courses. This initial switch led on to my subsequent career as a people manager, project manager and consultant.

Reflecting on all this, I feel that it’s healthier to approach your career planning in terms of relative opportunities, rather than as your single-minded passion or vocation (as we’re often encouraged to do). I appreciate that employers want you to display your passion for, and commitment to, their line of work. That said, it’s important that your commitment doesn’t slide over into self-sacrifice and exploitation, causing you to end up working for less than you’re really worth.

That’s to my mind where I personally drew the line – I refused to take up part-time teaching in order to stay in the academic game. I recognised that what we might call the ‘centre of gravity’ of opportunity had shifted in my life, following those five unsuccessful interviews. Realistically, with some previously open doors now closed shut, academia no longer held the same level of opportunity as it once did for me.

So I encourage you to reflect on where your present career opportunities lie – has the boat sailed on academia for you too? That can be hard to acknowledge at first, I know. But it’s in your best interests to take a step back and review the balance of opportunities as they’re panning out.

And maybe you’ll conclude that you need to switch your job search to look at roles outside of academia too. If you do, we’re here for you – a whole community of doctoral graduates working in fulfilling careers, and who are sharing their guidance and experience with you. Do check out my resources page for more details of all the books, websites and podcasts that are available to support your transition into a new career.

Interview with Lisa Qian, Data Scientist at Airbnb

Interview with Lisa Qian, Data Scientist

In this month’s post we catch up with Lisa Qian, a Data Scientist at Airbnb, to find out what it’s like to work as a data scientist. Read on to learn about the impact data science has on Airbnb’s success, the programming languages they use on the job, and what researchers need to know in order to succeed in a corporate role.

Q: WHAT ARE THE TOP PROS & CONS OF YOUR JOB?

A: Things happen very quickly and data scientists have a big impact (see answer to next question). At Airbnb, there are so many interesting problems to work on and so much interesting data to play with. The culture of the company also encourages us to work on lots of different things. I have been at Airbnb for less than two years and I have already worked on three completely different product teams. There’s really never a dull moment. This can also be a “con” of the job. Because there are so many interesting things to work on, I often wish that I had more time to go more in depth on a project. I’m often juggling multiple projects at once, and when I’m 90% done with one of them, I’ll just move on to something else. Coming from academia where one spends years and years on one project without leaving a single rock unturned (I did a PhD in physics), this has been a delightful, but sometimes frustrating, cultural transition.

Q: HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT DO DATA SCIENTISTS HAVE ON AIRBNB’S OVERALL SUCCESS?

A: A ton! As a data scientist, I’m involved in every step of a product’s life cycle. For example, right now I am part of the Search team. I am heavily involved in research and strategizing where I use data to identify areas that we should invest in and come up with concrete product ideas to solve these problems. From there, if the solution is to come up with a data product, I might work with engineers to develop the product. I then design experiments to quantify the effect and impact of the product, and then run and analyze the experiment. Finally, I will take what I learned and provide insights and suggestions for the next product iteration. Every product team at Airbnb has engineers, designers, product managers, and one or more data scientists. You can imagine the impact data scientists have on the company!

Q: WHICH SKILLS OR PROGRAMMING LANGUAGES DO YOU MOST FREQUENTLY USE IN YOUR WORK, AND WHY?

A: At Airbnb, we all use Hive (which is similar to SQL) to query data and build derived tables. I use R to do analysis and build models. I use Hive and R every day of the job. A lot of data scientists use Python instead of R – it’s just a matter of what we were familiar with when we came in. There have also been recent efforts to use Spark to build large-scale machine learning models. I haven’t gotten a chance to try it out yet, but plan on doing so in the near future. It seems very powerful.

Q: WHAT KIND OF PERSON MAKES THE BEST DATA SCIENTIST?

A: Successful data scientists have a strong technical background, but the best data scientists also have great intuition about data. Rather than throwing every feature possible into a black box machine learning model and seeing what comes out, one should first think about if the data makes sense. Are the features meaningful, and do they reflect what you think they should mean? Given the way your data is distributed, which model should you be using? What does it mean if a value is missing, and what should you do with it? The answers to these questions differ depending on the problem you are solving, the way the data was logged, etc., and the best data scientists look for and adapt to these different scenarios.The best data scientists are also great at communicating, both to other data scientists and non-technical people. In order to be effective at Airbnb, our analyses have to be both technically rigorous and presented in a clear and actionable way to other members of the company.

Q: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER RESEARCHERS PREPARING FOR A POSITION AS A DATA SCIENTIST?

A: Beyond taking programming and statistics courses, I would recommend doing everything possible to get your hands dirty and work with real data. If you don’t have the time to do an internship, sign up to participate in hackathons or offer to help out a local startup by tackling a data problem they have. Courses and books are great for developing fundamental technical skills, but many data science skills can’t be properly developed in a classroom where data sets are well groomed.

This interview was first published on the website Master’s in Data Science; thanks to Josh Thompson for permission to reproduce it here.