In deserted fields, danger

September 26, 2013

A career in research is not attractive to Germans, suggests a study conducted by the country’s Federal Statistical Office. A large proportion of graduates do not continue with research once they get the coveted “Promotion” (this “false friend” to anglophones is the German word for a doctoral degree).

Out of some half million people who held doctorates in 2011, the study revealed that just under 100,000 were still working in research at universities, scientific organisations or in industry, while more than 400,000 are employed outside research (although about half these are medical doctors, who constitute a somewhat different category).

The implication is disconcerting. Those with doctorates in the natural sciences and mathematics, in particular, find greener pastures beyond the world of research. The same is true of many of those in engineering and in the social sciences.

What puts many people off are the generally unattractive working conditions associated with research. According to the study, almost 20 per cent of those pursuing a research career indicate that they have only short-term contracts and live precariously from one month to the next.

Of those who have left research, a third say that they enjoyed the work and would have stayed on had the conditions been more favourable. The low pay and the unsatisfactory career path are just not acceptable to a large number of would-be researchers.

Nevertheless, for those who do remain in research, a striking 93 per cent say they are happy with their situation. It seems that if people are keen enough on the work itself, the intrinsic motivation outweighs the conditions. For the dedicated minority, the intellectual challenge, inherent satisfaction, creativity and independence make it all worthwhile. Furthermore, there is evidently a good deal of idealism: those in this group genuinely wish to make a contribution to society and believe that this can best be achieved through research.

An article in Der Spiegel on the issue yielded a remarkable number of comments, some of them very compelling.

One draws attention to the widespread “keeping of slaves” in Germany, which “prevails throughout society and extends to those with doctorates”. The writer comments sarcastically that “research is pointless anyway, given how many other resources Germany has”.

More alarmingly, one commentator questions the study’s results, specifically the finding that “only” one-third of researchers under 45 have short-term contracts. She laments that at her laboratory, all scientists under 45 get just such a raw deal. This could still be acceptable if one could carry on like this indefinitely, she continues, but the law specifies that after 12 years of short-term contracts, that is it. And then one is “on the street, either overqualified or inappropriately qualified for other jobs”. Even though she really enjoys research, the commentator concludes, she plans “to leave this constantly uncertain treadmill soon”.

Clearly, Germany needs to make research careers more appealing so as to avoid jeopardising the creation of knowledge, which is critical to a nation that lives off its education and skills. There is a good case for some legislation that protects and fosters these human resources. The precarious labour market that has become so dominant in Germany could damage an important foundation of the country’s economy.

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