It's a Jungle Out There, Part 1: Assessing Yourself and the Academic Job Market

The early stages of an academic career are fraught with uncertainty. Having successfully cut his own path through the undergrowth, in this three-part series, Andreas Wendemuth (see box) offers some advice to young scientists on how to optimise their chances of fighting their way through the academic job jungle.

Are you single? Do you have no social life? Are you content to sleep wherever you lay your head? Are money, social security, health, and your future unimportant to you? Are you totally devoted to science, and are you positive that your attitude will stay that way, now and forever? And sure that you will always have the health, strength, and freedom to pursue it? Are you confident that some paid position in your preferred area of research will always be available somewhere on the planet?

Happy you! There is no need for you to read one line further. Your career choice is clear, even though it may not be an easy one to follow.

But for most people, the decision to embark on a research career requires rather more thought--and rightly so.

At the risk of giving a personally biased account, in this series of articles my intention is to explain the how's and why's of my present occupation and how I successfully got there. I want to share with you some of the strategies that I've learned along the way--some through applying them myself, and others with the benefit of hindsight! My aim is to help you move towards your career goal while still staying flexible and keeping your experience broad. It's my contention that if you can do that, you will not only make yourself more attractive to current and future employers, but you will also be able to work in a variety of different environments--whether they be in academia, in industry, or something else altogether.

In 2001, at the age of 37, I was appointed to a permanent professorship in cognitive systems at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. It is the sort of position that I had been aiming for since I was a student, but I knew that attaining it was far from certain.

About the Author

Andreas Wendemuth studied physics at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, and, simultaneously, electrical engineering at the Open University in Hagen, Germany, and completed both subjects with a German Diplom (master's degree). He received a Fulbright grant to study at University of Miami in the US, where he received an MSc in physics after just 1 year of study because he convinced the department to give him credit for courses taken in Giessen and Hagen. Following his doctorate in physics at the University of Oxford in the UK, he held a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship in Oxford and Copenhagen. For 5 years, he conducted fundamental and applied research as well as application development in automatic speech recognition at Philips Research Labs in Aachen, Germany. This area was new to him, but the work was methodologically related to his earlier studies. He also co-ordinated Philips' contribution to the EU programme ARISE, involving 10 participants from five countries. Since 2001, he has held a permanent professorship in cognitive systems at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany.

Throughout the industrialised world, the scientific job scene is undergoing profound changes. Whereas even in the '90s, there was an established labour market for highly qualified personnel (PhDs and beyond) in industry labs, independent organisations, or even in a series of postdoc positions in various places, this situation is changing. Several countries have implemented laws that limit the number of successive temporary positions one person can have (see, for example, Next Wave's articles on Hochschulreform in Germany and the introduction of the EC's fixed-term work directive in the UK). Meanwhile, industry labs recruit fewer and fewer permanent personnel, having decided that only a few in-house experts are needed to direct and monitor publicly funded research and transfer the results into their companies. Independent organisations permanently employ only a few research managers, while their main workforce comprises third-party-financed, temporarily employed scientists.

Even the market for full-time academics is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Your scientific field may suddenly no longer be in vogue, or an increase in the number of students in one particular area may lead to redeployment of existing positions within a very short time period. Indeed, political reasons prevail when deciding what positions should be opened, and when.

Imagine that you have specialised in a particular field of nuclear physics for the last 10 years, and the chairholder for this field in your favourite university town is retiring soon. You fit this position like a key fits a lock. But instead of calling for applications for a direct replacement, it has become much more attractive for the university to change this position into a chair in environmental physics.

What happened? Well, environmental physics attracts many more students, much more funding, is politically correct, is regarded as a less "hard" topic than nuclear physics, and is interdisciplinary in nature--in short, has all the positive attributes that for political reasons such a position should have. By the way, this is nothing new: The same applied 30 years ago when the position in nuclear physics first opened up.

To make things worse, not only is the number and availability of permanent scientific positions becoming increasingly unpredictable, but the attractiveness of these positions has also changed drastically over the last decade. Just like the industry positions already mentioned, public positions are drifting further and further away from basic research. Politicians demand that university funding be coupled to applied research programmes, mostly with mandatory industry participation. Teaching is given a higher priority than research, and in times of decreasing student numbers, as is the case in the engineering sciences at the moment, public relations activities for the faculty can dominate at times. Of course, publicly administered research organisations (such as the Max Planck Institutes, Institutes Nationales, and CERN) do still exist, and fundamental research is, more and more, migrating to them.

Don't get me wrong: A high percentage of the research topics pursued in universities can still be chosen freely by the researcher. In most countries this is guaranteed by law: In Germany, having learned a historical lesson from gross misuse and manipulation of the freedom of science under the Nazis, this freedom is even laid down in the constitution, changeable only by a two-thirds majority in federal parliament. Nonetheless, political manipulation exists, through allocating dedicated funds, setting standards for the average teaching load, and making renewal of researchers' contracts dependent on granted funds, for example. So reliable and continuing academic and administrative freedom of universities and researchers must be balanced against the likelihood of being able to work in your favourite area in a given political climate.

Provided you are aware of these constraints when choosing an academic post, appropriate self-management, along with a certain willingness to compromise your research topics to fit within politically defined priorities, can still make university positions very attractive. The fully funded ivory tower position has, however, become extinct.

Uncertainty in academic positions affects not only the would-be researcher's career, but his or her personal life as well. Long-term insecurity is incompatible with supporting a family, and for scientists this may easily apply until the age of 40. Meanwhile, transferability of pension funds, health insurance, and so forth is very limited over national frontiers, so for the time being provisions must be taken by the individual--which is particularly difficult, given the poor salaries of many early-career scientists.

The inevitable consequence of such a situation is that you are most ideally suited to academic life if you have no dependents whatsoever. In fact, until the middle of the 19th century, Oxford dons had to be single and live on the college premises. But no man or woman is an island, and no matter what our personal circumstances, we all need support at some point. It is essential to have a personal and fiscal safety net should you become ill or need to care for your children. It is also necessary to have a legal entity to turn to in cases of conflict between you and your supervisor. But in reality, the more junior your research post, the less likely these sorts of support are to exist. (See the Web sites of Euroscience and the Marie Curie Fellowship Association to read recent discussions of these problems in the case of doctoral students. )

So you must include your personal plans, and especially your family should you have or hope to have one, at a very early stage in your career plans because the particular situation of a scientist demands it. For a lively insider report on integrating career and family by a researcher in high-energy particle physics, one of the most multinational and demanding fields of science, see Pedro Waloschek's book Der Multimensch--Forscherteams auf den Spuren der Quarks und Leptonen. *

Thus, the decision to pursue a scientific career must be a very well considered one. It is not advisable to "just go into it" and then see what lies along the wayside. After all, your value on the non-academic job market shrinks the longer you spend in academia after your PhD. In other words, the longer you postpone a decision about your final career goals, the wider the gap that opens between the two main career paths. A remedy is, and must be, a flexible approach to scientific careers: Ensure that, while pursuing your preferred Plan A, you collect scientific and personal assets that you can apply toward your second most favoured Plan B. What you're trying to do is avoid relying on only one leg to support you by ensuring that you also grow and strengthen a second leg that can take the place of the first one should it collapse.

In Parts 2 and 3, I'll offer some strategies for doing just that, and improving your chances in today's research job market based on my own experiences, through "edutrainment" and international mobility.

* ECON publishers, 1986 (hardback) or Ullstein publishers, 1989 (paperback). Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the book is available only in German.

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