Space for professional experiences
Chemists who have just received their PhD are only trained to do research. This is not enough to quickly gain a foothold in the job market outside of the university. A proposal for making doctoral studies more flexible.
When Patricia finishes her doctorate, she knows that her knowledge of chemistry is good enough to call herself a “PhD chemist.” She can understand and sometimes solve complex problems. She has shown that she is a go-getter and can finish a long project. But after ten years at university, is she ready for the entire job market or just a university career?
She has no idea what she’s good at or where her potential lies other than in the synthesis and characterisation of molecules. In the worst case, she has never seen the inside of a company. She has rarely communicated professionally with people who do not have a background in chemistry. She does not know what role she could play within a government agency or non-governmental organization (NGO). All she knows is that she’s almost 30 and that pretty much any options outside of academia will be different than her PhD.
If she believes her supervisor, she will do well in the job market with her analytical skills, resilience, and solid technical background in chemistry. He’s probably right, she thinks. In the end, everything will work out.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. For many graduates, starting their careers is unexpectedly tough. A smooth transition between the university and the outside world could save everyone a lot of uncertainty, frustration, and missteps.
Hardly any unemployment
How are supply and demand matched in the chemical job market today? It seems to be working fine in the long run. Across all age groups, there are hardly any unemployed chemists. But in the first year after graduation, the transition to non-academic positions is difficult. Many doctoral students are temporarily unemployed or are forced to do a postdoc because they couldn’t find anything else. The GDCh statistics, therefore, call domestic postdocs “parking positions.” The career start is a time of frustration and uncertainty. There is a feeling that the doctorate does not bring any benefits. We often hear comments like: “Years of hard work for little money and then a one-way ticket to unemployment.”
Many graduates in this situation think they were given the wrong advice before studying. You hear the same thing over and over again in student counseling: “Nothing can go wrong with a doctorate in a demanding subject with an established industry such as chemistry.” That’s true if we look at the entire professional life. But that’s not true when we look at career entry.
The Federal Employment Agency then takes on the task of preparing the unemployed for the labour market. There are courses to prepare scientists for the job market. This raises the question of whether this responsibility lies more with the university. Shouldn’t they be training for the job market? Or is the primary task of a university to turn doctoral students into good scientists, and everything beyond that only distracts from the research? Is it even the case that we miss out on teaching doctoral students to think and act independently due to too much schooling, even within the highest level of education?
Education and training
According to Humboldt’s educational ideal, studies and doctorates are education, not training. This sentence rejects changes that are intended to extend studies and doctorates to aspects beyond technical education. There is something to be said for leaving room to explore a specialist area in full breadth and depth before a person plunges into professional life. This sets the university apart from practice-oriented universities of applied sciences (HAW). However, it does not exclude the integration of elements beyond research.
The ideas for making doctoral programs more flexible are not about undermining the research core of the doctorate. It’s about diverting a few percent of the postgraduate students’ time and energy and thereby gaining a broader range of skills. More importantly, it gives doctoral students a more comprehensive view of themselves – their desires and strengths – as well as the job market and the niches that best suit them.
For Patricia, no more days fit into a week than seven. An additional internship, therefore automatically means less time for something else. But this does not have to be negative. Perhaps this distraction clears your head and opens up the possibility of looking at your own research from a distance or from a different angle. It can also be the time to recharge your inner batteries, continue your research with new energy, and be inspired. Because as we all know, most doctoral projects go through low phases, require perseverance and put our frustration tolerance to the test every day. A restructured doctoral program could be worthwhile for Patricia, her doctoral supervisor, the employment agency, and her future employer.
If you´re interested to learn more about skills development during your PhD and postdoc phases? Then you might like our talk Years not lost: How to stay attractive for industry while working in academia?