No such thing as a jack of all trades

Five keys to creating a great career—even before you graduate.
Matthew Henry via Unsplash

1. A PhD can be an advantage in many areas—especially financially.

Every candidate knows their doctoral studies will eventually lead to a job, as shown by the latest figures. According to one recent study, around 90 percent of all PhD candidates have a job three years after receiving their PhD, in comparison to a roughly 79 percent employment rate in Germany as a whole. However, there are major differences between various sectors. While salary differences among engineers can be over 12,000 euros, comparing initial wages after the master’s and one year after the PhD, the salary increase in the humanities is only around 5,400 euros annually. It’s a good thing that the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies found, in its ongoing project on postdoc careers, that most doctoral candidates complete their research to satisfy an internal motivation, not to get a bigger check!

2. A doctorate can also be impractical for your career.

Many PhD candidates, especially in the humanities, are afraid they will end up being overqualified for a job in the private sector. Official figures don’t provide much information on this topic, but we do know that PhD candidates are 32 years old on average when they finish, meaning they get a later start on their careers and also need a couple more years than their colleagues without a PhD to replenish their bank accounts. Many of them have limited funds due to the often precarious working conditions in academia, having “mini jobs” that aren’t subject to social security contributions, or because they had fellowships that didn’t even cover their living expenses.

3. Less than a fifth of doctoral students will end up in an academic career.

Another danger is the hope that someday an academic career will ultimately pan out: Almost half of PhD students hope to have an academic career, but in the long-term, the Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs (Buwin—Federal Report on Junior Academics) shows that only around 17 percent of them end up in a profession primarily focused on science and research. The Buwin report also shows that most PhD students decide to enter a non-academic job shortly after leaving their programmes. Today, students are well aware of the danger of being left behind by the academic job market. However, PhD students seem to be experiencing an effect Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann describes in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”: Although people know all about the numbers, they tend to see their own situation too optimistically, and believe they are the exception to the rule. In addition to an academic career, all students should familiarise themselves with alternatives like jobs in private companies or entrepreneurship opportunities (see point 5).

4. There is no perfect first job after the PhD.

According to a survey by the Univativ Journal in 2017, 58 percent of all young professionals are satisfied with their jobs. In contrast, however, that means that almost half of them aren’t. In addition to low salaries, a lack of opportunity for advancement and low expectations are major reasons that two thirds of young professionals could see themselves changing jobs soon. There are no figures for PhDs specifically, but considering that the PhD only has a financial advantage in certain sectors (see point 1), we can assume that young professionals with a PhD have similar levels of dissatisfaction. It can be helpful to apply to higher-level positions at large companies right from the start—at least, that is the recommendation in a brochure from the Wissenschaftsladen Bonn, which publishes specialised job advertisements for different industries. Self-confidence can pay off, especially in escaping the danger of being overqualified for an entry-level position. At small or mid-sized companies, however, you should expect that you will have to go through the same entry-level steps at the company as someone with a master’s degree, such as a traineeship or an internship, and that this will result in lost wages or less responsibility at your first job.

5. Freelance work during the PhD is good preparation for starting your own business.

Besides applying for entry-level jobs at private companies or at academic institutions or universities, there is a third option far too many PhD students ignore: starting your own company. PhDs, in particular, are often uniquely qualified to go into business for themselves: They can approach complex matters in a structured manner, and have gained expertise in a specific area during their PhD. There are actually business incubators at most major German universities, but PhD students are only rarely seen as one of their target audiences. That is changing, however: The Young Entrepreneurs in Science was launched in late 2017 as a national initiative directed towards young researchers and offering them workshops on starting their own businesses.