A Ph.D. is worthwhile

National Report on Junior Scholars A Ph.D. is worthwhile

Ph.D. holders are practically never unemployed – even if most young academics receive only limited-term employment contracts. And more cash is being channelled into research. These are some of the findings of the National Report on Junior Scholars 2021.

A young woman scientist in a laboratory

A young woman scientist in a laboratory – a Ph.D. gives young people good prospects on the labour market.

Photo: imago images/Westend61

Young academics are important for the entire country. They conduct research, generate innovations and broaden our knowledge base. A Ph.D. is primarily intended to prepare young people for work in an academic setting, but in most cases it is the starting point for subsequent positions in the private sector or the public service. That is reported in the National Report on Junior Scholars, which was discussed at today’s Cabinet meeting.

The National Report on Junior Scholars (known by its German acronym BuWiN) is drawn up by an independent academic consortium and is the definitive publication on the situation of young academics in Germany. Once in every legislative period it provides data and the latest research findings regarding qualifications and career paths, employment conditions and prospects for young academics. The 2021 report is the fourth of its kind, following the reports published in 2008, 2013 and 2017.

Focus – career paths of Ph.D. holders

Each report has a special focus. This year’s report spotlights the career paths of Ph.D. holders. It analyses the professional situation of Ph.D. holders in the years following their doctorate. The findings are encouraging. Unemployment among holders of Ph.Ds. are constant at between one and two per cent over the first ten years. So, holders of doctoral degrees have excellent opportunities on the labour market, whether in an academic position or elsewhere. Holders of doctoral degrees also tend to have a higher income than other graduates and are more likely to take up managerial posts.

COVID-19 pandemic puts strain on academic training

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting adversely on young academics in a particular way, because training phases are time-limited. The German government is aware of this and has, for instance, amended the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (Limited-Term Contracts in the Academic Field Act) and modified the terms and conditions of the government’s project support framework.

To ensure the liquidity of supported projects and prevent delays, terms and deadlines were extended. It was made possible to request funds in advance, and settle costs at shorter intervals. The terms of some scholarships and grants were also extended.

More funding for research and development

Spending on research and development has risen in Germany. In 2018, the state and the private sector together spent 104.7 billion euros in the R&D sector. Between 2005 and 2018 spending rose as a percentage of GDP, as is the case in other OECD states too. In 2018 R & D spending was equivalent to 3.1 per cent of GDP, putting Germany above the OECD average.

Still too many limited-term contracts

Things do not look quite so rosy in terms of the conditions of employment of young academics. In 2018, 92 per cent of young (up to the age of 45) Ph.D. holders employed by universities had only a limited-term contract. Across all age groups, 76 per cent had a limited-term contract. Compared to 2015 the figure is slightly lower, but this rate is still far too high. A limited-term employment contract means that the primarily young academics have no secure prospects. This makes it difficult for them to decide to have a family, for instance.

The German government is investing significant sums in programmes jointly funded by federal and state governments that are also linked to the expectation that academic bodies create significantly more unlimited-term contracts. The main programmes are the Future Contract for Strengthening Studying and Teaching, the Excellence Strategy and the fourth pact for Research and Innovation. The Tenure Track Programme also makes it easier to plan academic careers. The report indicates that his attractive career path is slowly becoming established.

Other findings of the report

  • Since 2005, the number of young academics has risen significantly. The numbers of under-35-year-olds has risen by 78 per cent and in the 35-45 age group numbers are up by 43 per cent (not including professors).
  • Across all subjects the percentage of women is smaller, the higher the academic position. This marks a continued failure to harness the potential offered by women as of the Ph.D. phase. While women account for 47 per cent of all Ph.D. students, they account for only 34 per cent of appointments as professors at W2 level and only 27 per cent of professors at W3 level.
  • Reconciling family commitments with an academic career: Young academics comparatively frequently have no children in spite of the fact that they would like to have children. This is partly because their low level of financial security and a certain base for planning lead them to delay founding a family. Men were slightly more likely to have children than women.
  • Most Ph.D. students (57 per cent) earn their living through employment at a university or research institute. The German government finances some or all of one third of Ph.D. students. 
  • A Ph.D. takes an average of 4.7 years and is obtained on average at the age of 31.
  • Where do Ph.D. holders work ten years later? 22 per cent work in academic settings, 45 per cent in the private sector, 30 per cent in hospitals and doctors’ practices and 4 per cent elsewhere in the public service.

The comments of the German government on the fourth National Report on Junior Scholars will now be communicated to the German Bundestag and debated there.