Dear Ms Ivanova,
While I could be writing this back to you in German, I am doing so in English, so that others will be able to comprehend.
As a US-American, after completing my BSc, I wanted to make an exceptional impression by simultaneously mastering a European language and undertaking doctoral studies in Germany. But first, I needed to obtain an MSc degree, and explained this in application letters to US universities. In that context, prestigious universities even called to dissuade me. They even offered the advice a German graduate student, which I ignored. Instead, I obtained an MSc degree from a university in the US, followed by a doctorate in Germany in Organic Chemistry. The German research director -as it turned out- was exceptionally well connected within German chemistry and academia.
For entry into the professional world -in Germany or any place else- you need someone to go to bat for you after completing the doctorate. In German, the saying is "die Hand ins Feuer für jemanden legen". For more than 10 years, I believed that this would also be the case, and so I struggled on temporary faculty positions in Switzerland and the UK. After all, one does not move abroad for a doctorate in the expectation of being treated like an "economic refugee". Eventually, however I was forced to return to the US, where the lack of a professional network has proven very, very challenging. My attempts to return to Germany have been -without introductions from well-known German chemistry professors- in vain.
Hence, I think that it is only ethical and fair for the organizations which you represent, Ms Ivanova, to first clear up the backlog of those who enthusiastically undertook doctoral studies in Germany, but yet were not allowed entry into the German chemistry community. Only then should you be advertising for more people to start on the same path.
I would welcome some dialogue on this matter with you, Ms. Ivanova, either through this forum or elsewhere. The next step is yours.
Hi Dr. Heirtzler,
Thanks for contributing this viewpoint. It sounds like the experience of getting a German doctorate in chemistry did not serve you well, and I'm sorry to hear about your difficulty in obtaining faculty positions.
I don't represent any German organizations; I just heard about this funding opportunity for Ph.D. students and wanted to share it in case it helped students on their path to green or sustainable chemistry research. Have you heard of universities where professors are more likely to be helpful in obtaining post-doctoral positions, or do you think this is a problem any US student studying in Germany will have? Do you have any advice to help students identify an advisor who would be beneficial to their later career paths?
Hello Ms. Ivanova,
Thanks for responding and my apologies for believing that you were associated with any German organizations. I will try to answer your questions as best I can (my experiences were not necessarily typical).
1. Most importantly, any student from North America who would consider undertaking doctoral studies in Germany should recognize that there are major differences between the system in Germany and over here: In North America, you are admitted to a program, and within a year you chose a specific research director. In theory, therefore a prospective graduate student should chose a university where there are at least two potential research directors of interest. That way, if things don't work out with one, then there is a back-up. In Germany, you must make that decision before being matriculated with the university. That means if there are any issues with the research director, you will likely have a big problem. I was too naive and too gung-ho to take on board the warnings which I heard from the German graduate students after I had arrived in Germany.
2. Don't even consider going to Germany, unless you have the support of a prominent chemist or faculty member in North America who will back you up afterwards, and with whom you can stay in contact during your time in Germany. This will become the person who will go to bat for you back in North America. Simply having someone write you a reference letter is no longer enough to move beyond the post-doc stage. Of course, it will be difficult to find such a person, most likely because they, themselves will want you to undertake doctoral studies in their own research group, but it is nevertheless necessary. This was clearly an issue in my own case.
3. Find out as much first-hand information about what happens to the graduates of the potential German research director after they are beyond the "post-doc stage" in their careers. Do this before moving to Germany. It will be ....challenging... to obtain such information, because: (a) one or two success stories are statistically irrelevant, (b) people who make recommendations from North America may not be qualified to provide accurate information in the first place (this was the case for me) and (c) people who do not closely know you may either be hesitant to provide detailed information or may have a chip on their shoulders.
If it is any help, then here is a summary of my attempts to discuss this situation with representatives of the GdCh (the German equivalent of the ACS), and the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service, two official organizations which are very active in North America in their attempts to recruit graduate students -also in chemistry:
4. Representatives from the GdCh were present at the most recent ACS convention in Boston. I contacted those specific individuals per e-mail, explained my situation and inquired about opportunities for people in situations like myself. They read my e-mail, but chose not to respond.
5. I contacted the DAAD at their offices in New York City about my situation. They also did not respond, although I am quite certain that they read my e-mails.
6. The DAAD holds regular conferences, sponsored by the German government at various locations in the US. The purpose of those conferences is to convince Germans in the US to become post-docs or limited-term junior professors in Germany. In 2014, I attended such a conference in Boston. It was was possible to be indirectly introduced to important university faculty through that conference, and in that context, I even offered to write my own research proposals through specific programs in the DFG (the German equivalent of the National Science Foundation). However, lack of networking in Germany prevented this from happening (even today, I received more bad news on additional attempts towards this goal).
7. I have contacted DAAD representatives in Bonn about those experiences. They referred me to DAAD in the US.
Summarizing, whereas on a private level, Germans are friendly people and I still maintain friendships with people from my time over there, the German academic system is a different situation. In retrospect, my experiences tempt me to say that it is characterized by 19th century insiderism, nepotism and Prussian-style bureaucracy, but of course I can't make judgement on all universities and faculty members.
I hope that others can benefit from my experience.
This is really interesting; thanks! Potentially some very helpful advice here for U.S. students considering international Ph.D programs of any sort. It's certainly a good idea to keep in touch with a U.S. advisor throughout, though you're right that this may be difficult to accomplish. I wouldn't write off a German Ph.D. as a potentially useful and enriching experience, but it's important to consider the differences between the academic systems and keep an eye on future career paths--especially as chemistry professorships become more competitive and difficult to obtain.
While Dr. Heirtzler's issues may have been accurate and reasonable when he was a grad/post-grad, I don't think the issues mentioned earlier are necessarily current problems.
Background: I am an American, I did my bachelor's and master's at a US university, I spent a year studying in Switzerland before moving with my advisor to Austria to complete my PhD. I am very familiar with the German system and have German PhD student/Post-doc friends that would tell you the same thing:
As Dr. Heirtzler said, the biggest difference is that a PhD is completely separate from the masters degree; you don't apply to a university or a program, but more specifically to an advisor. So of course any student applying for a PhD should chose a university or advisor carefully.
I think there are many benefits to the European system, because you are treated more as an employee rather than a student, (depending of course on the university/lab) you probably have lots more travel money, funds, and opportunities than students in the US. I know here in Austria, my PhD colleagues and I have more travel funds than most US professors. This is amazing for networking, and we are able to travel to all continents for conferences and do extended research stays abroad. And because traveling within Europe is so easy, there is so much interaction between universities, and students are always invited to give talks at seminars and conferences at other universities. One thing I should mention is that because we are employees, we do work year-round (we’re not on the school schedule, though PhD students anywhere usually work year-round anyways). However, we get 5+ weeks of paid vacation a year, and (depending on the country’s labor laws) we get paid 14 months salary each year.
The Max Planck institute, along with most doctoral programs at well-known universities, is a completely international community, with visiting researchers from all over the world. Germany has produced amazing chemists, and the Max Plank institutes, for example, are world-class. And one just has to look at the number of international professors at any given university in the US to see that the location of your studies doesn't determine your hireability. The truth is that finding a permanent position in academia these days is a general problem for all PhDs/Post-docs, and is not at all specific to a field/location. It is up to the student to be opportunistic and network properly.
I think as long as the US chemist already has a masters degree, then other than the hassle with visas and moving etc, there should be no big reason not to apply to a foreign university.
As already mentioned, my experiences were not typical. But on the other hand, I left out a lot of the evidence which lead me to write what I did.
For example, I wrote "The German research director -as it turned out- was exceptionally well connected within German chemistry and academia". That meant, he became president of the GdCh.
For example, I then wrote a paragraph starting with "For entry into the professional world -in Germany or any place else- you need someone to go to bat for you after completing the doctorate." That meant the same person refused to do anything for his former students (Germans or non-Germans), except for writing a standard reference letter. I was even the correspondence author on some of the publications which I wrote from my doctoral thesis because he had so little interest. That means others (from Germany, France and the UK) have only said negative things about that research director. For example (partially translated): (a) "I don't understand why Herr *** is so unhelpful"; (b) "he has a very bad reputation" or (c) "he is trying to tell you that he isn't interested in you". I could go on with many specific examples of downright corruption or callousness, but I trust that you get the point. If you are German, _hannahj_, then you can probably figure out his name by now.
In spite of this, I defended the "Doktorvater" for perhaps 15 years. I repeatedly asked him for introductions to e.g. very well known chemists with specific Max Planck Institutes. I reminded him that I was giving talks at national GdCh meetings. Each time, he found an excuse to not cooperate. Only last year, I had had enough, and expressed to him my disappointment that he was not willing to go to bat for me. His response (in an e-mail) was along the lines of it not being his responsibility to find jobs for his former students.
Finally, _hannahj_ you wrote "one just has to look at the number of international professors at any given university in the US to see that the location of your studies doesn't determine your hireability". Everywhere, you need to network, or "have connections". That doesn't reflect on where you come from, especially in the US. What does matter is the mechanisms which are open to you to network, etc. For example, when I returned to the US after being faculty in the UK, my doctorate was too far back to apply for prestigious fellowships. Hence, I ended up going "backwards" in my career, having to post-doc at less prestigious places. So of course, someone who had done his/her doctorate at a well-known address in the US, and had a supportive supervisor regardless of their country of origin, is preferred for a faculty position.
Yes, it is true that finding any long-term position as a chemist nowadays is much more difficult than back in the good-old-days. And so I am glad that you have chosen a good supervisor who is pro-actively concerned with what happens to his/her former co-workers. Good luck after you finish your thesis.
Funding is available for students looking to pursue a chemistry Ph.D. in Germany at the Max Planck Institutes. While not specifically about sustainable chemistry, some of the projects are centered around energy conversion, catalysis, water-splitting, etc.
IMPRS-RECHARGE broadly covers research from the following research areas:
- Heterogeneous catalysis
- Homogeneous catalysis
- Biological catalysis
- Magnetic and optical spectroscopy
- Physical Organic Chemistry
- Laser spectroscopy and Biophotonics
- Inorganic Chemistry
- Theoretical Chemistry
- Computational Chemistry