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Career paths with a doctor’s degree

An academic career or private industry – what career paths are there with a doctor’s degree? An interview by Dana Sindermann with Judith Schwanke and Sabrina Helmer of the Young Investigator Programme (YIP).

26 November 2018. When you start to work in academia – usually in a job as a research assistant – you will soon come up against the question: How should my career continue – academia or non-academia? A way of thinking that discerns science as being on one side and practice on the other is widespread not only among doctoral students and post-docs. But how convincing is this way of thinking? What are the alternatives to this dualist perspective, particularly also when it comes to sounding out future professional paths? This is what Dana Sindermann talked about with Judith Schwanke and Sabrina Helmer of the Young Investigator Programme (YIP).

If you want a secure job, a career path at a university is enormously competitive. Many doctoral students see their future in academia. And the only way to reach this goal in the long term is a professorship. You have many contacts with students in connection with the courses you offer. What’s your impression here, why do so many doctoral students want to stay on at uni?

Schwanke: When I speak to the target group, many of them tell me that they want to work academically – with everything that goes with it. That is, working on issues that haven’t been predefined to any great extent, delving into a topic with personal responsibility, raising interesting questions, introducing new ideas of their own. Also, advancing the development of their subject matter and exchanging views and ideas with others – virtually all of them find this great fun. So many of them want to carry on that way.

And how realistic is it to get a job in academia? After all, it’s common knowledge that the competition for a tenured professorship is fierce.

Schwanke: Here we have figures from Germany which have been collected across all the subjects: according to them, from among all the students who start their doctoral studies, about six per cent get a professorship in the end. Among the post-docs, it’s about one in three. What we know about the HSG – here we have the career stations of alumni who obtained their Doctor’s degrees between 2005 and 2007: more than 70 per cent left the Uni for private industry or the public sector. And 29 per cent are employed at a university. In tertiary education, we have another three-way split: research, teaching and academic management. And against the background of these figures, I find it’s somewhat inappropriate if we’re only looking at one career path, namely that of the professorship.

Does that mean we should shift the focus right from the start?

Schwanke: I wouldn’t necessarily say that the focus should be shifted. Rather, it’s helpful to extend it and to ask: what options are there besides an academic career? Where would my work still keep me close to my academic subject? And this range of options is what we want to open up for our doctoral students.

What motivation is behind your commitment and your services? Actually, we could really say: the core function of a university at the doctoral level is the education of future academics. End of story.

Schwanke: This is where we get into the area of knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer is an important function of universities. That means to say that we don’t want to leave the knowledge that we acquire here in the ivory tower. Rather, it can and should be carried outside.

Universities are publicly financed to a large extent, they’re integrated in a societal context and, in this respect, also have obligations towards society. This is perhaps also connected with it, that you give something of what you were given back?

Helmer: We want to provide information and demonstrate what other options there are. You yourself have a great potential but don’t know how the jigsaw puzzle out there fits in with it. We may be able to supply you with some pieces. So we try to show possible matches outside a university career: is there a match for my potential, and what could it look like? Also according to our motto: Empower yourself!

Where can we find you? In what framework can doctoral students obtain information about these options?

Schwanke: We offer two different approaches to dealing with the topic of “Future me”. On the one hand, we run a regular workshop format in cooperation with our Student Career Services, entitled “What happens after the thesis?”. The idea of this workshop is: what does the labour market look like for graduates with an HSG Doctor’s degree? What will the labour market look like in the future, what are the trends in the labour market? And where could you, with your talents, rediscover yourself in this labour market? This means that this format is oriented towards doctors and post-docs from the side of the labour market. And we’ve got a further service, where we ask the question from the other perspective, the individual. This is the course on “Designing your life”, which we run in cooperation with Dr. Sebastian Kernbach from the MCM-HSG. Here we ask: how can you design your life in such a way that you’ll experience it as fulfilling and meaningful? What are your primary demands for such a life? What – possibly far-fetched – ideas of dream jobs do you have? And how can you, instead of dreaming, start right away to find your niche in the labour market, or to create it?

But all in all the idea is to show alternatives to an academic career and accompany doctoral students and post-docs on this possible new way?

Schwanke: It’s always about facing the fact that your own job will run out in one or two years. And therefore about laying one or several tracks for a future after you’ve got your Doctor’s degree. What we do here is process consultancy and supervision. Those who have the academic requirements and personal predilections for a professorship will be supported along this path. Those who don’t see their happiness in life in a professorship will be supported in the process of emancipating themselves from the university.

And what’s the best point in time to start looking for information about this?

Schwanke: It’s never too early. In my book the mañana principle is the worst you can follow: this is why you should think about this before you subject yourself to all this thesis stress. For doctoral students at a very early stage, we’ve also developed a workshop on “Dr. HSG  - how come, why, for what reason?”. Here we encourage students to deal with their own motivation, objectives and career intentions related to the doctorate at a very early stage.

At the beginning we stated – and this is also my personal experience as a doctoral student: on the one hand, the academic career path, on the other hand, practice, or again the again the question: do you want to stay on at uni or go into practical working life? How convincing do you rate this dualist perspective?

Schwanke: In my view, there isn’t any dichotomy in real terms if we start with the question as to what I specifically do during my working week and within what terms of reference I do my job. For instance, how complex are the problems I can work on, to what extent am I able to develop innovative concepts here, how much of my personal initiative am I allowed to inject and how autonomously am I able to organise my work? And not: do I stay on at uni or do I leave?

Then let’s have a specific look. Many doctoral students want to carry on doing academic work: to continue to think and write about an issue, to gain insights and to make those insights available to a scientific community. What possible alternatives to university are there to continue to work in this sort of way?

Schwanke: Here think tanks, foundations, NGOs or independent research institutes are interesting employers. If you work for Avenir Suisse, for example, the big Swiss think tank, I would suggest that working there is not very different from what you got used to at a research institute of the HSG. The research work might be different since you don’t do any research for a scientific community but directly for society, and you present your research in a different form. But the way in which you collect data and acquire views it really quite similar.

Helmer: Or a professorship at a Fachhochschule. Many doctoral students may well not have been provided with enough information about what a Fachhochschule can offer.


Now, you regularly advise doctoral students with regard to the question as to how their career should proceed. What options are there to do work that is still close to your academic subject outside uni? How great is people’s openness to this new range of options?

Schwanke: What I see when I advise doctoral students or post-docs: many of them find it difficult to step outside. This is often a lengthy decision, and they battle with it, too, since they have to say good-bye to one life model and first of all establish a new identity for an extramural life, and this can’t be done from one day to the next. This is a process, and therefore it’s also so important that you’re accompanied, wherever possible for one or two years.

What’s your experience, what makes it so difficult for people to leave uni?

Schwanke: I think it’s particularly because they don’t know the outside world and their own interdisciplinary competencies sufficiently well. Even though an academic career path poses high risks, they still feel within their own comfort zone here in the university environment. They’ve got acquainted with the working culture, the unwritten rules and have established a certain network. This still provides them with an intuitive sense of security, even though the carpet they’re walking on is dead uncertain.

You’re examining the career paths of HSG alumni with Doctor’s degrees at the moment and are in contact with one or the other of them. How are those faring who work outside university?

Schwanke: Those I’m still in contact with who now work outside academia are all quite happy and say, “Why on earth did I find it so difficult at the time? I’m doing very well with my new life model, thank you!! And I’ve got weekends! And I don’t have the feeling that I’ve got to do something all the time, and when I’m on holiday, I can read a novel rather than academic articles.”

Helmer: Usually it’s more secure. In comparison with the period required to establish a university career, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a secure contract. Five years after obtaining their Doctor’s degree, many are still at the post-doc stage. And at this stage, uncertainty doesn’t decrease either.

The Young Investigator Programme regularly runs workshops about the issue of career paths with a Doctor’s degree.

The author, Dana Sindermann, is a research assistant at the Institute for Business Ethics.

Photo: Photocase / zettberlin

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