Mit Bhavsar shares his thoughts on working in the German scientific environment
I’ve always been fascinated with medical research, which brought me from Ahmedabad, India, to Frankfurt (via Aachen, Düsseldorf and Göttingen) to pursue a Masters and a PhD in neuroscience. Germany boasts an excellent research ecosystem across the private and public sectors, with strong collaboration between each. Consequently, there are attractive career opportunities for local and international researchers, especially in a world where two of the west’s other major research hubs – the UK and the US – appear to be trending against science, evidence, and intellectualism. Having spent seven years here, this is what you need to know about research in Germany.
Say ‘auf wiedersehen’ to academic hierarchy
For me, the most attractive part of working in a German research environment is the lack of hierarchy in my research groups. Isn’t it cool to use your boss’ nickname and go over your data with him at a bar, away from the office? At first I was intimidated with this new way of doing business, but I got used to it. Direct engagement with experts was a luxury for me, and helped a lot to boost my career and confidence. I’ve also found that, unlike in India, professors are not too important to take time out for their students, and tend to make themselves available.
Say ‘guten tag’ to freedom in research
In all the German labs I’ve worked in, I’ve always been encouraged to test new ideas and not just stick with conventional research methodologies. This means I’m invested: I think and read more and focus on inventing something new.
Along with that, I’m working in an environment that prominently features big, important scientific enterprises — the Max-Plank Society (MPI), the Fraunhofer Society, the German Climate Computing Centre (DKRZ), and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers. Large-scale research infrastructures are a must for an efficient scientific system. They’re needed to study complex scientific subjects and to engage in top-level research with high international standards.
They’re located all over the country, and access to them is fundamentally open – you don’t need special permission to visit other than an invitation. Through them, Germany conducts research across a wide range of basic and applied sciences, and scientists across Germany reap the benefits.
The life of a researcher in Germany
Germany’s generous 3% contribution of GDP to science and technology has meant 24/7 access to state-of-the-art technology for me, and collaboration between industries and research groups makes research attractive for individuals who want to more clearly see the impact of their work, as well. I’ve never faced or heard of any kind of discrimination based on race, ability, deficit or gender at the work place.
Even if you only conduct purely academic work, researchers in Germany face a healthy remuneration package, and solid protection of welfare and employee rights. Also, most research groups in my experience enjoy regular social activities (sponsored by the lab), which prevents labaholicism. And there’s enough money in the system that funding agencies are on hand to help junior researchers start their own research group.
What I found more difficult
As with anything, there’s some room for improvement in the German system. Some labs focus on publications, rather than discovery, which hinders the development of new ideas. Also, English is still not as widely-accepted in some German research groups as it is elsewhere. This made me — and others I’ve spoken to — uncomfortable and slightly isolated, until I picked up enough German to get by.
Don’t let this put you off, though. In my experience, science is part of the air here – people take science seriously as an important piece of society. If you’re looking for somewhere to move to work in research, consider Germany.
Mit Bhavsar is a researcher living and working at the Frankfurt Initiative for Regenerative Medicine (FIRM), Frankfurt, Germany. You can contact him on: firstname.lastname@example.org