Case Study: British Researcher Working in Industry in Germany

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Academic and Postdoctoral Careers in Germany - An image of female scientists carrying out research i
Academic and Postdoctoral Careers in Germany

Dr Chris Pynn is a British researcher who has lived in Germany for many years. He works as a product specialist for the American company ThermoFisher Scientific and is based in Germering, near Munich.

1. Dr Pynn – thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell us a little about your current role?

I have been living and working in Germany for nearly 10 years. I work for the American life sciences company ThermoFisher Scientific. I am a product specialist for a particular class of analytical systems which are predominantly used in the academic sector and am based at the company site in Germering near Munich. Prior to that, I had a postdoc position at the University of Sigmaringen in south-west Germany for 7 years where I specialised in Bioanalytics.

2. How did you come to be working and/or studying in Germany?

For the first 3 years of my time in Germany, I worked as a post-doc researcher in the Neonatology department at the University of Tuebingen. My specialist field was the study of certain fats in the body which are present in the membranes of cells and the lining of the lung. They are essential for enabling breathing as they prevent the air sacs in the lung from sticking together when we exhale. Their absence in underdeveloped lungs represents a major risk for premature babies, hence we the topic is of particular interest to Neonatologists.

There are not many people working in this field. I got to know about the open position because the group where I did my PhD in Southampton was collaborating with the group I went on to work with in Germany. In fact, part of my PhD work was done directly with my next employer.

3. How easy was it to find employment/a postdoctoral position in Germany?

If I am honest, I never actively intended to move to Germany. I was offered the position shortly before completing my PhD. I was offered the chance to visit the department before starting the job and really liked the location as well as the job offer.

4. What was the application process like (for the position you’re in now)?

I am no longer in academia. My current position was advertised on the company website. I applied with a covering letter, CV and references. I first had a phone interview before being invited to the company for a second interview. I had a third interview to finalise the details by phone where I was also formally offered the job.

5. How accessible is funding for postdoctoral studies/researchers or other academic positions in Germany?

It is hard for me to say. I was made aware of both academic positions through the collaborators that I worked with and so applied internally. In both cases there were no other applicants. Both positions were in specialised areas and as the positions needed to be filled quickly, they were not advertised for long.

6. What is the best thing about working and living in Germany as a postdoc?

Firstly, I would say that anyone who has the opportunity to live and work abroad should take it. In my case it gave me valuable life experience. Also, as an international, you are somehow also drawn together with other internationals. This means you get to meet not only lots of locals, but also lots of other people from other countries and cultures. I have learnt a lot more about the world, simply by moving to Germany! Germany is also a very social state. Taxes are high but then you get a lot of bang for your buck. This includes 60% salary for up to one year if you become unemployed (to be eligible for this you need to have been making social security payments for at least 2 years).

7. Did you find language a barrier to your activities in Germany?

To be honest this was the most crucial aspect for me. I would never have accepted the position if I had not been able to speak any German. Being able to speak German was not important for me being able to get the job. In the natural sciences it is definitely an advantage if you are a native English speaker. The English speaking ability of the average German is very high in my opinion. Conversing is never a problem. However, if you don’t speak German, you will have trouble fitting in and having an active social life outside of work.

8. What tips would you give potential junior researchers or postdocs who wish to continue their studies or work in Germany?

In my experience, having worked with someone in the UK who collaborates with a German research group is an advantage. A personal recommendation from a trusted source is always a major advantage. From my experience, being able to speak German is not a prerequisite for living and working in Germany. However, one should be prepared to make the effort to learn some German if coming here. It helps when trying to get on outside the work place, it also shows some interest in the country and culture which is a sign of respect. Having a publication to your name will always help and I would imagine that having a Masters is definitely a must for getting a PhD position.

9. Do you have any tips on getting into or applying to industry/private companies in Germany?

The answer to this question is rather universal (i.e. not Germany specific):

  • Have a clear idea of what it is you want to do and what your expectations are. – My move into industry was not my first job after my PhD. Therefore, I had a fairly clear picture of the job attributes that make me burn with enthusiasm. When I read the job description for my current position I immediately felt excited about the job. This made writing the application fun.
  • Make sure the application (in particular the cover letter) gives examples demonstrating the skills and experiences the potential employer is looking for in the job advert. Generic covering letters will get you nowhere. 

10. Is there any funding available in the German private sector?

Whilst my previous employer was a university, I actually (physically) worked at an applied research institute which we did collaborative projects with. This institute was positioned at the interface between academia and industry and geared at taking academically proven concepts and techniques and making them commercially viable. Some of the work we did was contract-based research for companies. Other things were collaborative projects involving academic and industrial partners for which Government sponsored grants are available. 

11. Does the interview process differ for research jobs in the private sector compared with jobs in universities or public research institutes?

My understanding is that a job interview for an academic institution will be very heavily focused on your publication record. Whereas in industry your skills and experiences (according to the job description) are what will be most highly valued.

When it comes to interviews I again believe it is the same everywhere (i.e. not just Germany). Be prepared – whilst the technical questions asked at interview will depend on the job in question, there are a number of almost ‘standard’ questions, (why did you leave your last job, where do you see yourself in 5 years, etc.) some of which require careful thought. Being able to give succinct, well thought out answers (it’s really important not to waffle) is key to making a good impression. I found it really helpful to have thought carefully and prepared what I wanted to say in advance very useful.

Make sure you have read up about your potential employer and have some relevant and meaningful questions ask them at the interview. You will also be evaluated on what you ask. 

12. What transferable skills are employers looking for from PhD/Postdocs in Germany?

Communication – having English as your mother tongue, whilst not being the most significant factor, will almost certainly be an advantage in a science and technology based industry. If you are working in a German company then expect to perform your day to day business in German. Whilst the Germans are generally very good at English, they will certainly be most comfortable in their native language. I would say, unless you have a specific skill set (or are applying for a purely academic position within a university) then reasonable German communication skills will be most likely expected. My German is far from perfect, but I can express myself adequately and my grammar is good enough for me to write emails. It is however not good enough for me to write reports for customers without requiring proof reading by a native German speaker.

Organising, planning and prioritising – I think this goes without saying in the modern work environment. You will be expected to juggle a number of balls simultaneously. I think that PhDs are good training grounds for this anyway, so if you’ve already done one, the chances are you can give relevant examples at interview.

Flexibility and team work – I am truly privileged to work in two excellent teams. My colleagues and I are all quite different to each other in character and working style. The great thing is we all complement each other, so the sum is definitely greater than the parts.

German people are by nature more direct than their British counterparts. Once you get past this cultural difference you start to realise it can be a huge advantage, especially in the work place. If there are work-related issues that need to be dealt with, these can normally be addressed head on, without worrying about someone getting offended.

Similarly, what you see is what you get. If someone has an issue or concern or spotted a problem with your work, they are likely to come and tell you to your face. The issue can then be discussed, and hopefully resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. It is then done and dusted.

One last piece of advice - Don’t suggest to meet colleagues for a ‘coffee or a beer’ sometime unless you are really genuinely interested in meeting up. In Germany A “yes” means yes and a “no” means no!

I wish all the best to anyone wishing to make the jump abroad. It’s worth it!