“Studying biology should be considered a hobby”, that is what a speaker humorously mentioned at a job talk hosted by the Bonner Forum Biomedicine last year. The speaker, who had a PhD in biology and successfully worked in industry for two decades, did not intend to say that studying biology is easy, but she pointed out that there are simply too many students for too few jobs in the life science sector. Wikipedia states that a “hobby” is “a regular activity that is done for enjoyment, typically during one’s leisure time.” Since most students of life sciences indeed enjoy their studies and, additionally, spend not only their leisure time but all of their time working on a certain project, the aforementioned speaker might actually be right. In some cases, hobbies can indeed be made to profession, however, in most cases this dream might burst sooner than later. Let’s just say that life is complicated.
In this article we do not want to discuss the pros and cons of doing a Postdoc or pursuing a career in industry because these topics are widely covered by talks and lectures organised by the Bonner Forum Biomedicine und the career centre of the University. But, independent from whether a graduate choses the one or the other path, the transition from being a PhD student to signing the contract for a new position sometimes is not as smooth as wanted and in many cases there is a gap between those two stations. For some, this gap might be a welcomed time-out to think about future perspectives or to go on vacations without living in constant fear that the lab at home burns down and all the acquired data are gone. But for others, this gap might be of unwanted nature where a major issue is the loss of a steady income. However, since Germany is a social state (German: Sozialstaat), it is willing to lend a helping hand – to some of us. Thus, in this article we will discuss how to deal with the employment office (German: Bundesagentur für Arbeit or, colloquially, Arbeitsamt) and will support those information with experiences provided by former PhD students who have faced that situation in the past.
Who is supported and who is not?
PhD students are generally funded by stipends or contracts. The funding for stipend-holders is sometimes a little higher than for students who signed a contract, but, other than contracts, stipends do not represent an employer-employee relationship. Hence, stipends do not include pension, long- term care, and unemployment insurance. In contrast to that, PhD contracts do represent an employer-employee relationship with either the University or with a certain institute (e.g. Max-Planck, Helmholtz). The salary complies with the civil service collective agreement of the Federal States (German: Tarifvertrag für den öffentlichen Dienst der Länder or TV-L) and generally varies between 50-100% of the so-called TV-L E13. Since PhD students with a contract pay their unemployment insurance contribution on a monthly basis, they are eligible for unemployment pay I (German: Arbeitslosengeld I), whereas stipend holders are not. However, the latter are eligible for unemployment pay II (German, Arbeitslosengeld II or, colloquially, Hartz IV). Here, 409 € are payed on a monthly basis since January 1st 2017, whereas other than for unemployment pay I, the payoff of unemployment money II also depends on the wealth of the applicant and his or her family.
Rules, rules, rules (not a Destiny’s Child song)
Graduates who seek financial support from the government have to apply for unemployment pay at the employment office. The office itself is funded by unemployment insurance contributions, which allows it to pursue its main tasks like job service and advice (German: Arbeitsvermittlung and Arbeitsberatung) and support applicants by redistributing unemployment pay. However, there are several rules that need to be considered. For instance:
- To be eligible for unemployment pay, applicants must have been employed with insurance contributions for at least 12 months during the past two years (for more information visit here).
- To ensure a seamless transition from the contract salary to unemployment pay, applicants need to state that they are looking for a job (German: sich arbeitssuchend melden) up to three months prior to expiration of their contract, otherwise they risk a retention period of one week during which no money is paid.
- Applications for unemployment money can be made online but every applicant also has to meet a responsible contact person at the employment office to apply for financial support.
If everything works out, applicants receive around 60% of their previous income as unemployment pay for e.g. up to 1.5 years (in case their previous contract lasted three years or more, www3.arbeitsagentur.de). From this day on, the following (unofficial) guidelines apply:
- Graduates have to proactively look for jobs and apply for at least two positions per week or eight positions per month (unofficial numbers). However, people at the employment office know that job offers for scientists do not fall from the sky, which is why it is also ok to apply for all possible positions.
- Applicants should always keep records of their job applications to prove to their responsible contact person at the office that they are indeed actively looking for a job.
- Sometimes, the employment office also comes up with possible positions, in which case it is mandatory to apply – unless there is a plausible reason to decline.
In case a graduate wants to leave science, advanced and specialised trainings might open some doors in the life science sector. The employment office offers many different skill enhancement courses like for example a training to become a Clinical Research Associate. Courses like these can be found on KURSNET. The trainings are funded by the employment office and are either held on weekends but might also be all-day trainings that take several months. During that time, unemployment pay is continuously paid. Besides looking for jobs or attending a certain course, receivers of unemployment pay are also allowed to leave their place of residence e.g. to go on vacations for up to 20 days per year (where Saturdays and Sundays count as “days”), but only if their contact person agreed before the planned leave.
To get a better understanding of how all these processes work, we approached different people who had already dealt with the employment office and were willing to share their experiences. All of our interviewees were former students of life sciences and had either finished their PhD theses or Postdocs. In order to hear the unfiltered truth from our interviewees, we let them answer our questions anonymously.
Interestingly, the majority of our interviewees made overall positive experiences with the employment office. “Everyone at the office was very friendly and my contact person was kind and understanding”, one person remembers. “I used the website of the employment office to state that I am looking for a job three months before my contract ended and shortly after I was invited for a first conversation with my contact person.” Another interviewee added: “Back then, I had decided to take at least three months off after finishing my PhD to have time to think about my future plans. I did not register at the employment office during that time to avoid any demand notes.” Since applicants for unemployment pay are requesting financial support, the government in return expects them to fulfil certain duties. During the time period where people receive unemployment pay, both, the employment office and the person him/herself have to look for matching job positions. The term “matching”, however, in some cases might be defined differently by the person looking for a job and the employment office, which is why the office sometimes comes up with job suggestions that might not sound very interesting. Still, applying for such job positions is mandatory for everyone who receives unemployment pay and exceptions are rarely made. If one refuses to apply for the recommended position, unemployment pay might be cut. As mentioned before, life is complicated.
To be hung out to dry
One thing that still happens quite often to PhD students is that they are only payed as long as they work in the lab and then have to write their thesis whilst receiving unemployment pay. “My contact person was well aware of the situation of PhD students like me who have to write their thesis without being funded by the former employer anymore”, explained one interviewee. “My contact person was friendly and supportive but also strict when it came to writing applications and going to job interviews. He made clear that I could not get any financial support without applying on a regular basis but also told me that finishing the thesis and passing the final exam had the highest priority. In the end, I applied for the jobs that they suggested, which resulted in three job interviews during the first three months.” However, in some cases, the face-off with the employment office looks a little different: “My experiences with the employment office were rather bad, so do not expect too much from them! I was directly told that they most likely cannot help me to find a job. There are many responsibilities for applicants and not much help is given besides the financial support.”
One problem during the writing phase of the PhD thesis is that some students do not have their own office space and, hence, rather like to write their thesis somewhere else. “My main problem was that I wrote the vast part of my thesis at my mother’s house, meaning that I was not at my place all the time. The employment office only communicates via mail, which means that one has to check one’s mailbox regularly. Contact persons sometimes invite you to subsequent talks and, in order to avoid shortenings of the payment, one has to respond immediately. I once did not check my mailbox for several days and then suddenly found out that I had an appointment on the next day.” Appointments like these can of course also be postponed for valid reasons like a job interview. Again, the term “valid” might be defined differently by the employment office and the person concerned.
Learn to fly
In addition to financial support, the employment office also offers to pay for additional trainings and courses to increase the chance of future job offers. “I am currently attending a five-month full-day training called ‘Life Science Management’ which increases my job qualification for different jobs within the pharmaceutical sector. In detail, it gives a good overview of job profiles available for biologists including positions in regulatory affairs, clinical study management, quality control, and product management. We also gain basic knowledge in economics and marketing, something that a natural scientist usually completely lacks” explained one interviewee. Is it difficult to be approved for an additional training like this one? “I was lucky to have a kind contact person with a positive attitude towards additional qualification trainings. I showed him that I had written several applications without any reasonable success regarding interview invitations. However, I was told that the office does not agree on such trainings more than one month in advance, meaning that I had to make a second appointment shortly before the desired course started where I then received my final permission. Every contact person has a certain budget for applicants who want to participate in extra courses, which is why one has to be very eager to do the course and show that one would highly benefit from it.” Another interviewee added: “In Bonn they have a special department for unemployed academic staff and I felt preferentially treated. My contact person was very understanding with regard to my personal wish to skip working actively in research and was willing to support me in finding new opportunities. I attended a six-month training course to become a clinical research associate. The training consisted of theoretical courses with a bunch of exams and a practical phase which I completed at the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (German: Bundesministerium für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte or BfArM) in Bonn. This course qualified me for different jobs in the clinical research field and finally opened my way to the drug regulatory affairs sector in which I am now working successfully.”
Any further suggestions?
“I think one should be open-minded and proactive about attending the employment office although there are so many voices that spread negativity regarding this institution. One should definitely go there with a plan or ideas regarding the future and about what kind of job one is looking for. Be informed about possible trainings that might support your future career and ask your contact person about them.”
“I would suggest everyone to act cooperatively, say ‘yes’ and nod a lot (lol). Dress yourself up for personal appointments (e.g. blouse or button-down shirt) so that you leave the impression that you have a plan and that it will be easy for you to find a job.”
“Don’t worry. The employment office has absolutely no objective in giving you a hard time. They know that academics are eager by themselves to find a job as soon as possible.”
In the end, people working at the employment office are “just humans” (even though some interviewees claimed otherwise), which means that they have good and bad days. We therefore wish our readers that they either directly find a new job or that they may encounter staff at the employment office who got up with the right foot and is dedicated to help academics in need.
If you have more experiences to share – please post your (anonymous) comments below this article!