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Desperation's Doctors

The number of doctorate candidates in Germany has shot up in recent years. But only because many see getting a PhD as the only alternative to flipping burgers or bussing tables.


Unemployed university graduates are increasingly turning back to the books.

"I had already dragged a pile of books home from the library, but they just got dusty and incurred high overdue fees," Silke König recalled. "Actually, it was an act of desperation." After completing university, internships and sending out scads of job applications in vain, she had reached the end of her rope.

Instead of accepting the prospect of a gaping a hole in her curriculum vitae, König went back to her alma mater to start work on a PhD.

She was not alone in her fruitless job search. In 2003, more than 250,000 academics were on the unemployment registers, 13.3 percent more than the previous year. All the same, university graduates have the best job prospects compared to others, Beate Raabe, a job market analyst at the German Federal Labor Agency said. "You just have to prepare yourself for a long time of searching."

High demand

The days when 'Dr.' signified a passion for academia are over. Ever more graduates with masters in business administration, geography or philosophy are deciding to avoid unemployment by doing a PhD. But it's not as easy as all that, since there aren't enough doctoral positions nor is their enough funding to go around.

"The numbers have increased drastically in recent years," Gerhard Teufel, who heads the German National Academic Foundation, said. While around 650 applications each year made it to his desk in the 1990s, more than 1,000 do now. But the foundation only has the means to offer scholarships to 460 outstanding students per year. "The majority is truly highly-qualified, but we have to reject most due to limited funding," explained Jeanette Ruszbült of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which has also been inundated by a flood of applications.

PhDs pay off -- sometimes

Campus Germany: Promotion

If would-be scholars can get the financial side of postgraduate work sorted out, it can pay off in the end. Entry level pay for an engineer is €5,000 ($6,000) higher if he has a PhD rather than a masters degree, a study carried out by Kienbaum Consultants revealed.

But that's assuming Herr Dr. engineer can get a job. Beate Raabe from the state labor agency warned that a doctorate isn't necessarily the ticket. It is indeed a prerequisite in fields like chemistry, biology, medicine or academia itself, but it doesn't mean as much for aspiring lawyers or business managers, unless they want to strike out alone.

"It has more of a decorative character rather than being proof of competence," Werner Dostal from the German Labor Office's occupational research department said. "In artistic or technical fields it's not sensible in most cases."

Still no work experience

But university graduates who don't have their hearts in it, should consider other ways of supplementing their qualifications besides striving for a PhD, Raabe advised. "Doing a doctorate just because of unemployment is a bad investment -- financially as well as in view of the amount of work involved," she said.

Only around 25,000 people in Germany were awarded PhDs in 2001, at the same time as just many doctorate candidates are estimated to have given up the quest. And after all that, they still don't have any more work experience to show for their time.

Silke König, for her part, shelved the books in favor of practical experience. After the third traineeship, she's finally gotten offers to do some work. At least it's a start. "I work my way from month to month. I don't know what will happen in May." But König hasn't yet entirely written off her one-time PhD ambitions. If all fails she's prepared to dive back in. "Three years doing a doctorate still looks better on a curriculum vitae than three years waitressing."

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