The video is already three years old, but Andreas Mangold can still get upset about it. In the style of a children’s movie, the cartoon explains why it’s a good thing when young scientists receive only fixed-term contracts: they don’t “clog them” anymore united for the professions of others, according to the film the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) put online in 2018.
clog? Andreas Mangold knows well how the practice of a time-limited scientific discipline can turn a PhD and the beginning of a researcher’s life into an obstacle. He does not want his real name to be read in this text: after all, a doctoral student criticizes a system that, despite all adversity, would like to have a professional foothold. The 32-year-old is a theoretical mathematician at Brandenburg Technical University (BTU) Cottbus-Senftenberg. “In 2015 I got my PhD, and it was a dream for me,” he says. Working time is estimated at 50 percent.
Typically, Mangold says, these contracts last for five years. In his case, there were only three because that corresponded to the time that Mangold’s boss had at that time until his retirement. “There was this uncertainty from the start: I’ll probably extend after that, maybe not,” says the researcher. For him, this meant that at the initial stage he was running incredibly fast and “worked a lot focusing on results and not deep enough on a professional level”.
In between labor agency
The result: difficulties, handicaps, a new beginning in terms of content. In fact, after three years, the mathematician was granted a two-year contract extension, “but the time was so tight that I informed the recruitment agency in between.”
A little over five years later, in March 2021, that contract also expired. At this point, Mangold was about to finish his doctoral thesis, “I still need a few months.” Since September 2020, with the expiration of his contract in mind, he has repeatedly applied for various positions – and it has cost him time, which in turn has forced him to earn his Ph.D.
There was no further contract extension, Andreas Mangold struggled by submitting the application to the employment agency, receiving state support for a month in April – before that was enough for another contract “with hanging and suffocation”. Duration this time: a year and a half – a full position on a completely different project. “So now I have to finish my PhD in my spare time.” A one-month rest period means that he has lost his remaining vacation entitlement from the previous year.
‘Restrictions are necessary’
Perhaps Mangold can comfort himself knowing he is making an “invaluable contribution to our society” through his work, Wolf-Dieter Lukas, the BMBF’s foreign minister, said last Thursday in a video reaction to the ongoing criticism. Many young researchers have called for better working conditions under the hashtag #IchBinHanna. On camera, Lucas said he wanted to assure them that “we as a federal government take your concerns very seriously.”
The Secretary of State said: “Restrictions in the qualification stage are necessary. Because without special restriction rules in science, opportunities for scientific qualification, especially for young researchers, will be significantly restricted.” A Twitter user responded with a comparison: When it comes to working conditions, only listening to scientific organizations is like “listening to employer associations when it comes to protecting employees.”
“The whole system conveys permanent uncertainty.”
Foreign Minister Lucas also appealed to universities: They are responsible for the extent to which the time-limited rules are used. And he also had some advice for frustrated young researchers: “I encourage you to share and discuss with your university and with your research institute, how the conditions for science and your staff can be better organized in your location.”
Andreas Mangold says this is a lot like putting responsibility aside. “The whole system conveys a constant state of uncertainty,” he says in audible frustration. Vacancies for mathematicians like him are often only announced in a very short time, while the end of the respective employment contract is always predetermined. The result: “You are constantly looking for new projects, new financing, and new jobs.”
Serious and long-term planning is not possible in such an environment, especially not having a family. That’s why his wife decided not to get a doctorate in the end, although she got the right offers, so Andreas Mangold finds it “understandable – and at the same time a very difficult decision”.
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