Less than one year ago, we invited all doctoral researchers working at Leibniz Institutes to take part in our second Leibniz PhD Survey. This online survey was developed by the Leibniz PhD Network and its N2 partner networks: the Max Planck PhDnet, Helmholtz Juniors and IPP Mainz. More than 900 doctoral researchers working at nearly 90 different Leibniz institutes accepted our invitation. Since end of last year, we were busy preparing data, checking data quality, analyzing responses, drawing conclusions and working on the final report. Our survey report is finally ready, published and can be accessed here.
The report tells us a lot about the status quo of doctoral researchers, their aspirations, and the challenges they face in their daily work as well as in their career planning. It also tells us a lot about positive or negative developments in the last two years when comparing results with the 2017 Leibniz PhD Survey. A higher share of respondents holds working contracts compared to the last PhD survey, while less respondents hold a stipend. Still, 1 out of 10 respondents is financed by a stipend, and those doctoral researchers face several economic disadvantages described in the report.
Diversity in scientific research means a group of individuals with differences come together to solve a research problem. Research institute is the place where diverse collaborations can happen. In such diverse workplace, acknowledging individual differences has become even more important in order to create and maintain a safe, positive environment. We may take as an example the role of biodiversity in an ecosystem, mainly meaning a wide array of niches for the provision of ecosystem functions and services. In human societies, diversity aspects may include age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, physical capabilities, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, educational background, relative income, religion (or lack thereof), marital and parental status, and work experience . A diverse team brings out different perspectives in the exploration of research problems, considering various populations, procedures and methods . In fact, it is a natural tendency to be better prepared and work harder when we work in a group of people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. As a result, the quality of work also tends to improve significantly. Preserving and supporting diversity in an organization happens when differences are embraced in a way that no stereotypes fall upon individuals or groups . Thus, preserving and supporting diversity may be paramount in building up excellent research.
The bigger picture: International doctoral researchers in Germany
In recent years, international collaboration has been responsible for many scientific breakthroughs. According to surveys conducted by the Federal Statistical Office and German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), Internationals, including doctoral researchers point out, career opportunities, quality of education, an internationally accepted degree and the excellent reputation of German higher degree institutions as the main reasons to choose Germany as a destination.
These systematic surveys provide relevant information on both international and German doctoral researchers and help to situate the Leibniz Association in the wider picture of doctoral programs in Germany  . Among the internationals who seek a degree in the country, 10.1% of them are in a doctoral program. Nearly half of these doctoral researchers (49%) are on a scholarship provided with an average amount of 1,139 euros a month.
Besides scholarships, the other main source of income for international doctoral researchers is personal earning. As many as 43% of doctoral researchers including scholarship holders, pursue paid activities alongside their research. Most of the international doctoral researchers expressed that a side job along with their research work at the institute, was necessary to cover the living expenses.
According to the Leibniz survey, further difficulties include language barriers, finding a room or an apartment without advanced German knowledge, bonding with Germans within and outside study/work environment, and also adapting to the local academic system .
These hardships show that the life of an international doctoral researcher as compared to a German doctoral researcher may face extra challenges in the way to accomplish their objectives besides the already challenging doctoral researcher’s life.
Cultural diversity in the Leibniz institutes: Challenges and Perspectives
In the previous article we have listed out some of the challenges faced by international doctoral researchers in Germany and in Leibniz association based on different survey data. In this article, let us further discuss these challenges within Leibniz institutes.
Why is cultural diversity in scientific research such an important topic? Because international collaborations are a central aspect of most Leibniz institutes, since these research centers perform a significant amount of their work abroad or do research on issues that affect countries other than Germany, both directly and indirectly.
Not surprisingly, about one third of all doctoral researchers in Leibniz institutes and museums come from outside Germany, namely 10.4% from within the EU and 18.8% from outside the EU. This represents a very rich cultural background, which also reflects the global character of the Leibniz research as a whole.
The variety in cultural backgrounds, nationalities, and native languages has an impact on the research that is done at the institute. In another note, having this hotpot of cultures at the workplace clearly has an impact on the researchers themselves, especially the international ones who are working abroad for the first time.
The Survey of the Leibniz PhD Network in 2017  has shown that nearly half of the international researchers feel the need to having specialized support at their research institute. Despite this need, four out of ten international respondents stated they have a contact person for international researchers at their institutes.
Figure 1: International doctoral researchers who desire more support within Leibniz Association and Leibniz Sections (A – Humanities and Educational Research, B – Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research, C – Life Sciences, D – Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Engineering, E – Environmental Sciences)
Besides, about 40% reported facing language barriers at the point that relevant information at their institute was not made available in a language they could understand.
Figure 2: Working Languages and Language barriers experienced within Leibniz Association and Leibniz Sections (A – Humanities and Educational Research, B – Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research, C – Life Sciences, D – Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Engineering, E – Environmental Sciences)
In terms of level of payment, significant difference can be observed between international and German doctoral researchers. About 57% of international doctoral researchers have a contract, with the payment level of more than 50% of a full-time contract, whereas 69% of German doctoral researchers have such contracts.
Having the adequate structure and guide to welcome internationals can help overcome cultural barriers and enhance the cultural exchange between Germans and non-Germans. When the sensation of equality flourishes, German and international researchers can learn much more from each other. Plus, the benefits for science are immense.
What type of specialized support is being provided by Leibniz Association to international doctoral researchers and what can be further improved?
Please check the second part of our article series!
Have you given a thought about how to address the cultural diversity issues or how to improve the life of an international doctoral researcher in all its complexity? Do you want to contribute to finding solutions? Join the Leibniz PhD Network’s Working Group on Diversity now!
By Rebecca Borges, Viviana G. Pinzon, Navaneetha C. Manjappa, Guilherme M. O. Abuchahla and WG Diversity
Check out the latest version of The Quarterly Digest, the short report on what has been going on in the Leibniz PhD Network between April and June 2020. Read as well about the new Welcome Package, about contract extensions during this time, our discourse why Diversity Matters also in Science and much more. Additionally we would like to make a call for new motivated members for the newly founded Working Group “Greening” and the constant Communication Working Group.
We are all mostly aware of the inherent flaws of the academic system. Short-term contracts, unclear expectations and a real or at least perceived lack of support in situations of conflict are just some of the challenges in the journey of our PhDs. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, hugely impacting our work schedules even more uncertainties around the progress of our research projects arose. It is no surprise that many of us have been feeling under more pressure than usual. Everyone in academia, from PhD candidates to academic leaders and administrative staff, have all been faced with an exceptional situation they may not have been prepared for. In response to these trying times we try to create a greater awareness of potential conflicts and the increased risk of power abuse in academia.
In order to raise awareness of the importance of preventing power abuse, to get a closer understanding of the implications of bad leadership and to come up with some practical advice, the Leibniz PhD Network hosted their second online seminar on 4th June. The topic of the online seminar was “Prevention of Power Abuse – Leadership, Uncertainty of Working Contracts and Conflict Resolution” The online seminar was organised through a collaboration between the Prevention of Power Abuse and Mental Health Working Groups. If you missed it, you can watch it here:
In the online seminar, we were fortunate to have two exceptional guest speakers to share their perspectives:
The online seminar was moderated by Dr. Elliot Brown (Neuroscientist, Scientific Advisor and Mental Health Advocate at Charité Berlin)
This is a summary of the advice given by the speakers on how to deal with bad leadership and power abuse:
Communication – is a two-way process, clarify expectations, ask for feedback, regard information as something that needs to be proactively spread, but also actively demanded, prepare for meetings beforehand and afterwards.
Find out what ‘type’ your advisor is and interact accordingly (see Prof Peus’ talk)
Find Allies – seek (and provide) social support among peers and join networks, like your local PhD network or others
Mentors – reach out to mentors in your field and beyond
Job crafting – Shape your job conditions proactively (link1, link2)
Report power abuse – if lines are crossed, don’t be silent.
Leave for a better place – toxic relationships can be a severe burden, be proactive
If you wonder who else to contact in various cases of conflict, we put together a guide for you that can be accessed here.
From the Prevention of Power Abuse and Mental Health Working Groups of the Leibniz PhD Network: Anja Jahn, Katharina Willenbücher, Anne-Kathrin Stroppe, Nicole Zerrer, Irene Broer, Dolly Montaño, Stefanie Do and Elliot Brown.
Several years ago, during the General Assembly some doctoral researchers exchanged experiences on how hard it was for some of them to have a smooth start in their institutes without knowing whom to ask when they had questions and spending a lot of time looking for sources and opportunities in their institutes. Especially, German bureaucracy can be quite overwhelming for international students when first arriving.