More complicated career paths

First generation PhD

Information for doctoral researchers from non-academic backgrounds
More complicated career paths
Illustration: istockphoto.com/erhui1979

For those who are the first in a family to embark on the path to academia, it is often not easy. To support those, we have compiled some information here on how to finance a doctorate, where to find networking opportunities and how to overcome the feeling of alienation in the academic world.

Financing a doctorate

How to finance the studies and the doctorate is especially important for people from non-academic backgrounds. Unless they receive BAföG, they often have to finance their living expenses with part-time jobs during their studies and therefore have rather less time for their studies. Fortunately, to finance a doctorate, there are several funding options where you are paid directly for doing your doctorate. 

Academic employee Expand entry

Researchers from non-academic backgrounds are often confronted with the expectation of their families, especially their parents, that they should "finally earn some real money". The doctoral phase differs here from the study period: jobs are offered specifically to finance doctorates.

A common way of funding a doctorate is to be employed as a research assistant at a department or in a third-party funded project. In order to obtain such a position, it is often a good prerequisite to have previously worked as a research assistant during your studies. The doctoral positions are usually advertised for three years or the duration of the externally funded project.

You can find more information on this form of financing here.

Structured doctoral programmes Expand entry

Increasingly, there are so-called structured doctoral programmes, for example in the form of graduate schools or research training groups. In these programmes, you do research and complete your doctorate with a thematic focus on a common research topic. Normally, these positions are funded via scholarships or funded positions. Typically, admission is done by a selection process of an allocation commission on a predetermined date. The transparent awarding process and the higher degree of structure of the doctorate (in addition to other factors) lead to a significantly higher proportion of researchers from non-academic backgrounds in structured programmes.

Further information on structured doctoral programmes at the University of Jena can be found here.

Doctorate scholarship Expand entry

In order to receive a doctoral scholarship, a 6 to 12-month search and application phase must first be bridged and financed after the Master's degree. Unfortunately, bridging grants are rarely available (one exception are the "Exposé" scholarships at the University of Göttingen). Another complicating factor is that the 13 Organisations for the Promotion of Young Talent (Begabtenförderungswerke), which award the most doctoral scholarships in Germany, place a special focus on social and civic activities. But if you had to finance your studies through part-time jobs, it can often be difficult to become socially active as well. However, there are also scholarship institutions that (in addition to the required commitment) explicitly take social background and financial situation into account when selecting scholarships. These include the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the Stiftung der deutschen Wirtschaft.

You can find more general information on scholarships for doctorates and on how to apply for these here. In addition, the ApplicAid initiative offers support to doctoral researchers from non-academic backgrounds in applying for a scholarship.

Extra occupational doctorate Expand entry

Some companies offer their employees the opportunity to do a doctorate while working. The employment contract then specifies what proportion of working time can be used for the doctorate. In order to find out whether this is possible in your company, you should consult your employer at first. Once this has been clarified, you must find a supervisor at a research institution who would supervise your doctoral project.

Even if your company does not offer the option of taking time off to do your doctorate, you can do your doctorate while working. In particular, if you have already completed vocational training or a certain profession prior to your studies, you can use this to finance your doctorate. In this case, you can work in your learned profession and pursue your doctorate alongside this activity. But you should consider that this can be a heavy double burden and hence it may take considerably longer than three or four years to complete a doctorate in this way. It is important that you find a supervisor with whom you can discuss the time horizon of your doctoral project. You can find more information on finding a doctoral supervisor here.

Potential problems and challenges

Researchers from a non-academic family may often feel that the university is a different world. In this world, it seems that the same rules do not apply as in the world they grew up in. This can result in a feeling of strangeness and not belonging. Nevertheless, these are normal feelings that should not demotivate you!

Academic language Expand entry

For people entering the academic world, the used language can seem strange and hifalutin: On the one hand, it certainly makes sense to use technical language when certain concepts and ideas are established in an academic discipline. On the other hand, however, it can also be a way to intimidate others with eccentric language or to cover up one's own lack of knowledge. As early as in the 1970s, this negative side was described by Wolf Wagner as the " university bluff". In his German book "Uni-Angst und Uni-Bluff" (which has been reprinted time and again), he described various strategies of how this bluff is used at universities - especially in the humanities and social sciences. It can be very helpful to look at these bluff rules and strategies, as this reduces the feeling of strangeness in the academic world and makes it clear that here, too, people only boil with water. An interview with the author and some of the bluff rules can be found here (in German).

Impostor syndrome Expand entry

For people from non-academic backgrounds, strangeness often manifests itself in the so-called impostor syndrome: one believes that one's own achievements are not the result of one's own abilities, but rather of coincidences or special circumstances. It is therefore only a matter of time before one is exposed as an impostor by others. However, this syndrome is generally widespread in academia - especially due to uncertain career paths and the enormous pressure of competition. You can find a comprehensible and personal description of this syndrome in academia here.

Advice and networking

Hands united Hands united Image: istockphoto.com

It may be helpful to talk about emerging problems or the feeling of strangeness with other people who have had similar experiences. This will help you to realise that you are not alone with your experiences: Notably, feelings of strangeness due to academic language or the feeling of being an impostor are quite common.

First groups offering advice and networking on these topics have been founded in recent years: The initiative "First Generation PhD" offers general advice to doctoral researchers who come from non-academic families. The initiative Arbeiterkind.de has also established regional groups in Thuringia where students and doctoral researchers can meet.

Background information on the topic

The participation of children from non-academic backgrounds in education has increased in recent years – but only on the lower rungs of the academic career ladder (high school and Bachelor degree). Starting with Master's degrees and especially doctoral degrees, there are fewer and fewer people without an academic background. In the following, we have gathered some background information and studies on how these selection processes take place.

Lower participation in higher education qualifications Expand entry

Unfortunately, the openness of the German higher education system for people from non-academic families is still not very high: out of 100 primary school pupils from academic families, 10 achieve a doctorate, while only one person from non-academic backgrounds does so. The figure below from the German Higher Education Report graphically illustrates when most non-academic children leave the education system: Access to studying is a very big hurdle, but many non-academic children also drop out in the phase after graduating with a Bachelor's degree. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that many prefer to opt for paid employment after graduating with a Bachelor's degree rather than following a further (cost-intensive) qualification phase. On the other hand, a disproportionately large number of non-academic children also drops out of the Master's programme - probably due to financing problems. A similar dynamic is likely to be observed after completion of the Master's degree.

Differences in reaching the next level of education Differences in reaching the next level of education Image: Hochschulbildungsreport 2020
Reasons for the declining rate of doctorates Expand entry

Overall, the rate of doctorates awarded to researchers from non-academic backgrounds has declined in recent years (cf. Jaksztat/Lörz 2018). There are various reasons for this: On the one hand, the doctoral rates of non-academic and academic researchers differ significantly by subject. This is due to the choice of subject at the beginning of studies: Students with a non-academic background are significantly overrepresented in humanities and social science subjects, while students with an academic background are overrepresented in medicine and law. In the natural sciences, the two groups are roughly equally distributed. In recent years, the doctoral rate in the subjects of law and medicine has risen significantly (in law from 7 to 20 percentage points and in medicine from 46 to 66 percentage points). At the same time, the doctoral rates in the subjects that are more likely to be chosen by researchers from non-academic families increased only slightly or remained the same.

Another factor identified by Jaksztat and Lörz is the increasing importance of student assistant activities for taking up a doctorate. Students from academic families are more likely to take up student assistant positions than non-academic students. Working as a student assistant offers easier access to potential doctoral supervisors. Also they are often asked after completing their Master's degree whether they would like to continue with a doctorate at the chair. For this reason, the University of Cologne has also launched a programme to promote student assistantships for first-generation students.

Social backgrounds of professors Expand entry

For a long time, no research had been conducted on the social background of professors. As part of her dissertation, the sociologist Christina Möller asked all professors in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia about their social background. The results of her survey indicate that after a phase of greater openness in the 1990s, which was marked by more chairs being filled by people from non-academic backgrounds, a closure is now setting in again and people from the upper or high background milieu are being appointed to chairs more frequently. Only every tenth chair in North Rhine-Westphalia was filled by a person from a non-academic household in the 2010s. Differences were also evident by subject: Law and medical subjects belong to the more socially closed disciplines, in contrast to education, social and political science subjects. Further information on the study and this topic can be found here (in German).

We also recommend the German book "Vom Arbeiterkind zur Professur". It portrays the personal careers of some current professors. You can order the book here.

Research-oriented Studying

Students in Jena city
Honours Programme
The University of Jena offers a special support programme for students to engage in research during their studies.