The Max Planck Survey Report 2022

June 06, 2023

From July to October of 2022, the MPG PostdocNet conducted their most extensive survey of postdocs at the Max Planck Society to date. We surveyed over 650 postdocs from more than 50 Max Planck Institutes throughout Germany and abroad, gaining information regarding a variety of topics in their work and personal lives. You can read the full report here.

Below are some frequently asked questions about the report:

What were the goals of the 2022 survey?

In 2019, the first PostdocNet Survey  was constructed and performed, mainly focusing on the MPG postdoc demographics and working conditions. This survey was a very valuable resource for the PostdocNet Steering Group, allowing them to successfully advocate for changes in contract situations for many postdocs over the last years.

The goal of the 2022 survey was to understand the professional and personal life of a postdoc at the Max Planck Society and in Germany. We asked over 120 questions in this survey from five main categories: demographics, working conditions, career development, personal and professional well-being, and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, there were several main questions that we wanted to address:

  1. What are the demographics of the MPG postdocs? How are they characterized in terms of demographic information and academic trajectories? 

  2. How many postdocs are on contracts, fellowships, and stipends? Are postdocs well-informed about their employment situation?

  3. What are the career aspirations of MPG postdocs and do they receive adequate opportunities to prepare for career steps following the postdoctoral phase?

  4. What is the state of personal and professional well-being of the MPG postdocs? How satisfied are they with the different aspects of their lives and should we be concerned about their mental health? What burdens them in their private life and at work?

  5. How did COVID-19 affect the MPG postdocs? How have their careers been affected and are they well-supported by their mentors, institutes, and the MPG as a whole?

We work with the HR Development and Opportunities Department of the MPG to review these findings and find clear, actionable ways to make the lives of postdocs better and more equitable.  

How do you define a “postdoc?”

For the purposes of this survey, an MPG postdoc is defined as any person who has been awarded a doctoral degree and is currently undertaking scientific research within the MPG by means of a time-limited contractual relationship from either internal or external funding. For the purposes of the PostdocNet, we also require that these researchers have not yet established a significant level of independence.

How should you read the report?

The first section begins with recommendations of actions that the MPG and German Academia as a whole should take to improve the working conditions and lives of the postdoctoral community. At the beginning of each of the five main sections of the report (demographics, working conditions, career development, personal and professional well-being, and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic), we present five key findings that the PostdocNet felt were important to highlight. Throughout the text, we also highlight findings that are different from other surveys, such as the recent survey completed by the Leibniz PostDoc Association.

As well, we note that the MPG is a single academic organization within Germany and academia. These statistics are solely from MPG postdocs, which may or may not align with other experiences in academic institutions inside or outside of Germany.

How should you not read the report?

We would like to emphasize that the key findings in each section are meant as a guide to the data. Context is always crucially important. We implore the readers to not just take these findings at face value, and we strongly advise reading the report to understand where the data came from and how to contextualize it.

Lastly, the views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and the MPG PostdocNet. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of the Max Planck Society or any of the Max Planck Institutes.

What are some key findings in the report?

While there are many key findings and recommendations in this survey, we highlight some of the most important points:

  1. The Max Planck Society postdocs are incredibly diverse, particularly when it comes to nationality and gender (47% women, 49% men, 0.4% other gender identities). Approximately 75% of MPG postdocs come from outside of Germany, with 50% of MPG postdocs coming from outside of the EU/EEA.

    What this means: The MPG postdocs come from all over the world, and the internationality of the MPG is an asset for making an extremely unique workplace and fostering collaborations around the world. However, many postdocs will require assistance with the German language, as many come from non-German speaking countries. Many documents at the MPG are already in both German and English, but not every institute can offer international offices to assist with the immigration process and other bureaucratic processes which can be a stressful time for many postdocs. As well, all postdocs generally are well socially connected, but gaining new friends and being away from family can be difficult, too.

  2. In terms of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG), 10% of postdocs have been a postdoc for over 5 years and 25% of postdocs have been postdocs at the MPG for 3 years or more, which gives an indication how many postdocs would be impacted by further limiting the postdoc phase which had been recently proposed. We also find that most postdocs aspire to work in academia as a group leader or staff scientist (76%), but many still would like to work in either industry (60%) or the public sector (51%).

    What this means: Many postdocs want to continue working in academia, irrespective of the limited number of permanent positions for academic staff. The MPG has several career development programs such as the Planck Academy which offers courses and training for academic and non-academic jobs. As well, the Postdoc Guidelines give a framework for career development and mentoring at a more individual level. However, we find that a lack of knowledge about the Planck Academy’s courses and a lack of accountability on an institutional level to the Postdoc Guidelines mean that people are not getting access to the career development opportunities that exist.

  3. We find that most postdocs report to be at least moderately happy (83%) and say that they live meaningful and purposeful lives (80%). However, about 55% of postdocs report at least mild depressive symptoms and 48% have at least mild anxiety. More than 1 in 5 postdocs show signs of moderate to severe clinical depression, which is almost three times higher than the general German population of the same age.

    What this means: This may seem contradictory at face value, but postdocs are genuinely passionate about their work and love what they do. At the same time, they struggle with the precarious conditions that come along with an academic career. Many postdocs recommend doing a postdoc at the MPG or their institute, but many struggle with the stress of work, especially if they also have caring responsibilities. The MPG does have programs such as EMAP to get MPG employees and their families access to counseling in either German or English. While we do not know how many postdocs know about this program (in future surveys we will ask this), we strongly advise better advertising of the EMAP. COVID-19 restrictions could have also influenced this data (questions were asked between July-October 2022), but overall, this data is consistent with other studies of postdoctoral/PhD mental well-being prior to COVID-19.

  4. Approximately 27% of all postdocs are parents, and almost 40% of German postdocs are parents. We observe that female postdocs with caring responsibilities stand out from other subgroup analyses. We find that mothers are most unhappy, depressed, anxious, stressed by care work and their work as postdocs. They report more personal conflicts (e.g., with their partner) and are most socially isolated.

    What this means: It is well-known that postdocs delay starting a family due to their career aspirations, and when postdocs move across the world for their careers (e.g. in this survey 40% of German postdocs are parents whereas only 18% of Asian postdocs are parents). The MPG offers programs such as the pme Familienservice for childcare and other types of family support, in addition to measures at the institute's level. But crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that proper measures both from the governmental and institutional levels must be allocated to ensure equal opportunities for scientists who provide care work (e.g. by flexible work schedules, contract extensions, and additional funding). As well, paternal and maternal leave are guaranteed for MPG contract holders, but fellowship and stipend holders may not have these benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic may also have played a factor in these results, as increased caring responsibilities and less time for work could contribute to this stress. Overall, this is a very complex issue with many different factors at play and we will try to disentangle this in future surveys.

  5. A substantial number of postdocs have experienced at least one form of antisocial behavior at work (e.g., bullying, discrimination or harassment) with major consequences for their mental well-being. They report that nationality, gender identity, parenthood, and ethnicity are the most frequent reasons for antisocial behavior directed at them.

    What this means: In competitive environments such as academia, it is not uncommon, but nevertheless inexcusable, that these antisocial behaviors exist. This survey did not address the harassment/conflict reporting structures at the MPG. The MPG has a robust conflict management program with many different departments and ways to contact.

    While we did not acquire data on reporting of antisocial behavior, from the comments that respondents left on the survey, we assume that many postdocs do not actually report any harassment and bullying. There are many reasons why, but there are two main ones inherent in the structures that the academic system creates: 1) they do not want to burn bridges with the perpetrator who might be a substantial part of their research network, especially if this person is their advisor, and 2) they do not know who actually to report it to. The former reason is more common. Advisors control much of a postdoc’s life. For instance, their employment situation is directly tied to their immigration status, making it extremely difficult to report their advisor and not face consequences down the line - even if the report has been made anonymously. Burning bridges with your advisor would make finding an academic job very difficult due to the power of recommendations in obtaining a job.

    To the second point, many postdocs come from outside of Germany and thus may not know the language or reporting structures, which can be very complex. Therefore, because of these two factors, much of the bullying and discrimination go unreported, and thus, much of the power structures which lead to these behaviors propagate

Who was part of the Survey Working Group?

The Survey Working Group is composed of several postdocs from various Max Planck Institutes throughout Germany. They have aided in the construction, implementation, and analysis of the survey as well as assisting in the final report. The 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 Steering Groups were also vital in helping get this survey to publication.

The Survey Working Group leaders 2022-23 are

  • Nicholas J. Russell (MPI for Plant Breeding Research)

  • H. Lina Schaare (MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) 

The other Survey Working Group members 2022-23 are

  • Bárbara Bellón Lara (MPI for Iron Research)

  • Yiteng Dang (MPI for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics)

  • Anja Feldmeier-Krause (MPI for Astronomy)

  • Marie-Theres Meemken (MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

  • Felipe Nathan de Oliveira-Lopes (MPI for Plasma Physics)

Who can you contact if you have questions or comments about the survey?

Should you have any questions or would like to schedule an interview, please reach out to any of the following individuals or organizations. 

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