Five Questions With Neuroscientist Dennis Eckmeier

Name: Dennis Eckmeier
Job: Science Editor and Communicator
Country: Germany, USA, Portugal
Age: 41

Dennis Eckmeier supports scientists who are preparing manuscripts and funding applications. He is further establishing himself as a podcast producer in science communication. His podcast is about the role of science and academia in society. The project resulted from his engagement in the March for Science in Portugal. Dr. Eckmeier has a university degree in biology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Originally from Germany, he spent a total of 13 years conducting research in Germany, the USA, and Portugal. In 2018 he quit the academic career path and moved back to Germany as an independent scientist. You can find him on Twitter and his website.

On his fears about getting older:

“My fear of advanced age is the threat of poverty. Spending 20 years in academia has left me with sub-par retirement funds.

In Germany, the current working generations – Millennials and Generation X (my generation) – pay the retirement of the current retired generation (Baby Boomers+). For this “generation contract” to work well, however, the working population needs to be larger than the retired population. But the German population is shrinking because of low birth rates. 

Currently, the retiring baby boomer generation is the largest age-group in Germany; they are also the first generation to enjoy retirement for 20 years on average because of increasing life expectancy (81.41 years in 2020).

Image result for germany life expectancy 2020
Learn more about the population of Germany here.

This means, our growing population of retirees needs to be financially supported by a shrinking working population, which is already causing problems. In response, the government is encouraging us to buy private retirement plans in addition to paying for public retirement insurance.

Subsidized private insurance plans were conceived. I couldn’t buy one before I left Germany – and still can’t – but they have proven insufficient, anyways. Many cases were made public where the insured are lucky to get out what they paid in. On the other hand, interest rates in Germany are currently lower than inflation, meaning that saving money in the bank will shrink rather than grow your wealth.

Being an academic prohibited me from paying even average amounts into retirement plans. The amount of money you receive from the German public retirement insurance depends on the years and the amounts you paid into it. But as an academic, you usually don’t pay into it until after graduation. So, most workers have already paid for a decade before academics even begin. This is supposed to be offset by a higher salary that academics are expected to earn. But, academics in the public sector in Germany aren’t paid particularly much – and good long-term contracts are rare. As a Ph.D. student, I only got a 50 percent part-time contract despite working 50 hours per week. Colleagues who received a fellowship did not pay retirement insurance since fellowships are tax-free. That sounds great until you realize that fellowships are so low, that after paying mandatory health insurance, they have less money than those who have working contracts with the university (where health insurance is included).

In addition to the four years part-time contribution to my public retirement account, I have a 401(k) from my time in the USA (4.5 years), and I am entitled to some retirement funds from Portugal. But my 401(k) only received minimum rates, and the median income in Portugal is quite low. So I can’t expect big returns from either.

I’m now 41, and despite having earned a Ph.D. and having worked at top research institutes, my retirement savings are below average. And I’m currently not paying into my retirement plan at all, because I just started my own business.

The uncertainty further increases, as German politicians struggle to find a good solution for the failing generation contract. They are raising the retirement age to decrease the ratio between working and retired people, and they are discussing how many years you need to have paid into retirement to receive full retirement pay.”

Learn more about his expertise on his website.

On how academia can help improve quality of life:

“Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan. In some regions, it may even be worth considering building houses specifically for postdocs to live in. In countries where fellowships are tax-free, but also mean no contribution to public retirement insurance, this must be changed. People should receive the same rights and benefits regardless of who pays for the salary. Where there are special rules for academia so that worker protection regulation is being circumvented, this must stop. There is really no reason to have special rules for academia that allow them to exploit early career researchers the way it is happening right now.”

On his financial struggles as a postdoc:

“After I graduated in 2010, I was advised to go abroad for international research experience. I spent 4.5 years in the USA at a top research facility in Long Island, so my pay was relatively high for a postdoc in the USA. I even had a 401(k)! However, while other employees received payment to their 401(k) at nine percent of their salary, postdocs only received one percent – the minimum for having a 401(k) at all, as far as I know. It was justified by claiming that postdocs were only temporarily – even though most postdocs stayed for more than five years. And despite the relatively high salary, I could not afford to pay into retirement, since living in Long Island is very expensive. Also, as a postdoc abroad, I needed my savings for the next move. I later moved to Portugal for a second postdoc, where I had a tax-free fellowship, so I didn’t pay into their social security system – except for a minimum voluntary amount.

On his future goals:

“I am currently in the process of building a business for Science Editing and Science Communication. I hope to, at some point, be able to retire without ending in poverty.”

On his healthy habits for self-care:

“I try to reduce stress by choosing work I can enjoy, and by getting some physical activity in.”

Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area, but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan.

Dr. Dennis Eckmeier, PhD

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