[EDITOR’S NOTE: As the Covid-19 pandemic took over the world, countries locked down one after another. Among many people affected by this sudden turn of developments were students studying abroad. Away from family and surviving on tight budgets, the pandemic hit them in full force, but they ultimately stood up to face the situation. This is the story of one such Indian student.]
Here’s a scary but a very real possibility for many international PhD students – what if your doctoral contract ends (and your boss denies an extension), but your PhD is still not finished? Such a condition can lead to terrible financial stress, not to mention the tensions of visa expiry – a complete mess!
But not in Germany though – yes, you read that correctly – where, kein stress leute, you can support yourself financially through such a crisis. Here, PhD students/ Postdocs can apply for unemployment money – Arbeitslosengeld – if they have been on an official contract with the university for at least 12 months prior to the unemployment under the guest researcher visa category section 18 and 20.
I arrived in Germany three years ago on a Guest researcher/scientist visa under section 20 to pursue my PhD in Life sciences at Uniklinik Heidelberg. My dream was to finish my PhD within the three years of my contract period. Little did I know the difficulties of finishing the project within such a strict deadline with other factors also at play. To top it all, the Covid-19 pandemic was raging in the last months of my PhD, stopping me from going to work, bringing all my experiments to a grinding halt.
Before I knew it, I found myself just a month away from the end of my PhD contract. I worked feverishly, day and night, to get those last blots, last images and last PCR’s running thoroughly – if you are a wet lab scientist, you’ll get how stressed I was.
However, from my seniors and colleagues, I learnt about unemployment benefits, especially Arbeitslosengeld while still doing a PhD. In Germany, on fulfilling certain requirements, the government pays those who lose their jobs as a financial buffer until they find another one. You can check if you’re qualified in this article though personally, I followed this article.
When I decided to drown myself in this sea of bureaucratic work, I realised that the first and possibly the most daunting step was registering at the nearest Arbeitsamt i.e. job centre. This was easier said than done as it’s really not a place where you feel warmly welcomed, especially if you don’t speak German.
Most forms here are in German unless filled in online, and they take all information about your academic background, passport, and visa status. The entire process is intimidating, and a native speaker can definitely help understand what information goes where, so I took a German friend along.
Thanks to her tough talking on my behalf, the process was manageable. We faced problems in the initial process of registration – mind you, there is no token system here. You can go talk face-to-face with the people behind the counter either by standing in queue or once your name is called through a system after you pass through the reception.
Now, although being among the first people to queue up, they redirected us to a waiting room, where we stayed for two hours. Finally, the lady behind the counter called us, and strangely, blamed us for the delay; apparently, she had called my name an hour ago, but no one responded. Later, we found out that my name was misspelled in her system, yet, of course, we (my friend with a sweet smile) were the ones to apologise.
WARNING: Although the process of registration is similar for all, it takes an unbelievable amount of time depending on the situation and the behind-the-counter people you are dealing with to get your queries answered. Telephonic conversations are unpredictable as well. If you get lucky, all your questions are answered but sometimes the call gets slammed when you’re speaking mid-sentence. Patience, and keeping aside plenty of time for this process, is the key!
You can initiate the process of registration 3 months prior to your contract termination – if you are organised, this is sufficient time. If you don’t want to delay your Arbeitslosengeld, finish fill all the forms, attending one-on-one counselling with your academic counsellor from the Arbeitsamt and applying for the right visa type (“job search” in my case) before your contract expires. Also, I always carried along my passport and visa during my visits to the Arbeitsamt and I recommend you do the same.
After giving the Arbeitsamt an idea of my academic background and job status, I registered as a job seeker and got my Kundensnummer i.e. unique job-seeker ID number with which I could address further queries, be it in person or via emails/calls. This is especially helpful during the current Covid-19 pandemic times. Then I got an appointment with an academic counsellor.
You must not miss this appointment as the session is all about building your job-seeker profile via the e-services portal and learning all about unemployment benefits. Beginning from the date your benefits commence, you have to submit a monthly proof of the job applications you make to your academic counsellor to affirm the ongoing process of applications. Thankfully, your health insurance is valid through the entire time you get unemployment benefits.
Finally, before my contract ended, I filled an application form (it is available both online and in-person) along with my employment certificate, job search visa and the contract termination letter from my employer to avail the Arbeitslosengeld without any delay. If you are single, you are entitled to about 60% of last 12 months’ average salary.
Some additional documents to keep handy are your salary slips, health insurance membership letter, and an appeal letter for visa extension from the employer. I had some issues obtaining them as my visa counsellor misinterpreted the visa category, and initially, my employer did not understand the letter formats. I learnt it quite late, but in such a case, you can always connect the employer to the visa and arbeitsamt counsellor to avoid ambiguity in the process. It did work. I have drawn up a flowchart showing the step-by-step protocol (can’t help with my researcher’s way of explaining things!)
Most importantly, I learnt that the validity period of the job search visa changes as per the subsection of the visa category I hold. I hold a section 20 guest researcher/scientist visa, so my job search visa is valid for only 6 months, but for people holding visas under sections 16 and 18, the validity period is 18 months. However, this validity period does not depend on the duration of availing unemployment benefits.
My experience is specific to one country, but such benefits are granted by few other European countries such as Spain, Greece, Italy, and Sweden too. I believe this information will be useful for international PhD students there as well. I know the information is quite overwhelming, but once you start the process, it works out and you get your rightful money when in need, like the current times.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.