Staying in academia: navigating the academic career system in Germany

German city

You have (almost) completed your PhD and you are starting to plan your future career steps. Maybe you gave the post-doctoral phase some thought even before you started it. Maybe not. For most of us, at the time when we embark on our PhDs, nothing seems more important than the topic of research we are so eager to explore. Still, if doing research is what you want to continue after you complete your PhD, you may want to start with getting acquainted with the academic system you plan to do it in. This kind of familiarity can significantly ease your navigation.

In this post I will take you on a brief tour through the academic career system in Germany. This is the system I had to learn how to navigate by trying to navigate it myself.

During my PhD – which was the reason why I moved to Germany – I had little knowledge of how things work around here. Having had my educational background somewhere else, I was at first very confused by the highly stratified German academia. It is what Kreckel called antiquated curiosium. In tenure systems, like the North-American, the British and other European ones, once you have a position as an early-career researcher, you in principle become an “insider”. In Germany, on the other hand, you are only “in” once you have reached the most senior position – professorship. Previous positions held in research may only qualify you for this, but cannot give you any guarantees. And no wonder: in Germany, each year on average, about 30.000 PhD students obtain their doctoral degree, while there are only around 47.000 professor positions available in total.

State and third-party funding: the most common path taken

The state-funded academic positions at higher education institutions in Germany basically fall into two categories: professors and the so called “Mittelbau”, or simply junior faculty, to use a loose translation, which seems appropriate as this category is also referred to as “wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs”, that is, all of those qualifying for the next career step. The current law on fixed-term contracts in academia stipulates that everyone pursuing an academic or artistic qualification can be employed at a German higher education institution for a maximum of 6 years prior to and 6 years (9 years for medicine) after obtaining a doctoral degree (the so-called 6+6 rule). An extension of this period can be granted under certain conditions. In practice this means that you have up to 6 years to complete your post-doc (Habilitation), which is a condition for professorship positions.

An alternative stepping stone to “regular” professorship positions would be the category of “Junior Professor”. It was introduced in 2002 with the intention to facilitate the transition to the next career level. However with its non-tenure status, limited quota and a precarious outlook (you are, for example, not entitled to unemployment benefits after the end of the contract), it can hardly be regarded as a systemic change.

Next to these state-funded positions, you could seek employment within third-party funded projects. This type of employment is not affected by the 6+6 rule and has become a useful survival tool in the jungle of non-tenured research. Newest data estimate that around 90 percent of the junior faculty in Germany works under fixed-term contracts. Despite the lack of any guarantee and strong competition for permanent positions, some studies suggest that around 80 percent of doctorate holders see their future at a higher education/research institution.

Yet not only are permanent positions scarce, but they are also distributed along the line of traditional disciplines (such as sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, etc.). Belonging to an interdisciplinary field specializing in higher education research may, however, prove to be a blessing or a curse.

What about alternative career paths?

Some universities have specialized higher education research departments or institutes. They play by the same rules as described above. There is, however, a possibility to circumvent the system and still stay active in the sector. Quite a few independent foundations or institutes have departments that conduct and promote research and development. Around 100.000 positions across the country are held in these departments, which is not to be underestimated, given that, according to Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, there are around 188.000 junior faculty members at universities.

Professorship positions at universities of applied sciences have been considered a “secret tip” within the academic community. I learned this shortly after finishing my PhD in the framework of a mentoring program for female researchers in which I took part. This is because such a professorship can be obtained under different conditions compared to the university one, and it instead requires a doctoral degree and professional experience outside academia (instead of the post-doc phase required for the university professorship).

Furthermore, teaching plays an important role at these institutions, which makes teaching experience next to the professional one a crucial part in the appointment procedures. This is why making early strategic choices can give you a head start in terms of career advancement. Whether you will choose to boost your research or teaching portfolio, or choose to accumulate other kind of professional experience, your choice will probably have an impact on your future prospects. Seeking out help early on, for example from a mentor, could offer a much-needed guidance, in the German, as well as in any other system in which you are set to make a career.

Finally, one sidenote about language. While probably all universities in Germany have websites in English, navigating the German system without at least some basic knowledge of German can be quite a challenge. This will of course vary a lot from one institution to the next, with those which are more internationally oriented being more English-friendly. Therefore, if German is not a language you are comfortable speaking, maybe you want to inquire this a little bit at the institution/department at which you plan to apply for a job.

If this is something you can relate to, or perhaps you have experienced the German system differently, it would be great if you could share it in the comment section below!

Marija Stambolieva is a research assistant, project coordinator, and lecturer at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, Germany. Her academic interests are in the fields of labor market, social and higher education policies, with particular focus on digital transformation processes and diversity.

Photo by Irina Iriser from Pexels.

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