The shape of Germany floating in the hand of a man

Germany: the career challenges of a single academic track

A recent petition seeking government support to establish more permanent jobs and to limit the number of short term contracts in science and technology positions in Germany has already gathered over 10,000 signatures. It was initiated on 7th March 2014 by a German scientist called Sebastian Raupach, who wrote a letter addressed to the vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, and to the country’s federal minister for education and research, Johanna Wanke. This petition reflects the growing unrest among scientists regarding the limited career path in Germany.

Germany has a tradition of redefining PhDs as training suitable for preparing people for a career outside academia, by incorporating many of these doctors into its very strong and stable industrial sector. This might be one of the reasons leading Germany to be one of so-called EU-innovation leaders, together with Sweden, Denmark and Finland, according to the Innovation Union Scoreboard 2013.

However, anecdotal evidence in Europe reveals the case of high-profile scientists struggling to get stable research positions, even in Germany, which is thought to be one of Europe’s research power house. Indeed, in April 2011, a feature article in Nature brought the attention of the research community to the issue of possible overproduction of PhDs, who, according to the authors, may never take full advantage of their qualifications, on a global scale.

This brings to the question of whether the German academic system is suitable for those scientists who do not aim to jump to the private sector but stay in academia instead. The answer is not straightforward. The global situation of research in Germany is very positive: the German Federation currently invests 2.9% of its GDP in R&D; around €90 billion per year.

What is more, researchers enjoy a high degree of independence in their research without necessarily being restricted to addressing the demand of the market, according to the report Global State of Young Scientists, published by the Global Young Academy in cooperation with the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Contrasted academic sector

Nevertheless, the German system also presents less attractive aspects for career academics. For example, one of the milestones of the current model is to support excellence in science. Within the current model, the possibility to make a scientific career in Germany is only accessible for what are considered the best brains. In this context, short-term positions in science might promote competition between scientists and increase the quality of the scientific outcome. Therefore, such short-term positions for PhD students and postdocs have increased enormously in the past few years. They now represent most of the active research activity.

This has created a controversial situation, according to Christiane Funken, professor of sociology at the Technical University in Berlin, Germany. Together with colleagues, she has published a report in 2013 on the situation of 30 to 40 year old scientists in Germany, the so-called Generation 35plus. Their findings confirm that despite being involved in a war of talents, the country has produced a strongly unidirectional academic system, which offers restricted scientific career opportunities. Therefore, many researchers only see the possibility of obtaining long-term professional stability when applying for a full professorship.

The trouble is that the number of professorships has not grown in Germany in the past 10 years proportional to the number of scientists. In total, the number of permanent positions in Germany only represented 12% of all university positions in 2013, compared to 20% ten years ago.

Moreover, according to a recently published study by Reinhard Kreckel, former director of the Institute for Higher Education Research (HoF) at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, in Germany, there is a significant lack of academic teaching positions below the grade of professorship compared to other countries.

Consequences of current models for scientists and for science

In Funken’s words, “the extreme competition and existential fears have become for many scientists unbearable.” According to the Generation 35plus report, scientists working in Germany face their uncertain future in three different ways. They are either optimistic and look confidently to the future. Scientists in this category typically have strong mentors and a stable private sphere. The second category covers the fatalists, who present low self-confidence and have neither strong supervisors nor a stable environment. The third category is made of outsiders, who already no longer consider science as a career opportunity.

Although some competition is very positive for science, scientists also need stability. Career paths which only reward individual excellence may be neglecting other important aspects. Indeed, excellent researchers will never be able to bring science ahead without colleagues with complementary skills. These would have an extensive scientific background and professional experience but would not necessarily be professors.

Thus, a scientific infrastructure which does not offer long-term possibilities to a variety of people with different scientific profiles might not be, in the future, attractive to many of them. In the words of Raupach, promoter of the online petition, excellence does not require uncertainty.

Featured image credit: vege via Fotolia

Guillermo Orts-Gil
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