For students who are passionate about a particular subject area, it makes sense to stay at the university after graduation and/or to go into research. This constitutes an appealing opportunity to make direct use of knowledge acquired during your studies. Nevertheless, many people are still unsure when it comes to the actual details of a career path in science and academia.
Universities in Germany are structured as follows:
The highest level is formed by the Senate, which consists of representatives of the student body, academic staff, professors and administrative staff. It is chaired by the president of the university. The Senate's responsibilities include general university matters such as degree programs, examination regulations and budget planning. A university also consists of different faculties, which include the various departments. At the University of Potsdam, the Department of History, for example, belongs to the Faculty of Arts. Within the departments there are different chairs, which represent thematic focal points. These chairs are held by professors who, in turn, provide guidance for the research assistants that work there.
The path of an academic or scientific career normally runs through the stages of a degree program followed by a doctorate, a postdoc phase and then, ideally, a junior professorship or a full professorship. The earlier one starts publishing articles in specialist journals, attending conferences and establishing relationships with other academics and the scientific community, the better it is for one’s career. At specialist conferences, relationships can be cultivated and third-party funding can be acquired. Apart from that, teaching and research as well as contacts to foreign universities are important for an academic or scientific career.
However, one can observe that on average only 20% of those who have completed their doctorate are still working at the university one and a half years after graduation. Based on this, it becomes evident that not every person who finishes his or her doctorate can actually hope to be selected for a chair in the end. In addition, it is customary for postdocs to be given only fixed-term contracts over a long period of time until a permanent position is hopefully offered in the end.
Of course, doing research is not exclusively the domain of universities. Research can also be pursued at research institutions such as foundations or associations as well as in commercial enterprises. It is possible to carry out fundamental research as well as research for specific projects – for example product development.
Photo: David Ausserhofer
The prerequisite for an academic or scientific career is the completion of a doctorate. In addition, a doctoral degree is recognized in the public and private sectors and can also benefit your professional development in these areas. However, many companies attach more importance to professional experience than to academic titles. It is advisable to consider in advance whether a doctorate actually boosts one's career goals outside a university, as it cannot make up for a lack of practical experience. While a dissertation is compulsory for a medical doctor, a doctorate may not be necessary for students with ambitions in management.
The initial basis for a doctorate is a completed university degree. The doctoral degree consists of an independent preparation of a doctoral thesis (dissertation) and a subsequent oral examination. A time frame of three years in total is allotted for working on a doctorate.
Prospective doctoral candidates can choose between various options for the completion of their doctoral project. In the case of the individual/traditional doctorate, candidates must show a high degree of personal initiative as they are pursuing their doctorate individually at a faculty. Individual doctoral candidates will be advised by a doctoral supervisor.
In addition to the individual doctorate, there is also the possibility of a structured doctoral program. In such doctoral programs, the doctoral students have a fixed curriculum and a specific time frame as well as regulated funding.
There are several ways to finance your doctoral studies. Doctoral candidates can be employed as research assistants at a university. There is also the possibility to work at non-university research institutions, as well as to work together with a company for the doctoral project. You can also finance your doctoral studies through scholarships and finally, there is the possibility of financing everything yourself.
Financial support offers
Postdocs (derived from “post doctoral”) are people who have finished their doctoral degree and are preparing for an academic career (e.g. professorship). In the postdoc phase, which is also often referred to as the “qualification phase”, young academics are expected to gain their first work experience in an academic environment and develop their own research profile.
In order to gain professional experience, there are special postdoc positions, in which you work on a specific research assignment. Various options are available to obtain one of these positions: recommendation by the doctoral advisor, application for a public tender for a postdoc position as well as obtaining a scholarship. Postdoc positions in science and academia are usually fixed-term contracts, so a change of position during the postdoctoral period may be necessary.
Depending on the academic discipline, the postdoc phase will take about six years and can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, the focus is on the detachment from the doctoral supervisor in order to pursue autonomous, independent research. An individual research focus is to be developed and presented in publications and lectures. In addition, in the context of the research focus, consideration can be given to the future Habilitation (post-doctoral dissertation) topic, or an equivalent accomplishment.
With a postdoc position, teaching and committee work is an integral part of the job. Within the postdoc period, young academics are expected to have reached a certain degree of independence already in order to acquire qualifications for the professorship. This includes obtaining third-party funding, supervising students and doctoral candidates, project organization and management as well as science management. To save time, it is also possible for you to already start working on the Habilitation project.
After a successful postdoc phase, various academic professions can be pursued at the university. Employment as a research assistant is possible, as well as membership in the Academic Council until a junior professorship or a full professorship can be obtained at a later date.
The Habilitation is the highest ranking examination in Germany, which leads to a teaching qualification within one's own academic field, if passed. Prerequisites for the Habilitation are a completed university degree, successful completion of a doctorate, initial teaching and research experience and other discipline-specific requirements. In order to start the Habilitation process, an application must first be submitted to the Dean of the Faculty. If the Habilitation project is approved, a Habilitation Commission is set up which “accompanies” the candidate during the Habilitation period. In contrast to a doctorate, there is no individual supervision in the case of a Habilitation, as the aim is to pursue independent academic research.
The completion of the Habilitation thesis can take about 4-6 years, depending on the field of your research, and it can amount to about 200-600 pages. In terms of its topic, the Habilitation thesis should provide new scientific results and meet high methodological standards. Habilitation theses cannot only be submitted as monographs, though; in the case of a cumulative Habilitation several submitted articles count as an equivalent achievement. Just as with a monographic Habilitation thesis, a cumulative Habilitation focuses on scientific findings and methodology. In order to obtain the teaching qualification, proof of previous teaching experience and previous publications must also be provided.
If the Habilitation is successful, a Habilitation certificate is awarded and, depending on the federal state, the title PD (Privatdozent), Dr. habil. or habil. may be added to the existing doctoral title. Furthermore, if the Habilitation is completed successfully, there is a teaching obligation of two hours per week during the semester. This is to be provided without remuneration and, if not fulfilled, can lead to the loss of the title.
The Habilitation is not compulsory, not even for a professorship. Nevertheless, it is still regarded as a qualifying factor of a possible applicant for precisely this office. Successful Habilitation candidates also do not automatically become tenured professors holding a chair.
In 2002, Germany introduced the so-called Junior Professorship. Its was originally intended to replace the lengthy Habilitation process and enable scientists to start researching independently a lot earlier and obtain a professorial position. The Junior Professorship was to be a kind of shortcut, also intended to increase competitiveness in the market of the academic world.
In reality, however, the Junior Professorship has turned into an alternative to the traditional Habilitation with selection committees, especially in the humanities, law and medicine, often insisting on a Habilitation.
Junior Professorships are advertised publicly and the application procedure is similar to that of a traditional professorship, but the position will be based on a three-year fixed-term contract at first. After that, an evaluation by the selection committee will take place and, in case of positive results, the contract will be extended to six years. During that time, it will be examined whether a permanent Professorship position might be an option for the Junior Professor.
In theory, there ought to be a smooth transition from Junior Professorships to a full Professorship without the need to advertise the position, write applications and examine them again, which is called “tenure track”. The reality is, however, that only 8% of all Junior Professors can take advantage of this and most will have to follow a lengthy selection process again. It is also problematic that Junior Professors do not pay into the public unemployment insurance scheme and therefore cannot expect to receive unemployment benefits when their contract expires.
The tasks and responsibilities of Junior Professors are equal to those of full Professors. The focus is on independent research, obtaining third-party funding, publishing and teaching. But the number of hours per week during the semester is a bit lower than that of a full Professor.
In order to obtain a professorial chair, a university will have to offer you a Professorship. At the beginning of an appointment procedure, universities always advertise the position publicly, and if possible internationally, with advertisements published on the website or in specialist journals.
The search committee of a university, consisting of representatives from the faculty, students and other university employees or extramural experts, will invite up to eight suitable candidates, whose qualification matches the advertised position. This is where the so-called “auditions” start. Candidates briefly present themselves and have to hold between three and seven trial lectures. The committee then decides on the suitability of the candidates and draws up an appointment list of the three most suitable candidates. The top candidate will start appointment negotiations with the higher education institution.
They will discuss, among other things, the exact salary, the resources to be provided to the Professor in terms of rooms, number and remuneration of staff members and whether or not the position is fixed-term or not or if tenure will be granted.
The prospects of the candidate can improve, depending on how good their reputation, current income and the profile of the higher education institution are.
Overall, the appointment procedure for a new Professorship can be protracted and take between six months and up to two years. If successful, the new Professor will receive a certificate of appointment.
Once they have overcome the hurdle of the appointment procedure, candidates are allowed to bear the title of Professor (some federal states also use “Universitätsprofessor*in”). Those who hold a chair have to fulfill many tasks and obligations. The activities of a Professor include research, of course, which can be similar to the subject of the dissertation, but which must also differ significantly from it, for example in terms of methodology. Or it could be an extension of the dissertation. The research topic should be based on current research questions and be of relevance for the scientific community.
When it comes to their own research, Professors also need to make sure to publish at regular intervals in the form of articles in specialist journals of the greatest possible renown or to publish their own books. Their own research should also be presented and promoted among the public or the academic community, e.g. at conferences. This not only serves to improve one’s reputation and highlight one’s research but conferences are also a great opportunity to network and get to know new potential providers of external funding. Obtaining external funding is particularly important since universities only provide partial funding for research and since research can be very expensive, especially in the natural sciences. International cooperations also have their roles to play in this context, be it to avoid doing research on the same topic or to maintain and improve one’s reputation abroad. That is why it is advisable to teach and do research abroad to prove you have intercultural and language skills and get to know current research topics abroad.
Apart from the vast amount of activities related to research, Professors also have to focus on teaching, of course. Teaching courses is a compulsory part of the profession, as is the supervision of students and doctoral candidates. This includes carrying out examinations and supervising final theses.
In addition to the more than 400 higher education institutions including over 100 universities throughout Germany, there are also various extramural research institutions, such as foundations, research associations and academies of sciences/humanities, among others.
There are also federal research institutions, research institutions in the Länder (federal states) and industrial research within companies.
Funded by the federal government and the Länder, these institutions make a decisive contribution to research, development and innovation; they are active in the field of policy advising, carry out basic research or cooperate closely with commercial enterprises. Some well-known and large institutions include:
The public-sector Max Weber Foundation with its focus on the humanities, whose institutes are all located abroad, though.
The Max Planck Society focuses on basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences and humanities.
The Frauenhofer-Gesellschaft is the largest research organization for application-oriented research and primarily works on projects commissioned by industrial companies.
The Helmholtz Association operates 18 research centers of a scientific-technical and medical-biological nature.
The Leibnitz Association is a registered association and only pursues non-profit projects. It conducts both knowledge- and application-oriented research and advises politicians, scientists, businesses and the public.
There is also the Union of the Academies of Sciences and Humanities, an umbrella organization in which most academies of sciences and humanities are members. The 8 academies of the Union are located in Hamburg, Göttingen, Mainz, Munich, Berlin, Heidelberg, Düsseldorf and Leipzig and have different research foci. The Union also coordinates the Academies Program, the largest research program in the humanities in Germany. It also offers social and political consulting.