Junior research group leader programmes Germany
From Emmy Noether to Fraunhofer Attract: An overview of important junior research group programmes

A female junior research group leader with her team

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There are a number of programmes offered by the German federal government, state governments, the European Union, foundations and the German Research Foundation (DFG) that promote the development of new research groups. Here, we present the most important ones: Who can apply, how much funding is involved and what are the opportunities for a professorship?

Published: 2024-06-05

By: Anke Wilde, Maike Schade; Translation: Dacha Media

A position as a junior research group leader offers outstanding opportunities for excellent young researchers to push their careers forward. It is a viable alternative to a junior professorship or to the pursuit of a habilitation. Federal and state governments in Germany, in addition to foundations and companies, have launched programmes that enable young scientists to establish their own research groups. The most important junior research group programmes are:

  • the Emmy Noether Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG)
  • the Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC)
  • Max Planck Research Groups
  • the Fraunhofer Attract programme
  • Leibniz Junior Research Groups
  • the Helmholtz Young Investigator Groups programme at the Helmholtz Association

The programmes vary in terms of funding period, financial framework and focus. Here, we provide a brief overview.

Focus: Open
Applicant target group: up to four years after earning doctorate (medicine and psychology six years), at least two years of postdoctoral experience, substantial international research experience, excellent research project
Funding period: 3+3 years
Funding amount: No financial ceiling
Pay: Tarif BAT 1a or TV-L E15 (DFG recommendation)
Special features: The host research institution must provide a contract. Applications possible at any time. Junior professors may apply for group financing.
More information: Emmy Noether Programme

Focus: Open
Applicant target group: Two to seven years after earning doctorate
Funding period: Five years
Funding amount: Up to 1.5 million euros (up to 2 million in exceptional cases)
Pay: Depending on host institution (usually as a junior professor or TVöD E15)
Special features: EU-wide funding instrument. Applicants require a “Host Commitment Letter” from their host institution verifying that it is the “applying legal entity” and can offer adequate research infrastructure. Application submitted through the European Commission’s electronic submission system must be written in English.
More information: ERC Starting Grant

Focus: That of the institution involved
Applicant target group: Postdocs at least three years after receiving doctorate but no more than five years.Funding period: Five years
Funding amount: Up to approx. 1.7 million euros
Special features: No central programme, but a normal career step. Positions are advertised through the host institutions. To the degree possible, the positions are to have a tenure option.
More information: Leibniz Junior Research Groups

Focus: Energy, earth and environment, health, key technologies, matter, aeronautics, space travel, traffic management
Applicant target group: Two to six years after earning doctorate, at least six months of research in a foreign country
Funding period: Five years
Funding amount: Minimum of 1.5 million euros
Special features: Tenure option, concurrent further education and mentoring programme, junior research group leaders should be jointly appointed by the Helmholtz Association and the university.
More information: Helmholtz Young Investigator Groups

Focus: Industrial and applied research
Applicant target group: Postdocs and professors
Funding period: Five years
Funding amount: Maximum of 2.5 million euros
Special features: Two application rounds per year, with up to eight groups accepted annually. Candidates and institutions develop the applications together. Institutions contribute 50 percent of funding, with the rest coming from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. In the second funding phase, groups should generate own funding. Customised further education programme, possibility of taking on own group within the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
More information: Fraunhofer Attract

Focus: Depends on the specific institute
Applicant target group: Up to seven (medicine: nine) years after earning doctorate, foreign research experience desired
Funding period: 6 plus 3 years
Pay: Open remuneration: W2 (similar to civil servant status)
Special features: There are institute-specific research groups (offered by individual Max Planck institutes), open-topic research groups (central programmes) and Minerva groups (exclusively for women scientists). Application and recommendations must be in English and submitted electronically. Central applications should be preceded by contact to the desired institute.
More information: Max Planck Research Groups

Focus: interdisciplinary research projects in STEM
Applicant target group: 2 to 6 years after earning doctorate
Funding period: 5 to 6 years
Funding amount: up to 1.5 million euros
Special features: The research group must be established at a state university or non-university research institution in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate or Thuringia. The prerequisite is that the research project is located at the interface between two or more disciplines in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
More information: CZS Nexus

In addition to the programmes and organisations listed above, foundations also offer junior researcher programmes. Some states, such as Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, have also established junior research programmes. The German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) also regularly announces subject-specific research programmes for which postdocs can apply.

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As is the case for junior professors, junior research group leaders also frequently find themselves facing the question as to whether the position is enough to qualify them for a full professorship or whether they still must go through the process of habilitation, the advanced degree beyond a doctorate that professors in Germany usually must hold.

A look at the law pertaining to universities indicates that a habilitation is not an absolute requirement. In addition to the habilitation and junior professorship, state laws also consider other academic activities as sufficient qualification for a full professorship. Even if they are not explicitly mentioned in those state laws, leadership of a junior research group doubtlessly also falls into the category of “other academic activities.”

Nevertheless, it ultimately comes down to subject-specific practices and the appointment commission making the decision. In mathematics and the natural sciences, the habilitation has become much less widespread, and leadership of a junior research group is seen as an adequate qualification for a full professorship. It is a different story in the humanities and in medicine, where the habilitation has retained its supremacy. Those striving for a professorship in these areas should clarify with their mentor if they should pursue a habilitation in parallel with their position.

Fundamentally, however, a position as a junior research group leader is considered a promising stepping stone on the way to a professorship. One reason for this is the reputation of the programmes and non-university research institutions involved. Indeed, the Max Planck Society is able to lure candidates with the claim that around two-thirds of its former junior research group leaders have gone on to obtain a full professorship.

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