A junior professorship: in some subjects, an alternative to habilitation
There is no classic route to a junior professorship. Theoretically, a very good doctorate already provides sufficient qualification for the position. Both Tjus and Danzer opted for an "indirect route" via a post-doc position. According to Wiltrud Christine Radau, the junior professorship is "established as a building block on the road to a full professorship" in quite a few subjects.
This is confirmed by the figures from the Federal Statistical Office: in 2011, 1.563 scientists completed a postdoctoral degree; in 2002, it was almost 750 more. During the same period, the number of junior professors increased from 102 to 1.332. However, there is clear emphasis with regard to the subject groups: junior professorships are primarily available in mathematics and natural sciences, languages and cultural studies as well as law, business and social sciences. Yet the prospects of ultimately being granted a full professorship still remain limited. In 2010, there were just 650 new appointments, and the proportion of professors on the total scientific staff at German universities totalled a meagre nine per cent.
Junior professors seemingly on the verge of achieving their goal should therefore review the professional alternatives in parallel. Alexander Danzer has done just this: "I am already in contact with international organisations in case it all ends in six years' time. I will not remain caught in academia without any real prospects of a professorship." Sibylle Baumbach also warns of "moving too far from other professions". For if it should not work out, reorientation is often difficult. Yet she would not advise entirely against a career in academia. Those who choose this route despite the circumstances must above all have staying power and a high degree of motivation in addition to specialist expertise. Julia Tjus considers the willingness to relocate for a position particularly important. And Alexander Danzer believes a readiness to take on a heavy workload is decisive: "The amount of talent is very dense in these positions," says the junior professor. "At the end of the day, diligence is the determining factor."
academics :: September 2014
From true love to a junior professorship
BY JULIA BECKER
No massive habilitation tome, instead more teaching in the lecture room: junior professorships have become a true alternative to habilitation. Two examples from Aachen and Berlin show how it's done.
It was a crazy adventure that started Erika Abraham's scientific career in Germany. She was young, had finished school with straight A grades, and most importantly: she was in love. With a young man from Germany who had visited her home country, Hungary, for a few months. When their time together drew to an end, the then 19-year-old, despite not speaking a word of German, simply decided to move to Kiel to be with her true love.
"At that age you don't really worry too much. But when I look back today, I do rather feel my hair stand on end", laughs Abraham. Abraham is now 38, has two children with her husband and has been a junior professor of computer science at the elite university RWTH Aachen since October.
This makes the Hungarian one of currently 800 junior professors across Germany. The training takes five to six years. "If I'm kept on and appointed to a professorship, the junior professorship lasts five years, otherwise six", explains Abraham. As opposed to habilitation - the other route to a lifetime professorship -, young scientists are not required to write a habilitation thesis during this period; instead they have to teach more at university, independently acquire research funding, publish articles in scientific journals and maintain international contacts. After three years, they undergo an intermediate evaluation that determines whether the junior professorship is extended to its full possible duration.
Commuting between Berlin, Stanford and Florence
One reason for the introduction of junior professorships in 2002 was to align the route to a lifetime professorship to international models in order to achieve a higher degree of comparability. This is why Lars Börner from Switzerland chose the junior professorship. He believes that a junior professorship improves his chances on the international labour market: "The concept is modelled strongly on the assistant professorship in the USA or Switzerland. That significantly increases international recognition of the junior professorship", explains Börner.
The 36-year-old puts his heart and soul into his work as an economic historian. "It fascinates me to research how and why societies developed in the past", Börner enthuses. To make his dream of a professorship come true, he made the most of every possible opportunity: during his studies Börner made a name for himself as a guest researcher at Stanford University and became a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Since October he has been a junior professor at the Freie Universität Berlin (FU), an award-winning university in the Initiative for Excellence. Börner maintains his contacts with the USA, Italy and the Netherlands to this day.
Excellent grades - despite unusual circumstances
Precisely this flexibility and foresight is in demand at universities. Those who completed their undergraduate degree and their doctorate at the same university have little chance of gaining a junior professorship. Erika Abraham for example commuted between Germany and the Netherlands during her doctorate because she was participating in research projects there. The young woman twice relocated with her entire family.
In addition to this flexibility, outstanding grades in degree course and doctorate are expected. Abraham completed her Diplom in computer science with a perfect grade of 1.0 - and this although her last important examination took place three weeks before the birth of her third child. "The professor was more nervous than I was when I sat in front of him with my huge round belly. He kept saying I should please stay calm," recalls the cheerful long-haired brunette. Abraham is good at performing excellently even under difficult circumstances.
Tough appointment procedure and a lot of work
Those whose initial applications are compelling are invited to interview. "I had to give a lecture and then defend it to the commission. After that I presented my teaching ideas", says Lars Börner. In all, the interview lasted somewhat more than one and a half hours: "I was pretty nervous beforehand. But because I had a very good concept, it went really well." Today, Börner often spends his days at university from early in the morning to 11 pm. Erika Abraham often leaves her university somewhat earlier because of her children, but takes work home with her. The two junior professors currently spend approximately 50 percent of their working hours on teaching and administrative tasks - over time however this share becomes smaller as lectures are repeated and applications for research funding have already been made. This increases the share of research, which junior professors are also expected to intensively conduct alongside teaching.
When pleasure in one's subject causes lack of sleep
The two academics rarely have time left for hobbies. "I often don't get enough sleep because when there's an unsolved problem I immediately have to search for a solution", smiles Erika Abraham, who particularly enjoys the combination of mathematical theory and engineering practice about her discipline. Both academics agree that junior professorships are only suitable for people who are extremely passionate about their subject.
There is no guarantee of a permanent professorship after the junior professorship. According to a CHE survey, only 8 percent of junior professors are guaranteed to be kept on - the so-called tenure track. "At my university, approximately half the junior professors are kept on. This makes me even more motivated to do my job very well", says Erika Abraham. The academics usually find out whether they will be retained in the fifth year of their junior professorship. "This uncertainty for the future is the greatest disadvantage for me. If I'm not appointed to a professorship, I will be extremely overqualified for other roles", she says.
Sometimes there is start-up funding, often funds must be self-acquired
Erika Abraham manages her own research group focusing on the "Theory of Hybrid Systems". Abraham is in the fortunate situation that in addition to her basic salary the RWTH Aachen has provided her with generous funding to set up such a group. Not all junior professors receive research start-up funding. Most of them, like Lars Börner, have to acquire their research funds themselves. In general, junior professors earn a salary in accordance with civil service salary bracket W1 - corresponding to a salary of approximately 3,660 euros before taxes.
Abraham has already used her start-up funding to hire two doctoral candidates. "I enjoy the companionship in combination with the high expectations I have of our work", says Abraham, who had initially worked at research institutes after completing her doctorate. "I missed independent research there, and the opportunity to make new discoveries, which the junior professorship now offers me", Abraham explains why she decided to switch.
Choosing habilitation after the junior professorship
Many academics choose to complete a habilitation in addition to the junior professorship. "I'm keeping this option open for myself because completing a habilitation is an honour for any scientist", explains Abraham, voicing what approximately 50 percent of junior professors think according to the CHE survey. A habilitation is still considered the most important element on the road to a lifetime professorship at many German universities, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences.
academics :: November 2010