The Postdoc Phase
Qualifying for a Professorship

A female postdoc in a laboratory

Most begin the postdoc phase with a job as a research assistant. © PeopleImage /

Those interested in pursuing a career in academia after earning their doctorates must navigate their way through the often-uncertain postdoc phase. The following provides an overview of what to expect.

Published: 2024-02-11

By: Maike Schade; translation DACHA Media

After the doctorate comes the postdoc phase – at least for those aspiring to a career in academia. In Germany, the prerequisite for beginning a postdoc is a good to very good doctorate. As a postdoc, you sharpen your academic profile, build up networks and acquire the necessary academic qualifications for the desired full professorship (habilitation), junior professorship or junior research group leadership position. That, at least, is the short story: The postdoc as a temporary phase necessary to qualify for a further academic career. 

How this phase is structured in practice, however, varies greatly. There are no broadly applicable, binding guidelines regarding the content, duration and limits of the postdoc phase. As a rough definition, it can be said that the postdoc phase is the finite period of time after earning their doctorate in which scholars continue to amass additional qualifications. By the end of this phase, a solid foundation for the next career steps should have been laid. This does not necessarily have to lead deeper into academia. The postdoc phase also serves as orientation. Those who go through it may also come to realise that a career in the public sector or in business is better suited to their own strengths and interests

Although the postdoc phase is by definition limited in time, there is no universal answer to this central question. Ideally, two to four years should be sufficient to gain a foothold in the scientific community. The Helmholtz Association's guidelines for the postdoc phase, for example, stipulate that after four years of qualification and research, a decision should be made on the direction of a future career.

Germany’s Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act (WissZeitVG) limits fixed-term employment in academia to six years after the doctorate. Nevertheless, the postdoc phase lasts significantly longer for some early career researchers. This is because postdocs often work in third-party funded positions that are exempt from the legally stipulated time limit restrictions and therefore allow for additional time.

The German University Association of Advanced Graduate Training (GUAT) emphasises that initial appointments are sometimes only received at a relatively advanced age and the qualification phase is correspondingly long. The association thus shies away from defining a preferred length for the postdoc phase.

The postdoc phase is sometimes likened to the academic version of the earlier wandering years of journeymen. Primarily because it serves to gain professional experience away from familiar surroundings. However, postdoc researchers frequently discover firsthand that while they may be learning, their pay may not be anything to write home about. 

For example, postdocs employed as a research assistant at a university will initially be assigned to the TV-L E13 pay grade – as are doctoral students – and thus will earn around 60,000 euros gross per year. This means that large salary jumps directly after completing a doctorate are hardly possible. In the later phase of the postdoc, however, higher pay grades are possible, and salaries increase along with experience levels. Alternatively, the postdoc phase can also be financed by a research grant.

Detailed information on this topic can be found in the article "Postdoc salaries”.

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Due to the diversity of activities and areas of work, there is no typical job description for postdocs. What does exist, however, is an ideal sequence for this career stage. A basic distinction is made between two phases of the postdoc:

  • The early phase of the postdoc (R2, Recognized Researcher), which should last no longer than three years, serves to reposition oneself after the doctorate. In this phase, scientific knowledge is deepened, and the publication list is expanded – but other important skills for the future career are also acquired. These may include, for example, experience in project management or interdisciplinary skills.
  • In the late phase (R3, Established Researcher), postdocs have already achieved a high degree of academic independence and ideally take on a junior research group leadership position or a junior professorship.

The postdoc phase usually begins with a position as a research assistant at a university or non-university research institution. Postdoc positions are also available in the private sector for certain subject areas. However, in the private sector, it is difficult to maintain intensive contact with the academic world over the long term.

You can find open postdoc positions in the academics job market. 

It is beneficial for your career to spend part of the postdoc phase abroad gaining international research experience. In excellence programs for junior research group leaders, international networking and visibility are even a prerequisite.

The long-term goal for many postdocs is a professorship, either through the process of habilitation, a junior research group leadership position or a junior professorship. The path to this goal, however, is rocky and, above all, anything but certain. Due to the sometimes very short time limits, the postdoc phase is almost impossible to plan. Many early career researchers scramble from contract to contract. This requires a degree of enthusiasm, idealism and discipline that should not be underestimated. 

While there is a relatively large number of funding programs for postdocs, professorships at German universities are still in short supply. An alternative plan therefore makes sense for postdocs. This could, for example, be a switch from active research to administration, moving to the public sector, by becoming a teacher, for example, or moving to the private sector.


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