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Career prospects for postdocs

Interview conducted by Birk Grüling

Although there are positive signs of change, working conditions for postdocs in Germany remain difficult. Andreas Keller, director of the Higher Education and Research division of the German Education Union (Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft - GEW) explains exactly where the problems lie and what changes still need to be made.

Career prospects for postdocs© Andreas Keller Andreas Keller represents the interests of those in the GEW (German Education and Science Workers' Union)

academics:

Would you advise someone to pursue an academic career today?

Andreas Keller:

Basically, yes. I would always encourage someone not to let unfavourable conditions deter him or her from pursuing his or her goals and just giving it a go. Objectively speaking, we live in a knowledge-based society and therefore rely on highly qualified experts and new research findings. Without motivated, skilled scientists and scholars we will be unable to solve society's problems.

academics:

What is most likely to discourage young postdocs?

Andreas Keller:

The biggest obstacle is definitely the fact that it is difficult to plan for the future, particularly in the postdoc period. Anybody embarking on an academic career has to deal with a great deal of insecurity regarding the future. Nowhere is this uncertainty more pronounced than in Germany.

academics:

And what arguments are to be made in favour of an academic career?

Andreas Keller:

Studies have shown that intrinsic motivation has a very significant role to play, particularly for young scholars. They enjoy their work immensely, both the research and the teaching. In fact, they are so satisfied with the content of their work that they even put up with unfavourable conditions. However, what is currently happening is that the situation is becoming too unbalanced. The appeal of an academic career is gradually diminishing and the search for suitable candidates has become increasingly difficult in many fields of study. In some fields, universities and research institutions are simply no longer able to compete with other employers.

academics:

Who are universities competing with in the drive to attract young scholars and scientists?

Andreas Keller:

Primarily against universities and research institutions abroad, as well as industry. The potential earnings are often significantly better there, and open-ended or long-term employment contracts are the norm. Even at independent research institutes, such as the Max Planck, Leibniz, and Fraunhofer Institutes, conditions have of late been trending in the same direction as at universities; that is, more and more fixed-term contracts of ever shorter durations.

academics:

What is the sticking point? We often read, for example, about the lack of a junior faculty positions.

Andreas Keller:

This is exactly the problem. Our system is split in two, with tenured professors on one side and early-career researchers on the other. The latter are classified as "early-career researchers", irrespective of how long ago they completed their doctorates and what research they have produced in the meantime. They have no long-term job prospects within the academic system aside from a tenured position. This is because of the very small number of permanent positions for junior faculty. By contrast, in the UK, France, and the USA career options besides a tenured position are a matter of course. In my view, creating opportunities like these for scholars in Germany is the key challenge.

academics:

What consequences do these problems have for Germany's reputation as a centre of knowledge?

Andreas Keller:

It will become more and more difficult to convince the best minds to embark on a university career. Why would they do that to themselves? For less money and greater insecurity? A further consequence is that the quality of research and teaching will be jeopardized. If young scholars constantly have to worry about where their next job is coming from, they will be unable to concentrate properly on their work. Many will err on the side of caution and shy away from experimenting with new approaches in their research. And this will stymie innovation.

academics:

Does this imbalance apply across all subject areas?

Andreas Keller:

Yes. These problems certainly affect all fields of scholarship, even if there are slight differences from field to field. In the engineering sciences, for example, competition from industry is particularly fierce. That's why even doctoral students in engineering departments are normally offered full-time positions, because otherwise no engineer would decide to bet on academia.

academics:

Let's compare the postdoc situation here in Germany with that abroad. What have you found?

Andreas Keller:

When talking to colleagues from other countries, I have had two different experiences. The first is great surprise when I share data with them on the current state of the German academic system. For example, in Germany, 90% of all researchers employed at a university only have a fixed-term contract, and the majority of fixed-term contracts are for under one year. Foreign colleagues find this very hard to believe. On the other hand, my colleagues report that the situation abroad is also not good, and that it is getting worse. There are pay cuts and reductions in staff, particularly in those countries that have been hard hit by the financial crisis. Fixed-term contracts are also on the rise.

academics:

What is the situation like for international postdocs in Germany?

Andreas Keller:

In principle, the structural problems are very similar. On top of this, they have to deal with the additional bureaucratic complications, i.e. residency and work permits are often very difficult to obtain, and the prospect of remaining in Germany for the long-term is very uncertain.

academics:

What effect has the expansion of fellowship programmes had on the postdoc situation?

Andreas Keller:

As a union, we have a very definite opinion on this matter and demand that jobs come before fellowships! Employing postdocs in permanent positions makes much more sense, because early-career researchers are then covered by social security and their wages are protected by collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, they then have access to all of the university's facilities. This is not the case for fellowship holders, which is why I take a particularly critical view of fellowships during the postdoc years. Fellowship holders have to put up with these disadvantages and often cannot even enjoy the benefits they were promised: being free to work independently and without teaching or service duties. It is not unusual for fellowship holders to be integrated into the day-to-day business of a department just like regular employees. Moreover, the amount of funding is usually not sufficient to cover living expenses. If up to a quarter of the fellowship needs to be set aside for health insurance, for instance, it is not possible to live off of what remains. That's why I think fellowships are, at best, only justifiable as an additional source of funding.

academics:

Let's look at the individual participants involved in this situation. What can politicians do for postdocs?

Andreas Keller:

Government must take action on various levels. As a first step, the federal government should change the law on fixed-term contracts in higher education and research (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz). It allows universities and research institutes to hire the same individual using an unlimited number of consecutive fixed-term contracts, the duration of which are entirely at their discretion. In addition, the law provides for a fixed pay-scale which prohibits unions from negotiating with employers for adequate contract terms. GEW advocates for the elimination of this fixed pay-scale. The second step would be a proactive policy for allocating funding. Research institutions and universities are dependent on the government for significant amounts of financial support. This funding should be awarded on the condition that the institutions guarantee fair employment conditions. The German Parliament has, of late, begun to discuss exactly such an approach.

academics:

Is there anything similarly positive to report on the university side?

Andreas Keller:

Indeed, there are some developments here too. The German Rectors' Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz - HRK) has just adopted a recommendation asking higher education institutions to act responsibly with regards to fixed-term contracts. This includes regulating contract periods, allowing for career planning, and ensuring compatibility with family life. In the last few years, universities have successfully worked toward strengthening their autonomy from state governments - now they need to demonstrate that they are also able to handle this freedom in a responsible manner. If this fails, stricter legal regulations or target agreements will be unavoidable.

academics:

Which policies from abroad could teach us something?

Andreas Keller:

I would say that it would make sense to adopt the tenure track system. This would make it possible for postdocs to remain in the university system on a continuous basis, either as tenured professors or as junior faculty with long-term contracts, provided they meet certain predefined requirements. This would also be feasible in Germany as part of a forward-looking plan for personnel management. Universities want to act like businesses nowadays, but do not do what every commercial enterprise has to do - ensure they retain skilled personnel over the long term.

For more information please read: Postdoctoral funding opportunities.»


About Andreas Keller
Andreas Keller has a PhD in political science and has been a full-time member of the executive board of the GEW since 2007. He is responsible for its Higher Education and Research division and represents the interests of unionised scholars within the GEW. His previous professional experience has allowed him to engage with the academic world from various perspectives: he has worked in research and teaching at the University of Marburg, as a policy advisor to the German Parliament, and as an academic manager in university administration in Berlin.


academics :: May 2012