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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.

From True Love to a Junior ProfessorshipErika Abraham (38) is a junior professor of computer science at RWTH Aachen
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.

Origins and development of the junior professorship

The junior professorship was introduced in 2002 by the Federal Ministry of Education as part of the amended Higher Education Framework Act in order to offer outstanding young scientists the opportunity to teach and conduct research at university without a habilitation. Following a judgement by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2004, the Federal Government was however obliged to end its funding for junior professorships. Since then, the number of junior professorship posts has stagnated, as they are now funded exclusively by the federal states and universities.

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.

From True Love to a Junior Professorship Economic historian Lars Börner (36) is a junior professor at FU Berlin

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.

Of approximately 800 junior professors

  • 28 percent are women
  • 54 percent are parents
  • 8 percent have a the option to be retained and appointed to a lifetime professorship without having to re-apply
  • 98 percent pass the intermediate evaluation
  • 71 percent would choose a junior professorship again
  • 94 percent are German citizens
  • 60 percent feel they have too little time for research
  • 62 percent feel they expend too much effort on administrative tasks
  • approximately half are considering a habilitation in addition to the junior professorship

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.