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Postdoc Routes into Research

By Miriam Buchmann-Alisch

Many research programmes are aimed explicitly at doctorate holders. Stages of a successful postdoc phase may include a grant for working on one's own project abroad, followed by managing a junior research group in Germany.

Postdoc Routes into Research© Canakris - Fotolia.comAfter a doctorate the question inevitably arises: What next?
Approximately 24,000 young academics complete their doctorate in Germany every year. Only a small number of them stays in research and teaching - there are still far too few professorship posts at German universities. This reduces career opportunities for individuals and makes long-term perspectives in academia more difficult.

Extensive research programmes however offer young academics with above-average qualifications many opportunities to develop their own research profile by the end of the postdoc phase. Stages may include a research grant for working on one's own project abroad, followed by managing a junior research group in Germany.

DFG: "A period abroad is important"

Experience abroad plays an important part in the success of an academic career: "A period abroad is important. International networking and visibility are in fact required of junior research group leaders", explains Anjana Buckow, who is responsible for promoting young researchers at the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG).

But a research period abroad is not always the ideal choice. "Academics whose subject is closely connected to Germany, for example historians or specialists in German language and literature, may take a different career path", Buckow clarifies. In these cases, a possible alternative to a post as a research assistant would be to create one's own position through the German Research Association. Postdocs then have up to six years to independently implement their own research project at a German university; after that, they may apply for a second time with a new project, regardless of their age.

"In the engineering sciences it is perhaps more important to spend a bit of time in the private sector instead of pursuing a pure research career", says Buckow. But even in that case it is important that researchers are internationally noted through numerous publications and citations, she cautions.

Independent research at a location of one's choice

Grants allow those who choose a stay abroad to work independently at a location of their choice. Funding institutions unanimously list an above-average doctorate and an outstanding application as the most important criteria for an award.

DFG research grants for example allow postdocs of all disciplines to independently work on their projects anywhere in the world for a period of two years in co-operation with a self-chosen academic host. Last year, research grants provided funding for 355 projects.

Internationalisation of young academics

The German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) awards one-year grants. A board selects recipients three times a year; last year there were 115. These research grants allow particularly those who have recently completed their doctorate in any discipline to conduct research on their own projects worldwide. "Applications to us can already be made in the final phase of the doctorate", says Birgit Klüsener, responsible at DAAD for the internationalisation of research and young academics. The option remains open for four years after completing a doctorate. Short-term grants for three to six months are also available.

Feodor Lynen Research Fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation enable up to 150 scientists from Germany a year to realise a research project abroad for a period of up to two years. A particularity is that they must be the guest of one of the 23,000 Humboldtians - alumni of the foundation - worldwide, among whom are scientists from over 130 countries. The grants are aimed both at young researchers who completed their doctorate no more than four years previously, and - with slightly shorter duration but higher funding - at experienced postdocs who completed their doctorate no more than twelve years ago.

Grants for medical scientists and humanities scholars

In addition, there are also subject-specific programmes. The "Leopoldina Fellowship Programme" of the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina for example offers postdoc funding for young natural and medical scientists allowing them to spend usually two years working at renowned research locations, generally abroad.

Together with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, the German Research Foundation has developed a funding programme for academics working in the life sciences. The "Research Career Transition Awards", for which proposals are accepted twice a year, allow postdocs who completed their doctorate no more than four years previously to conduct research over a period of five or six years, approximately half of which is spent at one of the NIH institutes in the USA and the remainder at a German research institute.

Many foundations also award subject-specific grants for postdocs in Germany and abroad - although they vary in duration, extent and conditions. One example is the Volkswagen Foundation: its one-year Schumpeter Fellowships permit researchers in economics, the social and legal sciences to conduct research at a location of their choice. Fellowships at Harvard University in the USA are aimed specifically at humanities scholars.

The opportunity to independently set up research groups is much in demand

In addition to junior professorships, once initial research experience has successfully been gained, longer-term funding types that cover the postdoc phase while also offering the opportunity to conduct research independently are particularly attractive. Very popular are junior research groups, in which the DFG and the extra-mural research institutions Helmholtz Association and Max Planck Society fund outstanding postdoctoral researchers in order to prepare them for academic management functions.

All junior research groups are based on the same approach: for a period of usually five years, a group leader is provided with funding for the personnel and materials necessary for the research project. At W2, the salary bracket is higher than that of the junior professorship; the amount of materials and personnel funding depends on requirements. This funding allows group leaders to set up independent groups of young researchers, offering junior research group leaders an alternative way - alongside junior professorships and habilitation - of becoming eligible for a professorship. Having acquired third-party funding within the programmes is advantageous in later evaluation.

These programmes are also aimed at German "returnees" with research experience gained at research institutes abroad. They are equally open to applicants from abroad who would like to continue their scientific career in Germany following a grant. "Its junior research groups make Germany internationally very attractive in research", explains Buckow of the DFG.

DFG: appointment quota is high

The DFG currently funds approximately 300 junior research groups through its Emmy Noether Programme. The candidates choose a suitable institute for their project at a German higher education institution or extra-mural research institution. 50 to 70 new posts for group leaders in all academic disciplines are approved every year. They take on teaching responsibilities in agreement with the institute and voluntarily. The only catch: there is often no long-term prospect of permanent employment. "So far, only a small number of German universities consistently implement the tenure track model", says Buckow. "The move to a professorship is often still connected with a mandatory change in location, a result of rules prohibiting in-house appointments." The high appointment quota among recipients of Emmy Noether funding speaks for the programme.

The Max Planck Society has been funding "independent research groups" for 40 years; currently there are 100. Applicants can suggest three of the 80 Max Planck Institutes for their project. Approximately 80 percent of junior research group leaders also take on teaching commitments at the universities in addition to their own research. "We recently also added a tenure track to the programme. In certain posts, we can now offer junior research group leaders who present excellent research the option of being retained in a permanent role", explains Christina Beck, Head of Scientific Communications at the Max Planck Society.

Co-operation with higher education institutions is desired

The Helmholtz Association has been offering its junior research group leaders reliable career prospects for some time. If independent experts confirm the outstanding performance of a researcher after a three- to four-year period, he or she is offered permanent employment in a managing role at one of the Association's centres. "Co-operating with higher education institutions is a significant aspect of the programme", says Berit Dannenberg, responsible for the promotion of young researchers at the Helmholtz Association. "Academic junior research group leaders can also be appointed to a joint junior professorship by the university and the Helmholtz Centre and be assigned teaching responsibilities. These joint appointments unfortunately don't always work out, but they are desirable." 97 junior research groups currently benefit from this funding; up to 20 are newly approved each year.

The European Research Council (ERC) has taken up the concept of junior research groups; since 2007 it has been providing funding for up to 200 outstanding scientists working on any topic and anywhere in Europe whose projects open up new areas of knowledge. For up to nine years after their doctorate, candidates throughout Europe can apply for five-year funding to set up their first independent research team at a university of their choice. The approval rate is however lower than that of the three German programmes.

Working in a wider research context

Research groups can also be integrated into a wider research context. And of course postdoctoral researchers can generally gain intensive experience by participating in large-scale research projects. A basis for this is provided by, among others, the German Research Foundation's Coordinated Programmes, which include research units, research training groups, humanities research centres in eastern Germany, clusters of excellence and collaborative research centres. "They offer the opportunity to work with renowned and successful scientists on top-class research projects in outstanding environments with excellent equipment", explains Buckow. "Collaborative research centres are only set up if the subject is entirely compelling and the environment is right."

academics :: July 2009