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Professional Spotlight: Junior Professor


The role of junior professor was introduced in 2002 to improve the prospects for young academics. Eleven years later, this goal is still far from being achieved. One thing has become clear though: in some subjects, a junior professorship has become an alternative to habilitation.

Professional Spotlight: Junior Professor © private Alexander Danzer, a junior professor at the LMU in Munich, is critical of fixed-term positions for junior professors
Fewer positions and a strong tendency towards fixed-term employment make a career in academia increasingly difficult in Germany. The lack of planning security is an issue for many young academics. This did not deter Julia Tjus though - and she was ultimately rewarded for her tenacity. Since July 2013, the 34-year-old has been a professor for astrophysics at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Remarkable about this is that Julia Tjus first went to Bochum in 2009 as a junior professor. And just three years later, the university has already offered her a full professorship. Today, Tjus says retrospectively "the junior professorship was a trying time". She was not prepared for the new tasks and high degree of responsibility, "though the smaller scale meant I had sufficient time to find a footing".

With "smaller scale", Tjus means the reduced teaching commitments. Full professors are required to teach nine hours a week during the semester; junior professors just four to six. "This gradually prepares you for the teaching and examination duties of a full professor, and allows more time for research," explains Sibylle Baumbach, spokesperson for the German Young Academy, which is - by its own admission - the first academy of young scientists and scholars of its kind worldwide.

The two positions also differ in terms of the salary. In contrast to full professors, junior professors are not paid according to pay grade W2 or W3 but rather W1. Depending on the federal state, the monthly salary therefore lies at between almost 3.700 Euros (in Berlin) and 4.150 Euros (nationally). After three years, there may be an additional allowance of 260 Euros. Yet even this cannot close the gap: a W3 professor can expect a salary of between 5.100 Euros (in Berlin) and 5.800 Euros (nationally, Level 1). The difference is even greater if the junior professor is employed as a salaried employee rather than a temporary public servant, as is often the case. In this case, they must also pay social security contributions.

Professional Spotlight: Junior Professor © HBZett/Stefan F. Sämmer Sibylle Baumbach, spokesperson for the German Young Academy, advises junior professors to review the professional alternatives in parallel

"Junior professors must first prove themselves as university tutors"

The biggest difference though is that junior professors are employed on a fixed-term basis. Initially, the contract is limited to a three-year period and is then extended for up to further three years following successful evaluation. "The junior professorship is a qualification phase during which junior professors must prove themselves as university tutors," explains Wiltrud Christine Radau of the DHV, the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers. Alexander Danzer considers the time limitation a "catastrophic design flaw", even in the event of a positive evaluation. The 34-year-old has been a junior professor in economics at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich since November 2010. He is not concerned about his interim evaluation coming up this autumn, though he is anxious about the time thereafter: "The junior professorship lends independence and freedom, but there is simply also a lack of long-term prospects," the economist criticises.

The so-called "tenure track" should remedy this situation. This option aims to guarantee junior professors a permanent position after six years at the latest. "It is more a 'can' than a 'must' though," says Sibylle Baumbach. What's more, very few universities offer this option. "In Germany, the tenure track is far from being the norm," tells Radau, "but even if it is not explicitly mentioned in the job description, junior professors are increasingly able to secure a lifetime professorship." To reinforce their position in the negotiations, she recommends also taking a look at other universities and increasing the pressure in this way.

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."

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academics :: September 2013