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The return to the new, former home country - the findings of a GSO survey of professors of the Krupp funding programme

by Sabine Jung

With the help of returnee funding programmes such as that of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Foundation, Germany's universities are better able to compete on the international appointment market. The returnees funded by the Krupp foundation were recently asked how satisfied they are with the working conditions in Germany and with Germany as a place of scholarship, for example.

The return to the new, former home country© Lisa Klumpp - iStockphoto.comWhat motivates academics and researchers to return home after time spent abroad?
52 German professors have returned to universities in Germany from 13 countries within the scope of the "Rückkehr deutscher Wissenschaftler aus dem Ausland" ["The return of German academics from abroad"] funding programme. This programme was launched in 2006 by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Foundation and the German Scholars Organization (GSO). The aim of the programme was to strengthen German universities in the international competition for the best brains.

To achieve this, the programme adopted an equally innovative albeit unbureaucratic approach: it got involved in the universities themselves, and made additional flexible funding available. The funded universities could assign up to 100,000 euro per professor to provide the desired candidate with a competitive appointment offer. The Krupp foundation invested a total of 5.8 million euro in the programme. After a programme period of six years, the Krupp Foundation and GSO took stock of their funding campaign during a returnee symposium held in Berlin on April 23, 2012. They also presented the findings of the survey of the 52 Krupp professors conducted by the GSO in February 2012.

Why are researchers enticed abroad? And why do they return again? How do returnees experience the "arrival" back in their new, former home country? And how do they rate Germany as a place of scholarship, particularly in the light of their international experience? The GSO put these questions to the 52 Krupp professors.

Reasons of mobility

As the survey results show, most of the researchers left Germany, as they saw it as a necessary step in their academic career and were offered better research conditions abroad.

Two thirds of the respondents stated that at the time, no adequate position had been available in Germany. One of the Krupp professors wrote: "The USA offered me the opportunity to develop and prove myself as an autonomous, independent academic in a position with potentially long-term prospects." Another comment indicated that time is sometimes also a factor in the successful "poaching" of German academics: "The procedure was extremely fast: it took less than six weeks from the application to the offer!

The speed of the appointment procedure gives the Anglo-Saxon universities a clear advantage, without them having to invest a single cent." Looking back, all of the respondents rated their time abroad as extremely beneficial to their career. Almost all of them would pursue this route again in the future.

Reasons for the return

The information provided on why the funded professors were drawn back to their home country is also revealing: very few returned because their employment had come to an end. Instead, the academics had real freedom of choice: in 86 per cent of all cases, they received a counteroffer to remain abroad or for other appointments in addition to the offer from their current German university. However, family reasons also played a role in the return to Germany in around half of all cases.

In spite of this, 67 per cent of the academics stated that they did not primarily decide for or against a particular country, but chose the option from among several offerings with the best work conditions. A figure that clearly shows that excellent academics meanwhile move entirely independently on the international job market - and that German universities are required to actively seek candidates and make competitive offers.

Against this backdrop, the GSO survey provides important insights into which factors and strategies yield success for universities in the battle for top academics. On the one hand, the potential of the respective colleagues as "recruiting agents" should be used more systematically. For in the cases in which the Krupp professors were actively encited from their current German university, 90 per cent of the time, it was colleagues - and not university management - who approached them. On the other hand, financial flexibility is decisive in the appointment negotiation phase, which can be provided by the Krupp Foundation funding. Hence two thirds of the respondents stated that the Krupp-GSO funding programme played a very important or even decisive role in their acceptance of the appointment offer.

One of the returnees explained: "Without the Krupp funding, I wouldn't have been able to start my preferred project in Germany, employ a PhD student and begin a successful two-year interdisciplinary cooperation with colleagues from the Max-Planck-Institute. In retrospect, it was a decisive catalyst." At 85 per cent, the above-average appointment acceptance quota achieved with the funding programme is proof of this.

The significance of "soft" factors

However the supposedly softer factors are not to be underestimated. Countless returnees emphasised in their responses and in-depth interviews how important the appreciation of their work and their overseas experience expressed in the additional funding was. For many, it represented a clear signal of the university's goodwill in a drawn-out negotiation process in which some even felt like a supplicant.

Respondents were even more outspoken when it came to the subject of "dual careers". Almost 40 per cent rated the offers of support for their respective partner made by their German university as "Sufficient" or "Deficient". On a scale of 1 to 5 (hereby 1 being the highest achievable rating), an average rating of just 3.5 was achieved. Particularly when it came to this aspect, the expectations - based on positive experience mostly in the USA - seem particularly far from what German universities can offer (to date). "The term 'dual career' is in fact nothing more than a buzzword that universities are familiar with. In my case, it didn't achieve anything," criticised one returnee. Another respondent was of a similar opinion: "Although there is a 'dual career couples' section on the internet, this did not actually exist, and I was merely offered general support in my wife's job search."

And some even feel misled by their university: "The promise of help for my partner was not upheld; enquiries were simply ignored." In turn, this means that universities already acting professionally in this field can earn themselves an important competitive advantage.

All other aspects of the appointment process were not viewed as negatively by the returnees, but still only received average ratings: the speed of the procedure received a rating of 2.8; transparency and professionalism of the process a rating of 2.6. Some specifically stated that their procedure took several years.

Moving on to consider the arrival phase in the new workplace and the new, former home country, the returnees seem to have largely been left on their own. Just one quarter of the respondents rated the support in the search for accommodation, moving and dealing with the authorities as "Very good" or "Good" - the average rating lay at just 3.5. Most returnees also had to do without initial induction assistance, e.g. guidelines and introductory meetings. The option of starting directly with the actual research work was rated as just "Sufficient" or "Deficient" by 45 per cent of the respondents (average rating of 3.1). "I stood before empty labs and labs still requiring clearing, and had to first renovate these and set them up," one respondent complained, for example. One returnee was even more vocal: "Our university administration appears to still primarily enjoy complicating matters as much as possible instead of helping to identify common solutions. This was entirely different in the USA." Germany's universities still have some catching up to do on this front too.

Thus one respondent made the concrete suggestion of introducing a mentor system in which new professors are coached by more experienced counterparts and helped to settle in.

Work conditions in Germany

The responses to the question of how the returnees rate their current position in terms of the research conditions in general and structuring options are all the more pleasing against this backdrop. 90 per cent and 75 per cent of the Krupp professors rated these aspects with "Very satisfactory" and "Satisfactory" respectively. One of the returnees wrote: "Despite some aspects requiring improvement, I am extremely pleased to be back in Germany with its excellent research landscape."

When asked more precisely, greater dissatisfaction is clearly apparent in some areas. The aspects of the burden of administrative work and the salary level received the worst ratings with averages of 3.5, closely followed by the teaching load (average rating of 3.3). Surprisingly, the degree of satisfaction with the university's internationality and the quality of students only ranked in the middle of the field (3.0 and 2.8 respectively). The work/life balance also only received a rating of 2.7.

Germany as a centre of scholarship

The assessment of the respondents' own university is also reflected in that of Germany as a centre of scholarship in general to which the final section of the survey is devoted. The need for reform at German universities was considered here - in the light of the respondents' own international experience.

On a scale of 1 to 5, "No need for reform" (1) and a "High need for reform" (5) could be differentiated between. The Krupp professors see the greatest need for reform in the administrative structures and processes. Almost 70 per cent considered there to be a "High" or "Very high" need in these areas (average rating of 3.9). The respondents deemed a reform of the route to a professorship ("tenure track") equally important.

This aspect also received the rather low rating of 3.9. High up on the wish list of reforms were also the aspects of the teaching load, salary system and appointment procedure. Summing up, one of the academics wrote: "The teaching and administrative loads of professors in Germany are significant and not competitive in an international comparison. Couple this with low salaries, which can only be improved through negotiation after receiving an appointment offer, and the conditions aren't rosy. That such a high-calibre research landscape exists in Germany despite this can primarily be explained by academics' extraordinary commitment."

In the global competition for the best brains, Germany cannot afford such location disadvantages. Hence, initiatives such as that of the Krupp Foundation and GSO remain necessary. It would be highly desirable if after the success of the privately-financed returnee programme, public funding were now made available to stabilise the so very valuable programme for Germany as a centre of scholarship. Either way, the GSO will not only continue to work to regain top academics in the future, but also to make returnees' voices heard in the German reform debate. As a mediator between the systems, they can make well-founded comparisons, share best practices, and at the same time nominate preservation values. Allowing the return of a few to forge progress for many.


About the author
Dr. Sabine Jung is the Managing Director of the German Scholars Organization (GSO).

From Forschung & Lehre :: May 2012