A Reflection on Postdoctoral Research Funding in Germany
An academic career can make some heavy demands on your life, and often confronts us with difficult decisions. Perhaps the trickiest and most frequent one we face – thanks to the dearth of positions available for the glut of very qualified people – is where and how far afield we are prepared to go for a job.
A few years ago, I found myself staring down the business end of exactly this dilemma. I had a prestigious research fellowship at the University of Edinburgh that had a year left to run and, while I was living some distance from my friends and family back in the south of England, I was able to spend a good deal of time with my son, who also lives in Scotland. But I had also just got engaged to a German academic and we wanted very much to move in together. British academia was at that time in the full grip of REF frenzy, and permanent academic positions were impossible to obtain without a book forthcoming in that REF cycle, which neither of us had. On the other hand, there were a few opportunities available in Germany, so I decided to try my hand. I managed to get a job with only my second application, to the Graduate School of the Humanities at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.
In this effort, I had the tremendous good fortune to be in a relationship with an insider who knows the system intimately. If that is not the case with you, I’ve shared a few tips below that will hopefully demystify the process and encourage you to look outside the English-speaking world for the next step in your academic career.
First, know your system. This is difficult to achieve without knowing someone involved or having experienced it yourself. But it is very important: different countries have different academic traditions and conventions, which it is wise to observe. These differences can be large and small, ranging from tiny variations in application documents to the entire trajectory of an academic career. To give a pertinent example, German CVs can go on for pages as everything is listed: every publication, no matter how trivial; every conference presentation; every course taught, and so on. (You can simply produce a CV of the same length as you’re used to, but be sure to list everything in supplementary documents.) People also regularly include a photo, their date and place of birth, and even their marital status and number of children on their CV. Be prepared for a slightly different interview experience: the panels tend to be larger than in Britain with fewer specialists in your area or subject. I wasn’t asked to give a job talk, either, but rather to present a poster (in the natural sciences mould) at an exhibition where all my competitors did the same.
Don’t worry too much about these differences. As a foreigner, you can get away with a lot. There is a huge internationalisation agenda in German (and other European) universities and they are desperate to encourage international students and postdocs to apply to work and study. Applications in English are almost always accepted; if not, a position will be advertised only in the local language. In any event, unless you are a near-native speaker in the language in question, I’d recommend that you apply in English: the small amount of credit you will earn with a selection committee for applying in their language can be easily offset by any mistakes you make and by the possibility that they might judge you by the same – probably stricter – standards as any domestic candidate. But don’t just throw in the same documents you are using to apply for a postdoc in Britain or the US; as with all applications everywhere, make sure you supply exactly what is asked of you.
To obtain knowledge about a foreign academic system, do your best to get to know people who work or have studied within it. If you already happen to have friends who work in higher education overseas, exploit them as much as you can. If not, make some: apply for a fellowship at an institute offering postdoctoral fellowships that attract overseas visitors, such as IASH at the University of Edinburgh (http://www.iash.ed.ac.uk), and network for all you’re worth.
Next, manage your expectations. This will come from knowing the system to which you are applying a little better, but plan your career carefully: there are no permanent jobs in German academia beneath the rank of professor, meaning that people are not only qualified for but actually do the jobs of lecturer, senior lecturer, reader (etc.) as postdocs (slightly condescendingly termed Nachwuchswissenschaftler – literally, ‘freshly minted scientist’). All this means that Germany has a larger postdoctoral sector than English-speaking countries, making it ideal as somewhere to gain further experience, but less appealing than Britain or the US as a permanent base for your career. As is the case almost everywhere, it seems, external research funding has become vastly more important within Germany in recent years. This is in part because of a law (the catchily named Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG) or ‘Law on Short-Term Academic Contracts’) prohibiting the direct employment of academics by universities unless they have permanent contracts (i.e. professors) or are within 6 years of completing their PhD. So, if you do decide to settle in Germany, be prepared to apply for substantial funding once the WissZeitVG clock has run out.
As will be familiar from other applications, play to your strengths. Your command of English and the sheer fact that you are foreign will be amongst these, especially if you have experience at working in universities with an international reputation. I’m sure that my PhD from Oxford and fellowships at Edinburgh helped to enhance my appeal, not just because they enhanced my own credentials but also because I was able to claim convincingly that I was part of a network of British scholars to which my new university might not otherwise have had access. There are more intellectual ways of playing to your strengths too: emphasise differences between the English- and (for example) German-language scholarship in your fields and how you can bring these together by working at university X or with professor Y. In short, use your (foreign) background and (international) future to enhance your attractiveness.
Above all, don’t be intimidated, especially by a different language. As a reader of a French History blog, you will undoubtedly be experienced in learning foreign languages, but even if you’re not or you know very little of the language in question, don’t let this put you off. I hardly knew any German before I arrived here in 2013, and people are generally patient and indulgent as you learn the ropes. (Most people enjoy showing off how much English they know, meaning that eavesdropping and reading over your shoulder is rife.) The same goes for the academic system: German academia has, as might be imagined, a lot of administrative formalities for the entire range of scholarly activities. But most of these are eminently logical and the paperwork is no more onerous than in British or American universities. You will soon get used to local ways of doing things, in both town and gown environments.
Finally, enjoy the opportunity. Working abroad is challenging but exciting. You will have the opportunity to make new friends and experience a different academic system, with its own benefits, challenges, pitfalls and possibilities. I have made some wonderful friends during my time in Germany – both Germans and other European postdocs – and have enjoyed stimulating exchanges with colleagues and students from very different walks of life. I might never have considered a postdoc abroad had it not been for my personal circumstances, but I would recommend the experience to anyone.
Good luck! (Oder, wie die Deutschen sagen, ‘Toi! Toi! Toi!’)
Andrew Wells, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen