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A Coming-Of-Age Controversy

Habilitation, Germany’s post-Ph.D. milestone, stays the course

by Sarah Everts
October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

Credit: Shutterstock
at the German Parliament inadvertently added complexity to the pathway to professorship.
Credit: Shutterstock
at the German Parliament inadvertently added complexity to the pathway to professorship.

THE GERMAN HABILITATION is as tenacious as it is controversial. This milestone along the path to a permanent academic career has faced governmental sidelining efforts. It’s been connected to a constitutional lawsuit, and it spawns heated debates among German faculty. Yet the degree still lurks on the trail many young German academics travel to get a permanent university job.

In fact, the consequence of reform efforts is that the formerly straightforward German academic career path—Ph.D., habilitation, permanent professorship—has evolved into a confusing array of parallel routes.

For centuries, academic career hopefuls in Germany would seek out a habilitation supervisor after completing a Ph.D. The so-called habilitands would spend four to eight years doing research under the financial umbrella of a senior professor. At the same time, they would mentor several graduate students, do their own research, and teach a few courses.

To get the “Priv.-Doz. Dr.,” or “Dr. Habil.,” degree, the habilitand writes a postdoctoral thesis and defends it before a committee of professors. Finally, with the habilitation degree in hand, the now not-so-young researcher—often pushing 40—can apply for his or her first permanent, independent position. In 1997, the average age at which German chemists finished their habilitation was 38.

Proponents of the habilitation say it’s an ideal environment to hone your supervisory and teaching skills without the financial stress of having to write grant applications. Although habilitands are still encouraged to apply for grants, there’s no huge pressure if the grants fall through. Proponents also cite the benefits of a senior professor’s mentorship for learning the ropes of German academic bureaucracy.

Then there are the counterarguments. “Isn’t one thesis enough,” some critics ask. Others relay unfortunate worst-case scenarios of habilitation mentors who took credit for work entirely envisioned, supervised, and carried out by habilitands, which reduced the habilitands’ professional standing and chances for a permanent position.

During the late 1990s, the habilitation was listed by bureaucrats as one of the culprits of a brain drain of young German academics. Some worried that promising academics were seeking professional freedom sooner in U.S. and British systems, which generally open the way to academic independence to researchers around age 30.

So in 2001, the federal government in Germany introduced the concept of a “junior professor,” someone who did not have a habilitation but could teach and mentor graduate students, something akin to an assistant professor in the U.S. The new positions were not a resounding success. A 2004 report found that many junior professors were treated as second-class faculty: They were given suboptimal laboratory space and heavy teaching loads, and they were not provided with permanent, university-based funding for student positions—support that is common for other professors in Germany. Furthermore, junior professor positions were temporary: After a six-year term, there was typically no possibility of tenure. The junior professorship mirrored the challenges of being an assistant professor in the U.S., without the possibility of tenure.

In addition, many members of the academic establishment saw the creation of the junior professorship as a nail in the coffin of the time-honored habilitation. Thousands of academics signed petitions. Then three conservative German states mounted a constitutional challenge to the law that established junior professorships, arguing that the federal government had stepped outside its jurisdiction, because education was the purview of the state government. In 2004, the states won.

THE VICTORY was essentially a message to the feds to stay off state turf, but it did not sideline the junior professor concept: All state governments in Germany currently allow the junior professor position at their universities, along with the habilitation. Permanent academic positions advertise for “habilitation or equivalent,” but “equivalent” can actually be more than just a junior professorship; there is yet another professional path.

While the junior professor debates raged, many foundations, as well as federal and state funding agencies, created dozens of start-up grants for “junior research group leaders” to stem the German brain drain. These scientists receive lucrative start-up grants, some topping 1.5 million euros (roughly $2 million) over five years. The grants allow young researchers to set up a lab without a habilitation and without being a junior professor. But there’s a catch. Although junior research group leaders have financial independence and no teaching load, they do not have the “professorship” title. Without the title, they must rely on a senior professor in the department to officially decide when their students get to graduate.

If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The majority of young researchers say they are satisfied with funding opportunities to embark on an academic career in Germany, but most use words like “messy” or “chaotic” to describe the path.

To a first approximation, there are three routes: The habilitand is financially dependent on a supervisor and cannot decide when his or her own students can graduate; the junior professor doesn’t have start-up funds or financial support from the university but possesses the power to graduate students; the junior research group leader has financial and research independence but no power to graduate students.

But the situation is actually even more nuanced because every university has the power to tweak the rules. So some give their junior research group leaders the power to graduate students. Other universities offer junior professors start-up money or funding for graduate students. Every situation is unique.

Yet the irony is that most junior professors and junior research group leaders say they will write up a habilitation thesis to get the Priv.-Doz. Dr. degree, if only to cover their bases. Many are worried that older professors sitting on hiring committees for permanent positions will stall candidates that don’t possess the habilitation.

So despite efforts to kill the habilitation, the degree remains steadfastly alive. The more consequential outcome of the reform attempts is that a young academic’s career path in Germany has evolved into complexity.

Views expressed in this Insights are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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