All Eyes on Early Career Researchers

Professor Dr. Dorothea Wagner
Professor Dr. Dorothea Wagner
© Arndt

When we discuss the future of young scientists and academics, we are talking about the future of our research system. This system will only remain effective if we succeed in attracting and retaining highly qualified individuals as early as possible. One thing is needed above all: flexible career prospects.

by Dorothea Wagner

Anyone who has been following the topics ofdiscussion in the German research system over the past few months will have noticed that the foremost question relates to the very future of the system. The major research organisations have set out their positions and initiated intense debate as to the future form of science and academic research and the framework that enables it to flourish.

But other important questions are also challenging the research community, one of which relates to the future of early career researchers. Numerous working groups are tackling this question, for example at the DFG, the German Rectors’ Conference, the German Council of Science and Humanities and the Junge Akademie. The question of the next generation of researchers is also addressed in the future concepts of various institutions, some of which have already developed concepts of their own and are now testing them.

This almost general tendency is no random chance, and it is not only praiseworthy but urgently needed. In a sense, the question of the future of early career researchers is really about the future of the research system as a whole. The problems faced by young researchers when they look to the future are in many cases the problems affecting the future of the entire system.

Some of the problems facing these researchers are obvious, but others are less obvious at first glance or might crop up where you least expect them. Let’s look at the Excellence Initiative. It has given the German research system considerable impetus, particularly the universities, which largely owe their central role in the system to the fact that they combine research and teaching with the training of early career researchers. The Excellence Initiative had a positive long-term impact on the decisive phase, the doctorate, through the concept of graduate schools. Doctoral researchers are increasingly part of a structured system and quality standards for doctorates have been introduced in many areas. Finally, the Excellence Initiative has created more than 5000 additional research jobs at all career levels, including early career stages.

It may be deemed a success story – yet most of the jobs for early career researchers funded by the Excellence Initiative and the Higher Education Pact are temporary and there are too few permanent positions at universities and non-university research institutions. Long-term staff development strategies designed to create transparent, dependable career paths are still infrequent. Some positions have also been described as “precarious”, and not just in public debate.

The discussion within research organisations asto the situation regarding early career researchers must be understood in this context. At the DFG, a working group made up of members of the Senate and the Executive Committee has critically reviewed the range of available programmes in the light of the recommendations drawn up under the leadership of the then Vice President Jürgen Mlynek in 1999 (“The Future Funding of Early Career Researchers by the DFG”). The group concluded that most of the recommendations had since been successfully implemented within the funding portfolio. This edition of “german research” provides an overview of the current early career grant programmes offered by the DFG and shares its experiences in this area (cf. “The Next Generation”, pages 4 – 6).

The awarding of positions rather than fellowships at both the doctoral and postdoctoral levels played an important part in making a research career more attractive, not only nationally but internationally. Various measures designed to promote early academic independence have also proved successful. However, the working group also outlined a set of proposals for discussion by the DFG’s policy and decision-making bodies: for example, that the standards of quality and supervision promoted in the doctoral phase by Research Training Groups and Graduate Schools should ideally also be available to doctoral researchers outside structured programmes and to researchers in the first postdoctoral phase.

Those who are actively involved in the currentdebate on early career researchers, here at the DFG and other stakeholders, have made diverse suggestions. One such key (policy) requirement upon which all agree: we urgently need new concepts as to the form that new permanent positions and more professorships should take and how they can be funded. Few would dispute that academic institutions need a constant supply of fresh ideas and fresh impetus, and new staff are an important source of these. Furthermore, change and mobility are as important to early career researchers as they are to institutions, because they mean independence and experience. For this reason, not everyone can or should be offered a permanent post immediately. But there must be a sufficient number of attractive jobs available to keep the best researchers in the German research system while enabling them to progress in their careers.

Early career researchers rightly expect to be offered flexible career prospects and a better work-life balance. The DFG and its third-party funding programmes promote both and can support model solutions for a limited period, as they have done already with a measure of success. But the main challenges are faced by the universities and the policymakers. Those who decide policy must make our universities and the research system as a whole fit for the future – and for the next generation of researchers.

Professor Dr. Dorothea Wagner was Vice President of the DFG from 2007 until July 2014. In this office she was actively involved in issues relating to early career researchers, for example as chair of the Executive Committee working group devoted to this section of the research community.

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