Jump to main navigation Skip to Content

DFG Logo: back to Homepage Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Onward, Upward, and Out?

Researchers discuss early career challenges / transatlantic perspectives at the DFG symposium in Bonn on 30 May 2016

At the Bonn Science and Research Centre

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

The theme of the DFG symposium “Career paths – Onward, Upward, and Out?” on 30 May 2016 in Bonn is one of enduring relevance, as a glance at the famous essay by sociologist Max Weber, “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (Science as a Vocation) dating from 1917, reveals. Discussions almost one hundred years later in Bonn among the approximately 90 researchers and representatives of science policy, management and communications in attendance from both sides of the Atlantic returned to Weber's reflections again and again.

It was Max Weber who declared “passion as indispensable for the arduous path to becoming an academic,” adding that the chief incentive was the prospect of being involved in scientific progress. Little has changed in this respect to this day – neither have the “absolute contingencies” to which a career in research (even in Weber’s own case) is owed. Symposium guests were also in a position to affirm his observation that an academic career in Germany was fundamentally a “hazard” and “extraordinarily risky” for a young academic with “no fortune at all”.

The symposium in Bonn, convened by Professor Russell Berman of Stanford University, Professor Dr. Julika Griem and Dr. Johannes Völz of the University of Frankfurt and DFG President Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider, explored the situation in the humanities and social sciences in Germany and North America. The symposium adopted a comparative perspective, with the objective of obtaining concrete outcomes from the discussions. The participants found, for example, that the areas of concern differed. Whereas in Germany the stage between completing a doctorate and receiving the offer of a professorship – in other words, the postdoctoral stage – proves especially difficult, in the US it is doctoral at graduate schools in particular that have come under pressure. Approaches to a solution included the desire on both sides of the Atlantic for an improved culture of supervision in the humanities and social sciences, and for earlier and honest information about career prospects in academia and beyond. The view was that a career outside academia should no longer be regarded as a “failure” and a professorship should no longer be regarded as the only “gold standard”.

In two short introductory presentations and three roundtable discussions, attendees examined questions concerning more attractive career paths in academia and other sectors. The transatlantic, comparative perspective allowed knowledge about current working conditions, funding opportunities and structural problems to be exchanged, information gaps on the specific problems in each other’s higher education system to be filled, and progress towards eliminating the platitudes used in national debates to be made. Participants rated the symposium as a success overall, because dialogue provided many more precise insights both with respect to the varying stages in the career of a researcher and the similarities and differences between the German and the North American academic systems. Professor Dr. Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University in New York formulated each side's view of the other as follows: "Each has been operating as the imaginary ideal of the other."

Short Presentations: System-Specific Perspectives

President of the DFG and Professor of German Medieval Studies: Peter Strohschneider

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

Two experienced researchers and research managers – DFG President Peter Strohschneider and Russell Berman of Stanford University – provided a lead-in to the topic, naming the most important issues and characteristics of each academic system from their own perspective. Put simply, they identified a postdoctoral crisis in Germany and a doctoral crisis in the US. It also became apparent that in the US time to degree is viewed as training, whereas in Germany it already counts as independent research activity.

The situation in Germany...

In his short presentation, Strohschneider drew attention to three singular features of the German system. The first was the prestige attached to a doctorate. Its significance was due, he said, not only to the considerable social recognition that continues to be accorded to the bearer of the title, but also to its role in differentiating between those universities that have the right to confer a doctorate and the universities of applied science.

The second special feature he named was the increasing number of structured doctoral programmes, which have established new standards of supervision and increased the independence of doctoral researchers. At the same time, the medievalist warned against overloading doctoral programmes, in particular where the humanities and social sciences are concerned. “The many compulsory sessions are valuable, but they also cost time that doctoral researchers need, particularly in these subjects, for their research and to write their monograph. A rapidly growing academic ‘coaching industry’ may improve the quality of supervision, but it can also lead to the ‘infantilisation’ of doctoral researchers.”

The third aspect the DFG President alluded to were the different paths to a professorship, ranging from the classical assistant's position through to junior professorships and excellence programmes for leaders of independent junior research groups. He reported that all roads lead via fixed-term employment contracts to an appointment in the early to mid-forties – if they do in fact lead to an appointment at all. The DFG President singled this out as an area in which the German and American systems differ drastically, because in the USA career paths within science and the humanities progress in a somewhat more straightforward manner. He perceived both systems as facing the same challenge of finding a balance between intellectual capabilities and social security.

View gallery

Russell Berman, Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, Stanford

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

… and in the US

But neither is the situation ideal on the other side of the Atlantic. Russell Berman, Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford and former President of the Modern Language Association, reported on cuts to the American doctoral programmes. He said the intention was to counter the “overproduction” of doctorates, so that sufficient jobs are available for excellent researchers. He considers this to be a misconception, however. “Taking this approach, we are not only doing a disservice to doctoral studies, but also to the academic system as a whole, which vitally depends on the quality of its doctoral researchers. Over the long term, this will lead to the impoverishment of society.”

He alluded to the fact that highly qualified PhD graduates in the humanities and social sciences are also an asset outside universities. He pointed out that, as it is, the majority of graduates work in research management or outside the world of academia, which is well known. “Despite this, we perpetuate the myth that academic training mainly leads to a professional career within research. What is normal for other disciplines is still taboo in our subjects: a professorship remains the gold standard. Finding one's place outside academia is not an option.”

Berman, too, called for rethinking, saying that doctoral studies should also equip researchers with key skills for a pathway outside academia. “However, this must not endanger the high quality of knowledge production at the universities, and neither should a doctorate be a professional qualification.” He added that, as already happens in other disciplines, supervisors need to convey a realistic picture to their PhD students early on, and also to point to alternative paths.

While the American tenure track is often quoted as a role model in Germany, it is precisely this system that Berman sees as at risk. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 30 percent of university instructors work in a tenure track position, while 70 percent do not. This is because many universities are increasingly converting tenure track professorships into fixed-term contracts, with the result that postdoctoral researchers occupy one position after another – without long-term prospects and in great financial uncertainty. “We call it the ‘postdoc’ trap, because the chances of an appointment after several postdoctoral positions become smaller and smaller,” he stressed.

Roundtable I: Precariousness of the Academic Job Force

Topics: the situation of researchers in early career stages, in particular tenure track instead of fixed terms, successive contracts and uncertain prospects


  • Annika Eisenberg, doctoral researcher at the University of Frankfurt
  • Dr. Marissa Gemma, postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt
  • Professor Dr. Marlis Hochbruck, mathematician at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Vice President of the DFG
  • Professor Dr. Lars Koch, Germanist at the Technical University of Dresden
  • Daniel Reid, Director of the Whiting Foundation in New York
  • Chair: Dr. Johannes Völz, member of the Academic Senate and from October 2016 DFG-funded Heisenberg Professor at the University of Frankfurt

Panel I: Daniel Reid, Marlis Hochbruck, Johannes Völz, Lars Koch, Marissa Gemma, Annika Eisenberg (from l.)

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

“Astonishingly, I come across the same paradox again and again: On the one hand, there is great despair in view of the difficult career paths in research. And on the other hand, there is an unshakeable confidence that it ‘will not happen to me’,” was how American studies scholar Johannes Völz described his observations. Annika Eisenberg, who is herself planning a career outside of research, followed up with an example countering this. She said she had already focused on her organisational abilities early in her doctoral studies and had deliberately sought a research-related position in university administration.

Participants in the discussion were all in agreement that researchers in the career stages leading up to a professorship are frequently in a precarious position. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as Daniel Reid reported, doctoral researchers in the US have to assume a large debt to gain their academic training. To make matters worse, the US is a country with a weak social safety net and uncertain job prospects in general. There was also agreement on the fact that the precarious situation is a product of the system, in particular for early career researchers in the humanities and social sciences: “The professors convey the idea that the only true path is within academia, and leaving for the private sector is portrayed as failure,” said Russell Berman. This way of thinking has to change, he says, particularly among established academics. Marissa Gemma seconded the call for a change in the culture of supervision: “Instead of talking about failure in research, we should be talking about success in other professional fields.”

Annika Eisenberg emphasised that it is crucial to start providing information on differing career paths at the beginning of doctoral studies. Lars Koch agreed, and advocated an “atmosphere of responsibility”. He said that he saw himself as a gatekeeper for the doctoral researchers in his team. He believes that the various stages in a research career should be accompanied by counselling appropriate to that stage. The further the career has progressed, the higher the need for an honest appraisal on the part of the mentor, he said. Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, Dr. Wilhelm Krull, says that it is not acceptable for postdoctoral researchers, in particular, to be kept “as slaves of the professors” over the course of numerous positions in the academic system.

Marlis Hochbruck reported on a different view of early career researchers in the natural sciences. The option of working not as an academic but in industry, for example, after gaining a doctorate, is already integrated into courses outside the humanities and social sciences, she said. “So for us it does not signify shame or failure if someone leaves academia.” Nevertheless, she said that among those who want to stay in academia, something of an “atmosphere of despair” also prevails – with the important qualification that departures from academia into secure and well-paid jobs are better, even a few years after obtaining a doctorate.

However, the “atmosphere of despair” frequently cited in the debate was also questioned. For example, the co-organiser of the symposium, Professor Dr. Julika Griem of the University of Frankfurt, referred to the idea in relation to the expanded counselling services everywhere. “Are we not seeing a sector here in which new positions are also becoming available for PhDs that owe their existence to the perpetual need for counselling due to the very narrative of precariousness?” Professor Dr. Ulla Haselstein of the Free University of Berlin concurred. It should be remembered, she said, that the German research system has more funding than ever and that conditions for doing a doctorate are better today than ever before. She also pointed out that “the insecurity of career paths is not unique to science and the humanities, but is a phenomenon that affects society as a whole”.

Contributors to the discussion were unanimous that in both Germany and the USA there is a risk that undertaking a doctorate could become unattractive, and that universities could miss out on the best candidates for this reason. It was argued that this in turn would have a negative effect on society, which would thus be deprived of the findings and gains in knowledge. Furthermore, an increasingly precarious situation is an obstacle to the idea of excellence. It was said that people who have to think about their future constantly have difficulty concentrating on their research and achieving their peak performance. However, it was also pointed out that a distinction needs to be made between increasing precariousness and contingency – after all, the latter is a part of research as a profession.

Roundtable II: The Permeability of Academic and Non-Academic Career Paths

Topics: academic and social differences in the qualification stage between Germany and the USA and the preconditions for improved permeability and flexibility


  • Professor Dr. James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association
  • Manuel J. Hartung, Head of the “Chancen” section at “Die Zeit” weekly newspaper
  • Professor Dr. Laurence McFalls, Université de Montréal
  • Dr. Cornelia Schu, Chair of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration
  • Dr. Sabine E. Zimmermann, Director of the Siemens Technology and Innovation Council
  • Chair: Professor Dr. Julika Griem, University of Frankfurt

Panel II: Julika Griem, James Grossman, Manuel Hartung (from l.)

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

The podium was in agreement that it was fundamentally possible to move from research to other working areas within the university and other job markets elsewhere, even though there was considerable room for improvement. The panellists called for a change of attitude in the supervision culture in the humanities and social sciences. A departure from research should be regarded as a success and should not be postponed for too long in cases of doubt, James Grossman said. He described it as “simply unacceptable” that in Germany the majority of postdoctoral researchers who do not gain a professorship are not “released” into society until their early to mid-forties. He said the situation was just as unconscionable in the US, where an increasing number of postdocs accepted one position after another, without being able to achieve security for themselves professionally or privately. All participants were in agreement that key skills needed to be taught at the doctoral stage to make other career paths possible alongside the research path. In contrast, Laurence McFalls stood up for the ivory tower, demanding that the university must remain the home of research and not become a training facility for other professions.

James Grossman reported that the American Historical Association (AHA) has defined five skills that equip doctoral researchers not only for a career in research but also in the private sector: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, digital involvement and intellectual self-confidence. Manuel Hartung underscored the importance of getting in touch with the “real world” outside academia even while completing a doctorate: “PhDs in the humanities and social sciences contribute very good knowledge and analytical skills to the employment market.” Referring to his own profession, he said that working as a journalist encompassed many more skills than simply understanding topics and processing them. He also advocated acquiring additional skills early on in order to succeed in gaining a foothold outside academia.

There was also consensus that the prospects are poor for those wishing to move back from practice to academia, and that to permit this, the system has to become more permeable in both directions. “The universities must understand that they are in competition with every other employer for good staff,” said Cornelia Schu, “They should open their doors, adopt a broader approach to research and take on experts with practical experience.” This would mean rethinking their admission criteria and creating the appropriate new positions. After all, businesses have recognised the potential of the humanities and social sciences for dealing with innovation, as Sabine Zimmermann confirmed, citing the example of Siemens.

Roundtable III: Vorschläge für die Reform von Promotions- und Postdoc-Programmen

Panel III: Sally Pratt, Wilhelm Krull, Leonard Cassuto, Sibylle Baumbach, Russell Berman, Bernd Engler, Ulla Haselstein (from l.)

© DFG / Eric Lichtenscheidt

Topics: reform proposals for doctoral and postdoctoral programmes


  • Professor Dr. Sibylle Baumbach, University of Innsbruck
  • Professor Dr. Leonard Cassuto, Fordham University
  • Professor Dr. Bernd Engler, Rector of the University of Tübingen
  • Professor Dr. Ulla Haselstein, Free University of Berlin
  • Dr. Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation
  • Professor Dr. Sally Pratt, Professor of Slavic languages at the University of Southern California and member of the Board of Directors of the Council of Graduate Schools
  • Chair: Professor Dr. Russell Berman, Stanford University

What can be changed in order to make the path to a professorship less of a personal burden and more socially secure and to create paths for people to leave research successfully? For Germany, the panel thereby addressed the most urgent need for action in the case of postdoctoral researchers who – after a long qualification period – are left with nothing if they do not obtain a professorship. Sibylle Baumbach presented a proposal of the Young Academy in Germany, which she chaired from 2013 to 2014. The proposal recommends that the number of postdoctoral researchers at the mid-level be reduced and the number of professorships increased. In addition, a current proposal of the Young Academy envisages the introduction of a so-called Federal Professorship with long-term prospects and a free choice of location for the researcher.

According to participants, things are looking better at the doctoral stage than the postdoctoral stage in Germany. They noted that much has changed for the better in the doctoral stage in recent years. Since the title of PhD carries with it not only prestige but also genuine employment opportunities, many did not view the large number of PhDs critically. Nevertheless, Bernd Engler called for adherence to a shorter time to degree, ideally no more than three years, labelling a doctorate over the age of 35 as simply too late.

Similar to a late career decision by postdoctoral researchers in Germany, the “postdoc trap” that exists in the US sees highly qualified people in a precarious situation for a prolonged period. And in contrast to the common perception in Germany, the American representatives reported cuts to tenure track positions, and in their place an increased number of positions awarded for a fixed term. Nevertheless, the American experts saw the problems more in the doctoral stage. Sally Pratt reminded attendees of the original aim of a doctorate – that is, to make an original contribution to knowledge. She said this applied to both sides of the Atlantic. James Grossmann put it succinctly: a doctorate is not necessary for a job as a management consultant. But in any case a doctorate is not occupational training. Rather, it develops critical thinking, and that is why it should be valued. Unfortunately, he said, this was not always appreciated outside academia. Out of this fundamental examination of doctorates, Sally Pratt articulated the question of whether there should perhaps be different types of doctorates and qualifications, for example a research doctorate and a professional doctorate.

Leonard Cassuto urged: “We need a reform of the prestige economy.” He argued that what has mainly counted to date among established members of staff in the humanities and social sciences is first and foremost their publications and not least their students, who in turn become professors. He advocated a change to the value system for the benefit of the “weakest” members of the research community, that is, doctoral researchers. On the other hand, he pointed out that younger researchers themselves have a responsibility to figure out what their chances of a professorship are and what alternative professional paths they have. James Grossmann noted that many a researcher, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, becomes far too comfortable in the “cocoon” of academia and avoids contact with the “outside world”. He also criticised intellectual arrogance towards other areas of society.

However, participants agreed that it is difficult to find the ultimate solution to all problems as long as we do not have any systematic and resilient knowledge about actual career paths in the humanities and social sciences. The necessary data would need to be collected with the help of career tracking and made available in order to find out which approach is really promising.

View gallery