New German federal program funds ONLY 1,000 tenure track professorships

New German federal program funds ONLY 1,000 tenure track professorships


On the 20th of May the Joint Research Conference (GWK) presented their new program, the Nachwuchspakt, through which one billion EUR will be used to create 1,000 tenure track positions over the next 15 years. German academics rejoiced. However, a closer look at the numbers in the German academic system shows that the new program will make only a marginal contribution towards solving the problems junior academics face. Junior academics need to directly address politicians with their opinions on this maintenance of the status quo.

The GWK announces 1,000 new tenure track positions over the next 15 years

The tenure track is a career program specific to academia. Through this program, researchers attain a permanent professorship after being evaluated over several years of temporary employment using a transparent set of criteria. The tenure system is the norm in the US, but new to Germany. Until now, the only German university with a working tenure system is the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Up to 2020, TUM will hire a total of 100 tenure track professors. The selection criteria are well defined; the professors are evaluated not only in terms of publications but also in terms of supervision, teaching, teamwork, community involvement etc. For several years, in political circles, the TUM model has been discussed as a good practice example.

This is why, in December 2015, the German education and research minister, Johanna Wanka, announced a federal government budget of one billion EUR to be used to create 1,000 tenure track positions over ten years. Though this could be seen as a large step forward for the German academic system, it was quickly met with criticism that it was not enough. The GEW (the German education and research trade union) argued, based on a study funded by the Max-Traeger-Foundation, that 5,000 tenure track positions are necessary for a sustainable academic system. This echoed a past request by the German Council of Science and Humanities in 2014 for 7,500 new professorships over ten years. The parliamentary faction of Die Linke argued that the German academic system needs 100,000 permanent positions over the next ten years. Ignoring the other requests for more tenure jobs, Johanna Wanka simply dismissed Die Linke’s request as “illusory”.

There were many arguments on both sides of the political spectrum. In order to to ensure a democratic process in which all sides are heard, the opposition asked for a debate on the 9th of May, 2016. However, despite protest from Kai Gehring (Die Grüne), the governing coalition cancelled the debate .

The opposition was not heard and without any debate or further discussion, the GWK (the Joint Research Conference) – an agency in which the federal government and the state governments (die Länder) make decisions on governmental research programs – released the Nachwuchspakt program on the 20th of May. The final program creates 1,000 tenure track positions over 15 years instead of over ten years, as was originally announced in December. The Nachwuchspakt still needs to be approved by Angela Merkel and her cabinet on the 16th of June, but this is just a formality.

After all was said and done, one has to ask whether this measure makes sense in the current state of German academia.

The Nachwuchspakt creates only 67 tenure track positions each year for the 28,000 doctoral titles awarded in Germany in the same time period

In 2013, 27,707 doctoral titles were awarded in Germany. The Nachwuchspakt will create 67 tenure track positions each year, which would cover only 0.2% of these new doctorate holders. In 2014 the number of university professorships in Germany was 24,001. Assuming an ideal uniform distribution over the age groups and a tenure of 25 years, each year ~1000 of the old positions should be freed. All in all, in 2014, less than 4% of the new doctorate holders could have a chance at landing a professorship. What are the rest supposed to do?


Figure 1: Analysis of the academic personnel at universities* in 2000, 2005, and 2010 by employee groups (in %). Primary employment means positions as main occupation, e.g.,  full-professors, research staff, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral candidates while secondary employment are part-time positions such as guest professor, adjunct professor, student assistant. Source: BuWiN – 2013 National Report on Junior Scholars

As if the situation in 2014 was not bad enough, each year it becomes even more competitive to obtain a professorship. As seen in Figure 1, over a decade, the number of junior academics increased faster than the number of professorships. The number of professors at German universities increased from 20,929 in 2005 to only 24,001 in 2014: a 14.7% increase. Compared to that, how quickly is the number of doctoral candidates increasing in Germany?


Figure 2: Number of doctoral candidates in the four German research organizations (FhG – Fraunhofer Society, HGF – Helmholtz Association, MPG – Max Planck Society, WGL – Leibniz Association). The figure shows absolute numbers (top panel) and relative development with the numbers in 2005 being taken as 100% (bottom panel). Source: Pakt für Forschung und Innovation Monitoring-Bericht 2015.

More and more people are starting PhD theses each year. It is not known exactly how many doctoral candidates Germany has at present, but a 2010 estimate by the federal agency for statistics puts the number for that year at 200,400. The rate of growth in the number of doctoral candidates is also unknown. However, a trend can be inferred from the data from the four German research organizations. The research organizations doubled the number of PhD candidates over the last decade (see Figure 2). This increase most likely coincided with a corresponding increase in the number of doctoral candidates at universities. In fact, the trend in universities has been an increase in the number of junior scientists working under each professor: In 1960 a professor had an average of 3.3 scientific staff, while in 2012 this number was 6.9. But how many doctoral candidates actually finish their PhD?

Solid statistics for the percentage of doctoral candidates who finish their PhD are lacking, but we can make an estimate based on what we do know. Doctoral candidates in Germany need, on average, four years to complete their doctoral thesis. If we disregard annual growth in the number of new students, this suggests that approximately 50,000 new doctoral students start each year to maintain an overall total of 200,000 doctoral students. As only 28,000 doctoral titles are awarded each year, this means that almost half of those who start PhDs will quit part way through. Why do they give up?

Doctoral candidates in Germany quit their PhD mainly because of insecure career tracks. The 2012 Max Planck PhDnet survey showed that half of Max Planck PhD candidates thought about giving up their PhD. Out of those who thought about giving up their PhD, a vast majority cited “uncertain career paths” as a reason. Thoughts about quitting their PhDs are not unique to Max Planck PhD candidates: A 2014 Helmholtz Juniors survey showed that about 30% of the Helmholtz 5th year PhD candidates thought about quitting. The Helmholtz Juniors report states that “some of the young scientists worry about their future perspectives and doubt that finishing the PhD makes any sense if they would not get a job in science”. Even though the numbers of those thinking about quitting a PhD do not equate to the numbers of those actually giving up mid-PhD, these reports definitely show that doctoral candidates are demotivated by a perceived lack of career prospects in academia. What can be done to change this?

If almost half of the doctoral candidates will quit, doesn’t it make sense to select fewer PhD candidates and ensure a job in academia for a good part of them – for instance, 30% of them? It does not make sense to entice so many junior scientists in starting a career that only very few of them can be successful in. Wouldn’t it be better to have more stringent selections at the beginning of a PhD? With the money saved from the doctoral projects that are abandoned, one could create permanent positions.

More permanent positions are needed in German academia. These positions must include both professors and permanent scientific staff because not everyone wants to be a professor. Alas, as it is now, it is almost impossible to get a permanent scientific staff position because this type of academic job is on the verge of extinction.

The federal government does nothing to create permanent positions other than professorships

The lack of permanent positions in academia is not unique to Germany. According to OECD data, temporary positions are increasingly common in academia worldwide. In addition, some have argued that the global postdoc system is broken. As a solution, 75% of the participants in a survey organized by Nature proposed creating more permanent scientific staff positions. But in the European context, the situation in Germany is particularly bad: One estimate found that 54% of German researchers work on time-limited contracts – other statistics show that this number is closer to 90% – compared to 34% in the entire EU.

With the 54% of researchers already on temporary contracts, to which 28,000 new doctorate holders are added every year, the annual 10,000 new permanent positions proposed by Die Linke make sense and are not as “illusory”, as labelled by Johanna Wanka. The proposed 10,000 positions would ensure that one third of the successful junior scientists would be retained in academia.

Keeping one third of doctoral holders in academia is still far from what doctoral candidates wish for at the beginning of their PhD. Almost 80% of the first year Max Planck doctoral candidates want to stay in academia, as shown by the 2012 Max Planck PhDnet survey (the number of those wanting to stay in academia decreases to around 60% by their fourth year of PhD). Similar results were obtained by a survey organized by the general headquarters of the Max Planck Society (MPG) in 2013: More than half of alumni and finishing doctoral candidates said that they started a doctoral thesis with an academic career in mind. The trend is not only true for the MPG, as shown by The chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention, a 2011 report for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The report showed that among first year chemists working on a doctoral project in the UK, two thirds want to continue in academia. This number decreases to half for third year doctoral candidates.

Considering that junior researchers wish to stay in academia but cannot, one can understand why in 2014, 25,000 junior researchers signed the “Perspektive statt Befristung” petition for more permanent positions in academia. How things developed after the petition show that it was ignored. Why was this petition ignored?

In June 2015, the MPG, in the name of the Alliance of Science Organizations in Germany, sent a letter to lobby the Ministry for Education and Research. The letter requested temporary positions for everybody working in academia. When I asked somebody in the human resources department of the Leibniz Association about the motivation behind this letter, she told me that the German labour law is too stringent and incompetent people cannot be fired.

A similar mindset surfaced when discussing a draft of the recommendations for the postdoctoral phase by the MPG presidential commission for the career tracks of junior scientists. The measures proposed by the MPG presidential commission do not cover permanent scientific staff positions. Some MPG junior researchers asked for these positions. As a response, Reinhard Jahn, the chair of the presidential commission, stated:

Your plan would severely reduce the number of postdoctoral openings, preventing many high potentials from ever getting a chance. This is a bit “arrogant”: I want to stay in, and I do not care about those who are kept out in order to make my job secure. For those getting in, the job would be more or less guaranteed? Independent of performance, or how would you assure quality? In Germany it is almost impossible to get rid of someone who becomes lazy or incompetent over the years (there are unfortunately quite a few examples) – this is one of the downsides of the fact that the scientific system is governed under Public Employment Laws.

To summarize, wanting permanent positions is “arrogant” because junior academics get “lazy or incompetent over the years”. With this mindset, no wonder there are fewer and fewer permanent positions in academia. The research organizations seem to have forgotten that Erwin Neher, Bert Sakmann and Johann Deisenhofer were scientific staff for about a decade before they made their Nobel prize-worthy discoveries. But not every MPG director is so absent-minded, as this interview with Alec Wodtke from the MPI for biophysical chemistry shows. Unfortunately, Alec Wodtke is not among those making the decisions in the MPG.

What do the politicians think about this “hire-and-fire” mindset? Generally, in Germany, academic freedom is highly prioritized. Beside the freedom to engage in any research topic, academic freedom is also understood as the freedom to self-organize from an administrative point of view. Conservative politicians prefer to give money to research organizations and universities to organize their personnel structures as they want. Detailed questions are not asked and there is little or no monitoring. For this reason, politicians do not know about this mindset that goes against labour law. I recently asked Steffen Krach – the Berlin state secretary of the senator for education, youth, and science – about his opinion on Reinhard Jahn’s statement. Steffen Krach was astonished and publicly stated that he does not share this opinion. If politicians are astonished to find out what the decision makers in the research organizations say with impunity, they are likely allies in the push for change. Isn’t it high time we start sharing with them our stories?

Germany has a 70:1 student to professor ratio, leading to poor teaching quality in higher education

In Germany, too few professors teach too many university students, leading to poor teaching quality. A low student to faculty ratio is a criterion for ranking universities around the world. In the top 100 of universities with the best student to faculty ratio, the 100th place is occupied by a university with a student to faculty ratio of 9. In Germany, the average student to professor ratio at universities was 70:1 in 2014. To be fair, this number does not take into account adjunct professors (Lehrbeauftragte) and senior lecturers (Dozenten). When we take these into consideration, the average German university student to faculty ratio was 29:1 in 2014. In the US, the average student to faculty ratio is 15:1. Moreover, for the US, the percentage of adjunct professors is 48% compared to 59% in Germany, indicating that the German university teaching is of lower quality. In addition, in Germany, some adjuncts are not paid at all. While universities say that teaching is part of one’s professional training, some argue that this is slavery. With their lecturers being badly treated and over-extended, students at German universities cannot expect quality education. Having better teaching for students is another good reason to create more professorships and more secure permanent lecturer positions.

The student to professor ratio can be changed when there is political will, as was shown by Switzerland. In 2003, at Swiss universities, the student to professor ratio was over 60:1. This is why, in 2006, the Swiss Rectors Conference prepared a strategy paper. In this paper, a student to professor ratio of 40:1 was proposed as political target. As a result of changes motivated by that strategy paper, by 2014, the Swiss student to professor ratio was 46:1.

Teaching and mentorship are also important for doctoral candidates regardless of how many of them will stay in academia. With a larger surge in numbers of doctoral candidates compared to numbers of professors, the doctoral candidate to supervisor ratio has also increased. If we want doctoral candidates to finish their PhD projects successfully and get good mentoring along the way, better supervision is needed, i.e., supervisors need enough time to meet regularly with their doctoral candidates. This is why the state of Lower Saxony recommends a low doctoral candidate to supervisor ratio. However, they do not recommend any concrete number. The actual average doctoral candidate to professor ratio was estimated in 2010: On average, in Germany, there were at that time six doctoral candidates per professor. However, there is a wide range in research group sizes among universities and fields of research. But the lack of data for each university and research organization prevents us from identifying problematic cases.

Data is available for the MPG, which seems to be making attempts to lower its doctoral candidate to supervisor ratio, even though the current numbers are far from ideal. Based on satisfaction data collected in 2009, the Max Planck PhDnet – the network representing all Max Planck PhD candidates – recommends a maximum PhD candidate to supervisor ratio of 5, while the MPG’s Scientific Council recommends a maximum ratio of 8, allowing also for exceptions. The latter is well above the national average. Nevertheless, the presidential commission reiterated this recommendation in 2015. When looking at MPG personnel statistics, it is noticeable that the number of PhD candidates per department has risen from 13.5 (2004) to 17.1 (2014) without corresponding increases in infrastructure (lab space; number of technicians, postdocs, group leaders). In fact, the number of technical support staff decreased over the same time. Alarmingly, the MPG PhD to supervisor (W2 and W3) ratio is 7.9 PhD candidates per supervisor. This is close to the maximum limit allowed per supervisor by MPG internal recommendations. We can only reach an oxymoronic conclusion: In the MPG, on average, everyone is exceptional.

To be fair, MPG’s personnel statistics for 2013 showed 18.6 doctoral candidates per department and a bit above 8 doctoral candidates per W2 or W3 supervisor. As seen also in Figure 2, the MPG is making progress in the right direction. In addition, the stipends to contracts upgrade starting in 2015 would have as a secondary effect “a slight reduction in personnel numbers among junior scientists”. The MPG seems to understand, but Figure 2 shows that the other research organizations have not grasped the importance of the doctoral candidate to supervision ratio.

Despite its high doctoral candidate to supervisor ratios, the MPG is a good practice example in that, when there is pressure from different interest groups, i.e., doctoral representatives, internal advisory panels, and administrative headquarters, things change for the better. Similarly, at the EMBL – European Molecular Biology Laboratory – internal funding is limited for each group leader to two doctoral candidates concomitantly paid through institutional funds. If a group leader wants more doctoral candidates, they can apply for external funding. The rules are even more stringent at some French institutions, where the number of PhD candidates per PI is limited to 1.5, without exceptions.

All in all, for both the student to professor ratio and the PhD candidate to supervisor ratio, the number of professors needs to be increased, and a decrease in the number of doctoral candidates needs to be considered. Ideas to achieve these goals can be adopted from several successful models.

The Nachwuchspakt does not ensure a quota for women being appointed to these tenure track positions

In Germany, only one in five professors is a woman. This is why, starting in 2013, the GWK enforced target quotas for new female hires for research organizations. These targets were tied to the federal funding. As shown in Figure 3, the target quotas worked, but not quickly enough. The reason we need quotas is the unconscious bias employers have during the hiring process, as shown by a study published in PNAS. Johanna Wanka recently reaffirmed her support for female scientists in a G-7 meeting. Considering this support and the GWK’s partial success with women in science quotas imposed on research organizations, one can wonder why the GWK did not impose a quota for these new 1,000 tenure track positions.

Quotas are needed for each funding program because, as the numbers in Figure 3 show, we are far from gender parity. Things are even worse for STEM fields. For example, a current Facebook campaign is showing how bad the situation is for female physics professors at German universities. Some universities, such as TU Cottbus and Uni Kiel, have no female physics professors at all.

To conclude, all funding programs need to have quotas for women in science as a specific requirement to ensure progress toward parity.


Figure 3: Share of women in professorship-equivalent positions at the German research organizations (FhG – Fraunhofer Society, HGF – Helmholtz Association, MPG – Max Planck Society, WGL – Leibniz Association) and at universities. The figure shows the numbers for W3/ C4 positions (left panel) and W2/ C3 positions (right panel). Source: Pakt für Forschung und Innovation Monitoring-Bericht 2015.

Not only the federal government should invest in creating new professorships, but also the state governments (die Länder)

There are points to be criticized about the Nachwuchspakt, but one can also see it differently, as the federal government setting the direction for the state governments. In turn, the state governments would need to create more professorships beside those created by the Nachwuchspakt. To be fair, the state governments are the ones who will fund the permanent positions at the end of the tenure track evaluation period anyway. Hence, they are already planning to invest money in professor positions. However, they can do more.

State governments have to invest more in the base funding of their universities. Truth be told, the German federal government contributes more than half of the public spending on research. With an R&D investment of 3% of federal GDP, the German federal government fulfills its EU self-imposed goal. However, at the state level, research investment is much lower. In 2011, some states invested as little as 1.43% (Schleswig-Holstein) or 1.49% (Saarland). Outliers such as Baden-Württemberg, which, in 2011, invested 5.08% in research,  can provide good practice examples for the rest of Germany.

In terms of funding, the federal government has done a lot to help the states invest in their universities. For instance, only by taking over the Bafög financing – the student state loan program – the federal government helped the states with 1.17 million EUR a year. This is almost twelve times as much as the annual contribution through the Nachwuchspakt. Now the states can use the money saved from the Bafög financing to invest in their universities.

More importantly, the state governments should offer solutions to create a sustainable system. Pumping more money into the system, without changing it, would only maintain the current trend of increasing the number of junior scientists and temporary contracts faster than the number of permanent positions, whether professorships or permanent scientific staff positions.

Solution: restructure the system!

To conclude, the numbers show that currently fewer than 4% of the doctorate holders will get a position as a professor. There are almost no other alternatives for a permanent position beside professorship. Additionally, the number of doctorate holders is increasing faster than the number of professorships. All this happens while the current professors are over-extended and cannot offer proper teaching and mentorship to either university students or doctoral candidates. Last but not least, while there is a lot of talk about supporting women in science, when it is time to implement measures such as quotas to ensure progress towards parity, little is being done. This is why creating 1,000 tenure track positions should be presented as: New German federal program funds ONLY 1,000 tenure track professorships.

Considering all these, the system needs to be restructured such that the number of academics at each level increases at the same pace, while proper secure alternatives to professorship are given. In addition, progress towards gender parity and quality teaching are essential and must be ensured.

Here are a few ideas for the state governments:

  1.  Regulate a reasonable ratio of professors (full and tenure track professors) to junior researchers (doctoral candidates and postdocs).
  2.  Create a ten-year program to ensure a quota limit for temporary contracts such that their number decreases over time.
  3.  Enforce the creation of alternative academic positions, such as staff scientists and lecturers.
  4.  Include a female employment target quotas to be attained over the next decade in each funding program.
  5.  Ensure oversight: Request that universities annually report on these criteria and propose plans for progress. Reward the universities reaching their targets.

If measures are not imposed by our elected representatives – the politicians – the universities and research organizations will not change this culture on their own, as seen from the mindset shown by Reinhard Jahn and the Leibniz Association administrator. Target quotas set over a decade ago started a change for the better for women in science -why not use them for job security in academia?

What to do about it? Write to your local politicians and let them know what you are thinking!

As Alice Walker said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. Our power lies in our political vote. Elections for different political positions are continuously happening across Germany. We have to remember who acted on our behalf and vote accordingly. We also have to remind the politicians that we are those voting for them, so that they’ll better incorporate our wishes into their actions. Letting politicians know what we need is a right enshrined in the German constitution through article 17:

Every person shall have the right individually or jointly with others to address written requests or complaints to competent authorities and to the legislature.

This is why I encourage everybody to write to the politicians responsible for the Nachwuchspakt (contacts can be found here).

A similar action was started on the boring topic of net neutrality. However, when John Oliver encouraged people to comment en masse on the FCC website to prevent the change in FCC regulations, the amount of comments crashed the FCC website and net neutrality was preserved. Why don’t we do the same for German academia?

One important reason to write to politicians is the fact that they see people like Reinhard Jahn and the Leibniz Association administrator as nice people – and they are nice. This is why they are astonished to hear that these nice people call scientists “lazy” and “incompetent”. More politicians have to get acquainted with the internal reality at universities and research institutions.

Realistically speaking, nothing will change anymore about the Nachwuchspakt. To be fair, I am inviting protest for the sake of protest. However, protest for the sake of protest, also known as opposition, has a role in democracy: Protest balances those in power. If we do not comment, we leave the impression that the new program solved the problems brought forward by the “Prspektive statt Befristung” petition and no other measures are needed. This confusion has happened before.

In December 2015, when the German Employment Act (WissZeitVG) was voted on in the German Lower House of Representatives (Bundestag), the GEW brought forward their criticism before the vote took place. Trying to acknowledge the step forward combined with criticism about what the law lacks, the GEW press release had a positive title using the word “victory”. Alas, Dr. Simone Raatz (SPD) read only the title and used it as an argument during the parliamentary debate on the 17th of December, 2015. She said that if the GEW is satisfied with the current draft of the law, then she is satisfied as well.

The above example shows why it is important to keep the pressure up such that our requests are considered for the next programs, laws and measures. So, write the politicians, because your opinions matter! You can CC me academic.leaks [at] I am curious to hear your opinions. Also, share your opinions on social media using #spam4academia @BMBF_Bund

4 thoughts on “New German federal program funds ONLY 1,000 tenure track professorships

  1. Very informative overview. I am only concerned about the attitude towards guarentee of only academic research positions for PhDs. The vast majority of students like going for jobs in industry and usually find it. A big problem is as mentioned by the MPG report the inflexible work lows in science in Germany which actually prevents hiring scientists. We need more positiobs in science but it must be balanced.


    1. What MPG report are you referring to? (I was on a hiatus from the German politics because of my new job and I have to catch up)

      These being said, are you actually familiar with the German Science Law that is deemed inflexible by the MPG? I was in a legal workshop training us about the law and I watched the Bundestag debates when they updated the law.
      1 – the law as it is contains too many “can”s and no “should”s and as such, it is up to the employer to decide what you receive
      2 – when legal experts argued that the law cannot be enforced and certainly it cannot be used in a court of law, one CSU MdB shouted: “what do you mean? You want now that students sue professors?”

      So, when the MPG states that the law is too inflexible, allow me to laugh – considering that from my intimate meetings with their executives or presidential commission, my impression was that they don’t do their homework and work based on rumours and half truths. (I can tell a lot of funny stories)

      But let me disagree with a statement you are making:
      “The vast majority of students like going for jobs in industry and usually find it.”
      I showed several surveys contradicting your empirical observation. Why are you dwelling in the rumours you’ve heard? Are you making the same mistakes as the elders 😉


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