Generation 35 Plus — Some Insights into the German Academic System

A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D., or Ph.D.
Unfortunately, they don’t have a J.O.B.
“Fats” Domino

There is an interesting report available that — among other things — sheds some light on the situation of young scientists at German universities: “Generation 35 Plus” by Funken, Hörlin, and Rogge (2013).

In case you are not familiar with the German academic system, there are almost no tenure track positions. You either get a position as full professor within 12 years of working for an university, or pretty much the only way to stay in Academia is to jump from one grant to the next until you retire.

Unfortunately, there has been a huge increase in the number of people starting and finishing their PhDs and even getting post-doc positions, yet the number of full professorships did not change much. Given that it is ‘advance or quit’ in a pyramid that gets narrower and narrower the higher you get, few will succeed. As alternatives to working in Academia are often not seen, this induces a lot of stress.

While I think that parts of the report are deeply flawed (more on that perhaps in another posting), the report does really well in coming up with three categories of people in the German academic system (below full professorship):

  1. The Hopefuls: They are highly competitive, highly self-confident, operate with a “winner-take-all” mentality and see as the only way to win to play by the rules. Academia is first and foremost a career and being stress resistant and competitive is more important than dedication to the topic or the quest for truth. They have strong social support in their private lives, and more importantly, are strongly supported in their careers by their supervisors or mentors (e.g., advice, networking).
  2. The Fatalists: While they also see Academia as a career, they lack the self-confidence, strong academic and private support the hopefuls have. In some cases, their supervisors even hamper their careers. Frequently, they are unsure what they should do, so they adapt their behavior to the perceived standards. What’s worse, they react to the insecure and unpredictable future with huge amounts of work, but do not trust that this work will be of any use.
  3. The Holdouts: They refuse to play the academic game of status, reputation and — most of all — publication numbers. They do not want to treat academia only as a career and are interested in the topic and in doing meaningful work. While they do not play the academic game, they do a lot of scientific work. They do not believe that people like them have a place in academia — while they see that academia has to be treated as a career to be successful, they do not accept the terms and conditions. They only get little if any support from their supervisors or in their private lives.

While the report does provide only superficial information about the methods used, I find this distinction pretty plausible (dangerous term, I know). I would be able to sort my colleagues (and myself) into these different categories. I also find these categories pretty useful.

Furthermore, while these classifications are based on the self-reports of the people who were interviewed and the analysis of these reports by the scientists, I think it makes sense to use them as predictors for the chances of a future career.

I would expect the hopefuls to get one of the rare professorships, not only due to their self-assessment, but also because they have strong professional and private support. They have a CV in line with the way the ‘academic game’ is played (yup, like Russian Roulette it is a game, just not one most people like to play). I have dim hopes for fatalists and no hope for holdouts. The only chance for the holdouts would be one of those extremely rare tenured positions that are not professorships.

I would even go further and use the information about the three different categories to assess one’s own situation, at least if you are trying to have an academic career in Germany. If you do not belong to the group of the hopefuls — if you do not have a superviser who actively supports your career, actually opens doors for you, who uses his or her social capital to promote your advancement and integration into the clearly defined research community you want to get in — then leave. Don’t go, run.
Look for something different — either within or beyond Academia. Don’t waste your most energetic and precious years slaving away in a department that does bleed you out and then leaves you standing in the rain. If you really need a PhD for a position beyond Academia, get it with the least effort possible and don’t get sucked into doing project work that is not relevant for your PhD. Or worse, doing project work instead of working on your PhD. You are not advancing science, you are being played in a cruel game.

Because personally, I think that the only benefit of such a system is for professors and universities who are willing to play people — as they get cheap labor from highly qualified peple willing to work themselves to death in fear of ending up as an overqualified unemployed former academic. It would even be the rational decision for professors and universities — just look for one person to train as a successor (one hopeful young Sith apprentice for the rare professorship you make available when you retire), while using the rest for status and as cheap labor that you can bleed out for 12 years. When they leave academia (because ‘they didn’t want it in the first place’), you already have the next batch lined up and working itself to death.
It would even be beneficial to get them into a fatalist mindset by providing little support and hampering their private lives (e.g., leaving them no time for friends outside of Academia, making it impossible to keep regular private appointments like choir practice due to frequent emergencies) — as those are the people who invest huge amounts of work and blame themselves when they leave.
This “interpretation” goes beyond what the report says or what could be supported with the data, as the data basis is very small (20 interviews) and correlation does not imply causation. But if that was the idea behind this scheme, then congratulations, it works — within the game. But it won’t work to advance science or make the German academic system competitive. These conditions burn out people. It also leads to blind activism, and perhaps even scientific fraud.

Personally, the only way I see to make Academia more humane is to limit the amount of people who start a PhD and get a PostDoc position. If there are more people being trained than the system can support in their lifetimes, they will end up leaving Academia. Instead, the focus should be on meaningful, even “high risk” research. Too much of the research, at least in psychology, is badly done and superfluous. Probably a consequence when scientists can only advance by playing the career game and avoid getting focused on the science itself. This has to change, but it is highly unlikely that this ever happens, given that universities and professors profit from this system in the ways described above.

So, preemptively or because they have no choice, no wonder good people are leaving academia in droves.

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