Understanding Nonstandard Biographies as Origins of Scientific Creativity

Although trained at a very high level, German scientists are often in a disadvantaged position in the international job market. The reason: They are comparatively old when they receive their first academic degree, the Diploma. However, recent efforts to bring down the average graduation age in Germany by imposing age limits on scholarships and on tenured positions seem to underestimate the significant advantages of widespread experiences and diverse backgrounds that mature scientists usually bring with them.

The average graduation age for the Diploma in Germany is 28--clearly enough putting German science, and especially scientists who look for international positions, at a disadvantage in the international competition (see also " Germany to Introduce Bachelor's and Master's Degrees"). But recent attempts to solve this problem by imposing age limits on eligibility for grants or tenured positions (e.g., Ministry for Science and Culture, Lower Saxony) fail to consider the overall detrimental effects of such a policy and fall short of a deeper analysis of the courses of academic careers in German institutions.

Organizational cultures in Germany's scientific institutions have repeatedly been criticized for their excessive reliance on the status conferred by the organizations themselves and the corresponding mechanisms of closure and homologic reproduction. Additionally, a lack of permeability in institutions' boundaries (be it from one organization to the next, from one occupation to another, from theory to praxis, from university to industry, or from family to work) places heavy biographic risks on every single scientist. Leaving organizational cultures unchallenged and placing the burden on individuals in extremely dependent positions can only worsen the problem.

At the same time, there are many examples of successful mature scientists in early career situations (see, for example, the Next Wave feature "Never Too Late?") who demonstrate impressively their great value for the advancement of science and of the organizations where they work. Especially in view of science's vital importance for the development of society, it is necessary to ground scientific undertakings in a broad conception of responsibility to the community. Prior experience and a more advanced understanding of the nature of human life and the functioning of society are preconditions for this responsibility.

In this situation, imposing bureaucratic age limits amounts to treating the symptoms while disregarding the underlying disease. In the progress of globalization, apart from youth and straightforward biographies in scientific careers, we also need the advantages of widespread experiences and diverse backgrounds to live up to new challenges with all the hard-won resources we can get hold of and all the wisdom we can bring to bear on society's problems.

Reconsidering our current instruments for assessing intellectual productivity would allow organizations to improve the quality of their evaluation procedures and to open up to expertise from outside their narrow scope of influence. And it is only then that academic career changes and institutional mobility could be considered as possible assets and nonstandard biographies regarded as the sources for creativity and innovation they really are.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers