Independence for Young German Scientists

Germany's Nachwuchswissenschaftler--its rising generation of scientists--is often discussed these days in the country's science-policy circles. Because German researchers finish their doctoral training at the relatively mature average age of 33, their need to gain scientific independence quickly is even greater than for their counterparts in countries were the qualifying age is less.

Attuned to the career needs of German postdocs, German funding agencies have developed programmes aiming to assist early career scientists who are seeking a career in academic research. One scheme-- the Emmy Noether Programme, established by the German Research Foundation ( DFG) in 1999, offers “junior” postdoctoral researchers--those who have finished their Ph.D.s within 2 to 4 year--funding for up to 6 years to establish their own research groups. The award is generous and prestigious, and very likely boosts the short-to-medium-term career perspectives of its awardees, although by just how much remains to be determined. A few recent Emmy Noether awardees spoke to Science's Next Wave,relating their experiences, offering advice, and pondering their own long-term prospects.

Noether in a Nutshell

Emmy Noether awardees usually are funded for 5 years, although 6 years is possible. The funding package includes the salary of the group leader (the so-called BAT Ib/Ia on the German civil service scale, which is equivalent to an assistant or junior-professor salary) and consumables. The funding can also cover salaries for Ph.D. candidates, postdocs, and technicians. Noether-funded groups usually contain between two and five members, depending on the research project. Candidates must secure a host institution--a university or research institute--that agrees to provide them with lab space and administrative support .

The Emmy Noether programme is open to researchers from all academic disciplines. The DFG stresses that scientific excellence and "outstanding publications in high ranking international specialist journals" are the key qualifications, but they also stipulate that applicants must have worked abroad for at least 12 months during either their Ph.D.s or postdocs. 220 awards are currently being funded, the success rate for application is 30%, and slightly more than 10% of awards have been secured by non-German scientists.

The DFG is not the only organisation attempting to create career opportunities for postdocs in Germany. The Max Planck Society (MPG) has an equivalent, the Independent Junior Research Group scheme which has been running since 1969. More recently, the Helmholtz Association established its Young Investigator Scheme. The Helmholtz offers 20 new group leaders positions per year whereas the MPG has about 50 positions across its various institutes, with about six new openings every year.

A Successful Application

What makes an application successful? Bernd Kuckert, an Emmy Noether group leader and physicist working at the DESY in Hamburg, believes one of the keys to winning an award is applying at the right time. "Do not apply too early in your career," says Kuckert. "Make sure that you can present original work that is more than a slight technical improvement of your Ph.D. results." Kuckert stresses that, although the originality of the research project is essential, it is also important to be able to write a summary of the project that can be understood by non-specialists.

Gaining Independence

Without a doubt, securing an Emmy Noether award is big boost. “I was really happy to get the possibility to continue the research I am interested in, independently and with good funding,” says Susanne Schoch, a biochemist who is leading an Emmy Noether research Group at the Institute for Neuropathology at the University of Bonn. Kuckert feels the real value of the independence and funding he now has is that it allows him to do research which would be hard to do otherwise because it is risky and far away from the mainstream.Chemist Matthias Breuning made the move from a permanent lab head job in industry to academia--as an Emmy Noether group leader at the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Würzburg--because he felt it would enable him to work more independently.

Kuckert, Schoch, and Breuning agree that the programme is allowing them to gain the first experiences of scientific independence that are essential for an academic career:securing senior-author publications andsupervising Ph.D. students and postdocs. But even with a Noether award, the transition from postdoc to group leader isn't pain-free. "The Emmy Noether Programme has the goal to help junior researchers become senior researchers," says Kuckert, "To this end, the DFG endows them with funding of senior researchers, which is fine. But this does not yet make them senior researchers at once." Schoch agrees: "You are on your own in every aspect and have all the responsibilities and stresses that come with that." Still, Noether awardees have at least a little bit of additional help. In order to nurture the leadership skills of these young researchers, the DFG offers leadership and management training for the awardees and organises an annual meeting so that they can exchange their experiences.

Getting Good Help

One very real challenge for the young group leaders--at least for those Science's Next Wave spoke to--is how to convince good Ph.D.s and postdocs to work with researchers who have not yet established their reputations. “You do not receive dozens of good applications for your vacant positions, since there typically are many better-established people” competing for those same postdocs and graduate students, says Kuckert. So what is the solution that these young group leaders have found? Teaching. Breuning, for example, started teaching courses to diploma (the equivalent of a MSc. degree) students to get exposure to good students and market his own research. He succeeded, and he now supervises three diploma and two Ph.D. students.

Career Crossroads

The Emmy Noether awards clearly benefit early career researchers in the short term, but questions remain: How will the awards affect their longer-term career opportunities? And, does this new approach to professional development have a future within the German system? Over the last 3 years, the German government has attempted--not without controversy or resistance--to modernise the system of academic careers with a range of reforms that encourage progressive programmes like Emmy Noether. The university system--and its career paths--are now either in a transitory phase or just in limbo. The so-called 'junior professorships' and group leader positions--the Emmy Noether scheme is one--are touted by the German government as an good alternative to the traditional "habilitation" route to independence.Thehabilitation is an examination where a researcher has to present what is essentially a second thesis to document their independent research abilities; they must also have a certain amount of university teaching experience. Until 3 years ago, being "habilitated" was an absolute requirement to apply for a professorship in any discipline. Although schemes like Emmy Noether are intended to replace the habilitation, at least in some disciplines, most of the Emmy Noether fellows still feel they should do it. "Some professors tell you that the Emmy Noether programme makes the habilitation obsolete," explains Kuckert. "But I would not rely on this."

Emmy Noether fellows are also concerned about their long-term career prospects since, unlike junior professors, they cannot stay at their host university when the award ends after 5 or 6 years.That is why Schoch, who spent 5 years as a postdoc in Texas, prefers the American tenure-track system. "It offers you, at the age where you start to build up your own research group, the possibility to stay at the university you have chosen--if the research works out."

Acknowledging that obtaining a permanent position in academia is not guaranteed, an Emmy Noether award is much more a promising start than an ultimate solution. The programme is still too young to judge the long-term career perspectives of its fellows, although the DFG has just started a programme to determine if and where the awardees got permanent jobs after their awards are finished. Still, says Kuckert, it's worth the time and effort to find out. "Just believe in yourself, write a good proposal, and then let the referees find out themselves what they think of it. They will let you know.”

Further resources:

There is a rolling call for applications for the Emmy Noether Award.

Other DFG schemes for early career scientists.

Sicco Lehmann-Brauns is a freelance writer based in Berlin .

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