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Junior Professors on the Rise

This year, more than 600 young scientists will start their junior professorships at 48 German universities. Although they are just a tenth of the eventual total predicted by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research ( BMBF), the experiences of these pioneers are sure to have an impact on the process of university reform.

Under the university reform law, interim arrangements have been put in place for those currently in the process of Habilitation, the second doctor's degree under the tutorage of a senior professor. But from 2010 a 6-year period of independent teaching and research as a ?junior professor? will replace it as the prevailing route to qualify for tenure.

The aims of the new system are to provide opportunities for early independence in research and teaching and to reduce the age of the first appointment to a chair. Currently in Germany, the average age at which scientists become university professors is 42, very late compared to other countries. Junior professorships are split into two 3-year terms, with a successful evaluation needed at the end of the first term in order to continue. Following a positive evaluation on completion of the full 6 years, junior professors can apply for full professorships, showing their scientific qualification by publications in internationally leading research journals rather than a second thesis. Thus, if a researcher receives a junior professorship immediately after her or his PhD, junior professors may complete their academic qualification for a full professorship sometime between the ages of 34 and 37.

Although full implementation of the new laws requires further reform at the state level, to get the junior professorships off the ground, the BMBF has dedicated a chunk of its current budget for grants. For each junior professorship post, universities can get a one-time, additional ? 77,000 grant to provide infrastructure support for the researcher.

Nationwide, more than 50 universities from all German states (with the exception of Bavaria which will challenge the law in the German Supreme Court) have already applied for the money. About 30% of the approved federal financial support will go to the ?new states? of the former East Germany, Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Brandenburg.

Several universities, anticipating legislative changes have introduced pilot schemes. Early in 2002, the nation?s first four junior professors started teaching and researching at the University of Göttingen, in the faculties of chemistry, earth sciences, physics, and theology. Twenty-seven of the university?s 42 junior professorships have now been filled. Meanwhile this spring Berlin?s Humboldt University announced the availability of 50 junior professorships across all faculties with the exception of law. From the 481 applications received, 31 appointments haven been made so far. Two junior professors started their jobs at Humboldt University in April, with most of their colleagues due to follow in October. Another initiative to establish junior professorships came from Ruhr-University Bochum: Academics with an excellent doctorate were invited to apply by April for 32 junior professorships in the faculties of natural sciences, medicine, engineering, the humanities, and social sciences. Decisions on the appointments have yet to be made. The first of 15 junior professors at the Philipps-University of Marburg started his job at the faculty of informatics in May. And the University of Osnabrück has announced nine positions for junior professors in natural sciences and the humanities that are due to be filled at the beginning of 2003, with the first of them possibly beginning in October 2002. ?The number of applications is good, we are quite confident of filling all the positions?, says Ute Langenbeck, who is responsible for course planning at Osnabrück.

Junior professors have a teaching load of between 4 and 8 hours per week, plus administrative and student assessment duties, on top of their research. Some scientists fear that they might be overburdened: ?Junior professors face a job description they cannot fulfil?, postdocs from Bochum?s university wrote in an open letter to research minister Edelgard Bulmahn, ?at least not without a considerable loss of quality of research and/or teaching.? For Horst Kern, president of the University of Göttingen, the introduction of junior professorships should help foster excellence in science. But he points out that the time post-holders have for independent research must be protected, and that they must be adequately paid for their commitment to teaching and administration.

Junior professors at Göttingen currently teach lectures, seminars, or exercises for 4 hours per week. But, according to Egyptologist Gerald Moers, their teaching load may be raised to 6 hours when Lower Saxony's university reform law is implemented in the autumn. At Humboldt University, the teaching duty will be increased to 6 hours in the second 3-year term. For Lower Saxony?s universities, Moers expects those in their second phase to have to teach for the full 8 hours.

?With 4 hours of teaching a week, I still have time for research,? says mathematician Thorsten Hohage. ?However, I would probably not be able to make much progress in my research with 8 hours teaching a week, since the preparation of lectures takes more time if you have to write new lecture notes.? Moers, who already has 6 years of teaching experience, agrees: ?I think it is highly questionable whether someone who has only recently gotten their PhD--this was apparently the core group of people the BMBF had in mind when 'reforming' the law--is able to teach for more than 4 hours per week in their first years.?

Currently junior professors at Göttingen expend up to 8 hours a week on administrative tasks, depending on the faculty. Additionally, they need time to build up their new labs, recruit diploma, doctoral, and postdoctoral students, and apply for research grants. ?Furthermore, interesting research projects have to be planned, and contacts with industry must be initiated and consolidated?, says chemist Svetlana Tsogoeva.

Under the old legislation, a researcher who wrote her or his Habilitation thesis at a university could not be appointed to a full professorship at the same institution. This regulation (Hausberufungsverbot), which sometimes led to the migration of young researchers to foreign countries, will be dropped under the reform law, provided that the junior professor has previously spent at least 2 years researching at a different university. At Göttingen?s faculty of medicine, only one out of seven vacancies was filled by an external researcher, but at the other faculties, the majority of junior professors came from other institutions. At Humboldt University, about half of the junior professorships were given to external applicants. ?We plan to take more than 20% to 30 % of our junior professors into permanent positions?, says Humboldt?s Susann Morgner.

A critical point is that universities? implementation of junior professorships has to be self-financing. Therefore, existing academic positions (C1 and C2) for outside lecturers (Hochschuldozenten) and so-called ?research assistantships? (wissenschaftlicher Assistent, Oberassistent)--filled by those already qualified for tenure--are being transformed into junior professorships. Many young scientists thus fear that future professors are being financed to the disadvantage of the current crop of young academics.

Furthermore, the financial basis for the new positions varies: While Humboldt University junior professors only receive the federal government?s one-time support of ? 77,000, the states of Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Hesse supply their junior professors with additional financial support or personnel resources.

In contrast to the regulations on time limits for temporary employments already in force in Germany (see Next Wave?s recent article for more information about these changes), federal law only sets a framework, with the onus on individual states to work out the final legal regulations for junior professorships. Lower Saxony plans to introduce the federal reform law and the official status of junior professors in the state's university legislation in October 2002. However, some other states are unwilling to follow the federal regulations. The leaders of Bavaria, Saxony, and Thuringia have announced that they will fight the reform law. Because the assent of the Bundesrat--the parliament of the German states--has not been given, they regard the university reform law as unconstitutional. These three states do not oppose junior professorships in principle, but do not want to abolish Habilitation as a possible route to qualification. They are currently preparing proceedings which are to be filed in the constitutional court at Karlsruhe within the next few weeks.

Although Moers and some other of Göttingen?s new junior professors are somewhat sceptical about the systematic implications of the issue, after the first months in their jobs at least some of them appraise their situation positively. ?I can do independent research, I have the chance to [attract] diploma and PhD students [to work with me] through my lectures, and I am involved in the planning of some projects with external funding?, says Hohage. And Tsogoeva summarizes: ?This is all in all a demanding, but very interesting, new task for me.?