The Next Years Are Uncertain


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So far, everything has gone quite well for Stefan Schröder. Equipped with a DAAD stipend, the geologist left his native Germany 2 years ago for the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to that, he had a nice position in Switzerland. But it has started to get more difficult.

"My girlfriend has finished her PhD thesis and we haven't figured out yet how to combine two careers," the 32-year-old reports. For the two of them, it was clear from the start: "We both want to have a career in science." Schröder is one of many young scientists in a so-called "dual-career couple" situation in which both partners would like to benefit from their professional opportunities. In the academic world, this is difficult to realise. Long qualification periods, uncertain prospects, and frequent changes of geographical location are the most important factors contributing to these couples' troubles.

Nicole Saenger is also pondering her future. Through 2004, the civil engineer won't have to worry because she has a DFG-funded research position at Stanford University. She was also able to stretch her 2-year grant to 30 months. The reason: She only wanted to work (80%) part-time to have more time with her 3-year-old son. She remembers: "It wasn't very easy for my husband to join us in the U.S. As an IT engineer, he managed to negotiate a position with his employer at the U.S. branch, but he had to change his field of work." So far, so good--but what will happen in 2 years? "It will get complicated when I ... apply for a professorship in Germany. Another change in location seems mandatory," the 34-year-old predicts.

Children and Career

Some time ago, German universities mainly had to deal with "classic" career couples: When a professor got appointed, a new position for his wife--assuming she was a teacher--was easily found. But those times are long gone. "Trying to promote a woman to a C4 position [the highest for professors in Germany] causes great difficulties because her husband mostly is at a similar career stage," says Nobel laureate Prof. Christine Nüsslein-Volhard. Providing both of them an adequate position seems almost impossible at German universities. This applies to earlier career stages as well, which for many couples falls at the same time they are starting a family. A long-term study by the chair for social psychology of the University Erlangen-Nuremburg shows the interrelation: Young children are the main reason why female academics slow their careers, because the combination of career and family simply is difficult. Overall, Germany is still a developing country in terms of day care for children. Being a father, meanwhile, rarely leads to a delay in the academic career. Fewer young women researchers are willing to accept this.

Judith Klein-Seetahraman recently gave birth to her first child, at age 31. While the biophysicist is working at the University of Pittsburgh, her husband is employed at Carnegie Mellon University, in the same city. "I deliberately decided for Pittsburgh because after 3 years, I wanted to live in the same place with my husband again," she says. She also has a permanent position at the Research Centre Jülich. Since 1999, Jülich has offered a tenure-track programme for women scientists. The idea was transferred from the United States, where junior scientists first have a temporary professorship, resulting in a permanent position following a successful evaluation. Each year, Jülich hires three women as work group leaders. Usually, the research centre decides after 1 year whether these scientists will get permanent positions. A parallel coaching and mentoring programme is preparing the women for taking responsibility in leading positions. Such short decision-making processes make career and family planning much easier.

The Seetahramans are planning on sharing their child-raising duties. "Our working hours are flexible and we have learned to organise our lives in the past years," the scientist says. She also wants to return to Germany, but only if her husband would be able to find an interesting position, too. The example illustrates that dual-career strategies are of crucial importance to Germany. If universities want to recruit highly qualified scientists, they need to develop dual-career policies, all interviewed junior scientists said. What currently is a recruiting-interview standard for many U.S. universities--including the candidate's partner--is an exception in Germany. But even in the United States, the range is limited: "About 20% of American universities have a dual-career policy, but half of them take an informal approach," says Maersi Nerad from the University of Washington, Seattle, an expert in this field.

This seems bound to change: "We have developed recruiting guidelines for our university to ensure that dual-career issues are being addressed by the recruiting commissions," says Jürgen Mlynek, the Humboldt University's president. But there's more to do. "American universities impart much more self-esteem to scientists. They make you understand that the institution would be proud if you decide to work there. On the contrary, in Germany you are expected to be grateful when you get the job," Seetahraman describes her experiences.

Dual-career couples raise a number of new tasks for German universities. This is especially the case for university recruiting committees who need to realise that appointments reflect the institution's reputation and thus influence the competitiveness on the German and the international market.

Overall, it is the young dual-career couples to which the future belongs.

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