Thursday, September 26, 2013

Professor for one year (week 19 and 20): Vacations!

After 22 weeks of teaching in a row, exams, and grading those exams, I finally went on vacation.  Usually, I take with me a lot of work (on paper and electronically), that I didn't manage to process the weeks before.  The idea is that during the next two weeks with no obligations, I will find enough time to  finally get this done and then I can start with a clean desk when I return to my office.  Fortunately or onfortunately, most of this work involves looking up information online, asking people for feedback via e-mail, and sending back or submitting PDFs.

This year, I left everything related to work at home.  I really needed two weeks of not doing any scientific work, but just go swimming and biking and reading some of the volumes from my "to-read-shelf."  And there is one thing that really supported this decision:  We didn't have Internet connection in our vacation appartment.  And there was even no wireless connection via smartphone possible in the entire village.  Great!  My "out-of-office message" worked quite well, I wasn't able to read or answer e-mail message for two weeks.  And two weeks is probably a perfect duration for vacation from work and from the Internet:  A lot of requests to read this and decide that had taken care of themselves when I returned.

I really can recommend vacations from the Internet -- there is no sense in doing work-related things during vacation.  It's better to come back to a not so clean desk with a refreshed mind than coming back to a clean desk still feeling somewhat exhausted.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Professor for one year (week 18): Don't call us, we call you

Over the last months, I've applied for several positions as assistant professor or research group leader at different universities in different countries.  All applications were rejected.

No, wait, that's not quite true:  

My application at UT Austin, TX, was rejected three days after submission -- that was fast!  

I applied for two positions at Saarland University, the rejection for the second application was sent out two weeks after submission; for the first application, I asked about the procedure three months after submission -- the answer was something like "Oh, we did send you the rejection some weeks ago, you should have received it."  No, I hadn't.

I applied for a position at the University of Tübingen, they sent a detailed schedule when to expect which action and which week was planned for interviews.  When I hadn't received any information the Friday before this week, I called and was told: "Oh, we sent out the invitations three weeks ago, if you haven't received one, your application probably has been rejected."  Aha.

I applied for a position at the University of Zurich.  Two weeks after submission, I saw the list of invited candidates to give a public talk in a newsletter.  No, I hadn't been informed officially that I was not on this list -- I could see it in the newletter, after all.  When I asked about the formal rejection, the contact person appologized and made clear that she hadn't liked this procedure anyway, but the professors in the commission had told her to not send rejections to the non-invited applicants and that she was not aware that I subscribed to the newsletter.

I applied for a position at the University of Amsterdam.  Half a year later I asked about the process and got a message saying: "Oh, we did send you the rejection some months ago, you should have received it."  No, I hadn't.

I applied for a position at the University of Bern.  Some months after submission, I got an invitation to send my best publications.  Some weeks later there was a message that the whole process was on hold and that I would be informed about the next steps -- in the meantime, I could see on their website that I was not on the list of invited candidates for a talk that already had taken place.  No message came, but there is now a welcome note for the new professor on the institute's website.  When I asked about the formal rejection, they appologized and admitted that it was a bad idea to not send rejections to the non-invited applicants.

I don't get it: in the job descriptions for these positions, they ask for excellent people, they look for the elite.  And then they treat you like a beggar.

And of course all the rejections had nothing to do with me as person and I would be perfectly qualified for these positions and they wish me all the best for further applications.

Addendum September 30: Oh, and I almost forgot that I applied at the TU Braunschweig -- no comment until today, but their website lists the invited talks to be given by August 26 and 27 this year (i.e., one month ago). Thank you very much for not informing me!

Professor for one year (week 17): The magic 6 years

For several years now, Germany has some rules concerning fixed-term contracts in academia.  Roughly speaking, you can be employed for 6 years after you got your degree in order to work towards your PhD.  And then, after obtaining your PhD, you can be employed for another 6 years.  In this second part, you should work on your "Habilitation" or, more generally speaking, towards a professorship.  Most of the time, people get fixed-term contracts for two or three years (Maybe that's not even true: according to the union GEW, most of the fixed-term contractors in academia are employed for only a few months at a time) and then maybe these contracts will be extended until the 6 years are completed.  If you go to another university after having worked towards your (still uncompleted) PhD, let's say for 4 years, you can only work another 2 years at any other university in Germany to complete your PhD.  Of course, there are some possibilities to extend these periods when you have kids or when you have to look after your parents and the like.

On the one hand, these rules (especially concerning the first 6 years) could be seen as in favor of PhD students: supervisors know that the PhD student has only 6 year's time and they should support their students to finish their theses within this period.  Before this rule applied, some (or most?) PhD students weren't able to finish their theses within a reasonable period; they had so many tasks at the institute that there was almost no time left for their own research.  Surprisingly, this habit of exploiting assistants hasn't changed much.  The only consequence:  PhD students finish their theses while being unemployed, because their 6-years period has finished -- or they emigrate to Switzerland.  One could of course argue that this is intended and part of getting a PhD ("Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre" -- you have to pay your dues); young researchers thus face the fact that staying in academia is not easy and they should think carefully about how to proceed their career.  You are in your early 30s and there are still many options to get a good job in "the real world," so you benefit from your studies and from having a PhD. 

It's worse with the second 6-year period.  Maybe you even could extend this time because you have the average 1.39 kids and you even could acquire a grant for yourself, so you stayed 9 or 10 years at university after your PhD -- of course, you had contracts at two or three different universities.  But after this?  You may be qualified for professorship and maybe you could interview for some positions, but you haven't gotten one yet -- only a very small percentage of all students get a professorship, there still is no tenure system.  You cannot stay at your institute, but now being far in your 40s, never having worked outside the Ivory Tower, who will offer you a "real" job in the "real" world?  And you face a de facto professional ban in academia -- unless you find one of the rare unlimited positions or you emigrate to Switzerland.

Germany has no real tenure track system, but some years ago, they invented "Junior Professors."  You can be a professor without a habilitation, and you can get this professorship after only a very few years after having completed your PhD.  Sounds good, right?  But the magic 6 years are involved as well.  

To acknowledge that people have different educational paths and maybe decided to study after having completed an occupational training and may have worked even some years in their profession, we now have a certain age (i.e., your real age) and an academic age -- the years after a certain degree.  So two PhDs can be in their second postdoc year, but one is 29 and the other 39 -- there shouldn't be any discrimination.  Usually, with the academic age, you refer to the most recent degree.  

But that's not how the rules for Junior Professors work:  You can get a junior professorship only within 6 years after you finished your studies and you have to have a PhD and a good publication record, be recognized as researcher in your community, etc.  So for me, the moment I finished my PhD, I was too old -- after my studies, I worked for 6 years (yeah! 6!) as e-learning consultant, I got my PhD 10 years after I got my M.A.  In Switzerland, the MA is considered the regular degree -- every BA student has the right to enter a MA program, parents are obliged to support their kids until they finish their MA.  In Germany, the BA is considered the regular degree -- if you have Abitur, you can enter (almost) every BA program, but to enter a MA program, you have to meet strict criteria.  This is obviously a different understanding of the Bologna process, but that's not my point here.

Up to now, the rule "6 years after you finished your studies" refers to the MA degree -- that's what you find as explanation.  But when the BA is the "regular degree," this would actually mean that you only can apply for a junior professorship within 6 years after your BA.  Which is rather unlikely -- you need two more years for your MA, which you need to be qualified for doing a PhD, for which you need another three years.  And when you are a "real" humanities scholar, you probably haven't published anything until then and it will take you three more years to even have your dissertation published in a series of a "recognized" publishing house your supervisor happens to be an editor for.

On the other hand, universities increasingly see this junior professorship as another form of a "senior assistant" -- the position for a postdoc working towards their Habilitation or professorship.  And if you look at the salary, that's true.  The only difference is that for a regular postdoc position, you have 6 years after your PhD, whereas for the junior professorship, you can apply within 6 years after your first degree.

Brave new world.