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Research Careers in German Universities

A short guide, with diversions, for the curious

Peter B. Ladkin

Every so often, I receive inquiries about research positions, graduate and post-doctoral in my department, the Faculty of Technology. Many inquirers will not know the structure of German university research groups, so it's worth a few words of explanation. This structure is common at this level of detail also to Swiss(-German) and Austrian universities.

The main difference in hiring practices between German universities and those in the US and UK is that there is no department-wide hiring of junior research personnel, either `graduate students' or post-doctoral. Each Professor either has his own `group' (as I do) or is the `Assistant Director' in the group of another Professor. The research group has its own research interests, money and personnel, independent of other groups in the same faculty. My group works on the themes clarified in our WWW pages. My computer-science colleagues in Bielefeld have groups working in Bioinformatics and Sequence Analysis, Neural Networks and Connectionism, Robotics, Pattern and Image Analysis and Speech Understanding, and Knowledge-Based Systems.

But let's begin earlier on the academic scale and go through a typical career. One qualifies as a teenager to attend a university by obtaining the Abitur, signifying successful completion of one's course of studies at an `academic' high school, a Gymnasium (0). There are other schools for those deemed at an earlier age not to be sufficiently qualified in one sense or another for `academic' work as a teenager. An Abitur confers the legal right to study at any German university. One must not necessarily continue in the same vein as in high-school - it's not as narrowly circumscribed as studies in the UK in the early 70's for example, when I went to University. My high-school qualifications were in Math, Further Math and Physics. I wouldn't have obtained a university place in the UK to study biology, for instance, let alone English literature. Modern Germans have more flexibility.

University students in Germany pursue a course of studies which is lengthy in comparison with their counterparts in the US and UK, but which terminates in a six-month (more or less) project of original work which is called a `Diplomarbeit' (`Diploma-work'), a Diploma Thesis. Studies are mostly planned by the faculty for completion in four years, but it is not uncommon for students to take six years or longer to complete. The degree program is divided into Grundstudium and Hauptstudium, roughly corresponding to lower-division and upper-division studies in US universities. Curricula can vary considerably from university to university. Our Grundstudium students must study roughly:

Hauptstudium courses consist of specialities offered more or less at will by the various research groups. Students must take some physical science courses as a minor, because our degree is actually in `Scientific Informatics' -- we don't offer a pure Informatics degree. Our students take oral examinations, as and when they like. To take an exam, they must have participated in six to twelve weekly-hours of course or seminar work (seminars normally count for two weekly-hours, courses for two or four) and find a professor willing to examine them in that accumulated work. Course work consists usually just of listening to lectures. Seminar work consists in giving a talk oneself in the seminar meeting on a chosen theme, and completing a more in-depth paper on the topic. There are regulations on the distribution of general topic-areas one may be examined in during the course of the Hauptstudium.

After successful completion of Grund- and Hauptstudium comes the Diploma thesis work. Students are commonly in their mid-to-late twenties when they finish their studies. My experience is that Diploma thesis work is equivalent to, and can often be better than, theses written for Master's degrees in US and UK universities (1).

Students who obtain a Diplom degree by completing their studies and their thesis work often show their accomplishment professionally by appending `Dipl-Inf' (`Informatics-Diploma') or `Dipl-Ing' (`Engineering-Diploma') to their names (2).

To attain a doctoral degree in Germany, as in the UK, it generally suffices to write and successfully defend a thesis under the direction of a Professor. This contrasts with the situation in the US, where one is generally required to complete successfully a year or more of `graduate' coursework, to pass a `preliminary examination' on the `core' part of this coursework, to pass a `qualifying examination' on the general subject area of the proposed thesis, to give one or two research seminar talks, and to pass some `language exams' testing one's ability to comprehend scholarly written work in the area in one or two other languages ....... and also write a thesis (3).

To be a paid graduate student in Germany, one must apply for and obtain a job as `scientific employee' (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter - male - or Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin - female) (4). These are regular employment, for a fixed length of time of usually two to five years (but some such jobs, for example at GMD, the German national computer and informatics research organisation, may be tenured). During one's employment, one works on the topic assigned by the Professor directing the research group. At the end, one may write up one's thesis and defend it to obtain a doctorate (5).

After the doctoral degree, someone working on an academic career will normally have to write a post-doctoral thesis called a `Habilitation' (this is also the case in France and some other European countries). This is usually accomplished by obtaining a `Senior Assistant' position, normally seven years, dependent upon successful completion of a mid-term review. This position normally comes with some teaching duties, and on the career-ladder occupies roughly the same place as a position of Assistant Professor in the US. However, in contrast to the US, to be promoted to a tenured position one normally has to obtain a Professorial position at a different university.

So paid doctoral candidates or post-doctoral researchers are hired as `scientific employees' by the Professor who leads the group which has the position available. The work will be more-or-less specific, fitting with the research needs of the group, or with the contractual needs of the research project. Post-docts working on their Habilitation often have considerable leeway if their jobs are not bound with a specific project contract.

At full universities, there are two professorial grades, and in more traditional universities these grades will be bound to Directorship or Assistant Directorship of a research group. The research groups are more-or-less autonomous as regards the research they do and the courses that their members offer for (Diplom) students. Professors must normally be `habilitated', that is, must possess a Habilitation degree, although in engineering subjects such as computer science (`Informatics' as it is often called in Europe), `equivalent experience' will count. Professorial positions come with tenure, which is legally well-protected. While affidavits from other professionals are always required, it is often required also that these professionals must be professors themselves (6).

There are two grades of University Professor, C3 and C4, corresponding to salaries. There are no salary scales, as in the US or UK. Your remuneration is standard, depending only on age, and to a minor degree on the cost-of-living in the city in which you work. The only way to increase your salary, other than by getting older, is by obtaining a Ruf, a `call', to a professorial position at another university. Your current university is then empowered to offer you a standard increment to your current salary (or may decline). The professorial hiring process in universities involves committee work, interviews, evaluations by others, deliberations, and further evaluations of the process and the results by state officials, before an offer is made in a letter from the Minister of the Land concerned. Such processes can take a year or more. It could seem rather unfortunate that any Prof who wishes to better hisher salary must involve so many others in much work to no final benefit to themselves. This situation is ameliorated somewhat by the evaluation process, which assigns a preference order to the top candidates, so that if someone declines, the hiring committee just moves down the list without having to repeat all the steps. Another way of improving one's salary is to get hired from industry. To use this method, a prof would have to join industry and then get hired back - also not unknown.

So, basically that's it. Once one has obtained the status of Professor, one may enjoy the freedom -- to work like a dog, to go political, or for some to just plain goof off on serious research -- that the requirement to teach the courses of one's pleasure, 8 hours a week for about 30 weeks, and to attend occasional faculty meetings leaves one. But getting there is not an easy business.


(0): I use the term `high school' here in the US sense, to mean a school for teenagers of both genders, persisting until the end of legally-required education. In Germany, the `high schools' (Hochschulen) are the universities (Universitäten) and polytechnical universities (Fachhochschulen). In Britain, the `high schools' were all-female academic schools for teenagers, of which the male equivalent was called a `grammar school', but they were forced out in the 70's in favor of all-purpose schools on the US model, called `comprehensive schools'. So much for comparative nomenclature. Back

(1): I should hurriedly add that there are of course exceptions both ways. Most Diploma theses are not nearly as accomplished as Master's theses from MIT, for example. On the other hand, students working in my group have achieved thesis standards higher than Master's thesis work from some universities of moderate reputation in the US or UK. Diploma theses can also differ considerably from research group to research group, depending on what sort of work the directing Professor wants, how many themes (s)he has for Diploma work, and how many students (s)he is prepared to accept, as well as how closely (s)he works with students. I prefer to work fairly closely with Diplom students. This means I cannot have 20 or them at once, and it also means that their work can achieve results compatible with journal publication on the theme. This is one way to support Diploma work. Other ways used by colleagues are, for example, to offer programming tasks, whose completion is required for a larger project. So the moral is: it all depends ...... Back

(2): Someone who has graduated with a `Dipl-Ing' is considered in Germany to be a professional engineer, as is somebody with a doctoral degree in engineering, a `Dr.-Ing'. The precise qualifications for becoming a Dr.Ing. differ from university to university. For example, the Faculty of Technology in Bielefeld may award a `Dr.-Ing' to a doctoral candidate who requests it. The formal requirement is that one should have completed the usual doctoral requirements, and in addition that at least one Professorial member of the examining committee should be a Dr.-Ing. himherself. Such a qualification entitles one to become a member of a professional engineering society, and of course also a Euro-Engineer, a recognised European-community engineer.

This means that, in contrast to many states in the US in which it is illegal to call oneself a software engineer, one can indeed become a qualified software engineer in Germany -- one writes a thesis in computer science or in the engineering or building of software, and obtains a Dr.-Ing. degree. The doctoral thesis defence may thus be the only professional examination in engineering that a German engineer may have taken.

One may like to contrast this process also with that in the UK, by example. A university lecturer, say, teaching computer science or programming, may become a member of the British Computer Society. (S)he may then become a Chartered Engineer by being sponsored by a colleague who is already a C.Eng. -- likely a lecturer also. Of course (s)he may now become also a Euro-Engineer. So it is possible in the UK for someone such as myself, holding various degrees in mathematics, philosophy and logic, to be recognised as a professional engineer Europe-wide, without once having taken a professional engineering examination of any sort. In fact, I have never even taken a computer-science course of any sort. (But I've taught a wide range of them -- quite successfully, I might add -- and anyone who wishes to challenge my professional competence is welcome to try. As Clint says, "make my day...." :-) Back

(3): There are various permutations of this basic theme. Coursework, some set of exams, and seminar talks are pretty standard. The format of the exams may differ. For example, when I was at Berkeley in the 70's, the math exam requirements were one-hour oral examinations in two of algebra, analysis and logic, plus choice of a third from a wider range, and they were called qualifying exams. There were only vague, or no, time limits, although the number of attempts at each exam was bounded. The criteria later changed to one compulsory written 3-hour preliminary examination at the end of the first year, followed at an indeterminate but bounded time by an oral `qualifying' examination in the subject area in which it was proposed to write a thesis. In my group, the Group in Logic and Methodology of Science, we had to take the Math Logic qualifying exam (one-hour oral from the Department of Math), the `Area 1' six-hour written qualifying exam from the Department of Philosophy (philosophy of science, language and logic, philosophical logic), and one other from either department (I chose algebra). There were standard year-length sequences of `graduate courses' for graduate students in math to take, to help prepare for quals and thesis work. These were assigned grades - one had to complete the weekly course work successfully to achieve a certain required average grade. Coursework outside these sequences was mostly assessed pro forma. But if you didn't turn up, listen, or join in, it became very hard to find a thesis advisor, or to do novel work sufficient for a thesis.

There are thus grounds for considering US scholar-doctors more highly qualified in their field then their equivalents in the UK or continental Europe, whose formal requirements generally constitute completion of a written thesis and a successful oral defence. This may also account for why courses in US universities are distributed amongst the faculty, whereas in German universities, particular courses will be perenially offered by the Professor qualified in that particular field. This may account further for the apparently greater organisational tendency in, say, US computer science towards standard curricula devised by the professional societies such as the Association for Computing Machinery. German universities offer no general guarantee of coverage such as that achieved by adherence to the ACM undergraduate curricula. Back

(4): There are a limited number of scholarships for students whose Diploma work has shown exceptional research promise. Such scholarships usually come from the Land (equivalent to a US `state') or from the central government research support institution (the DFG -- Deutsche Forshungsgemeinschaft -- in the case of computer science). It is not unknown for industry also to sponsor worthy candidates, although such offers normally come in the form of a regular job with the company, with some but not all company time dedicated to working on one's thesis. Finally, foreigners wishing to study for a doctorate in Germany may apply for a scholarship from the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the German Academic Exchange Service). Such scholarships are highly prized and certainly worth obtaining. However, it is to be regretted that there is no equivalently successful mechanism for supporting Master's degrees -- probably because there is mostly no direct equivalent to a Master's degree in Germany (even though some programs, such as the Linguistics program at Bielefeld, specifically offer Master's degrees - one can become a Mag. Ling. here, even if they don't quite call it that :-). Many US and UK universities attract considerable numbers of foreign students for Master's programs, often to students whose countries cannot offer the same degree of academic expertise `back home'. Germany has that expertise - but not (yet) the mechanisms. Back

(5): My experience is that standards are variable, and what is acceptable as doctoral work can sometimes depend on how long the contract is - if your project runs for two years and you do the work you were supposed to do, it is not unknown for you to be awarded your doctoral degree (although such cases are not the norm). In contrast, in Berkeley at certain periods in the 70's in logic, it was virtually unknown for one to even obtain a thesis advisor within two years -- you had to do course- and seminar-work for almost that long to persuade a potential thesis advisor that you would be able to do the kind of work which he (the only `she' was Julia Robinson, who was not a regular member of the faculty) would be prepared to sign. Back

(6): Not only that, but for the higher-grade position, referees may only be higher-grade professors themselves! While these sorts of requirement may be appropriate for traditional-scholarly subjects such as History or Sanscrit, some have wondered whether such an arrangement doesn't contribute to the persistence of a `professorial class' in more practical subjects such as engineering.

In the US, for example, many reknowned researchers work for research institutions which are not universities. Such institutions whose members have won the Turing prize, the highest prize in computer science, include Bell Labs, Xerox Park, DEC SRC, IBM Almaden (formerly San Jose) Research Center. Researchers at IBM Zürich Labs have won the Nobel Prize. Two of my colleagues whom I cite as references work for these institutions. But such scholars cannot legally count as referees, under the requirement (unless they are `Honorary Professors', or have been once a professor -- because the German tradition treats it as a qualification not unlike a doctorate. Once a Professor, always a Professor. Such highly-achieving professionals continue to be addressed as `Prof. Dr. So-and-so', no matter how their career subsequently may progress).

The common legal requirement that referees must be (tenured) professors can lead to some difficulties for those computer scientists or engineers who have spent a significant part of their career in the US. One's application can be significantly weakened by the exclusion of non-professorial luminaries. While fully-sympathetic hiring committees may often finesse the requirement, one may imagine that it only takes one person, who may not even be on the hiring committee, but may be a government regulator evaluating the decision process against legal requirements, to insist on conforming to the letter of the regulations and thereby to weaken significantly, maybe fatally, a candidate's case.

As for spending significant time in the US -- it is to Germany's credit that most hiring committees require successful professorial candidates in computer science to have spent a part of their professional career in the US or another scientifically highly-achieving country. To my knowledge, Germany is the only developed country with such a de facto requirement. (However, you had better have made contact with Professors while you were there :-) Back