Structure of the German research system
In Germany, academic research is mainly conducted at universities, whose additional duty is to train students, and at independent research institutes (belonging to e.g. Max-Planck Society, Leibniz Association, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, or Helmholtz Society, which differ in research scope). There are also Universities of Applied Sciences (“Fachhochschule”) that have a strong focus on teaching and offer a more structured course schedule than regular universities, leaving less time for research for their academic staff (but can actually be a quite attractive career option for people with work experience outside of academia or those that have a strongly applied focus).
Structure of higher teaching
German students usually finish high school after 12 – 13 years (depending on which of the 16 states they grew up in – federalism causes quite some intra-German differences in (higher) education), at the age of 18 or 19. In the last decade, German universities shifted from awarding the traditional German degrees “Diplom” (in the sciences) and “Magister” (in the humanities) to the more international comparable 2-step Bachelor/Master system. Here, a typical Bachelor degree takes 3 (sometimes 4) years, and a Master 2 (sometimes 1). The academic year is divided into 2 terms (“Semester”): a winter term from October to March (classes usually end mid-February), and a summer term from April to September (last day of classes in July). An important part of the higher education system in Germany is that university comes without (or with very minimal) tuition fees! It is uncommon to enter into a PhD directly after the Bachelor, but some programs offer a “fast-track” option that permits outstanding applicants with Bachelor degrees to enter. Traditionally, a PhD in the Sciences is scheduled for 3 years, but in reality most candidates take longer. This means that the topic of your PhD project should be clear right from the start or at least crystalize pretty quickly! While historically PhDs were conducted mainly under the responsibility of the student and his/her advisor, the “Doktorvater” (doctor father, fortunately the number of doctor mothers is increasing…), most PhDs nowadays are embedded in a PhD Program or Graduate School, that offers a more structured framework, PhD committees, requires attendance of some courses, but usually includes no or very few teaching responsibilities.
PhD/Postdoc funding and benefits
As in most countries, PhD students and Postdocs either bring their own independent funding or are hired on the funding of their PI. And here comes one peculiarity in the German system: it can make a big difference (to you personally) whether you are paid through a stipend or receive a regular salary. A stipend may appear higher, as it is tax free and you do not pay into the national social insurance system. However, you should bear in mind that on a stipend you have to cover your own health insurance (health insurance is mandatory), and you are ineligible for a range of social benefits that are offered by the German system. Hence, the cost-benefit balance of stipend vs. salary strongly depends on your personal situation and, in particular, your future plans. As a single person that is hoping to stay in Germany for only a fixed period of time a stipend might make more sense, but if you (are planning to) have a family or have unclear career plans, a salary which provides more social security might be a better fit. Both parental leave money and unemployment money, for example, are calculated based on your salary over the previous 12 months, and a stipend would count as zero income (and therefore zero benefits). Other benefits of receiving a salary include health insurance for dependents such as kids and spouses without income, pension funds, and parental leave money (65% of your previous net income for up to 12 months*). Anyone on a salary should submit a tax return at the end of the year: keep track of your work-related expenditures and travels, get professional help to fill out the forms (e.g. some universities offer that service or contact a tax adviser), and you could get quite a refund!
The wages for academic staff in Germany are regulated through the collective wage agreement for public service in the states, known as TV-L (at universities), or the federation, known as TVöD (at research institutes), and depend on your degree, experience, and responsibilities. They are regularly re-negotiated by the respective unions, leading to an increase every other year. With a Master’s degree you belong into pay scale group E13 and rise in classification for each year of experience, starting with class I when you start your PhD, class II (2nd & 3rd year), class III (4th-6th year)…. As a PhD student, you usually do not get a 100% salary but rather something between 50-65%, although this will strongly depend on your field. As a full-time postdoc, you usually get a 100% E13 (don’t ask me why a PhD does not qualify you for a different scale group), which gross is currently €3672 for class I, €4076 for class II,… A research group leader belongs into E14, which starts with €3983. This system looks pretty objective on the surface, but actually there is quite some wiggle room when it comes to acknowledging “years of experience” that determine your classification or when you enter a higher scale group. This could especially impact international researchers who haven’t acquired “years of experience” in the German system (which are usually considered automatically), and I strongly recommend getting additional advice, e.g. from the work council at your institute.
The academic track
In the German system, the academic career path post-PhD is less structured than in other countries. The primary difference is that there is no tenure-track system. Researchers belonging to the “mid-level” usually work on fixed-term contracts and only get permanent when securing a professorship**. This “academic mid-level” can come in many flavours, ranging from stringing together multiple postdoc positions, employment as assistant or junior professor (with or without tenure track depending on the policy of your institution), to having an independent research group (e.g. DFG Emmy Noether or Max Planck Research Group). Often, applications for professorships require a “Habilitation” that proves your qualification to become a professor based both on your publication and teaching record you acquired during your mid-level time. How strictly committees apply this formal requirement can also differ but some equivalents are commonly accepted, e.g. having had an independent research group. The German system provides amazing opportunities at this level, but it can also be difficult to equate a position as an independent group leader at a German research institute (university or otherwise) with the traditional tenure-track system elsewhere. As a rule of thumb, independent groups or junior professors are expected to become competitive for full professorships.
Sources of funding
If you want to come to Germany, there are several attractive options for independent funding and funding rates are still comparatively good. These sources might be a good start to look at:
DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service): Offers different scholarships for international students and researchers coming to Germany. Also provides excellent background information on the German system.
DFG (German Science Foundation): Different options for individual grants post-PhD (e.g. Research Grants for individual research projects or Emmy Noether Programme to lead an independent junior research group) to coordinated programs.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie: Postdoc research fellowships.
Human Frontier Science Program: funds research in the life sciences, e.g 3-year postdoctoral fellowships or research grants for collaborative projects.
Humboldt Foundation: Research fellowships for young postdocs up to “internationally recognized cutting-edge researchers”.
Volkswagen Foundation: Different grants post-PhD, e.g. Freigeist Fellowships to become head of a junior research group
Independent Group Leaders: Yearly open-topic calls to establish your own independent Helmholtz Young Investigator Group or Max Planck Research Group. For female scientist there is a very attractive new initiative of the MPG, the Lise Meitner Excellence Program, which includes a tenure-track process.
ERC: Very prestigious grants for early-career to established researchers
I hope this small summary provides a first glance into the German system and I am curious to hear what you find most peculiar about academia here! Some more detailed information can be found here and here and here and here. Many universities and research institutes have an International Office or Welcome Center that provides support for international researchers and I strongly recommend to contact them, maybe even before moving. Here in Konstanz, we also have a Research Support Center and Academic Staff Development Center, which give very valuable, individual advice to researchers and can help you navigate through the system. In addition, every institute in Germany has an equal opportunities officer who assists, for example, with family related issues.
Gisela Kopp (@gisela_kopp) is a Hector Pioneer Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and University of Konstanz.
*Parental leave (“Elternzeit”) can be taken by both parents for up to 3 years but parental leave money (“Elterngeld”) is only paid in total up to 14 months, where months can be distributed freely among both parents but one can only take up to 12 months for oneself (i.e. months need to be distributed between 12+2 to 2+12). There is also the possibility to take part-time parental leave up to 28 months (“ElterngeldPlus”), which earns you a part time salary plus part time parental leave money. Note that parental leave money is payed by the state directly and not by your employer and your employer only needs to be informed about it a couple of weeks in advance but does not need to give permission. Further, mothers have to take maternity protection (“Mutterschutz”) 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after giving birth, during this time they are not allowed to work and receive 100% of their salary (partly paid by the employer and partly by health insurance).
**Professorships are named according to their salary scale: W2 is comparable to Associate Professor, W3 to Full Professor. Professors have their own salary category W from “Wissenschaft” (science), which can be topped up with performance-related bonuses.