Are you in your forties and still employed on a temporary basis? Normal in German universities. Three researchers talk about precarious research, turning points and alternatives.

Sculpture detail

It would also look good at a German university: an original cast of Auguste Rodin's sculpture “The Thinker” Photo: imago

Jan Süselbeck, 51, has a permanent professorship in Norway after many fixed-term contracts

The German university system is in ruins. I can't say it any other way. To get a permanent position in this country, you have to work very, very hard. Anyone who is not willing to sacrifice his free time and subordinate everything to his career really has no chance. He was ready for it…and it still wasn't enough. At some point, only the foreigner remained.

Basically, I always had a precarious job. I did my PhD in Berlin without having a job. It was a difficult time, which I overcame with scholarships and small jobs. I wrote my habilitation in Marburg mainly early in the morning and on weekends. I didn't have time for this when I was working as a research assistant at university. I was responsible for editing a literary magazine, which was a full-time job.

I can't say the exact number of contracts I have accumulated over the years, there were many. The question is constant: What will happen next? How will I pay my rent soon? Doubts about whether I am here in the right place are a constant companion. But at some point I realized: there is no turning back. I have already invested too much. Most of all, I didn't know what else I could do.

Perhaps my biggest low point was in 2020. At that time I was already 47 years old and once again had no idea if and how I would continue my scientific career. Two or three times I came close to getting a professorship, and once I ended up second on the list. And unfortunately the position he had just held for five years in Canada through the DAAD could not be extended either.

And so I returned to Germany in the middle of the pandemic, only with a DAAD repatriate scholarship for nine months, as I said, at 47 years old. Then I asked myself: was it finally like this? I had long since completed the twelve years that the law allows me to work for a fixed period in German universities. That was the worst case scenario.

During this time I applied intensively for positions abroad (as I had done in previous years). I tried it in Austria and Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. In 2021 it really worked. I received a permanent professorship at the University of Trondheim. Since then I have lived and worked in Norway. Words can hardly describe the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders.

Marco Valero Sánchez, 36, now works in human resources consulting in Hannover and Berlin.

I worked in science for five years. During this time I pushed my body to the edge of the abyss. It sounds dramatic, but to be honest, it was. Sometimes I just kept my body going with medication. All the stress, all the uncertainty, all the pressure manifested itself in me physically and mentally: in sleep disorders, panic attacks, increased hair loss.

I also had moderate depression. Shortly before presenting my doctoral thesis, I had to go to the hospital due to an acute blood and iron deficiency. I continued working from the hospital bed. It had to end. Looking back now, it seems quite absurd to me the extent to which I subordinated my health to this system.

You need to know: I have a chronic rectal disease, I am autistic and I have ADHD. For me this means that I have to be especially considerate of my body. And that I need an environment in which I can work without barriers. But the way science works right now makes that almost impossible for me. I knew that my position would end after three years, even though my supervisor at the Hannover research institute tried very hard to facilitate several subsequent fundings for me.

But the pressure did not decrease with the two extensions, for one year each. At some point I began to have serious doubts about whether I wanted to continue living this uncertainty after finishing my PhD. If I want to pass that through my body. In the end, it was my research that helped me decide to leave.

In my PhD, I examined how inclusive the field of science is for academics with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Much of what I collected and evaluated there happened to me. That really surprised me. However, the decision to abandon science was not easy. He was already in his 30s and didn't know if he would be attractive as an employee for jobs outside of college.

Today I am glad I took the leap. For almost a year I have had a permanent position and an employer that fully adapts to my needs. Both are completely new experiences for me. And I feel how much my body has relaxed since then. In some parts of my head the hair suddenly grows back, I wouldn't have thought about it. In any case, I will not return to science.

Wieland Schwanebeck, 40, works in Dresden for a Saxon ministry

There are several reasons why I no longer work in science today. One of them is that I want to spend enough time with my family. Now I have two children and my wife works as a teacher in an elementary school. In my experience, family life would be less compatible in the long run with a full-time position at university, at least if you want to settle there and demonstrate your teaching skills.

I worked at the Technical University of Dresden for more than ten years, got my doctorate there and then completed my habilitation. I could consider myself very lucky in many ways in terms of the environment, the support and my contractual situation: I worked there as a research assistant twice for six years each and that was all I could get. However, as in many smaller institutes the work tends to fall on a few shoulders, the line between work and leisure is often very fluid.

As a young scientist, you do this out of genuine enthusiasm for your own subject, even more so when you are part of a team, when you gain great confidence and are passionate about your own subject and your teaching. But the fact that there are no fixed weekends and that in general there is little free time makes it difficult to reconcile family life.

Anyone who wants to make a name for themselves as a young scientist usually accepts it, and I didn't suffer for it. But in the long run it would be an imposition on family life if you only spend time with a guilty conscience because a project proposal or an essay you could actually be writing is still lurking in the back of your mind. Of course, other colleagues can also manage this separation, but for me it was very difficult. For a while I redirected my work emails to my private inbox for convenience, it seemed completely normal to me;

But there are other reasons that have shaken my view of the university as an employer. Above all, the growing importance of third-party financing. When you sit on a nominating committee and see that commitment to teaching and research generally plays second fiddle to third-party funding, it's a little hard to accept.

Of course, collaborations and research projects are not without importance in determining the suitability of applicants. But it also means that many research projects are based primarily on what is currently considered eligible for funding, and young scientists have to accept the fact that their career advancement is in the hands of a few funding institutions whose decisions are not very transparent. . All of this made me question whether my place in science was truly permanent. Precisely because teaching participation plays a relatively minor role in the appointment process.

Furthermore, there is an outdated attitude towards permanent positions at universities. The assumption that job security is hostile to innovation or encourages people to stop working seems pretty common there to me. That seems quixotic to me. All of these points led me to look for another job at some point, even though it wasn't easy for me.

I've been out of science for almost three years. I still regret it from time to time; I especially miss teaching. At the same time, I know that four or five years ago I wouldn't have been able to take care of my children as much as I do now. And I enjoy my new job, even though it has little to do with my previous work as a scientist.

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