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Essay on German expats seeking academic jobs in their home country

Fit for Germany?

September 16, 2013

There are numerous reasons for academic expatriates from Germany to desire a return to the country in which they were born and educated: Aging or sick parents, a partner or spouse, disenchantment with one’s host country and institution, a better professional fit, a more prestigious position, a well-funded research center, an exciting and securely state funded intellectual landscape, or the elusive Heimweh (home sickness), which may comprise a motley mix of nostalgic emotions and desires.

Until about 15 years ago, perhaps more, there was practically no effort in Germany to cater to such a desire to return "home," let alone to engender it. Now, corporations actively support German universities in creating an even playing field when they try to recruit back top researchers who left Germany for greener and often more entrepreneurial pastures earlier in their careers. Between 2006 and 2012, for example, 52 German expat professors were brought back to German institutions with funding from the Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation. Assisted by the German Scholars Organisation (GSO), the foundation provided up to 100,000 Euros (about $128,000) to any German university in need of additional funds to be competitive during any specific recruitment and hiring process. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany’s leading (and Europe’s largest) self-governing organization in support of research and scholarship, has added a so-called Rückkehrstipendium (return stipend) to its programs to render coming back to Germany more easy and palatable to scholars who have spent anything between one and four years at an international institution. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) provides funds from the German Department of Education to assist scholars with defraying the cost of international travel and adjusting after years in a different academic culture.

Even individual German states (states have far-reaching jurisdiction in educational matters) strain to emulate some of the services many North American research institutions and private firms offer to ease the transition to a new workplace. Bavaria, which offers one of the most attractive academic systems to work in, recently established an office, tellingly in its Department of Commerce, whose employees specialize in facilitating the recruitment of much-needed academic specialists, mostly in engineering and the natural sciences. The recent initiative, entitled "Return to Bavaria," aims at reversing the infamous "brain drain" to international institutions into a future “brain gain.”

The English version of "Return to Bavaria" summarizes the program goals as “aimed at Bavarians and Germans of all fields and sectors possessing a degree from an institution of higher education, living and working abroad, and interested in returning to the Free State of Bavaria. They receive service and personalized support for their return, step by step and individually Bavaria would like to win back its brightest minds -- and is rolling out the red carpet for them.” According to a recent study published in The Journal of Higher Education, the Bavarian initiative may be on to something: Foreign-born, foreign-educated faculty at U.S. institutions demonstrate significantly higher degrees of productivity than their U.S. counterparts. These colleagues’ presence is also proven to increase productivity among U.S. faculty.

My own experience as a German born and educated professor of English and medievalism who has moved back and forth between Germany and the United States several times confirms why the above efforts are helpful, but can only be first steps to remedy the profoundly protectionist and anti-international mentality governing much academic employment. The following remarks may also be helpful to non-German scholars from any number of disciplines. While a little over 70 percent of international academic staff at German universities work in mathematics, the health sciences, the natural sciences, and engineering, the remainder are employed in the humanities, social sciences, law, and the arts (Wissenschaft weltoffen).

Expenses: If you expect to have your travel expenses paid when you are invited to a job interview at a German university, you will be surprised when required, more often than not, to pitch in up to 50 percent of transportation costs. This is bad enough for candidates who live in Germany and have to travel, let’s say, from Stuttgart to Berlin. For a candidate living in North America it feels more like an active deterrent. The support from the Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation was regularly used to create a more level playing field by subsidizing university travel funds for international candidates. However, no systemic change is in sight for this issue, which renders a campus visit for candidates from overseas a very expensive proposition. You might still want to make the investment. After all, an invitation to an interview means you are among the three, in rare cases four or five, finalists.

Access: Of course, you first have to learn about a job opening before you can apply. Apart from high profile positions, most job ads are rarely publicized outside of Germany, not even on free job lists. For many years, the academic job section in the German weekly Die Zeit was the only reliable (print) source for openings. Now, of course, Die Zeit maintains an excellent online version, academics.de, and the German Scholars Organization, the Deutsche Universitätszeitung (DUZ) and, in North America, the German Academic International Network (GAIN), offer up to date job lists and workshops. Most positions, even the vast majority of positions in English studies, are only publicized in German, thus making no effort at internationalizing the German professoriate. The European University Institute (EUI) summarizes Germany’s "openness to non-nationals" as follows: "due to the 'closure' of the system and eventually language barriers it is not easy for foreigners to start an academic career in Germany."

Before the interview: Once you have applied, with hardcopy often still the preferred format, do not expect to receive news quickly. Although the open positions (most of them at the full or associate professor levels because most assistant professor positions are filled internally, and without national, let alone international, searches) rarely attract more than one or two dozen qualified applicants, you may have to wait for an acknowledgement for at least one or two months. When you get a letter or message, it is rarely signed or sent by the search chair. Rather, you may expect to receive an e-mail from a depersonalized address like Sekratariat (i.e., “department office”). This often continues throughout the process, so that the first personal contact with anyone on the search committee might well be at the actual campus interview. Many German professors prefer to have their all their official communication to be filtered through their office staff.

What counts: If you are found to rank among the best-qualified, based on a letter of application and curriculum vitae (no list of references; no teaching evaluations; no scholarly, pedagogical, or administrative philosophies), you will receive a request to send in a portfolio of publications, which will then be sent to one or two reviewers external to the institution to which you applied. Once again, you may not hear anything for several months (I once waited four months) if you are invited to a campus interview. If you are not invited to campus, you may wait even longer for news (I once waited 16 months). If you think you might impress the search committee and external reviewer with teaching awards, years of stellar teaching evaluations, and long lists of service appointments, abandon all hope. Teaching and (administrative) service are rarely ever part of the search and interview process. Your publication record is what really counts.

The interview: You have just spent 12 to 18 hours to travel to the interview, but in all probability nobody will meet you at the airport or have dinner with you. The hotel will be conveniently located, but rarely above the two-star level. Clearly, nobody feels the need to impress you. The biggest surprise will be the interview itself: often up to a handful of candidates are all interviewed on the same day in a marathon for the search committee. If you are (un)lucky, you may actually run into one of the other candidates on your way in and out of the building. In one case, I found all candidates’ names posted on the display board outside the dean’s office while waiting to be invited into the interview room. In another case, the final ranking of candidates was published in an unprotected pdf on the university’s website. Thus, do not count on the level of confidentiality provided by North American selection processes.

During the interview you will probably only meet the members of the search committee, most often full and associate professors from your area of specialization and others from the same college, and perhaps a group of student representatives. You usually give a 20 to 30 minute research presentation to the committee, then the committee asks you questions, first about the presentation, then about your research, reasons for applying, and specific fit for the position. However, there are no library or building tours, no individual meetings with the chair or dean, and no convivial meals to get to know your potential future colleagues and students. After two hours, you are usually done and can be sent back home with a quick handshake. Most U.S.-based colleagues will find the process either anticlimactic or downright uninviting.

After the interview: Be prepared to be patient. Very patient. Even if you are offered the position, you may have to wait at least a month or two to find out. Even if you are not offered the position, don’t give up hope. If the first ranked candidate turns down the position, you may still be offered the position, but only after waiting for one or two more additional months. As in North America, the first ranked candidate may use her offer to negotiate counter offers from her current institution. German professors go one step further and list on their curriculum vitae which position offers they received and rejected prior to their current application. There are base salary ranges for professor positions in Germany, but there is room for negotiation, especially when it comes to research support and staff. Once hired, bonuses reward successful research. Salaries are often lower than those offered at North American research institutions, but make sure your evaluation of the offer includes the various "free" services your benefit package (especially the comprehensive health coverage) includes.

Ageism: If the institution you applied to seems to have all the time in the world to move through its labyrinthine hiring approval process, you may not. All German states have strict laws and regulations about the maximum age at which university professors may be hired. The average maximum age is between 45 (BadenWürttemberg, Brandenburg, Nordrhein-Westfalen) and 55 (Bremen, Saarland, Sachsen-Anhalt). Exceptions are possible (see academics.de), but often only if no younger qualified candidates apply or if the university can provide evidence that the chosen candidate is an outstanding hire of opportunity. These exclusions represent, of course, a form of ageism, and they probably deprive German universities of a good number of candidates who are at the top of their game. They are, however, logical from within the German system of retirement and benefits for civil servants, which provides conditions often superior to the ones available to tenured professors at a major state institution in the U.S.

Institutional nepotism: Despite anti-nepotism regulations, German hiring committees sometimes hire their institution’s own graduates. Existing regulations in Berlin and Nordrhein-Westfalen, for example, allow scholars to apply for positions at their own alma mater after teaching elsewhere for only two years. Scholars sometimes fulfill these and similar absence requirements by working with a team of advisers at a different institution for their postdoctoral degree ("Habilitation"). The presence of such "in house" candidates for a position adds another difficult hurdle for scholars applying from abroad, especially when the search committee members turn out to include another candidate’s teachers and colleagues, supervisor, and thesis adviser. The Deutsche Universitätszeitung reported on this as early as 2006, when there were serious discussions about adopting North American promotion, tenure, and hiring practices, but to date no satisfactory solutions have been advanced for this complex issue. The European University Institute describes the issue diplomatically: “Despite institutional attempts to expand the pool of potential candidates, … informal contacts still matter at the moment of assigning a position.”

Health: If you have not held a German tenured or tenure-track position before moving abroad, you may not know that there is a final hurdle that can keep you from assuming the position you were offered: "pre-existing conditions." Anyone who wants to become a German civil servant has to undergo an obligatory health exam by a state-appointed medical doctor. An extensive health questionnaire, vision, blood, and urine tests screen for any conditions that would make candidates unfit for carrying out their duties. The status of a civil servant guarantees that the state will assume full coverage in case of future sickness or disability, and thus state governments try to limit their own risks by rejecting “sick” candidates. As Süddeutsche Zeitung reported, one such pre-existing condition, cancer, recently led to the scandalous revocation of a signed offer. Apart from serious ethical concerns about this discriminatory screening practice, this is another way in which German state regulations unnecessarily diminish the diversity and intellectual quality of applicant pools for academic positions.

Conclusion: My own experiences and research would signal many significant features that make it difficult, costly, and unappealing for a German expat professor to return back "home." This general picture was recently confirmed, when I received an e-mail from a colleague by the name of Richard Utz at the University of Mannheim, who had been sent the portfolio of essays and books I had mailed when applying for a position more than 15 months ago. Rather than conceiving of the possibility of an international applicant (for a position in English studies!), a staff member had probably Googled “my” name and returned my publications to my namesake, even though he happens to be a sociologist. What is necessary is not simply additional short-term funding, isolated intervention, or the somewhat grandiloquent promise of a "red carpet," but a methodical and thoroughgoing change of the traditional recruitment and hiring procedures and inward looking mentality which does not recognize the value added by the presence of German colleagues with long-term international experience or international colleagues in general.

According to Wissenschaft weltoffen 2012, only about 10 percent of all academic staff at German universities had an international passport. In comparison, a recent study published in New Directions for Institutional Research indicates that U.S. institutions employ at least about 25 percent international academic staff (and this number does not account for the numerous faculty who quickly become U.S. citizens). Thus, Germany is many years away from reversing the "brain drain."

Ironically, the German Scholars Organization regularly offers workshops, entitled "Fit For Germany," and meant to inform and prepare some of the at least 6,000 German academic expats currently in the U.S. about how to adapt to move back “home.” I am not so sure, however, that it isn’t the German academic system itself that is not yet “fit” to adapt to or even embrace the diversity and wealth of innovative ideas these expats and other international colleagues would bring with them.

Bio

Richard Utz received his Ph.D. at the University of Regensburg, and has taught at the Pädagogische Hochschule Dresden, the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Tübingen, and Western Michigan University. He currently serves as professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

 

 

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