Battle for German Brains

Amid tight academic job market in the U.S., Germany pushes Ph.D. students to get postdocs in America -- then to come home and promote change.
September 7, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- German was once the global language of science, a role long since captured by English. But this weekend at the University of California at San Francisco, German was the language of an unusual gathering of academic leaders and rising scientific talent.

About 300 postdocs at top North American universities -- the Ivies, MIT, Chicago, Stanford, Madison, most University of California campuses, as well as Canadian institutions such as the Universities of British Columbia and Toronto -- were gathered here by the German government’s top research organizations. The postdocs are German and are among the most promising of the 5,000-plus German scholars with doctorates currently working in the United States.

Among those traveling here to woo them back home, and to get ideas on how to make German universities better, were 10 university presidents, members of the German parliament, senior government and foundation officials, and representatives of 40-plus academic institutions. Their message was that German higher education is in the midst of a reformation, and that now is the time for young talent to push for more change.

Currently, about 85 percent of German postdocs who work in the United States come home, although only about 50 percent of those who earn their Ph.D.s in the United States do so. Educators organize this gathering every year -- known as GAIN (for German Academic International Network) -- to push those numbers higher, and to prevent any erosion of talent. High-level German interest in this effort is so strong that the weekend saw presidents and vice presidents working booths in the exhibit area, pitching their quite-renowned universities to postdocs. And the university leaders said that their commitment to the effort is such that they were open to quite frank (and sometimes quite critical) discussions of how the country's universities need to change.

"Germany has no gold, no oil, no gas, so we need brains," said Isolde von Bülow, director of the Graduate Center of Ludwig-Maximilians Universität.

Discussions of brain drain in the United States tend to focus on the academic talent from developing nations – scholars who come to the United States and many times feel they can’t find universities of the caliber they would like in their home countries. This gathering shows a different kind of focus on brain drain (or gain). Some of Germany’s universities of course predate the entire United States, and there is a sophisticated research infrastructure in the country. Officials involved in this program say this effort shows how even educationally and technologically advanced nations need to pay attention to the global flow of talent. And in Germany's case, the discussions here reflect a great willingness to learn from the best of American higher education -- not only through the connections the postdocs from Germany pick up in the U.S., but from their ideas about how to challenge the university hierarchy.

The Draw of the American Postdoc

While some countries are trying to persuade more of their most talented students to stay home for graduate education, or postdoctoral fellowships, that's not the case with Germany. The postdocs here said that they were all encouraged -- harangued even -- to look abroad for a postdoc, and to focus on the United States.

"I tell my students that doing a postdoc in Germany would doom their academic careers," said Jürgen Rühe, vice rector of the University of Freiburg. “It is impossible to get a top university career without an international postdoc. People would look at it as a big minus."

Science today depends on international networks, said Rühe, a polymer scientist who has taught at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Barbara. The postdoc is where those ties can be created. German graduate students wouldn't face a problem with language, given that English is already the language of German laboratories, where German professors are instructing, among others, graduate students and postdocs from China and India, in English.

Germany backs up its guidance with money for those who are deemed at the top of their doctoral classes. Benjamin Schäffner, who is finishing up a postdoc in organic chemistry at Stanford University, said that he was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and his wife was on a postdoc supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (known as DFG, it is the equivalent of the National Science Foundation). They found that their postdoc stipends exceeded those of their Stanford colleagues, that Germany didn't tax any of their stipends (unlike the U.S. with regard to Americans), and that extra funds were automatically provided (unlike at most American institutions) to attend scholarly conferences or to pay for child care when Schäffner and his wife had a son while in the United States. (GAIN is sponsored by those two organizations, plus the German Academic Exchange Service, known as DAAD for its German acronym. All of the postdocs invited here have their travel expenses paid as well.)

But even as Germany pushes its young talent to cross the Atlantic, it wants round-trip tickets. Rühe, for example, said that he is not pleased with the American trend of encouraging postdocs to apply for subsequent postdocs. Rühe said that the perspective gained in years three or four of postdocs in the United States is less than in the first two years, so he wants his grad students to plan for one -- and only one -- American postdoc.

Again Germany backs this desire up with money -- with special grants being offered for those researchers who are "re-engaging" with Germany, enough money to outfit laboratories and hire assistants. (One goal of GAIN is to be sure that these postdocs, as they build up their international networks, also keep up with their German networking.)

Many of these postdocs are of course drawn home for personal reasons. They mention missing family members. Those who -- like Schäffner -- have young children want them in German schools.

But many report that the lure of the North American institutions is the opportunity to create a research agenda as an assistant professor. The German model -- currently undergoing reform, but, officials here acknowledged, not yet transformed -- gives great power to full professors. But there are relatively few full professor positions, and the academic positions available to those who are done with postdoctoral training but aren't yet in contention for full professorships don't provide the clout or job security that an associate professor in the United States would have. In fact, most of the postdocs here said that a tenure-track professor without tenure in the United States probably has more autonomy and job security than many German academics who are not full professors.

Alexander Furhmann, on a postdoc in cell biology at the University of California at San Diego, said he wants a career in which he might go back and forth between academe and industry -- and he sees the United States as more receptive. In San Diego, he sees numerous biotech companies with close ties to area research institutions -- and people who move back and forth. "That's a huge advantage," he said.

Fabian Pfrengle, who is on a postdoc in chemistry and biology at the Scripps Research Institute, said that "everything is more flexible in the United States."

Can Germany Become Flexible?

Pfrengle's comment (mirrored by others here) raises the question of whether German universities can become more flexible. Those who are hopeful see the Excellence Initiative of Germany's government as the key to reform. The program involves a series of designations -- either of entire universities or of programs -- as "excellent," based on detailed applications and peer reviews (including panels of non-German reviewers). Those designated as excellent are eligible for additional funds, and the universities in the elite group (currently nine of them) are treated in some ways like institutions in the Association of American Universities. Several here said that the funds may be less important than the introspection forced on the universities by the process -- and the way the program has forced comparisons with the best practices around the world.

Many of the excellence institutions have used funds from the program to create new positions for junior faculty members. These positions are typically five-year renewable positions, designed to create better job options and more job security for those who haven't yet obtained full professor status.

Ulrike Beisiegel, president of Göttingen University, one of the excellence institutions, said that she is currently applying for funds through the program to create tenure-track options before the full professor level -- a potentially revolutionary change for German higher education.

"We have to flatten the hierarchy, and make it possible for people to have independence" without being totally reliant on one of the full professors, she said. "It can't just be like 'I come to you Herr Dr. Professor,' " she said, bowing her head repeatedly in mock deference to an imaginary full professor.

Beisiegel said that by giving tenure to people who are not full professors -- and giving them such previously off-limits rights such as sitting on dissertation committees -- she wants to create new career paths. Many young scholars, she said, don't aspire to the administrative duties that go with the power of the full professors, and would prefer a different track, with more time to focus on their research. The tradition has been “either you become a professor or a loser," she said.

In most ways, Beisiegel followed the norms of German universities: a postdoc in molecular genetics at the University of Texas (working with a team that eventually won a Nobel), rising through the ranks to a professorship at the University of Hamburg, and then becoming a university president. But whereas once that path would have been the only one, she said, she was struck by talented researchers who told her in Hamburg, "I wouldn't want your job."

"There are too many Germans going out" because of these frustrations, she said. "We need the brains and we need to make more changes." And she stressed that she sees change coming.

Jutta Allmendinger, president of the Social Science Research Center, in Berlin, created a lot of (favorable) buzz here with a speech calling not only for new career paths, but for rethinking how the full professor position is viewed. Currently, she said, "we try to have huge jobs" for professors. "The bigger your research group is, the higher your reputation is, so you apply for more and more outside money, and then your group gets even bigger and bigger and you don't do research, but you manage research."

She added that "we have to get rid of the 'more is better' principle."

At her research center, Allmendinger said, she tells faculty members that no more than 23 percent of their budgets should come from outside funding. She wants them to focus on a few grants -- and support from the federal and Berlin governments allows her to adopt such a policy.

"The young people who I talk to who are staying in the U.S. or in Sweden are able to work in smaller groups," she said, "and these are the young people I want."

While restructuring university hierarchies is part of the change going on in Germany, so is adapting to the changing demographics and family needs of researchers -- who are no longer assumed to be Herr Dr.

One of the tables in the exhibit hall was focused on dual career issues and featured handouts from many leading universities about how they could help academic couples. Officials here said that German universities were behind their American counterparts just a few years ago, but are catching up quickly.

Kerstin Dübner-Gee, director of the dual career office at Technische Universität München, said that when her unit was created in 2008, it was viewed as an entirely new idea. But she said leading universities all have such offices now, and view it as part of recruitment to help spouses find jobs. Since her office was created, it has consulted with 240 couples, and 125 of them have at least one partner of the couple (and some have both partners) now employed at her university.

Just a Touch of Schadenfreude

Many here argued that their best bet for attracting more young talent rests with the reforms taking off in German universities. And even some of the more skeptical postdocs here said that they knew this was a period of positive change in Germany (they are skeptical more about the pervasiveness of the change than that it is happening). But what many here said may persuade young German talent to return is the evaporation of the United States as a land of opportunity for young researchers.

Among postdocs here who said that they loved their time in the United States (and those tempted by California weather), a significant part of the equation is a sense that the job market in the United States -- even for scientists -- is getting much tougher. People talked about watching universities shrink labs, eliminate support staff and so forth.

One postdoc here talked about meeting people who said "my lab didn't get the grant, so it's time to go back to Germany." Several -- asking that they not be named -- said that they were stunned by the way the job market was treating talented Americans looking for tenure-track jobs at research universities in the United States, and by the increasing difficulty that stellar researchers have in landing funds from the NSF or the National Institutes of Health. People said that the sense of job security for assistant professors in the United States, once seen as more secure than what is available at comparable stages of a career in Germany, may be disappearing.

Dirk Brenner, a postdoc at the Ontario Cancer Institute of the University of Toronto, said that with the German grants for returning scientists, "there is not a single American program that can compete."

Heide Naderer, director of the international office of Rheinisch Westfaelische Technische Hochschule Aachen, is an enthusiastic backer of the reform movement in German universities -- seeing it as overdue and significant. But she said that right now, Germany is benefiting from the American economy. "If there would be more tenure-track positions still around here, I don't know if we would get as many to go back," she said. The decision-making process for young talent is "a lot about what's going on on the U.S. side."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top