How can we make science more fun?

Career in science
Commitment out of passion

A career in science is considered successful if it leads to a professorship. In Germany, around 170,000 people are employed at universities who are classified as young academics - incidentally, a remarkable term for adults up to the age of 41, the average age at the first appointment to a professorship. They are compared to around 24,000 professorships, although the gap between the number of people in mid-level staff - still such a nice name - and professorships has widened further in recent years.

Now, of course, not every member of the mid-level wants to become a professor, but those who aspire to a professorship can easily calculate in view of these figures that the probability of a successful career is highly uncertain.

Without the next generation of academics, teaching at universities would collapse. The problem, however, is that teaching only plays a subordinate role when it comes to appointment to a professorship. Instead, the decisive factor is the research achievements, which are demonstrated by a doctorate, in some subjects additionally by a habilitation, by as many publications as possible in internationally renowned journals and, in the postdoctoral phase, by the acquisition of as many research projects as possible. However, nobody can say how many publications and how many research projects you have to submit to be considered for a professorship. Only one thing is certain: there should be many, everything else is uncertain.

A career in science is a "hazard" (Max Weber); the chances of success are uncertain and the conditions for success are unclear. In accordance with the Law on Permanent Contracts for Science, the appointment to a professorship must have been successful no later than six years after completing your doctorate, otherwise you will be completely overqualified on the street at an age in which other important career steps outside of science have long been behind them. In addition, the working conditions on the way to a professorship are anything but ideal. The positions of young academics are usually limited in time, some with extremely short contract periods, and many positions are split into several part-time positions. In short: these are working conditions that are commonly associated with the adjective "precarious".

Science as a profession

The astonishing thing is that the young scientists themselves do not classify their working conditions as precarious. Of course, they suffer from the uncertainties of their work and life situation; It is not for nothing that academics in particular postpone their desire to have children, and quite a few are looking for a - often better-paid - job outside of the academic system. But for those who stay "inside", the unsatisfactory working conditions take a back seat to the task. Max Weber, to quote him again, spoke of science as a calling and emphasized the passion that is associated with an activity in science.

It will probably not be expressed quite so emphatically today, but the fun of the matter, the "burning" for the research topic, or to put it in a more modern way: the high intrinsic motivation is still the decisive reason for working in science. The university makes it possible to pursue your own interests in terms of content, it makes it possible to turn your hobby into a profession, and this apparently allows you to overlook the inadequate working conditions that are part of an activity in science, as long as you do not have a professorship has achieved.

This enthusiasm for the cause is an important prerequisite for a scientific career; it won't work without it. Something is added. Anyone who stays at the university as a postdoctoral fellow and thus finally embarks on a career in science does not usually decide on the basis of an opportunity-risk assessment, but simply ignores the risks. A certain form of trust is predominant, namely confidence - one could also say: blind trust in God - that everything will go well.

Niklas Luhmann, also a sociologist, albeit considerably younger than Max Weber, characterized confidence a long time ago with the sentence: "Who leaves the house armed in the morning?" We can rightly assume that we will not be drawn into armed conflict. This confidence seems to be a "basic equipment" of the next generation of scientists, because it allows us to look past the not inconsiderable risks of a scientific career.

It is also necessary to cope with the inevitable blows to the neck. With a rejection rate of 90 percent in internationally important journals, the acceptance of submitted manuscripts is the exception, not the rule, and if the article is accepted, there is no guarantee that it will be noticed in any way after publication. The same applies to the application for research projects; Here, too, you have to fight off a lot of competition and receive more letters of rejection than notifications of funding. All of this is fraught with disappointments that can only be overcome with a significant level of confidence.

A high level of intrinsic motivation and a pronounced degree of confidence are therefore essential prerequisites for a scientific career. Of course, other careers are also uncertain and risky, but two aspects make a career in science particularly risky. On the one hand, in the event of failure, i.e. the non-appointment to a professorship, the career is irrevocably over and a complete professional reorientation is necessary. On the other hand, universities can only make a limited contribution to the success of their young academics: they can offer graduate programs, but unlike companies, for example, they do not have personnel power.

Even if a young scientist has shown himself to be particularly capable, the rectorate of "his" university cannot provide him with a professorship. The appointment is based on the suggestion of the respective subject and, due to the ban on internal appointments, not at the home university either; Universities invest in training their next generation so that other universities can benefit from it.

So the risks of a career in science are high, but they could be more limited. One step in the right direction is certainly the planned creation of junior professorships with the tenure-track option known from the USA, i.e. the prospect of an extension of time when clearly defined goals are achieved. A further step could be the introduction of measures that have long been the norm as personnel development in commercial enterprises.

Although there are now a number of offers in this area on the part of the universities, personnel development is still far too little anchored as a task at the chair level. It is precisely the professors who are responsible for the development of their "offspring".