Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Linda Jauch on powerful dependancies of academics to funding bodies, their supervisors and what to do about it.


Very early on in my PhD I decided that a life as researcher and university lecturer was not for me. I very much enjoyed talking and hearing about research, the constant “vibe of knowledge” buzzing in the air on a university campus, and, yes, I felt that research was important for understanding the world we live in, past and present. However, I did not want to spend more time in archives or secluded at my desk. Rather, I wanted to somehow support “the whole thing”. The perfect career seemed to be in Higher Education Management and once I was done with my doctorate, I eagerly started to apply to jobs that seemed suitable. I had completed my entire academic life in the United Kingdom and due to personal reasons, I wanted to return to Germany to start my new career. One of the first things I realized trying to get a job was that I did not understand the distinct power relations at German universities. I had to learn about its hierarchies, the importance of professorships and the specific rules and regulations such as the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz”. In the following ten years, I did a fairly good job, I guess, specializing in the support of early career researchers. Moreover, by understanding the system I learned to like it, to see the benefits of its structure (yes, they do exist!) and I met many people who enthusiastically support researchers as best they can. Nevertheless, the one thing I still worry about (and it is surely not a specific feature only of the German academic system) is the often-crooked power relations in academia that sometimes seem to prevent researchers, especially young ones, from reaching their full academic potential.

Start of a new series and the “Doktor-Eltern

In 2018, I started working at the newly founded Hamburg Research Academy [1], a unique institution in Germany – the central port of call for prospective doctoral researchers, doctoral researchers, postdocs, junior professors, and their supervisors at nine higher education institutions in Hamburg. Soon I was planning a series of fishbowl talks (“HRA Salon”) to shed further light on the manifold and complex power relations in academia. Invited guests were both well-known individuals from major academic institutions on the one hand, and early career researchers on the other. One of the most obvious relationships of power and dependency at university level, is the supervisory relationship with which we also started our series [2]. The terms “Doktorvater” and “Doktormutter” are emblematic of the German support system in science: They suggest closeness and trust on the one hand, and dependency and clear hierarchies on the other. In the supervision of doctoral candidates, a hierarchical gap between supervisors and supervisees is common. In the worst case, this leads to an abuse of power. Professors are usually both supervisors and examiners of the thesis – a specific feature of the German doctorate. In addition, there are often financial dependencies due to employment relationships and, of course, there is the – in the academic system – manifold power of the supervisor to write recommendations for postdoc positions, funding applications and so on. As one discussant pointedly wrapped it up: “Supervisors not only have power over whether you have a job today, they can also have power over whether you will get a job again in this research field in the future or not.”

Over the last years, many universities set up support structures to foster better working conditions for their researchers: graduate institutions of various structures (such as the Hamburg Research Academy) and names were founded and/or universities extended their staff development departments. Most of these institutions offer courses on leadership and fruitful supervisory relationships, which is great and an improvement. Nevertheless, to me the question remains whether this is sufficient or whether it would be more beneficial to reform the structures underlying the doctoral process. One of the most obvious is the often-discussed German double role of supervisor and examiner. But we should also not forget, that as a young researcher completes a doctorate and moves on in the academic system, the dependencies remain: A postdoc is often similarly dependent on his/her professors, their patronage and goodwill to pursue independent research, secure funding, publications, and employment contracts. All of which are extremely important to eventually reach a professorship – the only permanent position as independent researcher in the German system.

The power of funding organisations

Many of the improvements surrounding the doctorate in recent years were significantly coined by third party funding organisations in Germany. In major funding applications, professors and institutions were now asked to give detailed accounts on their support structures for early career researchers and supervisory agreements have become somewhat of a standard in third party projects. The rapid and enormous growth of third party funding in the last years has often been criticized (and rightly so)  but we should not forget that funding agencies have this (often positive!) normative influence on the academic system. With their monetary power, they can set the rules for the allocation of funds; they can take on a pioneering role and initiate change. In our second Salon [3] we therefore discussed the power of funding agencies. Not only can they advance great research projects but by doing so, they can  also establish a better work culture in  funded projects and beyond. One positive international example here is the second largest foundation in the world, the Wellcome Trust. In May 2018, the foundation introduced a new code of conduct [4] on good leadership to combat bullying and sexual harassment. Violations of the policy can be (and in the past were) sanctioned by reclaiming funds and by excluding researchers and institutions from future funding. In the HRA Salon, Dr. Anne-Marie Coriat (Wellcome Trust) made clear that the fundamental goal of the measures is to define excellence in research not merely through quantifiable factors such as publication lists, but also through excellent working conditions. German funding agencies still seem to hesitate to introduce similar initiatives. But in its guidelines for safeguarding good scientific practice [5], which came into force on August 1st, 2019, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG included the topics of “Responsibility in the management of work units” and “Professional ethics”. All universities and non-university research have until August 2021  to implement the guidelines. But as one of our panel guests pointed out, it can be near-impossible for German universities to control the adherence of guidelines. Many universities, for example, made supervision agreements for doctorates mandatory. However, there are no legal instruments to force the parties involved to sign (and act according) to these agreements. The biggest problem, however – and here all our panel guests agreed – is to find out about cases of conflict at all, as, again power relations at work, especially young researchers fear negative consequences for their career. Competition among scientists can also lead to prisoners’ dilemma-type constellations, which can be ultimately beneficial for the traditional hierarchy and the abuse of power.

An elitist system?

Adding to these strong levels of dependency, recent research has shown that the German academic system is run by an established academic elite, that hardly changes over the years (see especially the research conducted by Dr. Christina Möller [6] in this context). We therefore launched a theme year “Careers in academia? Social background and equal opportunity in academia” [7] and also made the inherent inequalities and the lack of diversity the topic of our third Salon [8] and talked about power and elites in the academic system. Our guests repeatedly discussed the problem of habitus with a view to their own educational career. Reyan Şahin (aka Lady Bitch Ray) described her personal feeling of “not belonging” as a permanent state of mind. In her eyes, the higher education system is a highly patriarchal, elitist, sexist and structurally racist system. In addition, she criticized the lack of transparency and control bodies that could prevent misconduct and experiences of discrimination effectively. Guests and audience alike repeatedly pointed at the inherent discrimination and dependencies in the academic system questioned the idea that one could reach a professorship based on merit and research excellence alone. Ultimately, those (professors) who have been in the system for a long time select the next generation who might then repeat the cycle.

Moving on: two more Salon evenings to come

Our plan for 2020 was a fourth HRA Salon on power and global order – by mapping a global, postcolonial academic landscape, we wanted to discuss how far have universities progressed in implementing diversity and inclusiveness or how far academia still to this day is “male, stale and pale”? This Salon was meant to be followed by our grand finale “Power and the Academic System” to wrap it all up. But then the pandemic came and the series was put on hold. We will however resume in 2021 with the topics just as planned, now in a digital format in June and September respectively (if you want  to join the discussion, I recommend signing up for our newsletter [9] to get the details). Therefore, I somewhat lack a “conclusion” today. But as I started this text on a very personal level, I would like to finish with some personal thoughts.

Ideas for improvement

As it has often been reported, the German academic system has, over the last couple of years, produced doctorates en masse, while the number of professorships steadily decreased. This has various effects: many professors supervise more doctoral candidates than one might adequately support (not only in terms of the thesis but also of the career afterwards). The doctoral candidates are often competing among each other – for time with their supervisors, opportunities and support in publishing results, postdoc positions and so on. This, of course, easily allows for difficult levels of dependency to develop and makes the abuse of power quite simple. Furthermore, supervisors often seem to avoid openly discussing career perspectives with their early career researchers. It would certainly be beneficial to introduce mandatory individual development meetings annually. This way, early career researchers would know early on if their professor sees them in academia or if another career path might be an option. This is another thing that I still find rather strange about the German academic system; only a minority of my UK peers during the PhD wanted to remain in academia. They often saw the doctorate as a set of skills that would ease their way into other career paths – in commerce, government administration, and so on. In Germany, however, the doctorate must lead into an academic career. All other ways are often perceived (by many young researchers and professors alike) as a failure, a very sad “plan B”. This is extremely one-dimensional, especially considering the facts mentioned above (inflation in doctorates, decrease in professorships). Only recently and very slowly does this mind-set seem to be changing. This is positive, as simple math will tell you that only a tiny minority will be able to pursue a life-long career in academia, but by lacking alternatives many young researchers means that they pass their fate onto their supervisors, who might not all be natural-born leaders or be able to always bear this burden responsibly. After all, they were appointed to professorship primarily because of their research and not their people-leading skills (for better or worse!).

Another problem is the lack of clear career paths at postdoctoral level in Germany. There exists a complex and often intransparent variety of postdoc positions (with/without teaching / funded by different budgets / allowing for different status within the university etc). Many early career researchers find it difficult to navigate their way through the system while doing their research, attending conferences, networking, publishing, acquiring third party funds, and so on. Often, the path to professorship depends on luck and coincidence and is simply unpredictable. This, again, fosters dependencies and also leads to the unfortunate fact that many highly talented researchers (and especially women) leave academia at postdoc-level -not because their research project is unsuccessful or simply “not good enough”- but because the overall job situation renders uncertainty.

A precious privilege

In my starting paragraph, I mentioned the benefits of the German academic system and I would like to finish this text with the greatest benefit of all: academic freedom. “Science, research and teaching shall be free”, says Article 5 of the German Constitution that was adopted more than 70 years ago. This article of the constitution is a great achievement, not only in times of a pandemic, when populists question basic scientific principles. It also safeguards research conducted in less prominent and publishable topics. The autonomy of German professors to conduct their research on secure and independent lifetime professorships shall be a guarantor for the academic freedom. When I look back at my British alma mater, I see that especially many smaller departments were closed or dramatically reduced in staff numbers in recent years. The reasons are various – a decrease in student numbers, a lack of external funds acquired, or simply a general target to save money in less popular research fields. As a result, many fantastic senior academics suddenly find themselves unemployed. I personally feel (and I know this might not be a popular opinion) that the independence of professorships (and the great power that comes with it) in Germany is a precious privilege. Having said that, however, it is obvious that with their power also comes responsibility – for their research, for their doctoral candidates and postdocs and for the academic system as a whole. I have outlined many points in this text where I feel that professors, institutions, funding organisations and society as a whole can do a lot more to better safeguard fair working conditions and progression in academia so it may be based on academic merit alone. This surely is a story to be continued… .


In 2017 the Federal Ministry for Education and Research launched the Tenure-Track-Programme [10] as a structural reform project that was meant to introduce a new pathway to professorship. One of the intended goals of the programme is to allow for an early career decision not merely based on publications but on the research potential of a candidate. Further, in order to participate in the programme, universities had to submit a concept for the development of the entire academic staff and they were challenged to rethink their personnel structures not only at professor level, but at all levels of academic staff.

There exist, of course, starkly different and much more critical views on the role of professorships in Germany than mine. Check out the Junge Akademie [11] for some exciting ideas and also the recent paper “Personalmodelle” (in German) by the “Netzwerk für gute Arbeit in der Wissenschaft” [12].