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Life as an academic in Germany

By uczjsdd, on 23 March 2022

Professor Mona Hess gained her PhD in Imaging Metrology for Cultural Heritage at UCL, and she’s now based at Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg, Germany. We caught up with Mona to learn about her career path and current role, and get an insight into academia beyond the UK.

Tell us about your current role

I’m a full professor and chairholder for Digital Technologies in Heritage Conservation at Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg, Germany. With about 13,000 students, it’s the smallest university in Bavaria. I’m also part of the Centre for Heritage Conservation Studies and Technologies, which is an associated research institution, and I still maintain a role as a senior research associate at UCL Digital Humanities.

In my work, I am continuing topics I studied in my PhD and before, and I’m in the forefront of a new topic, as no other chair with my denomination exists in Germany. I’m also the Women’s Officer of the university, so I get a lot of direct interaction with the university’s management team and the Provost and Vice-Provosts.  I often sit on interview panels, so I get to see and contribute to developments and policy of the university. I’m also programme director of a new Masters course in Digital Technologies and Heritage Conservation, which is also unique in Germany. My work and teaching is very technology-based and interdisciplinary, and I am based in the Faculty of Humanities.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

In the final stages of my PhD, I was already very active in the digital heritage community. I attended and presented at conferences, and I knew a lot of academics in the field. Thanks to my supervisor at the time, I was able to work as a part-time Research Manager in the same department after my PhD. I was a bit hesitant to get involved in teaching at first, but I was encouraged to do so by colleagues as they knew it would help me later down the line, and by doing it I learned I enjoyed it. So, alongside my PhD and Research Manager role, I was a PGTA, and I delivered guest lectures on various courses, and co-taught on fieldwork modules. I also worked with some colleagues on a module for the interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL, and I ended up coordinating it (the German in me!).

When it was time to move on from this role, I received some good advice, which was to call people I knew to let them know I was available for other jobs. This is exactly what I did, and somebody flagged to me that the University of Bamberg in Germany was going to commence a new Masters programme, and would therefore be opening up a couple of positions.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing before that. There were moments I applied for roles far below my qualification level, like when I applied to be a technician at the Natural History Museum for 3D-scanning. And I applied for a lot of academic jobs, where I did get to interview, but then didn’t get the job, such as at King’s College and UCL.

Due to multiple job openings I commenced applying for jobs in Germany.  I was sad to leave the UK, but it has turned out to be beneficial on a personal level, as I am now near my family, and it has improved my quality of life – spontaneous excursions in a car into the Alps or within Europe are now possible!  I had three interviews in German universities at three different stages: lecturer, senior lecturer, and full professor level. So I developed quite a good routine in performing in interviews! Out of all of those applications, I was very happy to be selected as full professor here, and I do feel it was the role that fit me and my research best. My time at UCL prepared me well for all of these applications, as it provided me with the opportunity to get excellent publications in high impact journals and acquire solid teaching experience.

In Germany, it’s worth noting that, in the humanities at least, in addition to a PhD, you normally have to have a “habilitation”, which is like a second qualification or “second book”, to be considered for a full professorship. Or you have to have enough publications and experience of winning projects that would be equivalent to that. It’s also worth saying that all of this took quite a while, as in academia in Germany, an appointment isn’t simply made from one day to the next. The whole process lasts a minimum of nine months until you are appointed to a position.

Nine months?!

Yes. It’s a highly monitored and transparent process. Initial shortlisting usually takes two or three months. Then there will be interviewing, and another shortlist. There are vetoing options from members, and the whole process will be assessed, including whether Diversity and Equality has been looked at. There’s always a student representative, women’s officer, and a research associate representative on the board to review this list and offer their opinions. That list will be reviewed by external, unbiased professors, and when these reviews come back, you discuss again who you will put forward to university management, Senate.  It also needs to be passed by the Ministry of Education of the State of Bavaria.

By that point, six or seven months after the initial job advert went out, you might get “a call”. The university management negotiate your terms with you. That negotiation can go back and forth for a couple of months, and finally the university might offer the job to you. Of course, in the meantime, the first-choice candidate may get another job offer and so end up not taking it, or turn down the job offer. If this happens, the negotiation will start again with the second person on the list. So, if you’re the second or third person on the list, you may not hear back on your application for many months after you’ve interviewed, and yet you still may be offered the job.

In which areas can one negotiate?

That will depend upon your role. You can negotiate about the number of staff and their duties (administrative/ research). You can also negotiate on lab space and infrastructure , if that’s relevant to your work. I mainly negotiated the size of my starting grant to buy the equipment I needed. As in the UK, we have bands and spine-points for salaries, but you have conditional additions you can negotiate. You can argue you will take on specific tasks and leadership functions in return for a pay uplift, and the pay is conditional for a couple of years, and if you can prove you’ve actually taken on those tasks, you get to keep it.

Tell us a bit more about the academic career-ladder in Germany

Post-docs on a research associate assignment are strictly time-limited to six years, after which you will usually seek jobs to be appointed a professorship. W1 professorship is equivalent to a UK lecturer/assistant professor, and may have an initial probation phase of 3 years, followed by another 3 years that could lead to tenure. W2 professorship is equivalent to associate professor and is an established role often tenure-tracked, mostly ending in a life-time employment as a state employee. In a W3 professorship, you have a leading senior role and life-time employment as a state employee, and this is my position. I report directly to the provost/ president, and could take on additional duties as dean or vice-provost.

In the UK you might stay in the same office in which you started as a lecturer, and as you gain more achievements you may use these as arguments to move up in seniority, and you become senior lecturer (associate prof), reader, etc based on your promotional criteria and these achievements (acquisition of third party funding etc). In Germany you would usually have to change places to progress, applying for the next role up when it becomes available somewhere.

Are there any application differences you’re aware of?

A few. It may surprise those used to the UK system that in Germany you share how many kids you have and when they were born, if you’re married or not. It may seem odd, but there’s a strategic reason why you might want to list your children, because if you have taken leave for childcare reasons, or for other caring reasons, during which time you didn’t publish, recruiters will take that into account when judging how productive you are in terms of outputs. So, it should be a favourable thing.

We also don’t tend to have pre-programmed forms and tick-boxes to fill in, like those at UCL. Instead, a call for a job would say, please apply with the usual documents. So, my first task when applying in Germany , was to find out what the “usual documents” actually are! You need to give a covering letter, a research concept document, and sometimes also a teaching concept, and the usual academic CV. This isn’t too different to some lectureship applications in the UK. But you’re also asked to submit forms students have given to feedback on your teaching. They want the actual forms, so you may want to bear that in mind when you’re receiving feedback in future. Also, it is unusual to name references. Instead, you might submit work certificates you received from your past employers when you left, where they summarise how you did in the job.

Do I have to speak German to work in academia in Germany?

Yes, it is advantageous, and if you don’t, you might be asked to aspire to learn German within the first three years. There are more and more courses taught in English here, so you may get away with not having to teach in German. But if you really want to be part of the department and institute, you might find small talk and strategic talks happens in German, so you would want to be able to access that.

Saying that, if you went to, say, Munich Technical University, I think the language of conversation would be English, because it’s a larger city and university that draws people from all over the world. But here, a small university in a small town, I think a lot of things would be lost on someone who only spoke English.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

During term-time I’m doing a lot of teaching; two or three modules with small groups of students. The teaching itself takes up 30% of my week, 40% at peak times. And then I attend a lot of meetings of the various boards where I need to be present as the women’s officer, and I do a lot of admin for my research group and as programme director. During term-time research probably only makes up 10% of the working week. The bulk of the research itself takes place in the times between semesters – spring-time and summer time.

After five years in the role I’m getting to the point where there’s pressure to win funding for projects. Although winning third-party funding is has not been mandatory for me personally (unlike lecturers in the UK, who might need to win funding as promotional criterium to move up to senior lecturer or professor), I need it to keep my research staff employment going after the end of the initial starting fund by the university and Bavarian ministry.

What are the best things about your role?

There are lots of best bits! International research in heritage locations, working with other disciplines, continued learning. I love travel, so a particular highlight for me so far was teaching heritage professionals in Havana, Cuba, on 3D-laser scanning and photogrammetry, for two weeks. I really do enjoy passing knowledge and skills onto the next generation via teaching. I also did a 6-month sabbatical in Italy, forging networks at different universities. So, the networking, going abroad, coming up with ideas with new and interesting people, that’s all great. I love bringing expertise, asking questions, and being able to contribute to heritage research internationally.

And the technology is always evolving, so it’s exciting for me to go to a trade fair for survey equipment and feed that passion to observe technology developments. Interdisciplinarity and international connections are stimulating. For example, I won a project to work with art historians and baroque ceiling painting experts in France and Germany, which also requires my French language knowledge to be brought back up to speed.

Another perk is how flexible and autonomous we are in academia. And especially now, there is definitely flexibility of location, and working hours.

And the biggest challenges?

One challenge I face is around the bureaucracy at the university. There are lots of hoops to jump through, lots of forms to fill in and hand-sign, if you want to, for example, purchase something pretty simple. You can’t just go and buy it, you’ve got to have it officially approved.

Sometimes I take on too many tasks, and I don’t think I’m the only one in academia who does that. It’s all stuff I want to do – like reviewing articles for a journal, taking on an extra piece of research, or even contributing to a colleague’s birthday book publication (in German academia colleagues get together and each write a little paragraph in a book for a colleague). So although I’m very flexible in my hours and work place, the workload isn’t light, and I do work on weekends fairly frequently. People do get burnout, and I think that’s the same in academia in any country, I know (mostly from Twitter) that it’s definitely true of the UK.

This subject is my vocation. and even when I’m on holiday I’m always visiting interesting sites or an exhibition and I’ll be thinking about how the exhibition has been constructed and if there’s multimedia etc. So even in my downtimes, I willingly devote myself to work-related things! So I naturally want to be working on this a lot, but I can see others might view the deadlines and workload as a challenge.

Saying that, I have seen academics who work much more contained hours, and the university of Bamberg prides itself on being a family-friendly employer. I do however observe that lately there are meetings at 7pm and that’s easy because you can dial in from home, but it means that people who want a more fixed working schedule or have family might struggle.

Has the current [2022] uncertain climate had any impact?

The increase of student numbers in the time of digital studying without the real student experience is a factor that we see changing due to Covid. But we will return to in-presence teaching in summer term.

Here in Bavaria, due to decisions taken by the government in 2019, we actually have a positive impact within academia still ongoing. We’ve been promised 1000 professorships for the high-tech agenda by our state president, and amongst others, universities are currently recruiting professors with a focus on high–tech and artificial intelligence. Despite all the great uncertainty in the world, it’s actually a good time to become a professor in Germany because a lot of money has been put into creating novel types of positions connected with technology.

Any tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path?

  • Take any opportunities of interesting tasks or roles given to you, even if you feel hesitant. All your expertise from different fields in combination will make your profile more appealing to employers, and will develop your transferable skills.
  • Have mentors and role models who are in the position you aspire to. Seek them out, join mentorship programmes, talk to them often and keep in touch.
  • Seek out opportunities to teach and present your work or research, even if it’s not finished. It will teach you to communicate your work to others, which is part of the academic craft.
  • Become a member of professional networks. Read their newsletters and attend their events.
  • Access UCL’s excellent development courses to prepare you for writing grants and papers, and help with presentation technique, and research methods.
  • Don’t underestimate yourself or be too self-conscious. That’s probably especially important for women, as we tend more often to say, “I’m not ready yet”, or “Nobody will be interested in my ideas/work”. It’s natural to feel that way, but even if you’re feeling like an imposter, the practice will give you that air of having true confidence.
  • Prepare well for interviews. Get knowledge about the institution and the colleagues you would work with. Go through the most often asked questions and rehearse them.
  • Aspire to roles above your current qualification, and dare to apply for them. In Germany, even if you don’t get the role, if you’ve been shortlisted according to the process I described above, you can mention this on your CV. And you will gain valuable application and interview practice. You might even meet people during the application process whom you impress, and who will give you a role next time around.
  • Follow your passion. If you do something that aligns with your passion, you’re more likely to be successful.


Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

By uczjsdd, on 6 September 2021

In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.

  • How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.

  • What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.

  • What’s the progression usually like in academia?

A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.

  • What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?

Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.

What do UK PhD graduates do? An updated look.

By uczjsdd, on 16 April 2020

Figure: UK PhD destinations 3.5 years after graduation, taken from Dr Sally Hancock’s Hepi blog.

If you’re a UCL PhD student or member of research staff I’m sure you know lots of PhD graduates. At UCL you’re surrounded by them. So of course you know what PhDs do after they graduate, right? Well, not necessarily. Because if your sample consists largely of academic colleagues, it will be heavily skewed towards PhDs who’ve stayed within academia.

Most PhDs we work with at UCL Careers are aware there are options beyond academia, but they often feel the ‘normal’, the ‘expected’, or the ‘logical’ path is to carry on in academic research. But again and again, the stats show us this is far from normal.

A recent look at the career outcomes of PhD graduates comes from the work of Dr Sally Hancock, a Lecturer at the University of York. She investigated what 5,000 UK PhDs who graduated in 2008/9 and 2010/11 were doing 3.5 years after graduation. And as her graph above shows, 70% had already left academic research. Yes, that’s right – the majority of PhDs had left academia only a couple of years after graduating.

We can assume that of those 29.9% of PhDs in Dr Hancock’s sample who were still within academia 3.5 years after graduation (68.4% said they were university researchers, and 31.6% were Higher education Teaching Professionals) many will be on temporary post-doctoral researcher or teaching fellow contracts. And we know from previous studies, like the Royal Society’s 2010 look at STEM PhD destinations, that it’s likely not all of them will still be within academia in another few years.

So what does all this mean for you? Well, if you want to progress within academia you shouldn’t assume it will happen automatically. Get strategic, build networks, and take tips from those who are already succeeding. Look especially for advice amongst your contemporaries, as more progressed academics will have graduated into a very different academic environment. The graph below, taken from Schillebeeckx et al’s 2014 Nature Biotechnology article looking at data from the US, demonstrates just how much things have changed. It shows that over the past few decades, the number of PhDs awarded has risen at a far faster rate than the number of permanent academic jobs available, increasing the amount of competition for said jobs.

Figure taken from Schillebeeckx et al’s 2014 Nature Biotechnology article analysing data from the US.

And if you’re considering leaving academia? Well, go easy on yourself, because moving on to something new is the norm, not the exception. If it still doesn’t feel that way, seek out the stories and company of people who’ve already made the move. We’ve interviewed a few of them for you in our career case studies of PhD grads, and you can use platforms like the UCL alumni mentoring network or LinkedIn to find more.

And whether you’re considering staying or leaving, the UCL Careers Researcher Programme is here to help. You can access one-to-one appointments and our workshop schedule covering academic and non-academic employability skills, as well as job vacancies targeted at researchers, through MyUCLCareers, and you can read more details about our offering on our website. We are currently delivering our programme online, so please check out our summer schedule of webinars and online employer events here.

You can read Dr Sally Hancock’s full article here.