Job Market #2

Here is the second in my series of guest posts about the job market, this time from Stephan Schmid (Hamburg), who received his PhD from Humboldt-Berlin in 2010.

Academic positions for philosophers in central Europe –a critical guide for the perplexed

How many stalls are needed in order for there to be a market? This question might not allow for a definite answer, but surely you need several of them. This is perhaps one of the reasons why talk about a philosophical ‘job-market’ has a strange ring to many European ears. Especially for medievalists. There are so few permanent academic positions for philosophers (let alone for those specialized in medieval philosophy) in continental Europe that talk about a ‘job-market’ must strike one as euphemistic at best. But quantity of (permanent) positions is not the only difference between the job situation in North America and continental Europe. There are also differences concerning the formats of philosophical positions as well as concerning the general procedure of filling them. In this post I want to point out some of them – and in doing so I pursue two goals. The first is purely informative: as the philosophical world is globalizing, philosophers from continental Europe and North America are increasingly encouraged (or even forced) to also consider jobs across the Atlantic, such that my experiences from the ‘job-markets’ in these two worlds might be of general interest. The second is slightly political: in my view, a range of things in continental European academia are problematic – and I think that some of these problematic things become most salient in comparison to the North American system (which I take to have many advantages vis-à-vis many facets of the traditional academic system in continental Europe). And while I do not believe that there is an easy solution to these problems, I think that they are to be addressed and discussed.

A disclaimer before starting. Instead of talking about the continental European job-market in general, I confine myself to the market I am most familiar with. This is particularly the market of German speaking Europe. There might be interesting analogues of the academic structures and developments in other European countries, but determining them is a difficult task, which I will not undertake here. Also, what I say about the North American market is to be taken with a grain of salt (at least): I have some personal experience with North American universities. But while these universities might be internationally better known, they need not be representative for the North American market in general.

Philosophical positions at German speaking universities are generally of a different form than positions in North America, though this is changing at many places at the moment. Traditionally, philosophy departments in central Europe are constituted by Chairs (Lehrstühle), which are devoted to a special philosophical area and led by a single full-professor, though there are increasingly more departments that also have professors who do constitute or belong to a Chair. Now, the major difference between the full-professorships constituting a Chair and the other professorships is that Chairs are equipped with a number of associate positions for non-professorial faculty members (which are generally referred to as Mittelbau). The number and precise shape of these Mittelbau-positions (permanent or not; post-doc or graduate) depends on the Chair holder’s reputation and power and the university’s financial situation. In far most cases, however, Mittelbau-positions associated to a Chair are not permanent and in all cases they are subordinated to the Chair holder who therefore not only has the (main) power to fill these positions but also the power to (widely) define the responsibilities of these positions. Accordingly, these Mittelbau-positions were often officially called and advertised as assistant positions, and some Chair holders have been and are still taking this characterization quite seriously. To be sure, not all of them do so – and I was personally fortunate enough that I was never treated or even conceived of as an assistant but as an independent researcher and colleague with shared philosophical interests. Nowadays, these positions are often –and more neutrally– called ‘academic collaborator’ (wissenschaftliche/r Mitarbeiter/in). Nonetheless, these ‘collaborators’ are formally subordinated to full-professors and even if these professors are morally candid or idealist enough not to abuse their power for their own interests, ‘collaborators’ do not have an own research and/or travel-budged and are, at least in some cases, even required to have confirmed every conference trip or vacation by their superior.

As you might guess, the attractiveness of these associate positions crucially depends on the professor with whom they are associated. In the fortunate case, they might be (at least in terms of research possibilities) even more attractive than typical assistant professorships in North America: they involve only a small teaching load and hardly any administrative duties. In terms of security, though, they fare in almost every case worse: only very, very few of them are permanent – and normally they do not even involve any option for tenure. Instead, a wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at the rank of a post-doc was and often still is expected to write a Habilitation (a kind of second PhD devoted to a different topic) that makes her or him eligible for a tenured full-professorship. Whether there are such tenured positions then is another question.

So much about the traditional setting of philosophical positions in German speaking Europe. As said, things are changing at the moment – and they do so on at least three levels: First, on the level of tenured professorships, having a Habilitation is no longer a necessary requirement. Since universities want to also recruit people from other academic systems, in which there is no such thing as a Habilitation, the formal requirement for such positions usually is a ‘Habilitation or achievements equivalent to a Habilitation’. This requirement allows for different interpretations and different search committees at different universities (or even within the same university) give it a different reading. As a result, the criteria for the eligibility for such positions have become somewhat unclear: Sometimes committees insist that people applying from academic systems that know the Habilitation need such a second qualification thesis, while others decide that a strong research profile including international publications in peer-reviewed journals and/ or with internationally recognized publishers is sufficient. Now, as welcome as it is that German universities are increasingly recruiting people from all over the world, the resulting uncertainties about the criteria of eligibility for these positions leaves junior researchers of continental Europe in an awkward position: in order to be on the safe side, they should best try both, to establish an international research profile and to write a second book or Habilitation. (More recently, there is also the possibility to submit a ‘cumulative Habilitation’ consisting of a selection of more or less independent but thematically related papers accepted by peer-reviewed journals). But if one’s Habilitation is, as it used to be the case, to be expected to be an own book on a topic different from one’s dissertation topic, this task is almost impossible.

Second, and in response to the developments just sketched, there are also changes on the level of post-doctoral positions. In addition to (and sometimes instead of) traditional Mittelbau-positions, German philosophy departments have recently started to advertise assistant professorships (called Juniorprofessuren), which are to a large extent equivalent to North American assistant professorships. That is, they are not formally associated to a Chair holder, who has the power to fill them on his or her own, but candidates are chosen by an independent search committee (including external referees), and like their North American cousins German junior-professors have an own research-budget as well as reduced teaching and administrative duties in comparison to full-professors. What is more, adopting a junior-professorship is usually considered to be equivalent to a Habilitation such that junior-professors often count as eligible for tenured full-professorships, though again, this depends on the decisions of search committees. Unlike many assistant professorships in North America, however, many of the German junior-professorships are no tenure track positions – and so they do not match their North American counterparts in terms of security.

The third level of change of German academia that affects its job-market takes place outside the traditional academic structures. It is due to an enormous increase of externally funded projects. These projects are devoted to the (often interdisciplinary) inquiry of a special topic and come along with a range of PhD and postdoc positions. As these positions often do not involve any or very small teaching duties, they can be very attractive. However, since these positions are tied to certain topics they do not automatically allow for the freedom characteristic for traditional academic positions. And in terms of security, they are as bad as the traditional ones: they are all temporary.

As already indicated by my description of the different formats of academic positions for philosophers in central Europe, there is no shared procedure for filling these jobs. What might be most striking from a North American perspective is that only full- and junior-professorships are usually filled by search committees. But even in case where the successful candidate is determined by a committee, the procedure is crucially different from the one I have experienced in the U.S. Let me mention the two differences I found most striking and which you should be aware of if you intend to apply for a full- and junior-professorship in Germany

The first difference concerns the composition of search committees: usually, they contain not only philosophers (internal and external to the hiring institution), but also other members of the faculty of humanities. So, be prepared that you might be asked questions from literary scholars, linguists, historians, theologians, or even musicologists.

The second difference concerns the structure and atmosphere of a typical campus visit: if you are invited for a job-talk in Germany – you will be invited for just that: a 30 minutes talk with 20 minutes Q&A followed by a 20 minutes interview or so. Sometimes (and at most) you will additionally be asked to give a small teaching session. What is more, the committee will interview all candidates in a row and might (in the worst case) have sat through a whole days of talks before yours. If you have ever been on a campus-visit in North America, which involves an all-inclusive pampering program of several days, the atmosphere at a German job-interview might well feel like a blow in the face. But this is how it is: In a hierarchically organized system that systematically produces more candidates than there are permanent or tenure track positions, candidates for such positions are first and foremost supplicants (who might often be in their late 30ies or early 40ies and desperately looking for a job).

The good news is: once you get a permanent position in central Europe you will have an incredible amount of freedom and can work with students with a solid humanist education. What is more, you will be able to live in a reasonable social democracy. Once you are in, you can –and perhaps even should– help defend this democracy and change the problematic facets of our academic system from within. Both are very much needed in these times.


One comment on “Job Market #2

  1. Richard Blum says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience! Pretty accurate. (The cumulative habilitation and the non-assistant positions have been existing for decades – but that is not so important.) What could be clarified is that some Juniorprofessuren are not tenure track positions. You rightly point out that the old system is extremely hierarchical. Husserl was 57 when he finally got a full professor position. More importantly, the job market, that is, the network of professors who know each other, is so small (even in Germany, let alone in smaller countries in Europe) that positions are filled via personal communication beside the official search committees. In the 1980s (when long distant phone calls were expensive) we used to joke that the job market is sponsored by the telecom. – In contrast, the job market in the US is truly a cattle market. But that’s another story.

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