The Six-Year Rule: Why A Job in German Academia is Fatal for your Teaching Career

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Wiley Campus of Hochschule Neu-Ulm in Bavaria. Photo taken in 2015

Starting off this article there is a word of advice to anyone wishing to start their career in teaching English as a foreign language, let alone in general as a professor: German Academia is the place where teachers’ careers end- after six years, that is!  If one wishes to continue as a teacher, one has to take the mentality that a person goes where the jobs are, even if it means working as a freelancer until retirement. This mentality goes along the lines of a quote by the late Paul Gruchow: “You go where the good people go. We raise our best so that they can develop a sense of home and eventually come back.”

Teachers in Germany are the highest in demand, especially in the area of foreign languages, yet barriers are standing high and tall in the path to a prosperous career that many of them decide to call it a career and find another profession. This applies not only to German laws for recognizing education degrees for schools from other countries, but this one: The Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (known in English as the Limited Contract Laws for Academics in Germany or LAG for short). Enacted in 1999, the LAG aims at limiting contracts for those wishing to work at a German university in an attempt to reduce the number of employees, including professors, receiving permanent posts and encourage competition by hiring new people every 2-3 years, pending on which German state you live in and which “Hochschule” (German university or college) you wish to work for. In a nutshell, people wishing to work at a Hochschule are given a limited contract, most of the time two years, and are allowed to work a total of six years without pursuing a doctorate. With a doctorate (PhD), one receives another six years, totaling 12 years of work. For those studying medicine, the rule is nine years before and six years after getting a PhD, thus totaling 15 years.  Once the time runs out, there is the “Berufsverbot,” which means you are not allowed to work at a German university anymore for the rest of your life.

Yet there are some exceptions to the rule which could help manuever around LAG and prolong your stay in academia. Some of which I learned most recently during an interview at a university in the state of Hesse.  The first involves having children while working at a German university. If one has a child, then the limit of the number of years allowed to work full time is extended by two years per child- a major benefit since Germany has one of the lowest birthrates of all industrialized countries in the world.  Another way of extending your life at academia is through Drittmittel- German for funding from the private sector. According to news reports from the newspaper Die Zeit, more and more academics are applying for this type of funding as a way of prolonging their careers at the German university. Basically, the funding applied for and received is what the academics have to live off from. Most of the time, the funding is barely enough to make ends meet, limited to 2-3 years- meaning another limited contract- and it comes with strings attached, which means one has to work on a project in addition to teaching. Project-hopping is another concept that is practiced at German universities, where people hop from one project to another in an attempt to stay at one university.  Then there is the Publish-or-Perish mentality, where people working at academia are expected to contribute to the university by publishing as many works as possible, while getting a meager amount of money in return. A way of staying on, yet at the cost of your teaching career because most of the time is spent on writing instead of interacting and helping students.  Getting a professorship is possible in Germany, but one needs at least 10 years to complete that, and there are several titles one needs to go through, such as PD, Junior Professor, Professor Doctor, Professor Doctor Doctor, Professor Doctor Doctor Doctor……. (You get the hint 😉  ). If one is not quick enough to obtain such a professorship, let alone follow the publish or perish mentality, then one can call it a career well before the retirement age.

All these options are doable, but in comparison with American universities and colleges, where they provide tenure tracks for those wishing to pursue a permanent form of employment (both as a professor as well as an employee), the hurdles are numerous and high- high enough for a person to a point where if one wants to race the 300 meter hurdles in track and field, it is required to practice triple jump and high jump in order to “jump the hurdles” without stumbling and eventually finish the race a winner.  In fact, only 14% of all positions at an American university have limited contracts. In Germany, the rate is 68%, one of the highest in the world! The trend is ongoing and increasing and for a good reason: budget cuts from the state, which is the main source of financing, combined with less funding possibilities from Drittmittel, is forcing institutions to lay off personnel and cut certain programs deemed as “not financially suitable for students.” Protests have taken place in many German states calling for more state and federal involvement in financing for academia but with partial success. Those who stay on have to deal with funding that is barely enough for even a single person to survive. Others, especially those fearing for their career, opt for places outside Germany, including the US, Canada and Great Britain, as working conditions and better, and  more permanent contracts are guaranteed.

 

But all is not so bad these day. Some universities in Germany are laxing their regulations by either providing permanent employment right away or after a limited contract. In a couple cases in Bavaria, the tenure track has been introduced to allow people to stay on beyond the permanent contract. Yet as it is always the case when dealing with bureaucracy in Germany, it comes with strings attached. Requirements of a degree in the respective field, like a language degree at a university for a job at a language institute is becoming the norm and not the exception. This includes Master’s degrees but also Lehramt (teaching degrees), which includes 7-8 years of studies, student teaching and two state exams (see an article posted here). Even then, the pressure to stay on when hired is enormous and one needs a lot of luck and aggression, let alone some great connections to stay on beyond the contract- preferably permanently.  But even then, when you have established these connections and a great career, chances are likely that you are shown the door when the contract is up.

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This was what happened to yours truly in Bayreuth. I worked at the University’s Language Institute teaching English for two years, from 2008 until 2010. Prior to me being hired, I was told that I would be allowed to work there for two years with no further contract, then I would be banned from teaching in Bavaria. This was customary at that time.  In fact, three of my colleagues had left when I arrived; two more left after the first semester alone, and two more were offered two-year contracts under the same conditions during my time there, but they declined as the move from North-Rhine Westphalia to Bayreuth for two years was not worth the move. While the regulations, in place since 2007,  have somewhat laxed because of successful attempts to keep at least some of the teachers on (many of them had worked there for over a decade before I came), they came after I left, leaving a mark in the classroom and many positive stories and experiences to share among my student colleagues, many of whom I’m still in contact with (and are probably following this column). Despite Bayreuth’s attempts, other Bavarian universities are having a hard time copying their successful attempts so that their staff members can stay on with a permanent contract. But realizing the mentality that not everyone is that mobile and would like to settle down, the winds of change will eventually come to them and the rest of Germany as well.  For me, after another two-year contract at another Hochschule, I decided to pursue my teaching degree for the German Gymnasium, for teaching in schools are more guaranteed than in academia, yet the workload is more than in adacemia- the only caveat. 😉

To end this article, I have a word of advice to those wishing to teach in Germany: If teaching is what you want, you have to cross seven bridges to get there. Many of them are old and rickety, but they are worth crossing. Yet make sure a plan B is in place if you decide to leave it behind. After all, we have more than one talent in our lives to share with others and be successful in. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The Six-Year Rule: Why A Job in German Academia is Fatal for your Teaching Career

  1. I have been working in more or less the same capacity as you at the University of Hamburg for quite a while (currently funded by Federal Drittmittel–don’t ask!). I have observed all of this. In fact, in Hamburg, no one works for more than two years on one of these posts, because evem two successive contracts is now grounds to sue for permanent employment. In the English language department, there is not a single teacher who has not sued or threatened to sue for that employment, and most are nearing retirement now! (That’s how long this has been going on.) The laws were put in place for posts which are connected to raising qualifications, i.e., to attaining a higher degree. It has been determined repeatedly in courts that they may not be used for posts whose purpose is simply to provide required courses for students, not to conduct research or other short-term projects. See regulations regarding Daueraufgaben.
    Still, universities continue to try to keep personnel costs down by hiring on these two-year contracts. They managed this by calling the posts sachgrundlos befristet, something they made up a few years back. By now you can assume that even a second contract is pretty much out of the question if you are on such a post. If you apply for such a one, be prepared to either move after two years or sue your way into a longer or permanent position, with support from high-level academics in the department.

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  2. You’ve got some things distorted here. The WissZeitVG is not designed to limit teaching contracts to only six (or 12) years; it was originally designed to keep universities from giving instructors repeated temporary contracts indefinitely — the uni should either give a permanent contract or find someone new. Unfortunately, what has happened is that the unis have discovered it’s cheaper (and the labor force is large enough) that they don’t have to offer permanent contracts, and instead cycle through numerous short-term people, particularly in areas where the number of students is in flux.

    Once an employee has a permanent contract in Germany, it is extremely difficult to get rid of him or her, even if the number of students drop and that person is no longer needed — the uni (or the Land) has to find another position for that person. Therefore, to hedge their bets, they keep offering limited contracts.

    It is difficult but not impossible to get a permanent contract. W2 and W3 professors (the equivalent of Associate and full Professors in the US) have permanent contracts. Others in non-professor teaching positions can also get them. In my English department we have two full professors, one up for “tenure” this year, and three permanent non-professor PhD-holding lecturers — including me. After teaching four years on a limited contract, the director of my department pushed the uni to un-limit my contract, and I now am at the uni permanently. Now, without a PhD it is pretty much impossible to get a permanent contract, but this is as it should be — and is also the same as a typical US university, since you’re not likely to get even a tenure-track position without a terminal degree.

    Now, I had the same experience as you in Bayern — two years in Bamberg and no chance to continue. But while I was there, a colleague from Canada was given a permanent contract. So, again, possible though difficult. It depends on the university and how badly your department wants to keep you. Her Director there pushed for her permanent contract; my Director at my current Uni did the same.

    To he honest, the tenure system in the US is not really any better. A new Assistant Professor is given 6-7 years to prove him/herself before going up for tenure, and if denied tenure, it is damn near impossible to get a position anywhere else — roughly the same as the WissZeitVG six-year rule. And I have friends who have been put in this position, who can’t get another tenure-track even 10 years after being denied tenure. All they can do now is adjunct.

    Speaking of adjunct teaching — while you say that only 14% of US positions have limited contracts, you’re ignoring the vast number of these adjunct faculty who work semester-to-semester with no security, no benefits, and often even no office or official recognition by the university at all! These instructors, paid a pittance and in some cases living out of their cars, make up more than half the teaching force of US universities: (http://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/#5e5b364c1d9b). I don’t know anything about Canada or the UK, but in the US, I certainly wouldn’t claim that permanent contracts are “guaranteed.” Of the friends who completed the same PhD program I did, only two I know of are now in tenure-track (or tenured) positions at US universities. Many more are teaching adjunct or have left higher education entirely.

    Sure, academia in Germany has its problems, and finding your place can be really tough, but I’m not sure I would classify it as “fatal to your teaching career” — at least any more so than academia in the US.

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