Tuesday, January 3, 2023

New Year's Resolutions of an Early-Mid-Career Researcher in Germany

Three years ago (before COVID and the birth of my now toddler, which have put my academic life on hold in some ways), I wrote a New Year's post summarising my year and my new year's resolutions. Though I see it as a kind of superstition, I still like to take this time of the year to think about my achievements so far, and about what I need to do next to get where I want to get (and, of course, about where I want to get in the first place). In some years, it's easy: it is clear what I need to focus on. In other years, it's hard: Either there are too many things to focus on, or I decide that, actually, everything is going well, and I don't need to change anything. This year, it's hard in a different sense: It's not really clear what I can do to get any closer to my goals. 

My current position is not untypical for an early-to-mid-career researcher in Germany. In some ways, it is clear where I need to get to. The goal for most researchers here is a professorship. The timing is clear, too: there is a limit on the number of years one can work as a postdoc (a controversial German law, with a beautiful compound word for a name: Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz). This means that I need to get a professorship (or other permanent academic position) within ca. 2 years, or else leave academia. Getting a permanent position would be good in any case, when trying to lead a stable family life and after having taken out a mortgage for a flat. Professorship positions are very competitive, especially if you are not too flexible with moving to a different city and even more so if the city where you would like to stay is Munich. 

With the high competition, finding a way directly to a professorship (i.e., applying for a professorship position and getting it) is very unlikely. The professorship application process is rather intimidating, and relies a lot on insider knowledge from other academics ("hidden curriculum"). The procedure is often not very transparent, so it is difficult to know just how far I am from getting shortlisted or even selected as the winner. The alternative is to try some other things to increase the probability of getting a professorship. This includes applying for prestigious grants or publishing high-profile papers. At some stage, my university guaranteed a professorship to any winner of an ERC Starting Grant, but they have now cancelled this policy. Some funding bodies allow one to apply for financing for a professorship position, but this requires the university to commit to paying the new professor's salary after the end of the funding period. In any case, applying for prestigious grants in itself is very competitive, so to increase the chances here, one needs to apply for less competitive grants and publish papers. In short, one just has to repeatedly try various things that cost a lot of resources and have a relatively low chance of success. This does not lend itself as a good new year's resolution, because there is no single action that I could commit to doing, either as a one-off or as a repeated activity.

Of course, my ambitions are not simply to get a professorship for the sake of getting a professorship, but primarily I would like to continue with my research agenda, and getting a professorship is one of the not-so-many ways to do this. Having a stable job to build up my research team is a necessary condition for doing good research, but it's not sufficient. There are skills that I still need to improve to keep up-to-date with the best research practices. Picking a skill to improve would be a good new year's resolution, but it may not help me to get any closer to a professorship position. Such skills could be learning a new language or improving my programming skills, for example, by learning more about Natural Language Processing. If I pick one such skill to focus on in 2023, I may find that I'll have to abandon it, because it will be more advantageous, in the short-term, to focus on writing a paper or grant proposal. On top of that, I also somehow keep my head above water with student supervision, family life (which I will not compromise on), and bureaucratic duties (unlike the former two duties, something that I don't enjoy doing at all but that keeps increasing as I progress in my academic career). Keeping my head above water could be a good new year's resolution, but - well - it sounds a bit depressing.

With what I have written above, some (myself included) might wonder if my ambitions are too high. In the German system, an academic career is almost an all-or-none affair (leaving academia vs. becoming a full professor, who, in Germany, have a lot more freedom and power than professors in many other countries). There are options in between a professorship in Munich and leaving academia, though. These include: applying for professorships at universities outside of Munich (which would be an inconvenience, but not a disaster for my family life), though these are also very competitive. There are non-university tertiary education institutions which hire professors, but I've heard that there is such a high teaching load that, in practice, there is just no time for research. There might be research positions outside of universities that could interest me, though I haven't found anything convincing yet. Maybe I should make it my new year's resolution to decide what I really want, and whether my ambitions are realistic. But this kind of decision is likely to change a lot, with incoming information, such as future successes or failures, and is unlikely to be completed by the end of the year. 

In the end, I think I'll just stick to eating more vegetables as my new year's resolution for 2023.