An Outsider’s Look at German Academia


In my pre-Germany post, I mentioned that one of the goals of the year was to provide some “productive disorientation” on the aspects of life I take for granted back in Vermont. Now that I am in my last week in Germany, I can see it has certainly achieved that goal in a wide range of ways, both personal and professional. Within the academic context, getting an insider glimpse into the German academic system has highlighted how many things in the American system are not “natural” or universal, but rather highly specific and determined by our educational histories and cultural priorities.

In talking with colleagues both in Europe and from the U.S., it became clear how little most of us know about how other systems work, so I decided to write an account of what I have seen of German academia (primarily within the Humanities and mostly at University of Göttingen) from the perspective of an American abroad. This is offered as description more than analysis—I have not done the type of research necessary to really assess why things work how they do, or to evaluate successes or failures of the two systems. But hopefully for my American (and elsewhere) readers, providing a glimpse into another system will help make your own familiar systems seem a bit stranger, and make the strange outsider perspectives a bit more familiar. For my German readers (as well as those in other countries), I certainly welcome clarifications, corrections and contestations of my insights, which I offer as broad generalities based on limited information, but hopefully useful nonetheless. (And special thanks to my colleague and friend Frank Kelleter who corrected my misconceptions and added useful insight.)

First and crucially, the German academic system is almost universally public, funded by the government and free to students. A few states in Germany do charge fees for students, but these are negligible compared to the U.S.—the state where Göttingen is located, Niedersachsen, charges students 500€ a semester, which is roundly seen as exorbitant and worthy of protest by German students! (Compare this to the cost of an American public university, like University of Wisconsin – Madison, which costs over $10,000 per year for Wisconsin residents, and over $26,000 for out-of-state students. I won’t even mention the sticker price of my private employer, Middlebury College.) This massive difference in tuition has huge impacts, not only to the economics of families planning for education, but also in how students view their own education—in Germany, higher education is a public right and achievement for those who choose advanced study, while in the U.S., it’s treated more as a consumer product that must yield a proper “return on investment.” In Germany, students attend universities in their home cities or states, with fairly little competition between universities for undergraduates; however, it is fairly common for students to shift among universities during their studies as they come to recognize which programs and institutions might be better for their particular interests. Most German universities are large, ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 students with some smaller schools focused on particular curricular areas, and there is almost nothing like the small liberal arts model that I’m most familiar with in the U.S. (although there is a private, experimental version in Berlin in cooperation with Bard).

The German university curriculum ranges quite a bit, in large part due to the ongoing transitions in adopting the Bologna Accords to normalize European degrees. The current model offers the same degrees as in the U.S., but the Bachelors is only three years rather than four—there is very little general education or disciplinary breadth in a typical German B.A., as students apply to study in particular departments upon the beginning of their university time, and focus on that curriculum along with another minor concentration or two. The assumption seems to be that the German pre-collegiate secondary school, or Gymnasium, curriculum provides a sufficient grounding in the liberal arts—I cannot say whether that is true, but certainly a student graduating from a German Gymnasium has a much better education than a typical American public high school, and I would say it’s closer to the first year or two at university. At least in the humanities, Bachelors students take courses in a mix of large (often 200+) core lectures and supplementary seminars (capped at 35), with nearly all grading focused on the term-end examinations (like the British model). Not surprisingly given the size and funding, undergraduates get little direct interaction with professors (certainly when compared to small American colleges, and rarer but still possible at larger American universities)—German faculty tend to interact closely with Masters and Doctoral students, who often run the discussion sections of the large lectures.

None of this so far was particularly surprising, as it matched the British model which I knew more about and is not radically different than large public American universities. What is vastly different is the models of staffing and graduate education. The program I am most directly affiliated with here is American Studies (a program within the larger English department), which seems not atypical in terms of its staffing. There are 30 undergraduates per cohort (plus more than 100 other English majors who often take many American Studies courses) and 20 or so Masters students enrolled in the program (as well as serving other graduate programs)—and there are two full-time tenured faculty members (plus another four in other relevant English department divisions with even more students). (Compare that to my program in Film & Media Culture at Middlebury, where we graduate between 15-20 undergraduate majors per year with 6 full-time tenure-track faculty!) Those two American Studies faculty members teach between 3-4 courses each semester depending on administrative responsibilities and external funding, although “course” includes running the departmental colloquium and are typically single-meetings each week of around 90 minutes, so they are typically less intensive than each of my class preps back in the U.S. On top of that, there are five post-docs in the department whose appointments all differ (more on this below), but most teach only one course per term, plus seven Ph.D. candidates who also teach a seminar or discussion section each. Traveling to a number of other German universities, this staffing seems fairly typical for a program this size, with a faculty/student ratio vastly larger than in the U.S.

A few expanded numbers on these ratios for the University of Göttingen at large, all based on 2010 numbers: excluding the medical school, there are approximately 20,000 students at the University—and a total of 337 professors, leading to a student-to-faculty ratio of 59:1. If you restrict it just to the School of Humanities, it’s 4,385 students to 67 professors (65:1 ratio). Compare that to University of Wisconsin – Madison’s College of Letters & Sciences, with 800 faculty, 21,300 students, and a 26:1 ratio, or even further afield, my own Middlebury College, with around 270 faculty, 2,450 students, and a 9:1 ratio! These are massively different educational models and systems, partly attributable to the different ways that courses run (and are paid for), with more large lectures and independent student work.

Despite these ratios and enrollment differences, graduate education differs even more than undergraduate when compared to the American model. Many Masters students in humanities programs are focused on becoming secondary school teachers—being a Gymnasium instructor is a highly respected and decently-compensated professional career, something that the U.S. could really learn to emulate!—so an English M.A. would likely lead to a position teaching English in high school, or perhaps another international or language-oriented career. The program is two years, culminating in a thesis, but “terminal Masters” in such academic areas (rather than professional Masters) seem more common in Germany, partly as a remnant of the pre-Bologna model of the 5-year Diplom or Magister degree. Only a small percentage of M.A. students in the humanities go onto get doctorates, while in the U.S., I believe the majority of “academic Masters” do pursue further graduate work.

The Ph.D. process is much different here—interested students do not simply apply to a program or department, but typically need to apply for a specific Ph.D. position that is usually tied to a professor’s research projects, especially if the faculty has dedicated funding for that project that often goes to support doctoral candidates. Often this means that a student who receives an M.A. working with a faculty member will be encouraged or invited to apply for a Ph.D. at the same institution, although certainly people do move between institutions for further study. The Ph.D. application requires a specific research project proposal and approval from a supervising professor before admittance, making the system far more individualistic than American programs that admit an annual cohort to do classes and develop research interests. Doctoral candidates do not do any specific coursework, but rather start researching their projects immediately, collaborating with faculty and other candidates, studying for independent examinations, and attending departmental lectures and colloquia—depending on the terms of their funding, they might teach a course per term, administer a program or group, and/or have dedicated research time. (There is a growing trend of more curriculum-based Doctoral programs at some universities, both in disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, but these are still more research-focused than the American tradition and still far from typical.) Compare this to the American model, where I applied to my graduate program at University of Wisconsin after only a B.A., with no focus (and less of a clue!) on specific research topics or methods, and proceeded to take four years of structured courses before passing preliminary examinations and writing my dissertation.

What happens at the end of the doctoral program (at least in the humanities) differs even more starkly from the American model. Once the candidate has completed and revised their dissertation with their supervisor, they defend it to a committee—but do not receive the degree until the dissertation is published. In the U.S., this typically means depositing at your university library, who can then distribute it to other libraries or via a system like ProQuest, but you work on revising it into a book to publish at an academic press. In Germany, dissertations are published by actual presses, who typically take the dissertation manuscript upon the recommendation of the Ph.D. supervisor, using his or her detailed written report of the project as the only peer review. Presses then charge authors the cost of publication (I’ve heard between 2,000-3,000€ quoted), which will then quickly yield a published and distributed book (usually no copy editing, design or the like) that warrants conferral of the doctoral degree. There are other models, but they’re not the norm—one of my friends here held out to publish his dissertation in in the United States, as he was in American Studies and wanted the English-language project to actually be read in America. It worked, with the book just coming out from University of Michigan Press, but it meant him delaying his official receipt of his degree for two years, which potentially risked him receiving the degree at all had there been publication problems.

Upon finishing the doctoral degree, German academics can take a few paths. They can choose not to pursue a professorial career, which is quite common and seemingly not at all stigmatized. Some people leave the academic world altogether, going into business fields, non-profit work, or teaching at the secondary level. Others go into non-faculty positions at universities, where many people who administer programs or provide academic services have Ph.D.s—while I haven’t heard of a defined “Alt-Academy” movement here, it doesn’t seem like there needs to be one, as people pursuing academic careers outside of faculty positions seem mostly validated, valued, and embraced within universities.

For those Ph.D.s who do wish to go onto careers as faculty members, there are two different paths to follow. The traditional one is to pursue a Habilitation, which is a rough analogue for the tenure process. This process is quite variable across universities, but in the situation I’m most familiar with, a Ph.D. can be invited by a department (either graduate-granting or otherwise) to do their “habil,” which means taking residence as a post-doc (assuming either internal or external project funding) to work on a “second dissertation.” In the humanities, this is writing another book that must be of a significantly different topic than the dissertation, which will typically take a period of 4-8 years. While doing this, the candidates are employed as post-docs, and depending on the terms of funding, will have some mix of teaching, administration, and research. While the habil is an independent research project, it is typically connected with an associated professor’s research interests and often funding projects, and while the professor doesn’t quite supervise the project, he or she has a heavy advisory and collaborative role. Upon completion, the candidate delivers a public lecture and defense to a faculty committee, although the full University faculty can attend and ask questions, which I’ve heard can get rather intense. If successful, the candidate is fully “habilitated,” and thus ready to be hired as a professor—assuming they can find a job, which must be at another institution.

The other option is newer, modeled after the American system—Ph.D.s can get positions as Junior Professors, who after a contract period of around six years, are eligible to receive full permanent faculty positions, assuming they have excelled at teaching and research. However, most Junior Professor lines are not tenure-track positions due to financial constraints, so typically such a faculty member must search for a Associate or Full Professor position after their 6 year contract. This Junior Professor option is still uncommon at traditional universities—Göttingen had only 40 total in 2010, with most in newer interdisciplinary programs. The problem is that since many institutions are still sponsoring habilitations, few Ph.D.s looking to become faculty are willing to not do a habil, for fear of losing a scarce position to someone who has that will be more appealing to traditional hiring committees, and thus many junior professors end up doing a habil at the same time. This hiring process shifts the period of great mobility later in careers when compared to America, as candidates must relocate at the equivalent moment of tenure (hiring to permanent faculty), rather than following the Ph.D. Additionally, there is a lot of mobility during the habilitation or junior professor period, as people regularly take short-term visiting positions at other universities to stretch out their contracted time, gain diverse teaching experience, and increase their academic networks. Thus it is common that a faculty member does not land in a permanent position (with de facto if unofficial tenure) until their late-30s or beyond, a clear impediment for having kids or trying to manage a dual career family.

In general, this system seems pretty tough and arguably irresponsible, as it forces people to work for the equivalent of tenure but without the promise of a job at the end of the process. The one big advantage is that the people evaluating you for tenure are not your permanent colleagues, but faculty who are clearly positioned as your seniors and advisors, rather than peers—in the American system, there are many challenges working with someone for years as a colleague who will also end up evaluating you to keep your job (as well as similar challenges for senior colleagues who must treat juniors as both peers and targets of evaluation). But in all, the knowledge that the job you hold can remain yours if all goes well is worth this awkwardness and challenge rather than the uncertainty of the German academic market. Most of the reason for this system seems to be limited funding to invest in long-term junior faculty positions to grow through a single university—here’s where the lack of tuition does cause direct harm to the higher education system.

That market for faculty hiring also works quite differently. Although there are fewer faculty positions than eligible candidates, it’s not as glutted of a market as in the U.S. However, the system is quite odd—German faculty are civil servants, and thus there are two ranks that roughly correspond to Associate and Full Professor. But when each department gets authorized to hire at one of the levels, they can hire candidates from any background, meaning that a brand-new habilitated candidate can get hired into the equivalent of a Full Professor position (which means more research funding and graduate assistants, as well as the “privilege” of chairing your program). Additionally, there is rarely internal promotion across ranks, meaning if an Associate wishes to become Full, they must typically get an offer from another university and be willing to relocate.

The final big difference I’ve seen with hiring is when a candidate gets “the call” from a university, meaning they have a job offer. The hiring process is much more open and public, with everyone aware of who is applying, who are finalists, and who has gotten an offer—to the point that a professor’s home university publicly will announce on their website that one of their faculty members has gotten the call to go elsewhere, even before any offer is accepted, as has recently happened here in Göttingen. This openness and public discussion of what is treated as gossip in America is quite surprising, as I soon discovered that everyone was talking quite openly among finalists with seemingly little bad blood or back-biting—or maybe that was only happening auf Deutsch and I blissfully didn’t understand (as friends say that this instance might be more of a peaceful exception than the norm).

In all, the German system has a few major advantages, primarily the public funding model, but it strikes me as too far afield from what I am used to, with enough odd norms and practices that seem awkwardly designed and staffed to someone steeped in the American context. The German model depends too much on networks and direct patronage for graduate degrees and faculties, although that is definitely getting better and opening up. The results of the education seem excellent for graduate students—the Ph.D. candidates, post-docs, and faculty I worked with were very strong, and I’ve greatly enjoyed learning from them. But as a system, I do think the American model is still more effective both as a student and faculty member, although certainly that effectiveness comes at an enormous, and ultimately unsustainable (at least given current American public disinvestment in education), cost. So let’s check back ten years down the road to see which system has weathered the current crises best, as my hope that American academia can sustain its current model without a major shift in public funding and attitudes is pretty bleak.


3 Responses to “An Outsider’s Look at German Academia”

  1. I moved to the States about nine years ago to begin my graduate studies through an exchange program from my German University and got “stuck”. Now I have my MA and my PhD from an American University and while applying in the US as well, I am also applying at German Universities. Your post here was quite helpful for myself, although once part of the German system, as I struggle with fully understanding the different models especially when it comes to tenure-track, habilitation and the hiring processes.
    It all seems rather foreign to me. I have had a few campus visits and can see many of the differences you mention, and indeed, I struggle most of all with the idea of having to move between Universities more times in the future, do I decide to stay in Europe, even if things “go well”. Not only is that unsettling and any sense of stability is removed, but it makes family planning and the likes almost unfeasible from my point of view. Especially in Germany, where regional mobility is less of the standard than it appears to be in the US.
    As it is with most things in life, I feel the two system have both advantages and disadvantages. The higher student to faculty ratio is certainly something that I did not miss once I moved across the Atlantic, as I felt I had no help or guidance at all in the German system as an undergraduate. However, there may be something about that, which ensures that less students move on to graduate work and while some (presumably me had I stayed) may not have taken the opportunity that education provides, those that do go on tend to excel at it.
    Just some thoughts. I appreciate your post on this subject.

  2. 2 Alperen

    Hi there,

    I appreciated the post too. I think family planning in academia is always hard, as it takes long time to secure a permanent position anywhere. The lack of tenure track system in Germany is certainly disadvantageous. As far as I see, there is a good amount of decision makers who are in favor of this old system. On the other hand, as the new generation (who has been to places 🙂 ) will become the decision makers they will push more on the US-like tenure track system.

    As far as I see, you career in academia always depends on your network but in Germany it kind of depends very much on the senior person you are working with. This does not seem so healthy to me as an outsider. On the other hand, close mentoring is very helpful in many occasions.

    So I decided to do a postdoc in Germany and see it myself then decide in which system I can fit better.

    Finally, I think college education should not be asset and this mentality is very harmful to higher education. Who knows, may be Bernie after Trump 🙂

  1. 1 UW-La Crosse SAA Study Tour to Germany

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: