Hierarchy and respect

By Joern Fischer

Every now and then, I’m given reasons by the German university system to seriously doubt if I can handle it in the long term. Overly complicated administrative processes aside, my biggest issue with the German university system is the explicit and implicit reinforcement of unhelpful hierarchies, particularly with respect to early career researchers.

Early career researchers (ECRs) — especially postdocs, but often also PhD students — are the future of academia. They are the powerhouses of productivity, the social backbone of departments, and the people who rescue students who have been neglected by their professors. Depending on where you look, their treatment in the German system varies from unhelpful to disgraceful.

Here are some of my “favourite” things that are wrong in the German system:

  • Many funding agencies do not allow ECRs to independently apply for money. Rather the grant needs to be submitted by a professor. As a result, every year, countless applications are written by postdocs, but the full credit (on CVs, for example) goes to professors.
  • ECRs, even when they have contracts for long enough periods of time, are not allowed to supervise PhD students. There are very few exceptions to this. Yet, de facto, they are often better, more engaged supervisors than most professors.
  • ECRs are not part of the regular academic staff meetings, called “Professoria”. These meetings involve professors, by definition.
  • ECRs are officially and administratively “assigned to” professors. They are not full academic citizens in their own right, but implicitly always seen as underlings of someone supposedly bigger and better.
  • Partly as a result, the higher levels of universities tend to not communicate with ECRs at all. Even for decisions concerning ECRs, there are plenty of instances where these issues are communicated to the professor a given ECR “belongs to”, but the actual ECR is not considered.
  • ECRs often teach without getting official credit for it. The credit in such cases goes to the professors.
  • Many ECRs (e.g. those not officially teaching) are not allowed to even supervise Master’s or Bachelor’s theses. Again, professors end up doing this on paper, when the actual work is carried out by ECRs.

I suspect if I thought about this for a little longer, I would come up with even more things that are wrong with the status quo.

What can be done about it?

In the long term, I believe that rules ought to change, such that ECRs become full academic citizens, like (for example) in Australia. A definite issue here is that the rules are upheld by professors, who have little incentive to change the rules … because they serve them just nicely! What’s even more sad, I find, is that many professors who consider themselves progressive still — when push come to shove — end up not considering ECRs as equals. Such implicit, accidental endorsement of hieararchies is probably more common than  explicit endorsement. I think the reason for this is partly that many professors simply don’t know that things could be different, because they themselves came through the very same system. Just like we experience institutionalised racism or sexism in some societies (you know, with statements like “I’m not sexist but …”), you get implicitly and widely endorsed institutionalised discrimination of ECRs in the German university sector. A widespread view is that they’re just not there yet, so why give them the same rights?

Well, in short, because they — more often than not — have the same duties, and often do a particularly fine job. Some ECRs, of course, perform badly, but hey … so do some professors! Other than experience, there is very little systematic difference in performance between these groups. So why treat them differently?

In the short term, what can be done is simply to show respect to ECRs. Rather than implicitly condoning structures of systematic discrimination, we can try to work against such structures wherever possible. We can invite ECRs to meetings, we can treat them as equals, we can lobby for them getting their work acknowledged at the higher echelons of our institutions, and we can encourage them to get grants in their own names.

Watch out, Germany — you’ll lose your brightest of the next generation if you don’t start to change your ways.


9 thoughts on “Hierarchy and respect

  1. Dear Joern, thank you for another thought-provoking post! I fully share your view. Apparently, actual data depicts an even gloomier situation in which the academic job market is structured like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders (fixed-term, precarious employment, the postdocs) and a shrinking core of insiders (secure, stable employment, the professors). Take a look at the post “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang” (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/12/11/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang/) by Alexandre Afonso…
    Best wishes,

  2. Hi Joern,

    This is one of the most powerful and important blogs you’ve written (along with ‘if you were a funding body’ and ‘strategies for phd students’).

    The issues you have flagged highly resonate with me as an academic in training. For me, for example, it worries me that pursuing an EU postdoctoral experiences may limit my professional development due to the historically ingrained power structures that may prevent me from advancing in the filed.

    I agree, I think Australia has some good systems in which ECRs are respected members of staff, can supervise, teach etc. I have had teaching and publishing opportunities since my masters, and excellent equitable relationships with supervisors throughout my PhD. But I think this is a reflection of my institution, rather than the Australian system.

    With that said, from being within the Australian system I do know that some disciplines are still highly hierearchical, and a lot of post-docs are still Australian Research Council funds that senior professors win, and post-docs just do a narrow slice of the pie from a bigger project.

    My concern as an ECR in sustainability issues is that if we get pigeon holed into specific projects with clearly defined issues we won’t be given the opportunity to work in teams as equals, designing outcomes, milestones, theories etc. As we all know in the sustainability space we need flexibility, not boundaries, and sadly institutions and funding bodies continue to push this (sometimes..).

    Sorry, a verbose response with a mix of ECR issues and more broadly research funding.

    Thanks for the post and hope all is well,


    • If we would not consider the fact that academia in Romania is formed by people who think and talk and have PhD`s, one would think that there is little difference between the organization of academic hierarchy or a chimp society (sorry chimps I don`t want to be offensive…!). This would be fine, biologically, but when these human chimps pretend to be considered elites by the society then we start to have problems. Not sure how is Germany compared to RO but it may be similar just more efficient LOL:DDD

  3. Thanks for the post – I hope you will stay in the system despite your doubts & ‘infect’ lots of others with those thoughts and actions!

    I returned to academia in the US after years of “real world”-working and was quite impressed with the low-hierarchy, merit-based-opportunity environment. Very different here… for someone who doesn’t fit the typical German academic career-path, the issues you mentioned seem to be even more pronounced. (Maybe academics here think brains die around 35 unless they have a title to sustain them?! As an anthropologist, strange beliefs like that interest me 😉

    A question I can’t answer: why haven’t the ECRs & research associates (WiMis) ever gone on strike? That should make very visible how much they keep German universities running! In a country with so much history of unionising and labor struggle…maybe because we don’t consider ourselves ‘labor’?

    Anyway: here’s an interesting take on university hierarchies & their connection to capitalist market principles (in German):


    • Hi Leonie — thanks for your thoughts! Yes, going on strike would be interesting … though I’d better not advocate that on this blog 🙂
      The pdf you attached didn’t seem to work for me, can you please check it? It looks like its link is coming from the email program directly, which is why it’s likely to not work. Thank you! — Joern

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