The Three Hats of a Professor in Germany

There are lots of infographics on the web of how a professor spends their time, and they mostly miss the point. At the core, and after ten years of living it, I feel confident to say that it really is three roles that a professor in Germany has to play to be successful. I also have to say that it is pretty hard to be good at all three of them. These roles are:

  • The science manager / CEO. As the CEO of your professorship, your concern is to not go bankrupt and always have the funds to pursue your research agenda. You travel to woo grant givers, you network to get leads, and you are always selling your research agenda.
  • The research leader. As a research leader (principal investigator), you are defining an agenda and are leading your team (Ph.D. students) in the fulfillment of your agenda (and their dissertation).
  • The teacher. Oh yeah, that thing. You are supposed to do it. If you don’t, your supply of next-gen team members will dry up. So don’t get too bad at it.

Some of this is Germany specific. There is much less pressure outside of Germany to raise funds, and professorships with more than 100 Ph.D. students are unheard of. Two or three are the norm and make you a successful professor. There are a lot of science managers in Germany, in professor positions. They barely have a research agenda left but enjoy the flow of money and some of the spoils it brings to them (in terms of power, psychological satisfaction, and financial gain).

The research professor is the traditional researcher, caring about their research questions, and having a team pursuing scientific knowledge gain. The amount of knowledge and in-depth understanding required to stay at the forefront of current endeavors makes the research professor unsuitable for the position of a science manager, who spends their time raising funds and sustaining their group. A simple calculation shows this: To sustain twenty Ph.D. students, where each one takes four years to finish, you need to raise the funds for five new positions (5 people for 4 years at €80K p.a. or €1.6M) each year. That’s between 5-40 grant proposals to write each year, depending on your abilities, group organization, funding sources you are familiar with, etc. Doable, but too time-consuming for most researchers.

The teacher, finally, is the person caring for the next generation of … well … practitioners and researchers. Some discover their love of teaching through the topic, some see a purpose (which usually is not to prepare students for industry, because most lecturers have never seen industry), and some are simply teaching to fill their group’s ranks. Teaching well can take a significant amount of time out of your budget, which is why in Germany many professors simply have their Ph.D. students do the teaching. (The lack of tuition has its downsides: Students feel less inclined to complain, and professors feel less compelled to comply.) The more of a science manager a professor is, the less they are able to teach an advanced course themselves, and resort to teaching basic undergraduate classes, if they teach at all.

Trying to excel at wearing all three hats is close to impossible. Usually, folks start out young as successful researchers and acquire teaching skills along the way. Those that move on to become science managers, sooner or later loose their research edge and become teachers of undergraduate courses.

It may be possible to fulfill two of the three roles, but I doubt it is possible to fulfill all three of them well.

In my book, it would be good to allow for specialization and don’t require professors in Germany to play all three roles; separating managers from researchers from teachers would be beneficial for undergraduate students and Ph.D. students alike and also benefit the personal life of a professor, mostly because it isn’t eaten up by 80h work weeks.

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