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Fixed-term contracts at universities: "You can only get to the top if you have the time"


Antonia Schmolkmann worked from temporary contract to temporary contract at German universities for twelve years. Now she has a permanent position as a professor in Denmark - and says she is more productive than ever.

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Antonia Schmolkmann researched temporary positions for twelve years.

Photo: private

On Twitter, the hashtag

#IchbinHanna collects

stories from scientists



with 6-month contracts and have to move every six months. While many teachers are made civil servants, the teachers at universities work their way from one fixed term to the next. Behind this is the Science Time Contract Act (WissZeitVG). Researchers may be employed at a university on a temporary basis for a total of twelve years if they qualify, i.e. are aiming for a doctorate or habilitation, or if they are simply doing research. Actually, the law should force universities to expire. De facto, however, the twelve-year limit means a sudden end to their careers for many who cannot get a permanent job


In an

explanatory video from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research

from 2018, the principle is justified as follows: Time limits promoted innovation and prevented the system from clogging.

Antonia Schmolkmann, 47, researches teaching and learning at universities and is now a professor for organizational learning at Aalborg University in Denmark.

It contradicts this thesis.

»The German scientific community does not function sustainably.

The constant uncertainty in which most employees live does not encourage innovation, but distraction.

I used to have to spend 30 percent of my attention on how to proceed.

I looked for jobs, wrote applications, gave trial lectures.

"I find it completely wrong to assume that only pressure and fear would spur people to perform at their best."

In addition, I was susceptible to blackmail in my precarious position: I had to take on additional tasks, without which it would allegedly not be enough for a professorship.

Now, for the first time, I can fully concentrate on my research.

I think it is completely wrong to assume that only pressure and fear will spur you on to top performance.

I was a classic victim of the Science Time Contract Act (WissZeitVG).

I was employed at two universities for twelve years, always on fixed-term contracts.

For two years I represented a professorship at the University of Hamburg while a successor was being sought.

At that time I only had 6-month contracts, and it was clear that the search would take longer.

I got the new contract one day before the old one expired.

After the substitute professorship, I spent three and a half more years researching as a research assistant at the Institute for Vocational and Business Education, and therefore also changed my specialty.

Finally, I finally hoped for a permanent job.

But four weeks before the end of the contract my boss said to me: ›Your position won't be permanent.‹ That was tough.

I had completed the twelve years after the WissZeitVG, and was therefore no longer allowed to be employed on a temporary basis.

Suddenly I was out.

I was 44 years old, highly skilled, and unemployed.

I was offered half a position with third-party funding from which I was supposed to raise further funds.

I did not want.

What annoys me most is this waste of skills.

I had built up something for myself in Hamburg over almost six years and kept an institute afloat when a new professorship was sought.

In the end it all collapses like a house of cards.

I felt that I and my work were underestimated.

Of course, I had a plan B, like most people in university.

For me it was organizational development, in which I had trained as a freelance consultant.

But then it worked out with science: four weeks after the end in Hamburg, I was invited to Denmark for an interview for a professorship.

My current position is very fortunate, which I can only really grasp today, three years later.

Normally I would be back to the point where I have to pack boxes, leave contacts and start over.

But now I can carry on with my topics and penetrate so deeply that something really good emerges.

Since I got the permanent position as

Associate Professor

, I've been more productive than ever.

I'm publishing more articles and book chapters, at least six this year, and in more reputable magazines.

Because my results no longer have to appear quickly for an application, but I can take the time to complete them properly.

Not everything is rosy in Denmark, the system is also very competitive.

However, this arises on the content level, as all professors undertake to publish a certain number of articles or submit research proposals.

And professorships are not civil servants, so we can all be terminated for operational reasons.

The system does not clog!

"Time limits harm people and research."

It's still less brutal here because the doctoral candidates are screened out more.

This means that once you are in the scientific community, you can stay longer.

The bottleneck is two floors lower than in Germany.

Young researchers who get a PhD position here first buy a house!

That is unthinkable in Germany.

Because of my fixed-term contracts, when I was in my mid-forties I was not a suitable candidate for many landlords.

I was lucky to get my rented apartment.

This permanent insecurity wears down many.

And it doesn't work either.

Time limits harm people and research.

I am convinced that you can only get to the top of the world if you have time to plan projects and build relationships.

Now that I am in Denmark, well-known colleagues from Norway have asked me if I would like to work with them.

Suddenly I'm playing in a completely different league!

They would never have done that if I had to change jobs again in two years and work on a different topic.

I enjoy the fact that I can research for a few years without the fear of having to leave again.

I can develop myself further without pressure and realize my potential.

I suddenly have so much energy!

I'm approaching 50 and am thinking about buying a house.

It's crazy."

Source: spiegel

All business articles on 2021-06-18

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