The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) is considering new ways to make academic careers more attractive to excellent young researchers. Last week, a commission presided over by Jürgen Mlynek, vice president of Germany's major research funder, recommended extending opportunities for postdoctoral scientists to apply for independent positions to all research fields and funding programs.
The reason for these renewed efforts to retain researchers is the worsening drought of young German scientists. The education pipeline is leaking at many stages. Year by year, fewer pupils choose to specialize in physics, chemistry, or biology at university. The number of graduate students plummeted last year to a quarter of the 1995 figures. And many of those making it through the system leave academia, tempted by the attractive prospects and salaries in industry.
According to the DFG commission's analysis, action to improve career structure at the postdoc stage is particularly crucial. "Excellent young scientists must have the opportunity to become scientifically independent immediately after receiving their Ph.D. and then be able to qualify for a tenure position in a short period of time," Mlynek tells Next Wave.
The DFG therefore warmly welcomes the introduction of so-called junior professorships, recommended earlier this year by experts appointed by Germany's science minister. "A tenure track in the German academic system will shorten the postdoc phase and make the qualification process considerably more transparent," asserts Mlynek.
As a significant contribution to the required changes, the experts advise the DFG to allow young scientists to apply for positions independently of a sponsoring supervisor in all research fields and funding programs. The Emmy Noether Program and Junior Groups ("Nachwuchsgruppen") in the biosciences, which already permit excellent postdocs to set up independent research groups, could serve as role models in implementing the new funding structures. "We believe that extending the independent positions to all DFG funding programs is a very effective way of promoting excellent young scientists in the most productive phase of their professional life," says Mlynek.
But the experts are already turning their gaze on earlier stages of the academic career. At the graduate level, universities should offer Centers for Graduate Studies that also include the last 2 years of undergraduate studies (Hauptstudium), they suggest. In addition to thesis-related research, graduates should be offered special training units fostering methodological versatility, interdisciplinary teamwork, and presentation skills. The aim would be to create internationally competitive centers, with their own study programs leading to a thesis, preferably in English, and a degree comparable to the British Master of Research. "Mobile scholarships" that permit a free choice of research group, as well as rankings based on a university's success in recruiting excellent young researchers, are tools which promise to increase the universities' competition for the brightest young researchers, the experts think.
The experts now believe that mending the leaky pipeline demands that undergraduate, and even school level, students should be included in overall thinking about excellence recruitment. "Improving graduate and postdoc studies is only possible if undergraduate and even school education is rethought too," says Mlynek. Universities might form partnerships with regional high schools, building bridges to pupils and enhancing scientific literacy at an early stage.
Last but not least, at all academic stages, a capable mentoring network is needed. "Especially highly gifted students need more intensive forms of tutoring than a mass university system usually offers," Mlynek says. Summer schools and personal coaching should become part of this mentoring network, the commission suggests.
Young scientists have welcomed the new developments. "This is great news," comments Anne Ulrich, a postdoc in molecular biology at Jena University. Erich Runge, a physics postdoc at Berlin's Humboldt University, agrees. The recommendations are "steppingstones in the right direction," he says. However, he also warns that "there are still considerable hurdles to overcome on the way from recommendations to new academic structures." But, if the recommendations pass the DFG's academic senate in August, Mlynek hopes that at the very least the new regulations for independent positions might be out in time for the new academic year commencing in fall 2000.
Have Your Say! On the occasion of this week's "Global Dialogue," DFG president Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker invites young scientists to an Internet Live Chat about career perspectives in academia. Further information can be found on the DFG's home page.