Young scientists from Germany and beyond are being invited to apply for nearly 100 earmarked research posts. Just a few short weeks ago research minister Edelgard Bulmahn's controversial reforms of the academic sector were passed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's cabinet. Already three major institutions have announced that they will start hiring immediately for the newly created "junior professor" positions. Whereas 15 positions are open at the University of Marburg, Berlin's Humboldt University is offering 40, and the University of Göttingen has 43 positions to be filled by young scientists.

The junior professorship is the core element of Bulmahn's academic reform. This newly created status is meant to enable young scientists to conduct independent research at an earlier age than under the existing system. Currently, the average first-time appointee to a professorship in Germany is 42 years old. Junior professors, by contrast, could start their independent research and teaching around the age of 30, because all young scientists who have received their Ph.D. in the past 5 years are eligible for funding, provided they have contributed other scientific work in the interim. From next year, the federal government plans to fund up to 3000 junior professor positions to the tune of approximately DM 360 million (? 180 million).

But although the job title "junior professor" is new, many of the positions are not. "Almost all positions are existing [C1 and C2] positions that are being transformed into junior professor positions," says Beate Hentschel of the University of Göttingen. The situation is similar in Berlin and Marburg. Indeed, because all academic reform measures have to be self-financing, if new positions are created, others have to be lost. And although many people welcome the changes, some fear that the current crop of young academics may suffer from the demise of the habilitation system, which the junior professorships seem on track to replace. For example, the young scientists' interest group Wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.DE is concerned that Bulmahn's plans provide no interim regulations for current habilitation candidates.

Nonetheless, all German universities have been asked by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to develop an implementation plan for the introduction of the junior professor model. Although salaries will be paid from the universities' own budgets, the BMBF will boost each position with an extra DM 150,000 (? 76,000) for equipment. And the states will also provide incentives for the implementation of these positions. The Hessian administration has even committed to funding two Ph.D. positions for each junior professor, although financial details have not been revealed.

Lower Saxony is the only state so far to have set aside a specific amount of money for the support of its universities. "We will fund up to 160 positions with DM 75,000 (? 38,000) each," says Mark Schneider of the Ministry for Science and Culture in Hannover. The money comes from this year's dividend from Lower Saxony's part ownership of Volkswagen. In Berlin, Humboldt University is carrying the load itself. Because of budget restraints after the recent banking scandal, the city's senate is not able to provide any financial assistance at all. At this early, experimental stage the duties and responsibilities that will fall upon the shoulders of the new junior professors varies among universities. Because education and academics fall under the jurisdiction of the states, it will be essential to establish some common standards to avoid inequalities between post holders.

The positions now open range across all scientific disciplines, but most are in the natural sciences and associated disciplines, such as biophysical chemistry, cell or tumor biology, physical sciences, bioethics, and forestry. Germany wishes to attract more international excellence to its institutions of higher education, so it is no surprise that all positions will be filled on an international basis. "We are keenly anticipating the response to the current openings," says Cornelia Neubert, personal assistant to Humboldt University's vice president for research, Hans Jürgen Prömel.

But what will happen to these pioneer academics at the end of their two 3-year terms of tenure? After that time, they will be expected to apply for full professorships. These application processes are known to take up to 2 years. Because applications cannot be submitted until the junior professor track has been completed, the question of what to do in the meantime is still a bit of a mystery.