Is it worth it to be an academic professor

When they are first appointed to a chair, professors in Germany are on average 41 years old. Until then, it is uncertain whether they will be able to pursue the desired profession. However, those who work towards a scientific career early on in their studies can improve their chances - and good grades are not that important. Two experts explain what is important instead.

As Deputy Managing Director of the Graduate Academy at the University of Jena, Hanna Kauhaus advises doctoral and postdocs on career issues. Sabina Jeschke is professor of mechanical engineering at RWTH Aachen University, where she initiated a project aimed at providing orientation for young scientists.

What formal qualifications do professors need to have?

The Higher Education Act stipulates that professors must have obtained a doctorate and have achieved further academic achievements. Traditionally, this is the habilitation. Alternatively, however, "habilitation-equivalent achievements" can also be presented. The appointment committee interprets what this means for itself, says Hanna Kauhaus. Orientation is provided by the habilitation regulations of the university at which the professorship is advertised. Anyone who meets the requirements for a habilitation is considered to be equivalent to a habilitation. "In practice, however, people tend to look: Has the applicant built up a second research focus after completing his doctorate and published it to a significant extent?" Says Kauhaus.

While the habilitation is still very important in the humanities and some natural sciences, engineers can sometimes qualify by working in industry for several years, says RWTH professor Sabina Jeschke. Exceptions apply to the areas of architecture, art and design, in which not even a doctorate is common.

Do the same requirements apply for an application to a university of applied sciences?

No, at universities of applied sciences applicants are expected to have practical experience in addition to their doctorate. According to the University Act, candidates for a professorship must have worked for five years, three of them outside of the university.

How good do the grades have to be for a professor's career?

"Nobody looks after the bachelor's and master's grades," says Hanna Kauhaus. Students only have to achieve the achievements that are necessary in their subject in order to get a master’s or doctoral position. But even here an advocate can help: "If I have a bad degree, but a professor who knows that I'm great and really crank it up during my doctorate, then the grade doesn't matter beforehand," says Kauhaus. However, one should not finish worse than the average. The grades become more important for the doctorate: "Summa cum laude is not an absolute necessity, but a large percentage of professors belong to the top group of doctoral candidates," says Sabina Jeschke.