There was no escaping it on Twitter in the past couple of days. As I was mostly out on a camping trip over the weekend, I missed most of the buzz. Even today, however, it took me only a minute or so of mindless scrolling to find out the latest trend on academic Twitter; #Ichbinhanna.
Although I didn’t immediately find on Twitter who the hell this Hanna is, the message was abundantly clear. Twitter turned into a long rant against the German academic system. A system with many odd rules and regulations (that I certainly don’t know or want to know the details of). It turns out that I have been lured into a particular academic hell hole without much of a career prospect. The overall bottom-line is; if you ever want to make it to a fixed position in the German academic system. Better forget it. I have since reading the first tweet read quite a couple more. This one by a guy by the name of Martin Hebart, sums the problem up quite nicely and understandably.
I have since also learned who Hanna is. Apparently she was the subject in a short commercial or documentary made by the German ministery of education and science, which supposedly showed her struggles to make a career in the German academic system. Interestingly, the movie, which has recently been linked to by various news outlets, has since disappeared from the ministery’s website. Problem solved? The same ministery has also uploaded a response document on their website. Basically it is a rather weak defense of why fixed-term contracts are the rule in German academia and why this is not a bad thing. I particularly enjoyed the statement that ‘they do not forbid permanent contracts in academia. On the contrary.’ In other words, it is not their fault… It is the institutes and the people that run it (which are governmental institutes anyway). What a lousy answer. You make the fucking rules. There is a problem, then fucking fix it instead of coming up with excuses that pretty much put the problem with another party. This is an interesting feat of the German system that I have observed over and over again – everyone points their finger at someone else, and nobody wants to be responsible for anything.
Grow a fucking spine.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have thus far mostly benefited from being here in Germany. Maybe I am therefore not in a position to complain much. Well, except that I find some of the expectations of the German universities, including mine, quite ridiculous. And I’m Dutch, so complaining is in my blood! Yes, I will complain! I guess I’m one of the folks that #IchbinHanna applies to as well. I am on one of those 3+3 year university-funded contracts that is basically like an alternative form of tenure track, but with the great added prospect of not getting tenure at the end. Now, I should emphasize that I never intended to stay here, and I still don’t. I went in with the idea in mind that I would take the six year contract, milk the system for experience, and return to my home country whenever a suitable opportunity would present itself. (If that is never, I will start a business or whatever, fuck it). So I’m just sitting here watching it all happen, and thinking it doesn’t really matter to me. That is, until I started thinking about this Hanna thing. This tweet summed up my feeling about this pretty well.
I had (and still have) zero expectations to stay here eventually, so perhaps that makes the daunting career prospects more bearable, but it doesn’t make them right. For instance, I still find it quite ridiculous about my position is that even though I supervise several PhD’s and undergrads, do a fair share of teaching, apply for third-party funding, and am responsible for administrative rubbish, all while trying to also further my own research line, this is only seen as a ‘normal’ postdoc. Well it isn’t. However, there is no difference – on paper – between this university-funded six year position and, say, a ‘third-party funding’ postdoc that can mainly focus on their project, what, 80% of the time, and have relatively few other obligations (e.g. teaching or administrative) demanded by the system. Don’t get me wrong. I think that proportion of time investment into their research project is exactly how it should be for postdocs. This is not by any means a burn towards third-party funding postdocs.
This is a burn for the system.
I think that this kind of system is abusive by design. I have read some claims that this is the established elite milking the system for cheap labour. Maybe it is true. By requiring postdocs in these positions to do all the extra work, this limits them in doing their own research and career paths. However, because these people are often equally driven as other postdocs in furthering their own research line. Therefore, to get things done, they either have to invest extra (unpaid) hours, or be super efficient machines. Either option is not sustainable in the long term, or even in the short. Story of my life. And many many others with me.
I never thought much about the situation in other parts of the world (or at least Europe, where I will certainly stay). I thought it was all somewhat like that. Sure, opportunities are rare everywhere. Not everyone can stay (although, fuck it, why not?!). However, in other countries, such as my home country of The Netherlands, the tenure track system has gained popularity (in Germany it never really took off, although it does exist). The benefit of this is that you invest all that time and energy, and at the end of it, you will have a permanent position. Here in Germany, you invest all that time and energy, and at the end, well, there’s nothing. I will have to find a tenure track position and start it all over again.
In many fields outside academia, it is the norm to go through a trial period of six to twelve months, before getting permanence. In academia, the trial period is six to twelve years and often ends with nothing. Now if that isn’t a bad sales pitch, I don’t know what is. And yet, we continue to endure the abuse, because we get to spend 10% of our paid time doing what we love.