Post-Doc Notes: Faking It?

postdocnotes_cLast night, news broke that German Secretary of Research & Education, Annette Schavan, is about to have her Ph.D. title revoked on accounts of plagiarism. The accusations first started 9 months ago, still in the maelstrom of government colleague zu Guttenberg (Secretary of Defense) having to step down from his post due to a completely plagiarized Ph.D.

Now Guttenberg was a smarmy, aristocratic, leader karma media darling of the most dreadfully unappealing kind, whose Colgate smile was online outshone by his sheer impertinence and his staggering inability to take responsibility for his outrageous cheating. To this day, he has neither admitted to nor apologized for what was probably (that would be my guess) a ghostwritten copy-paste dissertation. Well, good riddance.

Schavan, back then already Secretary of Research and Education, went on record saying that she was appalled by his plagiarism. Following Guttenberg, several more politicians lost their Ph.D. degrees because public plagiarism check projects could prove that their dissertations held large parts of undeclared copied material.

It has become a bit of a sport to point at politicians and doubt their doctoral degrees, if they have one. It’s too bad that in many cases, the plagiarism accusations turn out to be true. And now even the Secretary of Research and Defense, who – sweet irony – did her Ph.D. on the genesis of human conscience?

Still, I do believe that there is a big difference, even though Schavan probably wouldn’t like my reasoning. Yes, her Ph.D. (undeclared copied material on display here) has technical flaws and there are undeclared quotes in it. It’s nowhere near the amount of cheating done by Guttenberg or others, though. Frankly, taking into considerations the conditions under which the work was written, I don’t think it’s enough to revoke her title (at least not with such absolute vigor and schadenfreude), although it’s always been enough to show that Schavan isn’t exactly the stellar academic she likes to think she is (she does have an honorary professorship for theology, for instance).

Schavan wrote her Ph.D. in Education Sciences, some 30 years ago. Yes, her declaring citations wasn’t up to par even back then, and she shouldn’t have gotten her degree in the first place, but the point is: I don’t think she consciously went out to cheat (which is the core accusation now). I think she’s simply not that bright.

To understand the context, I find it important to know that Schavan wrote her dissertation in her mid-twenties, without ever having written a bigger work before – she did not obtain a BA or MA first (back then, degrees went straight to MA). Instead of a MA, she was offered to go directly for the Ph.D. This not only means that without her Ph.D., she doesn’t have any university degree now (a thing the media delights in at the moment), but it also means that she never wrote a BA thesis or a MA thesis prior to her Ph.D. She was young, in a hurry (she had to quickly come up with the dissertation to be able to take on a prestigious job with a Catholic scholarship program) and without experience.

So, yes, there are errors, and there are undeclared citations, and she shouldn’t have gotten her degree for it, not by standards both past and present, but personally, I do believe that she didn’t go out of her way to cheat. She simply didn’t take the rules that closely into consideration in her hurry, possibly not even knowing what she did wrong along the way.

The issue at hand is, to me, not as much bad citation behavior that may border on cheating, but a missing reality check regarding Schavan’s academic honors.

Even though Schavan takes great pride in her academic achievements, her Ph.D. isn’t stellar work. I don’t think it would have qualified her to remain in academia, and I don’t think she would have ended up with a regular professorship based on it (unless it would have been with the usual party book nepotism instead of qualifications – very common both those and these days).

In my opinion, it’s good for a Secretary of Research and Education to have worked in academia up to a certain degree, and to hold a Ph.D., but it’s not necessary. I prefer a good politician without the title to a bad politician with a bad title.

Which brings me to the actual sad point of Schavan’s impressive career: while she’s not a brilliant academic, she isn’t, in my opinion, a great Secretary of Research and Education, either. From handling student protests to inventing the poorly received Deutschlandstipendium, her track record is lackluster and downright unmemorable. The university system is a mess, more out of federal reach than ever, underfunded and overcrowded, with disastrous conditions for Ph.D. students and post docs.

For a National Secretary of Education and Research, even the dismissal or missing knowledge of basic quoting rules should be enough to step down, especially when the title has been used so much as an entitlement along the way. But I don’t care as much about her title – willful cheaters with worse attitudes have managed to kept theirs, which isn’t an excuse, but the queue of others who should lose their titles first is rather long – as I care about her (in my opinion) insufficient work as Secretary of Education and Research.

Schavan has already announced that she will file a lawsuit against her title being revoked, which, as things associated to someone responsible on a Federal Level for Education and Research go, is an embarrassing scenario to witness, even if she wins her claim and may keep her title in the end. Meanwhile, for months on end, the country would have a Secretary of Education and Research who is having credibility issues regarding her own title, and even if Schavan were to prove her innocence (and, thus, herself a ditz – “Yes, you may keep your Ph.D. gained with a mediocre work that has severe citation issues”?!), she would have to step down.

On a side note, I believe the university had to revoke the title to not gain the image of going easy on possible cheaters – in a different political climate with less light being shed on politicians’ Ph.D.s, Schavan would probably have kept her title with ease. But would she have made a better Secretary of Eucation and Research?

35 thoughts on “Post-Doc Notes: Faking It?”

  1. Anik, I don’t think the point is whether she needs to have a degree or not to hold her post. It’s about fraud. You linked to the analysis of her dissertation — for her to not list those sources at all, from which she quoted verbatim, that stinks to high heavens. She copied mistakes, for crying out loud. She also didn’t just pass; she got the best grade! What I honestly don’t get is how her professors didn’t catch even one of those plagiarized passages.

    You say she didn’t write any major paper before her dissertation (I still can’t fathom how they allowed direct doctorates at that time!), but she surely must have written several term papers. It doesn’t matter how big the paper, the basic rules are there for everybody to adhere to. Those smaller papers are supposed to be preparation for the bigger ones. But yes, my most favorite part in all this is the ironic twist that her dissertation was on conscience.

    If I were a high-ranking German politician with a non-earned university degree right now, I’d find a reason to resign. And whereas we don’t necessarily need Ministers with a doctoral degree, we need experts in those positions who know what they are talking about. As you said, Anik, Schavan fails in both.


    1. True, A2H!

      What gave Schavan a bit of lverage – also with me – is that her plagiarism is less and less impertinent than the the still very present and spectacular case of Guttenberg, but of course doing something wrong is still just as wrong, even if it happens to a lesser degree, especially in her job. She also had an image of propriety, if of the lackluster kind, working for her.

      In a way, I still believe it possible (I’ve had daft and unexperienced students like this, in early semesters) that she thought it didn’t matter or simply didn’t get it – most of the things she copied are authors referring positions of third parties, so perhaps her brain went “Hm, I’m not quoting a theory, I’m quoting a paraphrase on a theory, which I paraphrase again, so…” Of course it’s wrong, but I could see her being this dense and unaware of the gravity of her actions. Which is probably an even worse testimony as to her ability to fill out the job she’s (still) holding. It’s also possible she copied down those positions as an excerpt somwehre in her material and later added them into her script without realizing they were excerpts (which would be very sloppy citation work, but not willful cheating – which she could have admitted to months ago and this whole farce would have stopped!).

      Both Merkel and Schavan returned from their latest trips last night, their meeting is slanted for the weekend and I’m suspecting that come Monday, we’ll have a new Secretary for Education and Research.

      What is annoying me more and more at this point, and which puts Schavan closer and closer to Guttenberg, is her unability to fess up – I think she might have been able to to salvage her reputation (if not this particular job) if she had said early on “I wrote this in a hurry and to get the title, not to remain in a research job, and you’re right, I did things wrong, and I didn’t realize how wrong. I’m sorry. I’ll ask the university to reexamine my thesis, and if they want to revoke my title, then I’m of course okay with it because I, more than anyone lese, have to uphold academic standards.”
      But it becomes more obvious by the day that all she admits to are “typos” and errors owed to the haste of writing (perhaps she means those typos copied from others?!). I do buy that she wasn’t aware of just how much she did cheat by her actions (which in itself is sad enough), so when she says she didn’t mean to cheat, I don’t think she knows that she is lying, or how much she is lying.
      But what really, really irks me is that she STILL doesn’t take responsibility. By now, she should have realized the extent of her own wrongdoing and she should have apologized. It’s Guttenberg all over again now: One thing is cheating, which is bad enough, but what is worse, in my eyes, is – however conscious one was or should have been of the cheating, and to whatever extent the person cheated – is dealing with beng confronted with the cheating. Lying, evading consequences and hoping to cling to power by making a plea for time are NOT the way to do it if you are at all worried about the image you’re giving to the public.


  2. Saturday afternoon: Schavan just stepped down, although in an interesting modality – she offered Merkel to step down, and Merkel (as the one deciding) accepted the offer with a lengthy and rather effusive speech on Schavan’s merits: she would put the good of the people above her own and step down to prevent (further) damage to the office.

    There was no “Okay, I screwed up, and then I screwed up again by not dealing openly with it, and now *I* take responsibility and step down.”

    Opinions about Schavan’s merits as an education politician are varied, but apart from what she has done throughout the past 30 years in politics (I’m not a huge fan, but she did defend her budget in a rather thankless position), I would have preferred an attitude of more actively and honestly taking responsibility. Just my 2 cents.


  3. Given the utter hell that my youngest sister has been put through over an external examiner “not liking” the subject of her PhD, I’m not entirely in disagreement that some standards are put in place for those who are perceived to have got through the system more easily, years ago. I dropped out of a research Masters myself, for different reasons (first of my musical career fails) and I think the welfare of the student needs consideration where there is a problem over the authenticity and originality of a piece of research. But to be honest – this should have happened at the time. Retrospective decisions like this are impossible to fairly remediate.

    The length of time spent at university in Germany – is it still insane? I spent a summer doing work at the HAB in Wolfenbüttel during the mid 1990s, and I think I was about 10 years younger than everybody else.


  4. Yeah… that whole Schavan thing was actually getting on my nerves by now; so it’s good she stepped down and now the media’s all over the pope stepping down anyway. It already aggravated me when it was Guttenberg. In my opinion it’s a witch hunt, started by someone who wanted to get rid of Guttenberg back then and nothing else would stick. And now they’re just for fun hunting every other politician with a title.
    Do I think plagiarism and fraud is a problem? Yes I do. Do I think we need that much media coverage? No.
    Because the point is: somebody should have noticed all those problems years ago before they got the title, so this whole affair should rather make people think about why obviously nobody read those works up until now – and if that hadn’t happened such a long time ago I’d rather actually see their supervisors get reprimanded for neglecting to a) teach them good scientific practice and ethics and b) read the fucking thesis.
    My PhD thesis will be read by at least three and up to five referees, which is a hell of a hassle for everybody involved; and since I do neuroscience and actual experiments in a lab it’s not like I could plagiarise shit in the first place; and because I have to have a first author publication of my data it’s not like I could fabricate data either, because chances are somebody will find out rather fast once it’s published. So yeah – that’s kind of a foolproof mechanism; but it makes my life and everybody else’s in the graduate school hell (the already mentioned shitty conditions for PhD students and post docs at universities not withstanding).


  5. Interesting positions, thank you for sharing!

    I agree that some of the media coverage on Schavan has been purposefully scandalizing (especially among the usual suspects of publications), though I found the reactions particularly from political colleagues across the parties very civil, especially for an election year.

    The case was different with Guttenberg, whose continued impertinence and refusal to admit to any wrongdoing invited a lot of gloating.

    Are people on “witch hunts”, “for fun”? Some probably are.
    Is is fair game when the public PhDs of politicians in office receive scrutiny? I think it is, as long as it isn’t motivated by the sole desire to chase someone out of office because s/he belongs to a certain politial party (in my opinion, Guttenberg was doing a pretty good job of screwing up as a Secretary of Defense all by himself, fake PhD or not, and independent of the persona he presented to the public). Lots of other PhDs should be scrutinized, as well, and many more would probably be revoked – but of course the attention is bigger when it concerns people who are sworn into a public office and are supposed to protect and represent standards.

    There would be no “witch hunts”, though, if there were no dishonest PhDs and, most of all, if there was another culture of acknowledging one’s own mistakes (something that current political culture is not exactly inviting, however much I wish it would be), even those far in the past.

    Faking a PhD is not a deed at one point in time – you may write it dishonestly once, but owning a PhD is then something that you pretend again every day, and that may bring you an unfair advantage every day, for many years, so I don’t believe that statute of limitations should apply here.

    Are the supervisors responsible for their PhD students plagiarism?
    I would argue to the contrary. In a trivial metaphor: if someone goes shoplifting, do I blame the store owner for not catching the shoplifter?
    I would argue that we teach PhD students to be independent researchers, that’s the whole point of getting a PhD. PhD students aren’t lab dogs (even if they are treated as such in their daily work…) whose actions are someone else’s liability claim. They make their own choices, and cheating is a conscious choice.
    It is my belief that by the time a person gets admitted to a PhD course, they know how citation works, and what plagiarism is. That’s first semester BA stuff. You learn in school what cheating is. You probably get an idea of it in kindergarten already.
    Back to the trivial metaphor: if the store owner has no video camera and sits asleep behind the counter while someone shoplifts, is the store owner to blame for the shoplifting? I still say no: It is still the conscious choice of the shoplifter to steal – and perhaps it is morally even more despicable under these circumstances: cheating being more easily possible doesn’t make it any less wrong.

    Ideally, a supervisor has the time to check every footnote in every thesis presented. Realistically, with the professor/student ratio at German universities right now, there’s about a snowball’s chance in hell for that to happen.
    So while there are definitely supervisors who don’t check admitted work thoroughly enough, and while part (only a part!) of that can be blamed on an impossible workload, I don’t blame the supervisors. Unless a student gets a degree exactly in of your specialties, it is impossible to keep up with the literature on all aspects presented. And it is the PhD student’s job to file an honest thesis (while it is of course the supervisor’s job to adhere to the same standards and be a professional role model! If I cheat in my publications, how can I ask my students not to do the same?)

    Does Science invite less plagiarism than the Humanities or Social Sciences do?
    I do think that there are fewer cases – perhaps because getting a BA or MA in Science is a very specific kind of hard work that stands before even trying to go for a PhD in this area.
    I’m tired of the stereotypical pitting of Science as “real research” against Humanities as an area where cheating would be easier or standards would be lower, though. In all areas of academia, an excellent title requires excellent work, period – be it in a lab or in an archive. And in all areas of academia, there will always be people who try to cheat, even while the methods of cheating may vary: there’s copy-pasting and undeclared citations just as well as falsified, euphemised and plain made-up lab results. And all that is wrong.

    So, yes, a committee of various researchers, ideally from different schools/fields, and the publication of the results are a good method of assuring standards (and require a lot of work from everyone involved… and in some countries they even require the candidate inviting the whole comittee to a fancy restaurant, which is just wrong).
    Overall though, I wish we wouldn’t need control mechanisms. Overall, I hope that people who dedicate their life or even just a few years of it to gaining and (re)discovering and shaping knowledge are people who take responsibilities and ethical standards very seriously and do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. And not because they are afraid of getting caught in case they cheat.

    ….Hm, that turned out a lot longer than I thought. Thanks for making me think some more about my arguments! 🙂


    1. I dunno. I obviously don’t come from humanities or anything related, but I know that my boss – my first supervisor – knows pretty much all the relevant literature for what I’m doing, and probably most of the largely irrelevant stuff as well (in fact I’m sure she knows way more about the literature than me…); so she’d know instantly when I don’t cite. Lacking citations is oftentimes very obvious in the research that I’m doing anyway, because unless I’ve been doing the experiment myself, somebody else had to do it before me – there’s no way around citing, because it’s obvious if it’s missing.
      I won’t say anything about what is science and what isn’t in comparison of writing a thesis about molecular medicine or one in philosophy for instance (because I have no clue how a thesis is written in anything other than lets call it “hands-on-science”), but I think the temptation to just copy some stuff you’ve read for your thesis is much higher when reading and writing are all you have to do in comparison to having to actually do things – and then show your results every week or every month in lab meetings (or in our graduate school every half year, once just for the other PhD students and once as a preliminary exam); because doing nothing and just copying someone else’s results or faking experiments would get that much more noticed. Of course that still happens, but less in PhD thesises and more in publications – because to be able to cheat on a scale like that you have to be higher in the hierarchy or chances are HUGE that it will get noticed. (IMHO at least.)

      And yes, I think that Schavan’s plagiarism would’ve probably gone largely unnoticed even by a good supervisor – that is not the case for Guttenberg, however. The sheer amount of stuff in his thesis that is just copied completely from some other texts should have been noticed by his supervisors. Period. (And I still think it has largely turned into a witch hunt now, it’s curious to me that so far it’s only hit politicians in higher ranking offices.)

      I know quite a few cases where everybody knows the first supervisor didn’t even bother to read the thesis of his student; and as far as I’m aware chances are low that second and third supervisors really read them as well. Which is not okay, but a general problem of the system.
      Mostly they just have a short look and then discuss the outcome with the first supervisor and then decided what to write in the report. That’s not how it should be done, but from what I witnessed that’s how it’s done in most cases, mostly because it’s not like professors have won their time in a lottery and they couldn’t care less to be 2nd or 3rd supervisor of a thesis, because it requires lots of work for them and doesn’t pay in the least. And I’m probably biased but I expect this to be even worse in anything that’s not hands-on-science and a lot worse if it’s something that’s unlikely to get published and probably ruin the professor’s name if it’s fraudulent data.


      1. First (and second, and third) supervisors not even reading a thesis – that is precisely what shouldn’t happen. You’re right, though, I’ve seen it happen on BA and MA theses (which is small-scale in comparison, but still disrespecting the work) and in those cases, a mechanism of sloppy work falling back onto the supervisor (like you mention with fraudulent data going unnnoticed) would be something I’d welcome.
        Knowing all the literature is perhaps something that differs depending on the field, or another Science/Humanities difference? I sometimes get BA or MA theses as a first or second supervisor and the variety of topics is such that I’d have to travel to various libraries for each (again also a problem of having not enough peple emplyoed with not enough time) to be halfway up to date on literature. I always try to see every new thesis as a chance to learn something new, but as you say, time is short (and I don’t even have a contract).

        I fully agree that the need of producing data (and not just analyzing data), especially in newer fields, invites less citation fraud or at least makes it much more easily detectable.

        Since it is an election year, it will be interesting to see whether we will see more and more politically motivated campaigns about PhD fraud – although the current governemnt’s PhDs might already be crossed off the list. To me, the recent rumors around Gysi (unrelated to a PhD thesis) and the comments on them reek much more of political motivation, and I personally find Gysi rather annoying, if certainly not dumb, independent of his political views.

        I wonder if someone will try to get a hold of the thesis of new Secretary of Education and Reseach, Johanna Wanka – and I doubt it, since it is in Mathematics and to recheck it one would need to actually have a grasp on the issue and not google for copy-pasted phrases (as was the case with the popular examples of Guttenberg or Koch-Mehrin, although I stand by my opinion that in those cases, the public handling of the accusations by the accused caused the biggest media hype – nothing sells better than hybris in free fall).

        If every PhD was as passionate about the issue as we obviously are, we probably wouldn’t have anything to discuss here. 😉


        1. Oh they’re already checking Wanka’s thesis – I read it in the news – although they said they don’t expect to find anything :D.

          As for literature: I think that definitely depends on your field of research; although it’s probably less of an issue in science than in humanities judging by what you’ve written. What we do here is kinda limited in topic – it’s not that wide – so I guess it’s a lot more feasable to actually know most of what has been published (at least the essence). Also most of our literature can easily be accessed online – or sometimes it requires using the library service, before we can access the pdf, but we certainly don’t need to travel anywhere. So I guess that makes a big difference.
          And as I said whatever I write in my thesis that I haven’t done myself (and the boss should know what I have or haven’t done), has to be done by someone else – and it’s obvious if I don’t cite it.

          Yeah :D. If everybody would think about that as much then there wouldn’t be need for a discussion like that. But then again, I’m probably just disillusionised with science and university research in general.


        2. It’s so sad (and bad for academia!) that those who clearly care a great deal about their field are so often disillusioned by the politics and bad habits surrounding it by the time they finish their PhDs.

          Personally, I’d love to get my Habil, but I’m not sure I can put up with another 5-6 years under current conditions (and with virtually no job chances afterwards). I may have to end up in politics… and have a good laugh every time someone checks my PhD for plagiarism. 😉


        3. Yeah well. Pretty much all the other PhD students that I know are very disillusioned and frustrated with how it’s going.
          I don’t think I’ll go for my habil (it’s not strictly necessary anymore as far as I heard, actually), but I’ve been working at least 50 hours per week for the last four years and I don’t think I can do that for another 5-6 years; especially since in my field the chance to get a professorship is pretty small anyway.


        4. And here we are, from such different disciplines, and at the same point: disillusioned and with very small chances at a professorship.

          I would still need a Habil, although – which I find really unfair, since there should only be ONE method – I’ve seen candidates apply with “cumulative Habils” (3-5 articles) next to people who spent 5-6 years on a book and big research project.

          Gaaah. I think this calls for some displacement activity in the form of a little anonymous Bering & Wells. 😉


        5. Hehe, you can never be wrong with Bering and Wells. In fact… during the last year I think that’s one of the few things that kept me relatively sane (or insane… depends on your standpoint :D).
          Oh are you sure you absolutely need a habil? Because as far as I’m aware you don’t need a habil for a Juniorprofessor (at least in our field) and once you’re there you’re legit for a “Ruf” for a normal professorship without needing a habil (I think you can even get a Ruf for a normal professorship right away, but I suppose you need your own special brand of awesome to accomplish that), or if you’re lucky it’s a Juniorprofessur with tenure track.


        6. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here: its more about finding suitable political weapons as it is the credulity of the educational assessment system. Its a shame if, as you said, such PhD holders were already making a right a**e of their jobs, regardless of their qualifications.

          Its so different here in English-speaking cultures, where qualifications are almost viewed with suspicion, rather than being seeing as a badge of achievement. For many years I used to consider removing my original degree from my CV, as it felt sometimes in interviews like a mark of having had bubonic plague. Yet in IT, where I’ve worked for nearly 13 years now, the major complaint is the lack of skill, yet so many seem to have gained entry to the profession without formal (or very low quality) training.


        7. I dunno,from what I’ve seen in medical sciences… when looking at possible jobs internationally and from what I’ve heard from colleagues who have been abroad in the UK or US, without a degree nobody will even look at your CV; it’s a prerequisite to be even able to hand in your application, no matter where I looked or who I talked to. At least if you want to do reserach. Working for big pharma might be possible without a PhD, but with only a master you’ll be stuck somewhere on the career ladder sooner rather than later.
          I studied molecular medicine and even before we made our bachelor degrees it became obvious that unless someone was particularly lucky or had connections to the industry you needed a PhD to get at least a half decent wage – the fact that researchers at universities are severely underpaid anyway notwithstanding.


        8. In LIfe Sciences and research in general I can only echo Sam’s experiences: Ph.D: is a necessity (also in pharma, at least what I’ve seen – my brother is going through that right now).
          In my field, we don’t even talk about wages. 😉

          (There are a few scattered Juniorprofessor positions, but it doesn’t seem to kick off in my field as a model, I only know people who were in the street again after 6 years. I wish there would be a clearer set of rules regarding the Juniorprof, as things are, nobody gets it. One model for all, that should happen (and soon) – whether it’s cumulative, 2nd book, Juniorprof posiiton or Habil, but it should be the same demand on anyone, and not some people filing three previously published articles and others having spent six years over a project plus (self-paid, of course) publication. – Is the lack of Mittelbau as disastrous in Sciences, too?

          Of course that brings me back to the general current social problem of monetary maximising above all, also above knowledge (and ethics, and fairness, and hard work, and social respinsibility and humanity.) which I see as a fatal cul-de-sac as far as society development goes. E.g. Pharma doesn’t do poorly, but outsources so much to Asia that there are hardly any jobs in the EU market (other than unpaid 1-year internships, after which there is no contract, but the next intern to slave away unpaid) while a select few make amounts of money that I personally find obscene and unnecessary.


        9. Yeah, life sciences…in most cases the job description already reads: post-doc (and that’s everywhere and has nothing to do with Germany). So yeah, without title there aren’t many options.

          Maybe I only heard about those Juniorprofessorships that ended on a lucky note then. -.- I know that the institute where I work offered one with a tenure track to a full professorship after six years. So that sounded really good to me.

          And I’m not sure what exactly you mean with Mittelbau; if you mean grants and funding… lets say it like that: to get a grant, you need lots of papers with high impact factors and even better: you should already have had a grant in the past. Problem with this is the same with the impossible wish of firms to have employes that are a) young and b) have already ten years of job experience: you need the money to fund the papers with the high impact factors. So in many, many cases only already established researchers get any grants and funding (there was this study showing that the grant applications of young researchers dropped in numbers in the last years; someone said that was because there are less young researchers now; I say it’s because everybody thinks: why bother when I won’t get anything anyway?).


          1. It seems that grants work a little differently in the Humanities (our journal system doesn’t work with impact factor), but the famous Drittmitteleinwerbung ist just the same – you need a name and a lot of time and in the end, the money goes to those already established (or those writing up the prettiest bla-blah without ever following through on the research).

            Mittelbau would be anything after PhD, but not a full professor – all the postdocs and researchers, some with habil, some without, with regular university jobs. Those have almost completely disappeared, now it’s more and more just the overworked professor plus a group of PhD students to do all the research and teaching. Reason: PhD students get cheaper contracts, so the administration just cuts out the middle level.

            We tend to joke that academia is the only area where conditions get worse with every qualification: as a Ph.D student, you still get student benefits, even though it’s a tough, work-intensive, very trying time. Then they tell you “The really tough years come after the PhD!” and you think “no way”- and then the student benefits are gone, you’re not exactly young any longer, you’d like to settle down, but nobody wants to employ you because now you actually cost money. And when you have your Habil+PD, you’re at the worst, officially: obliged to teach a class for free EVERY semester at the university that gave you the title (or your PD teachign licence gets revoked), traveling costs not reimbursed, no university association (important for access to libraries/journals/conference credentials). So either you get one of the few coveted calls to professorship, or you may line up at the Würstchenbude with Stroh 80 in a bathrobe at 11 a.m. at some point.

            Gah, why do we do this?!


        10. Ugh yeah. As far as I’m aware grants are all about impact factor; which brings me to the next thing that absolutely blows about science: the corruption in the publishing industry. Good look trying to publish anything with the bigger journals (who are all sitting in the US) when you’re not from a big US lab or have at least some of the big names somewhere in your author’s list. Just saying…
          Getting rants is a serious Affentanz (once me and the other PhD student had to be present at a poster to (I quote) “look nice and be charming and enthusiastic”). I have to say I’m doing some Jammern auf hohem Niveau here though, because compared to many other institutes and workgroups we’re rich (meaning at the end of the year when sometimes people can’t even buy the necessities anymore, we fill our stocks up to the hilt to get rid of excess money; plus if I want something I generally get it without issues; same goes actually for travel reimbursement, we usually don’t get money for food, which blows, but hotel and travelling costs are reimbursed – and that is perfectly normal everywhere, sometimes they are even more generous and get money for food as well). Boss knows the system well and plays it like a pro – and usually wins.

          Concerning the lack of Mittelbau; I can’t speak for science (like physics and chemistry), but in biomedial research – life sciences included – it’s a little different, mostly because you belong to the clinics and not the universities and are part of the medical faculty. There is also the added complication in dealing with medical students that they will sue you for everything (and I mean everything: they screwed up an exam because they didn’t know anything and they will probably sue you because you were unfair or something like that). This means that PhD students generally don’t do teaching in the medical faculty (or rarely any do, and the few that do mostly even get paid for it – or rather they get post-doc wages); which happens even less now with graduate schools taking over (I think it’s forbidden to do teaching while in my graduate school for instance).
          Many labs look like this: an overworked prof, a few terribly overworked post-docs, absolutely stressed out PhD students and then some B.Sc. and M.Sc. students. (Of course there are labs with like one post-doc and 50 PhD students and a prof that’s never there, but there aren’t as many here as for instance in the states, and it’s often only in pure research professorships, which there aren’t that many). Due to the fact that teaching often needs to be done by post-docs there are actually a few positions available, although there are barely any “unbefristet”; getting an “unbefristeten Vertrag” is like the jackpot in lottery. The next big problem with this is that you can only work for 12 years on befristeten Verträgen im Öffentlichen Dienst once you get your title; which means you either have to be lucky enough to get an unbefristeten Vertrag, get a professorship or get your own funding from somewhere in that time. Or go to industry; and at that point in time industry knows that you failed to get a professorship which well, isn’t the best prerequesite for a good job.
          I’m lucky where I am, because we actually have two post-docs (we had a third one a while ago, but she left after barely a year for a better paid position in industry) and we are only two PhD students; so I’m actually living under relatively luxurious circumstances in comparison (and once I’m finished I know that I can stay as post-doc, the offer is already there and I will probably take it and hope boss can get another unbefristet position at some point; I think if I said to her I’d like to become a professor she’d mentor me in that as well and make it happen somehow – she said she’s sure I could do it – but I’m not convinced I want that; I’m not sure that’s the case everywhere, but from what I can see many PhD students stick around for a bit as post-docs after they finished their thesises (and rumour has it that some of them marry their bosses)). Although my fellow PhD-student-colleague is actually running her part of the lab alone, because boss hasn’t been able to find a (for her standards) qualified new post-doc for two years now, I had for instance for a while three post-docs for the electrophysiology lab for a while and just me as a student. From time to time we also have bachelor or master students, but not very often (boss is very picky). So while payment still sucks balls I’m kinda lucky where I am – except boss is moving to a new position (a really good deal for her and a clusterfuck for us PhD students…) and I’m not very keen on that, because I hate change (yeah I know, I shouldn’t have gone into research then – I know that now – and sometimes I think with my love for routine and fear of change, that’s the borderline autist in me coming through or something) and I suck at all the socialising that’s necessary to get new friends; I’m just now at the point where the people that I work with daily (and who have all become my friends and family) don’t get on my nerves anymore just by their sheer presence. I’m not looking forward to new people trampling around in my life -.-.


        11. ugh, yes – the whole having to spend money on uninspired congresses and not being able (unless you want to commit networking suicide) to tell off the old smarly profesor guy who introduces your speech in a very sexist manner, if you are allowed to speak at all?!
          Fingers crossed that there won’t be too much change for you… only of the good kind!
          Your comment made me think, again, about how essential a good supervisor is who understands networking for their students as part of their job – of my three thesis supervisors, just the 3rd ever put me in contact with others (not even my field, but I got to take over a conference call, invited to colloquia). Of the other two, No. 1 was usually off being important elsewhere, why No. 2, who usually cancels all invitations (nevermind sending a disciple – preposterous!), refuses to travel, or accepts and then cancels last minute and then complains that there are no connections, nobody knows our research and “alas, why is my entire research group on HartzIV?” Bottom line: you don’t get anywhere without networking and networking supervisor.
          So, congrats on your supervisor, and on your work!

          Btw, I heard they expanded the timeframe on temporary postdoc contracts, allowing infinite renovations now? Or perhaps that was just a nightmare…? Not that it’s really worse than the average “postdoctoral teaching grant” which allots ot a maximum 380€ for an entire semester (6 months total salary (not per month) to cover travels, teaching, desiging the class, supervising and grading papers) and even those have disappeared due to budget cuts.

          Hm, rereading this… what am I still doing in academia? I really should get my head checked. Is there a patch of Feldweg ahead?!


        12. Yeah. Congresses. I don’t like them, mainly because I have long distances travelling – I was flying once, and it was only to London, and I didn’t mind the flying but all the bs that comes with it at the airport… I was like: dude, too much trouble (boss knows this, so she doesn’t force me to go when I don’t want to). People make me feel uncomfortable and I’m not the most charming person by default, so… it’s probably a bad idea to have me present posters when I glare anyone who dares approach to death. (I can be charming when I want to, though, lol and rather engaging when I talk about my work… it’s just not always the case).
          Yeah supervisors… as I said, I think I’m pretty lucky. I got in this workgroup when I made my Bachelor’s and I’ve stuck to it until now (so it totally can’t be that bad, or maybe there’s some part of Feldweg waiting for me as well lol). I’m not always happy, because boss is not the best when it comes to leading people – she has a tendency to try to push you and if you give in once she’s going to push even harder and harder… and I’m not sure that that’s how it’s supposed to work – but she’s a getting better with it and I believe that she’s trying to get the best for everyone – also, as I said she’s really amazing when it comes go getting Dritttmittelfunding, so we don’t need to worry about costs too much (which is very important in my field of work where pretty much everything is fucking expensive; I mean we have running costs for animal housing of 2000-2500€ per month, and some chemicals and assays are really, really expensive as well, so it’s possible to burn through 10000€ in a few weeks without really noticing).
          I know however, that there are some disastrous circumstances in other places. A friend had to take care of the funding for her PhD for herself, she’s now on a stipend, because her supervisor was completely unable to take care of that himself (that was a lot of trouble). In our annual students meeting of the graduate school, when they went through the questionares that are handed out once per year to judge student happiness and stuff like that, there were complaints from students saying: it’s like slavery, no rules, no help and it’s always your fault. Stuff like that.

          o.O with what you write about teaching grants… this looks to be even worse than in our field. I mean… our post-docs don’t get extra money for teaching as far as I’m aware(there are post-doc positions without the need to teach available), but then they don’t have to travel for it, and if for some reason they absolutely need to, costs are generally covered by the institute, or there are travel grants which you can apply for in case of longer and more expensive trips.

          And yeah… I’ve been asking myself that exact same question quite often recently. To be honest, if I were 17 again and had to decide what to do after my a-levels… I’d not make the same decision again and instead either study something completely different (maybe I should’ve really gone and become a translator, or an illustrator or study literature or something) or learn something – I like building and doing things with my hands, so Feinmechanik maybe would’ve been the right thing for me. And I probably wouldn’t go for a PhD again either – because in the end, sure, it’s nice and I love my work in the lab (but there’s so much else about this that just simply sucks), but it often looks like it’s just not really worth the effort.


          1. 😯 that sounds like our entire library budget for a semester… or two.

            Last winter, I had to cancel a congress speech and a presentation because I would have had to pay the flights on my own. Ugh – I tend to think I could have stayed in the arts, in both areas it helps to be independently wealthy beforehand! There’s also a lot of having to deal with incompetent idiots in both fields (though that may be the same in any field).

            If I had to choose again, knowing what I know… I probably wouldn’t go for a Ph.D. either, or at least not in my tiny field. I love the research, I love teaching, I love to give speeches, but there are simply no jobs.

            We might have met in translating/interpreting school. 😉 Or I would have stayed in opera. Or studied Law, or gone into cooking. Or screenwriting.


        13. o.O your budgeting is very difficult from ours then. (But I mean, I work with machines that are each worth up to about 150000€. So uh… biomedical science is nothing if really, really expensive.)
          I think being independently wealthy beforehand is pretty helpful, no matter what you do. Same goes for idiots… you’ll encounter them everywhere (especially when dealing with bureaucracy which can be so absurd it would be funny if it weren’t so sad and infuriating).
          Opera. Curious. I mean, I can sing a bit, and I play piano since I was five, and I play also bass flute, but… opera is something that doesn’t really connect with me (well at least it hasn’t in the past). Screenwriting I could see though, as well as writing (I still dream of writing a bestselling novel :D, which will not happen with high likelihood in the near future because I’m terribly unfocused when it comes to writing; maybe that’s because I have too many ideas). [I also think that studying law is… pretty hard.]


      1. God, yes. Completely different frame of reference! I worked nearly six years on my PhD (granted, with less novel-writing, I could have done it in four, perhaps) and I regularly got crying fits over med students who talked about doing theirs in 2-3 months.

        Then again, I probably wouldn’t survive a PJ, so I think medics prove their worth in other trials than thesis-writing. But yes, if you compare the amount of research and writing going into an MD, or a rer. nat./phil., I could still cry at the numbers.


        1. Yeah. Most M.D. thesises require less work than my B.Sc. thesis (there are exceptions, for instance my boss only takes a student if they at least can make time for a year fulltime work; not the 2-3 months-I-spent-one-afternoon-per-week-in-a-lab that I have heard about happening elsewhere; and I’m not saying they all are bad, but compared to a normal Doktorarbeit? It’s ridiculous.)
          And from a friend – who has been a technician in a lab in a hospital – I know that in some cases, it’s rather the technician than the medical student doing the work.
          I mean sure they’re medics and most of them will never do research. But, during DDR (no clue about the english term) a M.D. was as hardly earned as any other scientific degree – at least four years of research went into that. Most of the physicians treating me – as a kid and in eastern Germany – were only “Diplom Mediziner”, they never made their M.D. because it would’ve taken so much more time – and they worked harder for their title then than todays M.D.s for their doctor.


        2. Interesting, I didn’t know that about the GDR medic education – I like that idea, though. Keeps the PhD hassle off those who don’t want to do research, and allows those who actually do want to focus on research to go for it.
          Instead, nearly everyone gets a quick PhD since especially in the West, people will ask if you are actually a qualified medic if you don’t have it. — Getting a Facharzt is another thing, though!


        3. Yeah, I think going back to actually having Dipl. med. and Dr. med again would be a nice thing; it would make the title Dr. again more fair in comparison to PhDs.
          There is a trend however to get american style MD-PhD programs going instead – which is also fine with me (because that’s just plain insane if you ask me).
          It also doesn’t help that since I had some lectures together with medical students and my colleagues actually hold these lectures now (and once I’m done with my PhD I’ll do as well), I’ve lost a shit ton of respect for them and anyone calling himself a doctor – and I’m extremely worried now whenever I get sick to be honest… because damn, I wouldn’t want to be treated by half of them (I’ve met quite a few that were “dumm wie zwei Meter Feldweg” and just learned everything by heart, without having a clue what they were talking about or learning; it’s really shocking to see that the current educational system actually fosters that: learning by heart without thinking). I’m sure most of that gets sorted once they make their Facharzt… but as long as they have just their lectures…


        4. “dumm wie zwei Meter Feldweg” – 😀 I usually quote the Missfits, “zu dumm um ausm Bus zu gucken”.
          My baby brother had exactly the same experience you describe: teaching med students and praying to never need a surgery afterwards!


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