The feudal serfdom: the final aspect of „The uniqueness of the German university system“

Post in: German

Here is the final installment of the talk I gave on January 9, 2013 as the keynote for the “Meet the Female Faculty” Event at the Ruhr-University of Bochum. The Equal Opportunities Office and the Internal Continuing Education Office at Bochum team up to offer a special program for women scientists to meet each other and talk about their careers.

There is a downside to the apprenticeship side, however, and that gets to the “obedience” theme mentioned in a previous post. And this is the last of the three specialties of the German system. We had the priesthood, the apprenticeship, and now,  I call it…

The feudal serfdom

When I first started my postdoc in Germany, I thought I was independent, like an American assistant professor. My boss correctly thought I was a German employee of his.  One of my predoc colleagues in the team straightened it out – or straightened me out – when she explained to me that I need to be giving him loyalty and gratefulness – that’s what’s expected. It’s his position, computer, desk, staff, research topic, and I belong to him.  Then it crossed my mind – it’s a feudal system! Of course! Hence I give loyalty and gratefulness to him, and he gives me protection from other feudal lords and gives me the scientific ground that I am allowed to till.

The feudal system was abandoned – saw revolutions – in Europe for good reason. There are a lot of possible abuses to the system. And the same is true in science. There are reasons that many predocs and postdocs go to the USA – to avoid the feudal system. To be more independent. A great deal of whether this system is erträglich or not has to do with the feudal lord — I mean, advisor or boss.

In the US, a graduate student is admitted to a program, and that person can choose an advisor from those at that institution. The best graduate schools have large departments so there is lots of choice. Small departments often don’t even offer advanced degrees, because it would not be fair to students to have such a narrow choice of topics and advisors.  It’s normal for graduate students to have between 20 and 40 advisors to choose from – that is, professors within a subject to which they are admitted for graduate work out of a pool of applicants. There is a meritocratic feeling to the system. Only the best-qualified get a spot. And then they choose with whom to work. The potential advisors want to offer attractive conditions so that the best graduate candidates come work with them. WITH them. Not FOR them.  If an advisor-advisee relationship is not working out, then the graduate student can change advisors.  As a rule, no professor can hire whom he or she pleases. This means graduate students have the advantage of choice in the USA: but professors have the advantage of choice in Germany. Graduate school is a limited time. Professorships are held for 15 or more years.  Which would you prefer to choose, your advisor or your graduate students?  Your answer to that question determines a lot about whether you’re happier in Germany or the USA for a science career.

Another advantage in Germany to belonging to a feudal lord as a graduate student is that the feudal lord has to provide the grad student with a workplace. American graduate students have no guarantee of a desk and computer. Or paid vacation. Or retirement contributions.

And a further advantage is, the graduate student in Germany is associated with a particular “brand” identity because the feudal lord is a small company or shop: A „Lehrstuhl“ has a certain identity and integrity and intrinsic logic to it.

What the apprenticeship and the feudal serfdom mean for women in Germany, however, is that the closer tie to an advisor – who is statistically speaking most likely to be male – means that advisor has a lot more to say about her life, and her chances to continue in the research and to get support for the next stage of the career compared to a woman working at an academic institution in the USA where the tie to the advisor is institutionally much weaker.  In the USA, if a woman is pregnant, the advisor figures that means 2-3 weeks out of the job, maybe a few months, but not years. And the advisor doesn’t lose time out of a hard-won permanent position or project position, since the “positions” are generally given by the department to the cohort of graduate students each year. So it’s not so personally felt. The American professor also shifts fewer responsibilities to the graduate student or postdoc – he or she generally cannot delegate exam grading, journal review writing, article writing, teaching of courses, etc to a graduate student or post-doc.  So if a new parent is away from the job for some weeks or months, the American professor does not “feel” it with the additional workload the way a professor in Germany feels it if someone – who took over major amounts of duties from the professor him or herself — is missing for a long time from a job.

There are certainly other aspects of the two systems that produce differences, and certainly many of you have had your own experiences in Germany and in the USA that do or don’t resonate with these observations. I make these observations to highlight three of the things that make the German system especially unique to an American:

  • the priesthood of childless academics,
  • the apprenticeship system that trains the next generation in a variety of tasks, and
  • the feudal serfdom that keeps people dependent on a specific advisor in exchange for protection within the system.

I think a fruitful discussion would be to focus on how do we keep the advantages of the apprenticeship system while avoiding the abuses that come with the feudal serfdom. And, naturally, how do we evolve the priesthood into a garden, a place where many different varieties of lives, life courses, and families can bloom. That diversity would attract more talent to science, make scientists feel more welcome and more comfortable, and would bring the creative innovation that sparks all scientific output. I believe our structures determine a great deal of our chances in life, and I believe also that because our structures are made by us, we can also change them, if we choose to do so. That starts with identifying them. I hope you saw something new in the structures tonight, and I look forward to a lively discussion together. Thank you.

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