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Applying to academia from abroad

Whether it's a junior professorship, tenure-track position, or group leadership, strategic planning is essential for an academic career. A convincing application is crucial. We have compiled tips and resources to help you navigate the challenging application phase.
This article has been translated from German via AI.


Career paths in science

Thomas Wortmann has been a tenure-track professor since November 2020, Anna Poetsch has led her research group since July 2020, and Jan Meinsner has held a junior professorship since April 2021. We asked them how exactly their applications went and what aspects they had to consider at each stage.

The Dr. Wilhelmy-GSO Travel Expenses Program supported the three researchers. This program allows universities to reimburse travel expenses for applicants conducting research abroad who wish to continue or start their careers in Germany.

Dr. Thomas Wortmann
Tenure-Track Professor @Universität Stuttgart
Dr. Anna Poetsch
Forschungsgruppenleiterin @BIOTEC, TU Dresden & NCT Dresden
Dr. Jan Meisner
Juniorprofessor @Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

1. Searching: Where are the positions advertised?

German universities publicly advertise regular professorships, although no universal legal requirement mandates this for academic positions. Universities publish their current job openings on their institution’s websites. If someone is interested in a specific institution or faculty, they should regularly check their homepage directly or, if available, subscribe to their newsletter.

Vacant positions at universities can also be discovered online from abroad through mailing lists, job portals, and academic newsletters.

For example, the job portal “academics” provides an overview and a newsletter about the academic job market. Members of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (Deutscher Hochschulverband) also receive regular mailings with current job openings.

Social media channels such as X (former Twitter) and LinkedIn are also sources for academic positions. Many universities are now present on LinkedIn. Even if someone is not actively posting on social media channels, they can still follow relevant universities, labs, or researchers who frequently share job postings.

»I explored opportunities via LinkedIn on the one hand and via academics on the other. Additionally, job postings are circulated through the mailing lists of subject-specific conferences«  – Thomas Wortmann

Continuous networking is, therefore, crucial – even before positions are advertised, it is recommended to, for instance, give presentations at desired universities or among well-connected colleagues (even virtually), or to establish connections with labs or researchers through platforms X (former Twitter), initially on professional grounds. Building or maintaining contacts is particularly advisable for researchers abroad who are planning to return.

It is worth noting that the application processes at German universities can be lengthy, lasting up to 12 months, so it is important to start the search early.

»Because I know how slow processes can be in Germany, it is wise to start applying as early as possible. Just a year after starting my stay abroad at Stanford, I began sending out the first applications.« – Jan Meisner

Resources

2. Analyzing: How is the position advertised?

Once a suitable job posting is found, it enters the analysis phase. Conducting thorough research on the institution is often time-consuming but helps tailor the application documents more precisely.

The online presence of universities provides an overview of how faculties or institutes are structured. What are the research focuses? What expertise is available, and what is lacking? Do I possibly know any employees there? With whom can potential collaborations or interdisciplinary projects be realized?

»Before drafting my application, I explore the relevant homepage and conduct targeted searches. In my case, I looked for machine learners with whom I could potentially collaborate on algorithmic projects. I also considered the availability of medical professionals. Furthermore, I contemplated how I can contribute there.« – Anna Poetsch

Those who engage more closely with the institution beforehand can refine their application profile and ensure alignment with the requirements outlined in the job posting.

»Relative to the advertisement, I crafted a very precise application. This was only possible because the institute has an informative website.«– Thomas Wortmann

If contact persons are provided in the advertisement, the applicant should not hesitate to contact them with any questions.

 

Resources

 

For long-term security within the German academic system, the career goal in most cases is a professorship. The pathways to achieving this goal are diverse:

Junior research group programs (see overview) are typically attractive in terms of resources and reputation. The W1 or junior professorship can lead to a dead-end, while slightly more planning security is offered by WISNA professorships with tenure-track (common variants include W1 to W2 or W3, W2 to W3, or less frequently, W2 to W2). The significance of habilitation is diminishing in STEM fields.


 

3. Applying: What should be included in an academic application package?

The necessary application documents generally emerge from the job advertisement and can vary greatly depending on the discipline and position. While Anna Poetsch should submit her resume with a cover letter for the research group position, Jan Meisner’s complete professorship application included not only a cover letter and CV but also a research and teaching concept.

Essentially, all requested documents should be clear and well-organized, adhering to formalities such as consistent formatting and naming conventions.

The application documents should be formulated with an empathetic approach. A concrete, future-oriented, although theoretical presentation helps the appointment committee to better understand the applicants on paper.

»I wrote a truly very, very individual cover letter and application package for each application, and was personally invited each time.

In my documents, I highlighted with whom I could collaborate in my faculty or department. Where are overlaps possible, and how can I contribute beyond my field?« – Jan Meisner

An external perspective is important to verify if everything is logically and comprehensibly structured for others. Therefore, the application documents should be proofread either by trusted colleagues or doctoral supervisors.

»I reviewed the application from my supervisor and then critically assessed my own documents. With each application, I continued to improve.« – Anna Poetsch

The time required for the application documents should not be underestimated. Drafting all relevant documents for an academic position at a university is extremely time-consuming, especially for the first application. However, this process becomes more manageable with practice and a solid foundation.

At the very least, when submitting the documents, it is advisable to enter one’s name into an internet search engine and update or create existing online profiles, such as on institutional pages, ResearchGate, Academia, LinkedIn, X (former Twitter), etc.

 

Resources

Frequently, universities do not cover the travel expenses for personal interviews. The Dr. Wilhelmy-GSO Travel Expenses Program fills this gap by reimbursing expenses for applicants from abroad up to 2000 euros.

4. “Audition”: How do I present myself in person?

After submitting the complete application, the documents are reviewed by the appointment committee, and a selection of suitable candidates is invited. Depending on the number of applications, it can take three or more months to receive an invitation.

Depending on the institution, the “audition” may involve an expert presentation, a teaching demonstration, or a trial lecture in front of students, along with a discussion with the appointment committee. The suggested concept in the application documents should be expanded upon in more detail.

»In the trial lecture, I passionately presented my teaching intentions.« – Thomas Wortmann

In the presentations, different target groups should be considered. What is relevant for the students? How deeply can I delve into the subject matter and demonstrate my expertise? The audience consists not only of specialists, so it is important to formulate clearly and engage all listeners.

»It is not just a specialist lecture; you also aim to present your research in an understandable manner. Moreover, you want to demonstrate to the appointment committee that you can maintain academic rigor.« – Jan Meisner

After the personal introduction, it can take up to twelve months before receiving feedback. Many universities provide information about the current status of each application through an appointment procedure monitor on their homepage.

 

Resources

5. Negotiating: What is negotiable besides salary?

Those who secure the top position on the shortlist have leverage: Depending on the job offer and arguments, aside from allowances, additional or alternative resources such as personnel or facilities can be negotiated.

»The negotiation phase is much more important in Germany than in the English-speaking world simply because there is much more to negotiate.« – Thomas Wortmann

The applicant can proactively approach university staff and future supervisors to discuss negotiation possibilities. Even relocation services with future employers are negotiable (see For a career in science to Germany, in German).

Especially for entry-level positions like junior professorship or tenure-track, negotiations are an absolute novelty. What constitutes an appropriate salary agreement, and what does a convincing offer look like? The German Association of University Professors and Lecturers supports researchers in this application phase with its expertise.

 

Resources

7 tips for the application process

1. Initiate your search for positions promptly, as the hiring process can be lengthy. Maintain your networks!

2. Make the most of digital preliminary interviews, especially if you are abroad or unable to travel (e.g., during a pandemic).

3. Review or activate your network in advance: Do you have connections at the prospective university? With whom could you establish collaborations beyond research?

4. Pay attention to your personal “branding” during the audition: Expertise is crucial, but also how it is communicated and showcased.

5. Explore funding opportunities specific to the federal state and utilize your knowledge of third-party funding (e.g., the NRW return program).

6. Negotiate effectively! With an offer supported by compelling arguments, you can negotiate for additional resources such as additional staff members.

7. Have a backup plan ready. What if it does not go as planned? Consider alternatives like Emmy Noether or ERC grants, scholarships, or pursuing a career in other sectors.