Facts & Tools

The German “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” in a nutshell - Revised version 2024

The Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” (WissZeitVG ) - German Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act - has undergone another reform in 2024. This is a quick and dirty summary of what we think you need to know about the changes. We also offer some ideas of what you can do.

What is the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz and what’s that reform?: Well meant – but not done well?

Disclaimer: We tried to gather and intrepret the information about the WissZeitVG the best we could. However, please note that this text does not claim completeness and legal correctness. It is merely a starting point for you. We suggest to get support from your institution or a legal entity when in doubt.

Introduced in 2007, the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” (WissZeitVG ) – German Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act – is a legal bill that regulates fixed-term employment contracts and working conditions in the academic sector in Germany. It applies to employees at universities and research institutions involved in research and/or teaching (times you are paid via third-party funding don’t count).

The initial idea was to accelerate the period in which you can become a professor or leave academia – however, what was a good intention proved difficult and problematic in its application – you might have heard of the #IchbinHanna debate that started on Twitter (now X) and quickly became viral. It showcased the real-life problems researchers faced with the WissZeitVG.

The WissZeitVG was adapted from time to time. The latest suggested reform sparked a heated debate: On March 27, 2024, the German government passed a reform intended to solve one of the core problems of the German academic system, namely to increase predictability, reliability, and transparency for academic staff in early career phases. With this reform, the government actually wants to respond to the long-standing criticism of precarious working conditions and the high level of uncertainty for young academics.

 

Key points of the reform – These are the main changes:

Minimum contract periods: Introduction of minimum contract periods of three years before the doctorate, two years after the doctorate and one year for employment during studies. Shorter contracts are only permitted in justified exceptional cases.

4+2 model: After the doctorate, the maximum fixed-term contract period is reduced to four years (previously six years), with the possibility of an extension of two years on condition that a binding follow-up commitment is available.

Prioritization of time limits for qualification: Time limits for qualification are given priority over time limits for third-party-funding, which also ensures minimum contract durations and better family and social policy regulations for researchers in third-party-funded projects.

 

In a nutshell, postdocs therefore have a total employment duration of 10 instead of 12 years (unless they have a follow-up commitment) when directly employed by their institution (“Haushaltsstelle”). Employment on third-party-funded projects does not count.

Controversy and criticism

Despite the changes, the academic community has criticized the reform. The problem isn’t so much the time limit before the doctorate, but rather the shortened time limit after the doctorate (from six to four years):

1) Postdocs have less time to find a permanent position and collect the career points that are crucial for this (third-party funding, publications, service).

2) Failed experiments, false hypotheses, problems in collaborations, teaching commitments, and other requirements reflect real research conditions – however, everything must run smoothly to stay within the time frame and achieve the above-mentioned goals.

3) International researchers who, for example, first have to set up a lab or find their way through the bureaucratic jungle, often lose time through no fault of their own.

4) In addition, the initiators of the #IchbinHanna movement, among others, criticize the fact that temporary positions are generally based on the assumption that fixed-term contracts promote innovation. However, fixed-term contracts generally promote those who are best able to withstand existential fears or who are sufficiently funded. Many talented people with competitive ideas drop out of science beforehand despite their suitability.

5) The competitive pressure and dependence on contract extensions increase the risk of abuse of power and scientific misconduct.

6) On top of that, there is a lack of clear guidelines on how young group leaders in particular (usually also employed temporarily) should deal with their postdocs and PhDs.

Tenure-track professorships as a “follow-up agreement”?

Tenure-track (TT) positions seem to be a solution regarding the necessary “Anschlusszusage” for postdocs. You can start on a W1 or sometimes W2 level and are set on track to tenure (meaning a permanent professorship). This track usually lasts 6 years including an intermediate and final evaluation.

Those professorships are, however, a two-edged sword.

Other than in Anglo-Saxon systems a TT position is a relatively safe bet – if you don’t completely mess up, you will get tenure. So while universities therefore choose carefully, there are indeed more and more TT positions popping up. That is because available professorships on higher levels now also become TT professorships – that’s cheaper for the university.

This is great for more junior applicants. However, if you are more advanced and could be appointed for a W2 or W3 position right away, you are not eligible for a W1 TT position. So the demand for different kinds of entry levels for professorships is still unmet.

Roughly 10% of all appointed TT professorships so far are held by non-German researchers (including German-speaking countries such as Austria & Switzerland; source here) – depending on how competitive your discipline is or not, you might be expected to already speak German, which reduces the probability for non-Germans to land TT-positions. In some cases, however, you are given a certain amount of time to learn it on the job.

Even though the TT professorship is an attractive option for postdocs, it is not a solution to the general problem of the mismatch between the number of postdocs and available positions.

How things could be better: perspectives from the “Junge Akademie”

The “Junge Akademie” proposes other approaches. The requirement for doing so is to establish a system that enables a seamless transition from temporary to permanent roles. The authors suggest:

  • Clear separation and transition between R2 and R3: Clear distinction between the early postdoc phases (R2) and the established scientist phases (R3) with a transparent transition process. Professional personnel development is crucial for this.
  • Realistic time horizons for researchers from abroad: Germany’s importance as a key research and education location should be maintained by introducing realistic durations of stay for R2 researchers from abroad.
  • Introduction of minimum durations: Establish minimum terms for the first contracts of the R2 phase to ensure stability and prevent chain contracts.
  • Recognition of disciplinary differences: The reform should take into account the particular requirements of different academic disciplines, possibly involving specialized bodies such as the DFG Subject Groups, to propose and review discipline-specific regulations.
  • Definition of clear pathways to professorships and permanent positions: There is an urgent need to develop, implement, and regularly evaluate clear pathways to professorships and permanent positions to ensure that decisions about the future of the R2 phase are informed and in line with long-term career development.

Opinion from our community

Marcel is an astrophysicist and group leader and also a member of the GSO. We asked him how the WissZeitVG has impacted him and what he thinks about the reform proposal.

»The recent proposals merely increase the pressure on trained scientists in one of the most productive phases of their lives. And, in the course of the debate, they are sometimes infantilized as “new blood” and denigrated as a potential “clogging” of the science system.«

Marcel argues that 4 years are still too short for the reality of research – also because it’s questionable how the 2 year extension under the binding follow-up commitment can look like (if it’s not a TT-professorship).

»I myself came to the AIP for a postdoctoral fellowship after many years in the US, which included three years of funding with the option of a two-year extension. A five-year perspective makes this fellowship extremely attractive, as it allows for very different, longer-term approaches to research. In addition, this is also much more compatible with the career (re)orientations of co-resident partners and families than typical 2-3 year positions. Following the recent proposals, the Institute could no longer offer this very appealing fellowship, which attracts around a hundred excellent international candidates.«

Marcel Pawlowski
Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam/ Astronomy, Astrophysics

What we at GSO can already see is that as a coping mechanism loopholes are sought and found, and even more complex employment scenarios are tried out, also to enable researchers to finish their projects or to fulfill the requirement of excellent research. in practice, this leads to even more lack of transparency.

Sustainability of the law

The criticism shows that the reform is still not sufficiently aligned with the reality of academics, especially for the period after the doctorate. Without fundamental changes to the academic system, the law will probably continue to be perceived as a stopgap measure in the future.

So what can you do now?

1) Don’t panic! Especially if you are still in your PhD, you are fine. It’s a bit more tricky for Postdocs. However, if the reform will pass also the Bundestag it will take about 6 months for it to be installed and your current contract will not be changed.

2) Check your contract – are you hired on a “Haushaltsstelle” or within a Third-party funding project? If it’s the latter, the WissZeitVG does not apply.

3) Talk to your PI and the Career Center/HR at your institution. Ask if they can provide some more information for your institution and if there are any guidelines. If you are a PI yourself, ask if HR can provide guidance.

4) PhD or Postdoc Associations have helpful information. Check if your institution has a Postdoc union or something similar, e.g. https://leibniz-postdoc.de/updates-on-the-proposed-wisszeitvg-reform/

5) Follow information beyond your institution – helpful sources are:

6) Use this as an opportunity to critically evaluate your career strategy or to create one. What is your timeline? What are the deadlines for important grants? What do you need to do to finish that paper? What are the target institutions and who should know about my research? Take a look at our tips on your career strategy and a career counselor’s advice on your next postdoc: