The German “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” in a nutshell
What is the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz”?
Introduced in 2007, the „Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz“ (WissZeitVG) is a law 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 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: The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF) submitted a new draft in March 2023, introducing among other things these major changes: a minimum contract term of 3 years for initial contracts before the Ph.D. degree and the reduction of the maximum fixed term to 3 years (instead of 6) in the postdoc phase. Furthermore, fixed-term contracts through third-party funding should only be possible after the maximum limit of the qualification fixed-term.
The draft was withdrawn shortly after widespread criticism from the research community and leading research institutions. Currently, there is even talk of a 2-year fixed-term contracts with a potential follow-up commitment.
Why is it important?
The WissZeitVG allows fixed-term employment contracts for scientific and academic staff in German labor law. The limit is set at twelve years in total and a maximum of 6 years after you finished your Ph.D. Rarely do researchers get one contract for that time. Many scientists apply for one fixed-term position after another. After these twelve years, they must be offered a permanent position – something that rarely exists apart from a professorship. Therefore, researchers must leave academia if they don’t find another fixed-term position sponsored by third-party money. However, given the realities of an academic career, the period is pretty short for getting a professorship. Talented researchers then migrate to other sectors or go abroad. It is important to consider these limitations when planning a career in Germany.
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.
Takeaway 1: Lawmakers must understand the realities of doing research in Germany
Three years for a postdoc is absurdly unrealistic as a qualification period for a professorship, given the typical expectations, which include not only own research that goes beyond the PhD, but also things like supervising students, teaching experience, developing courses, soliciting external funding, involvement in self-governance, attending and organizing scientific conferences, experience in reviewing articles and proposals, and communicating with the public. Many of these aspects themselves take months to years to implement, for example, until a result of the review of a proposal is available.
Takeaway 2: It’s not all or nothing – Instead of making all positions permanent, longer fixed-terms are an attractive option
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, in this way.
Where can you get more information?
We have compiled a selection of articles (in German and English) for you so that you can inform yourself extensively and get an overview of the current discussion.
- Academics: Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz: Befristung als Chance?
- Forschung & Lehre: Keine konkreten Ergebnisse bei BMBF-Diskussionsrunde
- Allianz der Wissenschaftsorganisationen: Zu den Eckpunkten für eine Reform des Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetzes
- Die Junge Akademie: Perspektiven auf das Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz
- Martin Stratmann (Präsident MPG): Umstrittene Reform: Deutschland nicht vom internationalen Talentepool abkoppeln
- Diskussionspapier der UNiWiND-Koordinierungsstelle Nachwuchsinformation UniKoN: Promovierte Wissenschaftler:innen in Deutschland
- Leibniz PostDoc Network: Updates on the proposed WissZeitVG reform – Leibniz PostDoc Network
- Leibniz PostDoc Network: Reflections on the BMBF panel discussion on future postdoc employment rules
- German Postdoctoral Networks: Joint Statement from German Postdoctoral Networks on the Eckpunktepapier from the BMBF on 17.03.2023
- The “Network for Decent Labour in Academia”: Demands and Activities
How can the GSO support you?
The academic system in Germany can be challenging. Together we can find answers to your career questions. Whether you are applying for a junior research group or professorship, or thinking of transitioning from academia to industry – we discuss your career plans together.