Do professors own their research

How do you actually become a professor?

Engineers and computer scientists who are aiming for a career in research, at a university or technical college, are often also interested in a professorship. But how do you actually become a professor? In many cases, a university teaching qualification, which is achieved through a habilitation, is still a prerequisite today.


What is a professor?

The title of professor is an official or professional title. So it is not an academic degree, as is the case with a doctorate. In common parlance these days, the professor stands for a teacher at a university or technical college. However, this is not correct. Because not every university teacher has a professorship at the same time. Conversely, a professorship and a chair are not necessarily linked. Every chair holder is a professor, but not every professor has to hold a chair. In addition to the professor, universities also have (private) lecturers, assistants with teaching duties, lecturers and research assistants, many of whom also teach. However, the title of professor is the highest of all. And not everyone is allowed to wear it.

What does a professor do?

Professors at universities and technical colleges are entrusted with carrying out scientific research and teaching. Usually the professor holds a chair for this. The chair is a scheduled position in university teaching that entitles the holder to bear the title of full professor. Such professorial positions are provided with financial and human resources to carry out their academic tasks. If a new teacher takes on a chair or professorship, one speaks of the appointment.

The tasks of a professor go far beyond scientific research and teaching. In addition to looking after the next generation of academics, professors are obliged to take exams relevant to their studies, regardless of whether they are Bachelor or Master exams. Supervising doctoral theses is also one of the tasks of a professor. On the whole, it is up to the professor to convey new knowledge on which topics and in which way. Depending on the course, a certain number of seminars and lectures are part of the compulsory program. How many hours per week a professor has to spend on teaching is anchored in the higher education law of the respective federal state.

One of the less popular tasks of professors is committee work. It is not remunerated additionally. Because universities manage themselves, internal university bodies are necessary. There are institute and faculty councils as well as commissions with subject-specific fields of activity. Since important decisions made by various committees also directly affect the chairs, professors shouldn't lose their say. The employees of your own chair must also be managed, as well as the results of scientific research. Factual and financial reports or applications for funding can also land on a professor's desk - because not every task can be taken over by the secretariat.

How many professors are there in Germany?

The number of professors has remained almost stable across Germany over the past 20 years. It rose from around 34,000 in 1999 to just over 36,000 in 2017. The number of female professors has changed much more significantly. In 1999 there were just over 3,700 female professors; in 2017 there were just under 11,500. Around a quarter of all professorships are now occupied by women.

The figures also show that the total number of chairs has increased significantly in 2 decades: from slightly less than 38,000 (1999) to 47,500 (2017). Law, economics and social sciences recently held the most professorships. Of the 13,300 chairs in this subject group, 3,800 were held by women. The engineering sciences follow directly behind in second place - with 12,200 chairs. However, as is customary in engineering to this day, the proportion of women is significantly lower at 1,400 female professors. On average, professors in Germany are 41 years old when they are first appointed.

1st step to professorship: doctorate

Whether and how one becomes a professor is regulated differently in each federal state. The chairs are assigned according to the requirements of the higher education laws of the federal states. A completed university degree is compulsory in order to take up a chair. In almost all cases also the doctorate, i.e. the writing of a doctoral thesis. Only in exceptional cases does it happen that a chair is awarded to a candidate without a doctorate (in the case of artists and designers, the doctorate is actually rather unusual as a prerequisite for the professorship). Because the doctorate is not only the way to the doctorate, but also shows that the candidate has the appropriate ability to do scientific work. In some countries, those interested in professorships must provide evidence of additional academic achievements. This can include work in a non-university research institution or a junior professorship.

Anyone who knows early in their studies that they want to work in research and teaching later should orient their studies accordingly. If a doctorate in engineering or computer science is not absolutely necessary for a career in the private sector, it can open the door to a career at the university. The Dr.-Ing., The official abbreviation for Doctor-Engineer, was introduced as a title in 1899. The doctorate rate in engineering is currently (as of 2019) around 20%, the duration of the doctorate is relatively high, averaging 5 years. However, only about 10% of engineering graduate students end up staying at university, with the rest using the title to advance their careers outside of the higher education landscape.

2nd step to professorship: Habilitation

After completing a doctorate, the path to a professorship leads through teaching. With the doctorate, engineers and computer scientists can apply for teaching positions and take on teaching activities. At universities of applied sciences, it is sometimes possible to work as a lecturer without a doctorate. The lecturer time should be used to build up a stable network at a university or college. A research stay abroad can also be planned for this phase. The average duration of this postdoctoral phase is 2 to 4 years. Those interested in a professorship should also publish their own publications during this phase. At the end of the period when engineers and computer scientists work as lecturers, they also write their habilitation thesis.

The habilitation is the highest university examination. Those who successfully pass the academic examination procedure are then certified to be able to teach their subject. Without recognition of the teaching qualification, lecturers do not receive a teaching authorization. The habilitation is intended to ensure that engineers and computer scientists are able to represent their subject in the full range in research and teaching. The title awarded after the habilitation varies from university to university. The most common titles are:

  • Privatdozent (PD or Priv.-Doz.)
  • habilitated professor (Prof. habil.)

The graduates thus have the title of professor without holding a chair. If the habilitation in the humanities and some natural sciences is still very important, engineers can sometimes qualify for a professor's title after having worked in industry for several years.

Junior professorship as an alternative to habilitation

The qualification for a position in research and teaching ends with the habilitation. Those who do not immediately get hold of a chair should use the time afterwards to improve their academic profile and regularly apply for professorships. Since the university framework law was changed in 2002, the habilitation is no longer the only way to obtain a chair. The alternative is to be appointed junior professor immediately after completing your doctorate. Often professor and junior professor share a chair and the junior professor moves up when the professor retires. Since then, scientists with comparable independent achievements have also had the opportunity to become professors. Ultimately, however, only every third person who is qualified for a chair - regardless of the route - actually gets a job.

By the way: There is no classic job interview for a chair. Instead, the candidate goes through a so-called Appeal process. This includes a trial lecture before the appointment committee - colloquially also called "audition".

Professorship at universities of applied sciences

A career through university studies, doctorates, lectureships and habilitation is common for engineers and computer scientists at the university. However, engineering is also taught at universities of applied sciences, which is why engineers and computer scientists can apply for a professorship there too. With a few exceptions, the requirements for a chair at the FH are the same as for the university. However, professional experience is required for universities of applied sciences. When applying as a professor at a university of applied sciences, at least 5 years of professional experience are expected, 3 of which should have been completed outside of a university.

University professors in particular should also have educational experience. Because their work is more influenced by teaching than that of their university colleagues. Anyone who has a teaching position at a university improves their chances of getting a chair immensely. Nevertheless, it is not easy to get a chair, even with the best of qualifications. New professorships are rarely established. This means that a professor position will only ever become vacant when a long-serving professor retires.

Why a plan B makes sense

Engineers and computer scientists should therefore always have a plan B in their pocket when they are aiming for a professorship. Since the engineering profession tends to have a shortage of skilled workers, it should not be difficult for them to find work in industry or with well-known companies. Anyone who definitely wants to choose the path to the habilitation should bear in mind that the average person is 40 years old when they graduate. Anyone who has only researched at the university until then will find it difficult to get a job in the private sector, even as an engineer.

Engineers and computer scientists who are aiming for a career in research and teaching should therefore consider choosing a multi-year position in industry as a qualification. If Plan B is necessary, having this knowledge will make it easier to get a job outside of university.
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