It is always after everything is over that you realize how things should have been done so that your life would have been better. Since I am leaving Germany (more Berlin than Germany, but ok) this year, after arriving 11 years ago in the capital, I realized that I have accumulated a few things on my wisdom card. Here, I'll try to give a few thoughts about things that I learned, maybe this will be useful for some.

Disclaimer: Although most of the things in this post are negative, it does not portray the whole picture of studying and working as a postdoc in Germany. I am grateful for the time I spent in Berlin, I have been given many incredible opportunities. This post is simply to raise awareness about certain things that could and should be improved. As I learned coming in Germany: feedback always focuses on the 3% that went (really) wrong.

Health Insurance

Well, coming from Québec, Germany is all right, but it is still working in weird ways. I was shocked several times that one of the first question asked in order to get an appointment is "Which insurrance company are you insured with?" Like that should be relevant, what is sad that the answer to this question seemingly influences the waiting time. Talk about universal health care. Hello to my friends from Québec, France and Italy here.

Now that I'm back in Québec, since I was in Germany, I have to suffer from this délai de carence of 3 months before getting back my health insurance in Québec. So, it's not always better at home. Well, if you are coming from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Rumania, or Sweden, then you don't have to suffer from this delay. Why? Because Québec signed agreements with these countries. Will it ever have a deal with Germany? I doubt it.

Retirement funds

Working as a postdoc in Germany, you are part of the public service and you are entitled to a supplementary retirement fund. Lately, it seems that they got aware that scientists are not staying 35 years in Germany and often do not fulfill the 60 months contribution to be eligible to get pension after 67 (or whatever age is now the age of retirement in Germany at the time of reading). So, they created the "VBLextra" and VBLspezial for this see the video page. It turns out that even Germans are extremely confused by this in general. Before you work for the first time in Germany, you have 2 months to decide FOREVER if you would like to be freed from this supplementary retirement program, and if you don't, there is not turning back. I know. I tried.


Well, it turns out that visas are a huge pain. Surprise, surprise. Let's not kid ourselves: I have been witness to countless very unfair situations related to the Foreigners Administration Office (Ausländerbehörde) Oops, sorry this office has been renamed politically correctly State Office for Immigration recently. Here are a few things: waiting in line in the rain at 4 am to get a number, get a number, to be then told: ok, the computers don't work, so come back tomorrow. It is common knowledge that the treatment of demands is filtered---let's say it this way: "friendly/not so friendly countries" and "Do you have a Dr. title or not?" As a white male Canadian citizen with a German Doctorate and speaking German, I am fully aware of the privileges confered to me, and they fill me with disgust when I know that as a scientist, I am no different than a student about to finish their doctorate, and say coming from non-western country. But apparently, yeah, it is deemed appropriate to split things this way here.

After having dealt with visa stuff in Hungary, Russia, Germany, Israel for residence as a Canadian, I can't get used to it. I am still stressed when it comes to make it happen the day of the appointment. Because the officers litterally control your short-term destiny. It is maddening to see all this lost energy and stress in super talented people that are scientific ambassadors or simply qualified workers going through the struggles of immigration.

Again, due to the ever increasing precarity of scientists, contracts get shorter and stability becomes somewhat of a pipe dream. I was really sad to learn that it could have been possible for me to switch to a Blauekarte which allows for a fast-track to permanent residence, but as for the VBL and health insurance choices, new postdocs are often advised very little about these things (Germans rarely have to deal with immigration issues, I can understand that not everyone knows about these details. Though I find this a bit extreme to have to go to legal experts at the moment of hiring just to make sure that the right decisions are taken. The butterfly effect seem to apply in this case). A postdoc arriving in Germany does not necessarily know if they would like to stay at first, but after say 3-4 years, then if they were not so aware of things while trying to get rid of these 37 documents to be signed with appendices so that one can do research, then they will hit a bitter wall, because many opportunities have been missed.

Another beautiful thing is that once a worker did 24 months of work, they are eligible for 12 months of unemployment. Well, this is true for European citizen. For anyone with a scientist visa, it is only 9 months, while they can have a Arbeitsplatzsuchende visa (Employment seeking visa). These 3 months are just, hum, gone in hyperspace. Oh, and did any of you tried to get a job either in industry or academia within 9 months? It gets quite interesting around the 6th month, because the clock ticks and you might have to pack your stuff and leave.

It is also interesting to compare this to the freshly graduated students who get 18 months. So, this means that the following situation happens: a fresh Doctor gets 18 months to get a postdoc let's say, then they work 2-3 years (maybe more) and one still doesn't have any long term residence visa (many reasons can explain this) and then one feels like staying in Germany, because you know, it has been a while. But then, the not-so-fresh-doctor now gets only 9 months to find a Professor position or a last postdoc (because you know, now, you are old). Everyone knows that it is easier to get a professorship than a postdoc, so 9 months make sense compared to 18. Not.

During Summer 2021, I completely missed the #IchBinHanna movement. It is refreshing to see that the precarity situation of postdocs in Germany gets a bit of spotlight in the public sphere. Among the many articles, here are a few that I found particularly interesting to read:

Among the 95 theses, several of them are related to the lessons that I learned.

In the end, emigration is never easy, but it's simply even harder for people that have been discriminated for ages. If scientists doing politics say that science thrives with innovation, well, I say that diversity would help even more than attracting the elite superstars that "drive" innovation with their competitiveness (and often perpetuate the ways the system work, since they reached success under these circumstances).

How could it be better? Ask people leaving academia and leaving Germany how their experiences could have been better. Change that. Care about them. Give them the information they need (hopefully early enough so they don't learn them as late as I did).

But something fundamental is just to recognize that the academic system functions in ways where postdocs work hard and give a lot, while what they receive is essentially ruled by a funny mix of luck and circumstances. What they receive is less and less based on a so-called merit. That said, I have seen so many senior professors try to enforce a system where merit is a key point to consider, but it often gets lost in all the other considerations given by the circumstances. It is not that decision-takers are evil. Put simply, regulations have to change to encourage diversity and innovation and remove laws that indirectly create inequalities. Easier said than done, I know.


Oh well. This is a big deal, even for Germans that worked abroad, to get their experience years approved. This is material for epic stories, so I won't go into details here. Long story short: it is a BIG MESS. The German system is not ready to deal with any of the following:

  • A American type of contract (working 9 months out of 12) --> This crashes the TV-L payment structure and you have to press Ctrl+Alt+Del.
  • A contract of 51 weeks --> This is not a year of experience.
  • Postdoc Scholarships --> Is that work? Nah...

The way that experience is evaluated and going up the ladder make a certain sense when one googles the rules and their origin, but it stops exactly when one has to deal with anything which happened outside of Germany. No, we don't get an "Arbeitszeugnis" anywhere outside of Germany and many more things are simply not made to fit. And this whole concept of having a "position" vs a "scholarship" leads to a uncountable amount of non-sensical situations. It is better than Asterix and Obelix Crazyhouse test...

You can't fit a square thing in a round hole.

Here, my Québec "Gros Bon Sens" just cries to be heard and say: how many year did you spent doing scientific activities after your first degree? (Be it bachelor or diploma/master, I'm flexible here) 5 years? Ok, then you get Grade "X". Why do complicated when you can do simple?. Ohhh, don't get me wrong, I know that "there are reasons" for explaining why it is so complicated. But scientists don't need to know this. All they want is their experience to be recognized and be paid accordingly. They shouldn't prefer to drill a hole in their temple rather than fight for a fair salary. They know the rules and see their relevance, but it feels like the classic joke where a person tries to convince another that they have a banana in their ear and they answer: "sorry I can't hear you, I have a banana in my ear". Just absurd. Level 9000.

Habilitation vs Junior Position as a foreigner

Well that's interesting. Say hello to the consequences of the OECD and World Bank reports from the 1990's to liberalize Education in Europe! :-D

See my post about the destruction of the French Universities.

For some reason, the word "tenure-track" has made it's way to German academia, for good or bad. I think mostly bad. This duality and difference in treatmeant across the 16 Länder of Germany leads to the beautiful concept of "forgotten generation" which I am proudly part of. I have just read "Science as a vocation" of Weber (written around 1919), and I HIGHLY recommend it to everyone that deals with German academia. If I had read this book in 2010, I would have been able to understand how things work much earlier. In short, traditionally in Germany, you would do a Habilitation, to prove that you can do research and teach at a University (you can say it in more formal and fancier terms, but that what it means boiled down). Then, you earn the right to teach in German Universities as a Privatdozent in your area of specialty and (rich) students (I guess mostly men back then) would pay you a thing called "Studentengeld", which was donated by the students to the Privatdozent. Privatdozent do not have a University chair, but in time, working hard and doing what it takes they would eventually get a chair and be a Professor. Now, this didn't completely disappear, there are still habilitations being done and Privatdozents still exist. But Studentengeld did disappear (try to google it! I read it from Weber's book but can't seem to find it in any modern document) and it was not replaced by anything decent. Indeed, for 1 hour of lecture per week, one gets around 5 euros, so enough to pay the bus ride from home to the University. That's great. In other regions of Germany, different arrangements exist and I am not aware of all of them. But yeah. Talk about slave labor.

The replacement today is "Junior Professor", which comes in various colors and sizes. Typically, it is either 3+3years (mid-term evaluation goes well) 3+1 years (mid-term evaluation goes bad). It is great for the Ego of hierarchy-searching people because they get the title "Pr." in front of their names, even though they are not tenured/don't have a chair. And the department is happy because they have to teach a full load, advice students, gets research grants, sit on committees. So litterally do the heavy duty work of full-professors, but somehow, without stability: most of the time I heard, they can't get a Senior position where they do their junior-tenure. In principle, it is great for "mobility of knowledge" (which is 200% questionable nowadays as a sign of excellence) but not great to have a family once you are actually at your advanced 30s. Not even talking about buying a house in this crazy time where one now needs to pay a house over several generations in big cities.

Ok, so, which one to choose? Well, any of them is great if you get it. You life will be different: if you habilitated, it is likely with a research project that you didn't conceive (so you have to be flexible with your research interests and priorities) and if you are a junior professor, well, buy yourself a pair of goggles, because it will be like taking out your head out of the window of a car on the highway. Fast and stormy.

The bonus at the end is that if you did your habilitation or junior professorship, you get eligible for senior stuff: be the PI in a research grant, apply for W2 or W3 positions in Germany. But again, here is the beauty that contributed to the birth of the "forgotten generation": now, Germany finances tons of tenure-tracks but in many Länder, if you earned your PhD 5-6 years ago (and at the same time either got a junior professorship or a habilitation), you are disqualified, to promote the excellent youth. So now, you have to compete in the Bundesliga: people that did their PhD 4-5 years before you and are still jumping from position to position, have at least twice your number of publications, have taught 5 years more than you. So, what stands in front of you? One option is the DFG "Eigene Stelle" which is essentially a National Competition Postdoctoral Grant (NSERC for Canada, NSF for USA, etc.). It is great if you get it. You get around 2-3 years of funding for research (again, precarity!). But yeah, as a non-EU citizen, please prepare this enough in advance, because you have to apply for your visa (hear: there is a pandemic and appointment are as rare as Pope's poop) and you only get 9 months after the end of your contract to make everything happen. Oh, and yeah, you may resubmit a refused proposal, but it might still not be accepted because you are "not moving around" enough: it is quite ironic to read the following in English in the review: "I think the Free University of Berlin is an excellent place to carry out this sort of proposal, as it collects some of the best researchers in polytope theory. My main concern is that it represents little development for the researcher, who has worked in Berlin for his PhD, and has returned to Berlin after a postdoc in Jerusalem." After reading this in English (the other reports were in German) in a report from the DFG, I exploded. little development? I think that there is some misinterpretation here. During all these years, I heard about "Internationalization" of Universities, being welcoming to foreigners as a graduate school, and all that is done to attract foreign scientists in Germany. How can they stay if they need a scholarship, to get a visa? This means that they should ping pong around in Germany, while they already bring something new to Germany by being there. I learned German, taught IN German, studied in three countries prior to coming to Germany, had a postdoc grant to go to Spain (somehow, this didn't get the attention of the referee?!) and Israel. And somehow being in a senior position in a leading institute is little development? I had higher expectations from reviewers of the DFG. So, in the end all these efforts in "Internationalization" and the efforts made by the young scientists to integrate themselves don't really count in the balance, because in the end, it is going to be put down by an assessment written in English in an official review from the DFG. Eye rolls. After some time, I accepted the decision and I take this as a reason to improve my proposal, but I think it is important to mention this. It is always scary to bite the hand that feeds us, but sometimes it may lead to improvements.

So essentially, there is little or no concrete consideration for long term establishment of foreigners in the "forgotten generation", except if they fit in the category of excellent superstars. But it's ok, I've seen worse. I laugh at it now. It's too bad. It is this type of situation that led me to leave Québec City and Québec to go to Germany in the first place: this feeling that my work is not appreciated and no desire to host me. Two bad for the other two referees, one of which did a great job with a detailed review and the other with a mixed but supportive review. Yep, just too bad.

Of course, I focus here on my situation. But one doesn't have to look far to see people in similar situations. And please, don't come to me with a counter-examples of exceptions that confirm the rule: obviously there are successful foreigners in Germany, but yeah, go ahead and list them to me, I'm curious! How old are they when they are hired as a professor? Do they speak German? What is the proportion of foreigners hired as professors in Germany? I've seen the numbers once, and there's a lot to be done is the least I could say.


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