A Taste of Life as an Academic in Germany

In recent years, Germany has attracted increasingly large numbers of international researchers and scholars. Whether they are brought in through the German government’s multimillion-dollar Excellence Initiative, opportunities at research institutes, or one of the many other state and federal initiatives supporting research and innovation, high-quality teaching and research staff from abroad are becoming highly sought after in Germany. Those who’ve made the move say they were initially attracted most by the unique career opportunities there, but the good working conditions and high living standards have helped convince them to stay.

Ahmed E. Ismael, who earned his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been working at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico before being offered a position at RWTH Aachen University as Assistant Professor of Molecular Simulations and Transformations. While he has found the salaries in Germany generally comparable to those in the USA after cost of living differences have been taken into account, Ismael says that support structures for academic work are much more attractive in Germany:

“In the US you’d typically get a start-up package that would include some amount of support for personnel, but that support would be relatively limited. So it might be, for example, two or three years of a graduate student or a post-doc. But that’s a one-time deal and when it runs out you’re on your own. In Germany, I’ve been given support to fund two positions per year on an ongoing basis. It’s funding that I don’t have to spend time applying for.”

Work-Life and Teaching-Research Balances
Ismael finds that the support provided to professors enables them not only to focus on what they do best, but also to have a more balanced life outside of work. Ismael mentions the six weeks of vacation time German university staff get each year but also adds, “There is more of an expectation that you work hard at your job, but your job is not your life. The workload for an assistant professor at an American research university might be 80 hours per week or more. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who works anywhere near those hours at a European university.” Ismael goes on to explain, “Again, a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don’t have to do as much fundraising for our own research, nor do as much teaching and administration.”

Monica Juneja, originally from India, has also found the balance between teaching and research to be particularly agreeable.  “These Clusters of Excellence, where you work across disciplines, have a nice balance of teaching and research,” she says. “We teach a minimum of four hours a week. And it is research-based teaching, which is fairly unique.” Juneja had worked at various universities on three continents before taking up the Chair of Global Art History at the “Asia and Europe” Cluster of Excellence at the University of Heidelberg.  

Salaries and Benefits
Salaries in German universities are generally comprised of a basic salary plus performance bonuses. Basic salaries are set according to nationwide standards for minimum compensation of faculty (known as the W-range). A W1 assistant professor starts at around €3,820 per month, while a W2 associate professor can expect a minimum of €4,360 per month, and a W3 full professor €5,280 per month. Actual salaries tend to be higher than the minimum and vary from state to state.  

Those salaries are also often enhanced by bonuses at the associate professor and full professor levels. Appointment bonuses are used to first attract outstanding candidates, while performance bonuses and function bonuses incentivize and reward high quality teaching and research, as well as administrative engagement in the institution.

Employment as a salaried professor in Germany also means entrance into state health insurance programs and retirement plans. Both Ismael and Juneja are impressed by the German social security system. “You contribute, and there’s a state contribution to it. It’s one of the best-working systems that I know,” says Juneja. Additionally, Ismael finds healthcare coverage a lot more comprehensive than comparable coverage in the USA. He had a health scare earlier this year: “Essentially all of my bills were paid by insurance. If I’d been in the USA, I probably would have had a $3,000 dollar chunk to pay out-of-pocket.”

International Impact
This influx of international researchers is matched by a growing number of international students in classrooms in Germany. Juneja can testify to this trend: alongside a regular stream of visiting professors, her department now attracts about 40 percent of its students from outside Germany. “Many of our courses are in English, because we have German as well as international students. And the German students are often happy to be taught in English as well.”

Looking for a research job in Germany? Please visit and read more about your career and research funding opportunities search for current academic job offers in Germany. 

Dr. Ahmed E. Ismael