#IchBinHanna | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: A hashtag has appeared on the German Twitter trends yesterday. #IchBinHanna, or “I am Hanna” is a hashtag born out of a promotional video by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), promoting the alleged benefits of one of the most detrimental laws in German academia: The WissenschaftsZeitVertragsGesetz (WissZeitVG). This article explains what it is, why it is detrimental, and closes with a showcase of all those people who deserve to be heard.

A long time ago, in the summer of 2012, a young student roams around the library for German literature sciences at the University of Bonn in the former capital of Germany. Just a few months earlier, our young student started their undergraduate degree. While the outside temperatures measured something around 30 degrees Celsius, the library was refreshingly cool. It was Friday, only a short amount of time before the library closed. Within the old walls of the main building of the university, bookshelves were cramped into every corner to fit in the collected knowledge of centuries of research. One book has our student hooked: It is a dissertation from 1913. Its topic was why our student has looked up the book in the first place: It offers some valuable knowledge for one of the first term papers he had to write.

The book was noticeably old: It was written by typewriter, not typeset by a publisher. And it was remarkably short: around fifty pages. The most remarkable property of it? It was a dissertation.

The Pressure Pot of Science

Back then, our young scholar thought: “Man, becoming a scientist definitely has been easier one hundred years ago!” And it was not a wrong impression. Indeed, with increasing functional differentiation into the most exotic scientific sub-disciplines and the ever growing amount of research output, it became more and more difficult to produce valuable research, supporting cutting edge science.

While by 1913 it was fairly manageable to write something that would advance science, exactly one hundred years later it was much more difficult. Our student back then was already well-aware of that fact. But what he did not anticipate was, how difficult it would become.

That student was me, back then still an undergraduate in historical sciences. My aim back then: A professorship. My aim today? Still, a professorship. But it is a dream tainted by a decade of experiences in an institution that belongs both to the oldest structures in continental Europe and the most difficult to navigate — especially in Germany.

Decades ago, Pierre Bourdieu in his seminal work Distinction already mentioned that with the increasing education of people of all classes, academic families were trying to secure their assets or, in his words, maintain their distinction apart from economic elites as well as working class people. With increasing education and masses of people pouring into university, the academic elites attempted to maintain the relative distance to those “invaders” of the academic field.

Now, instead of having to come from rich households that have connections to reputable academic institutions, the pressure on individual students increased by magnitudes. When the entry barrier of social origin fell apart, a new barrier of individual performance was erected. We went from 50 pages of a dissertation to roughly 300 in less than a century and I have even seen dissertations that amounted to more than 1,000 pages and had to be delivered in two separate volumes (because printing presses even today are not made for more than a thousand pages).

Shark Tank Academia

Today, these new entry barriers mean that in order to follow an academic path — to follow the Berufung of science, as Max Weber has put it — one has to succeed many times in crossing thresholds. By now, it is necessary to first receive an undergraduate degree – still something fairly easy and certainly manageable for most people. Afterwards, it is in most parts of the world required to progress with a graduate program, receiving a master degree. And only then is it possible to attempt at passing the “biggest” challenge in the academic career: Finishing a dissertation.

The dissertation, it seems, is a turning point in an academic career. While during undergrad studies it was important to learn and prove what you learned, during your PhD it is important to develop the skills of performing actual research and publish it. There are many more strings attached to the stages after the PhD which I cannot yet enumerate, but the academic game remains similarly difficult with switching qualities at all stages. I know many people who decided that after a bachelor’s degree it was time to find a job. I know a few more people who decided that after the master’s degree is the right time to leave academia. And I know quite a lot of people who decided that they do not need a PhD in order to live a fulfilled life. The drop-out rates of people at these various stages do speak for themselves, and it means that academia remains a field which you either want to participate in, or you choose one of the many alternative paths.

But the German government invented an especially cruel instrument to raise these dropout numbers, as it was decided that the German economy needs more skilled labourers as were available. In short, the German government decided that the amount of people leaving academia by themselves in free choice was not enough to feed the monstrous German export economy. As such, the government needed a way to enforce a certain dropout rate, and thus force people into the economy and out of academia much more effectively than was possible before. It turned out that for many people money was not as important as following their dreams. And that dream was for “too many” people: an academic career.

Enter the WissenschaftsZeitVertragsGesetz.

Regulation of the Wrong Kind

Germany has a notorious history of weird and long names for their laws. Instead of the “Freedom of Information Act” we have the Informationsfreiheitsgesetz, and instead of some “Academic Work Reform Act” (or similar), we have the WissenschaftsZeitVertragsGesetz, or, short: WissZeitVG. The WissenschaftsZeitVertragsGesetz (“Academic Fixed Term Contracts Act”) was enacted in 2007, four years before I started to study. The law itself is pretty short, but it had a decisive impact on academic careers.

In short, the WissZeitVG added to all of the scientific constraints a time constraint. If you are studying towards your PhD and are employed at a university for that, you must finish your PhD in six years. If you do not manage to finish in six years, your contract must be terminated by the university and you are not allowed to work at a federal university anymore, unless you finish your PhD. Once your PhD is finished, the clock is reset: Now you have an additional six years of postdoc, during which you are expected to finish your Habilitation, basically some kind of PhD 2.0 which is not as usual in other parts of the world, but an integral part of the academic career in Germany. Once the six years are over, there is again the requirement that your university terminates your contract, and you cannot work at a university anymore.

The only chance to circumvent this and lift the occupational ban? A permanent position, which is as easy to get as it is to win the lottery. So you could, in theory, completely be left alone by the WissZeitVG, but only if you somehow magically receive a permanent position at your university. The only permanent positions I know of that are somewhat regular are professorships. But these are limited. Very limited.

The aim of that whole fuzz is allegedly that you both have an incentive to finish your PhD in time and so that the following generations can more smoothly pass through the academic positions without you blocking their path (yes, that is a formulation that has been made explicit in a video I’m going to introduce below: without the WissZeitVG you would block other people behind you — like dirt in your toilet’s pipes!)

While that doesn’t sound all too bad, it has disastrous effects at all levels of the so-called “Akademischer Mittelbau” (everything from the start of PhD to the end of the postdoc phase).

First, since the base funding of universities has been decreased over and over again to a degree that universities now live off third-party grants to an alarming degree, universities cannot under no circumstances offer you permanent positions. The money you are being paid with has a limited lifetime, mostly one to three years. If the university would offer you a permanent position, that would imply that the university is able to every 1-3 years secure an additional grant from which it could finance your position. But there is simply no guarantee that this will happen. Thus, your university must not offer you a permanent position. In fact, the only personnel of universities in Germany that regularly have permanent positions are the bureaucratic employees and the professors themselves. Everyone else’s contracts are being renewed year after year. (Sidenote: There is a new trend that student assistants are being employed on a per-semester basis. Can you imagine having to work on contracts that are six months long?)

Second, the six years of time limit for postdocs basically requires them to secure a professorship within this time. However, given that bad financing of universities, it is extremely hard to get a professorship. Especially if you do not have one of the very prestigious, incredibly valuable long-term grants. Many people, thus, would be very happy to stay at the postdoc phase and just perform research below the level of professorship. But alas, due to the WissZeitVG, they effectively are put under an occupational ban, which literally tells them: “You are not allowed to work at a university.”

And finally, those six years may be beginning long before you can start working towards the next stage which frees you from this requirement at all. This is something I know from personal experience. After I graduated in September of 2017, I wanted to take a gap year before starting my PhD, because I wanted to be fresh and ready before engaging into yet another academic endeavour. Luckily, I did not have to leave academia for that, since I have been offered a researcher contract at my institute. As such, I was able to stay in academia, not lose touch, and prepare my dissertation.

However, after one year I did not manage to find a PhD position. While that is in and of itself completely fine, the year was just counted towards my six years of prae-doc. Next, I was after a few feuds handed over to the admissions office of my university. Certainly not my dream job, but it was a job. Still: Counted as “preparatory work” for my PhD and thus, a second year counting towards my six-year limit.

I literally felt the clock ticking. And I was becoming increasingly fearful. I did not sleep well, if I slept at all. Due to Brexit, my only chance of funding for a PhD in the UK vanished in an instance, and I was back to square one. In my desperation, I momentarily decided to attempt securing a job outside of academia so that the time pressure is gone. I had some job interviews in Berlin and Hamburg, and finally decided to stay at least in the vicinity of academia with a researcher position at the IFSH. Luckily, since the IFSH was not a university, that contract did not count towards my six-year limit. That gave me some mental freedom to re-think my academic aspirations.

I continued looking for PhD positions, but knew that my CV up until then has caused the time I had for my PhD to reduce to a one-shot opportunity. A PhD normally takes three years, but rather four, and as such I knew if I were to do my PhD in Germany, I had exactly one shot at passing my thesis defence. If I failed, I likely would have to look for a non-academic job all the while preparing for a second defence – not the easiest task if you have to work 40 hours a week in some other occupation.

But I had sheer luck. A PhD position at Linköpings Universitet in Sweden opened up and I got the job. Sweden does not have a WissZeitVG, so albeit I am obviously expected to finish my PhD in four years proper, I do not have a clock ticking in the background. Of course my aim is to finish in four years, but it is much better to pursue a PhD without having a threat of occupational ban looming over you.

Where To Go?

Why am I writing all of this? I mean, I was lucky, right? Well, but that’s precisely why I am writing this. Yesterday, in the German speaking Twitter, the hashtag “I am Hanna” was trending.

Using this hashtag, academics began to speak out their experiences with the WissZeitVG. Cause was a short video on the page of the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research that attempted to highlight all the benefits the WissZeitVG allegedly had: It enabled universities to streamline the influx of researchers. For every new PhD student, one older PhD student was done. For every new postdoc, another postdoc either left academia or got into a professorship.

The video features extremely hurtful and derogatory language. The story of a biologist, Hanna, is being portrayed to illustrate the WissZeitVG. The video purports that it is completely fine to have the time limit, and does not speak about the mental stress this induces in researchers. The video even highlights that, as a “good” PhD student, Hanna “frequently visits the career support of her university” — possibly to secure a position somewhere in the economy, and not in academia. It also says that you, the PhD student or postdoc would, without the time limit, block the path for others. In other words, you are a problem for the Ministry. You must die, for the academic machinery to live.

The full video is a slap in the face of so many academics who find joy in their work and who are among the most responsible people, their aim being to advance science, understand the world, and help solve important problems. That freedom of science is being taken away from many who now have to fear for everything they are living for, just because of a fourteen year old law.

Their voices deserve to be heard.

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2021). “#IchBinHanna”. hendrik-erz.de, 11 Jun 2021, https://www.hendrik-erz.de/post/ich-bin-hanna.

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