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I am third year undergraduate and I am not studying in Europe. I plan to apply for a master at a German institute by the end of this year which is the time for application.

This institute advertised a ‘Hiwi’ (student assistant) position on their website. They link to a PDF file which provides more detail, and in this file they refer to the job as ‘student assistant position’.

I wrote them an email asking about this position. But the group leader replied to me: ‘I could not offer you a position at this point’. This makes me a little confused. I know group leaders face many quite complex situations, but I don’t know how to interpret this. Is it just because he think I am not good enough at the first read of my email and make a polite refusal?

I did not mention that I intend to apply at this university and also that my main motivation is to get research experience (i.e., I am okay with not being paid). Should I mention these two points?

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    On an unrelated note - are you certain that this exact term "Hiwi" was used in an official job advertisement in a German institute? It's rather loaded. – Dmitry Savostyanov Mar 24 at 9:22
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    @DmitrySavostyanov: in Academia, HiWi stands for Hilfswissenschaftler (assistant scientist/scholar) rather than Hilfswilliger (volunteer) and in my experience (having been employed with the former title) the loaded connotations of the latter seem to ignored or unknown in German universities. – Max Mar 24 at 19:34
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    @allo: That may depend on the place. There are certaimly universities where "Hiwi" is the term used for student research/teaching assistants starting in the 1st semester of Bachelor students, i.e. without any degree. – O. R. Mapper Mar 25 at 7:12
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    I could not offer you a position at this point He did not say there is no position, just not one for you – EpicKip Mar 25 at 15:06
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    @allo: Usually, HiWi is used as an informal term for SHK. People who already earned a degree and are still employed by the university are WiMis (Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter) if it's a full- or half-time job (mostly towards a PhD degree), WiHis (Wissenschaftliche Hilfskräfte) in case of a shorter-term commitment/a Minijob. – Carmine B. Mar 25 at 15:37
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Student assistant positions in Germany are usually open only to students enrolled at a local university (often where the position is offered, but always in Germany). This is for reasons of social insurance and labour regulation.

You are not enrolled at a local university. In fact, you are studying outside Europe.

  • In this case I am writing to a independent institute, while directors are faculties of a closely cooperating university. I don't know whether the scenario you mentioned is also the case here. I guess if it is only for students enrolled in the institute, they are already in a research position, don't they? – ConwL Mar 24 at 8:52
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    @ConwL No, the students do not have to have to be paid to be at the institute. They may do their thesis (unpaid). – Captain Emacs Mar 24 at 8:59
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    @ConwL The exact scenario doesn't apply then. But usually only students enrolled in Germany are considered, because they profit from special rates with the compulsory social insurance, which makes it much cheaper to employ them. Moreover, the institute might hesitate to hire someone from far abroad for a very junior and usually also rather short-term position, because they can't be sure about your commitment. There are probably visa-related issues too, as mentioned in another answer. – henning Mar 24 at 9:03
  • @henning Thx, this tip really help me see the important part. – ConwL Mar 24 at 9:38
  • You're welcome. – henning Mar 24 at 9:47
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Is it just because he think I am not good enough at the first read of my email and make a polite refusal?

Most likely, yes. Note he didn't say the position has been filled; he's only saying he can't offer you a position (perhaps because you don't meet the minimum requirements, or he doesn't think you're suited to the role, there are better candidates who've applied, etc).

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    +1, my guess is that by "at this point", he means "while you're a third-year undergraduate" – cag51 Mar 24 at 6:20
  • ...or it could mean that there are other applicants that are ranked more highly than OP; they can't offer OP the position until/unless those other applicants withdraw. – JeffE Mar 24 at 10:31
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    Well, OP describes "e-mailing to ask" about the position, which sounds like they were told not to apply rather than just getting a normal rejection. In any case, I bet henning's answer is correct, and it's more like "while you're a third year undergraduate at a different university outside of Europe" – cag51 Mar 24 at 20:47
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    Indeed, this email is almost certainly "um I don't know this person and have no real interest in looking into this so I will find a kind way to shoo them away" – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 24 at 23:38
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This group may have a candidate in mind but forced to put an ad out for compliance.

For many temporary or contract positions, full HR process is not required and a full hiring committee is not struck: the head of the unit is the sole decider. Moreover, there might be seniority issues which guarantee the position to someone who was previously employed in this position - v.g. sessional instructor for a specific course. One is still legally obligated to advertise the position, but the playing field is tilted to favour a particular candidate. Basically, the person previously holding the position has to reapply.

This happens all the time because a contract might run over a set period, but the contract is open yearly. Maybe one needs a lab technician for the academic year but not over the summer recess. Alternatively, the lab technician who’s contract ends in April is asked to apply for a research assistant position to cover the summer months. Contract are structured this way because part-time or contract employees gets fewer benefits than full-time ones.

There are all kinds of combination possible where an internal candidate has the inside track for a position still legally required to be posted.

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    This happens often - voted +1, an explanation from the downvoter would be useful... – Solar Mike Mar 24 at 6:50
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    @ConwL It’s obvious - they have an internal candidate, but the law requires them to advertise the position - which they have done... So either you did not match what they wanted or you did and they gave it to the internal candidate anyway. – Solar Mike Mar 24 at 7:42
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    But happens often. – Vladimir F Mar 24 at 12:07
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    This answer might apply to some positions, but definitely not to HiWis at German institutes. At my university we can put up open position ads pretty informally and we do not have to follow any procedure apart from doing the paperwork. Therefore I think that this answer is based on conjecture without knowledge of the specific case, given the tags of the question. – Ian Mar 25 at 9:51
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    Normally it works like this: The requirement for the position arises and the Professor/Research Team Lead has a candidate in mind. Either from previous positions (that were cancelled due to temporally limited contracts) or they are known from courses, good exams, etc. They are told something along the lines of "You can have the position, just apply to the offer, write something reasonable in the cover letter and CV, but don't put too much effort in it." Typically the job offer is left on the home page for the shortest legally possible time. – kap Mar 25 at 16:17
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Another possibility is that the respective research group leader simply ran out for funds for "Hiwi" positions. Getting good student assistants is hard, and they may have the advertisement on their web site continuously. This could be the case if they are willing to use precious grant overhead money for very exceptional candidates. If the research group leader felt that this does not apply to you and the regular funds have been used up, he/she...may be unable to offer you a "Hiwi" position at this point.

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    Indeed. If this is truly for a student research assistant position, do not assume that the online info about it is always up to date (rather than serving as a semi-permanent encouragement to capable students for getting in touch). Possibly, there are even various layers of bureaucracy between the person advertising the position and whoever can and will edit the website. – O. R. Mapper Mar 25 at 7:21
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It may be that the job is subject to visa regulations and the group leader recognised/assumed that it would take extra steps to secure a right visa for you.

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One more possibility: I used to get tons of e-mail from random parts of the world and random departments not my own, asking to be my TA or RA. I'm in Texas. I get an e-mail from Sri Lanka from some guy I never heard of, which includes his vita and copies of publications, and what am I to think? I think that he has probably e-mailed every math/science/engineering professor in world. I wasn't even advertising nor was I in the market for grad students. So these just got deleted. I would get similar bombardments from grad students in engineering (I was in the Math Dept.) mostly foreign students, wanting the same thing. They were also ignored.

If a student can't get support in his own country/department, then that's "strike one" for sure. Sending spam to a country/department that shows that you don't know "how things work" in that country/department, is "strike two." Our department admits and hires our TA's and RA's. The faculty have little to do with who gets to occupy those 3-or-4 person offices. So when I open such an e-mail, my first thought is "Dude, you're asking the wrong guy." It's especially telling if the grad student is in the engineering building across the street and, having been here for at least a year, doesn't have any friends or mentors who can tell him good ways to find support. Specifically, it seems that the grad advisor in Electrical Engineering would know who the student should e-mail in the Math Dept. Yet he e-mailed me.

So my suggestion here is that, perhaps, your application came in with a few hundred other fishing attempts and you got the form response back.

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Besides what everyone else already mentioned, it may also be that the job posting on the website is simply out of date. Thesis and Studentische Hilfskraft (informally, HiWi) openings are often either "privately" advertised in lectures, labs, or seminars (with the lecturer telling stuff like "By the way, we need a HiWi for ***, send me an e-mail with your CV or come to me after class if you're interested") or reserved for students proactively applying for them - in a "if we find the right person, we'll find the right project for them" fashion.

In most university chairs in Germany, openings landing onto the chair's website are either outdated, the ones no one wanted to fill or both - just take them with a grain of salt, as an indicator of which kind of projects may be offered to applicants. And weeks/months may pass until an outdated job opening is taken off.

Yet, since you aren't currently studying in Germany, Henning's answer most probably covers your case. The best advice would be to wait until you're enrolled at your new university and only then proactively search for HiWi openings.

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