Following common scenario:

You wrote a proposal for a larger several million € research project with several university partners after your PhD, the project got funded and you are the project manager, the professor is project leader and official applicant and principal investigator mainly visiting the regular meetings of the research alliance but not doing the micromanagement of employees, Phd students etc. He also encouraged the project leader to go for tenure, write a habilitation thesis etc.

The problem I see: A researcher seeking tenure has to show autonomy, especially postdocs should leave their Phd supervisor for 1-2 years and join other research groups or industry before coming back to the old group and leading a subgroup. This is not written into stone, but advantageous facing a committee deciding professorship and many professors did go similar way.

In germany now the junior professorship exists with and without tenure after the professorship. But also the habilitation is still common to work for a professor.

But how can you sell your autonomy? Should you negotiate hardly with your professor to publish some work on your own with him as a coauthor (who did neither conceive the experiments, in best case only review the publications internally before submission). Do you highlight you have to compete with junior professors later facing committees and need this autonomy in publications, also technically you are not the principal investigator, but do 95% of work to get money and conduct the project?

It's a delicate question to discuss this with your professor which you owe more or less for your PhD, but who also made profit from your work. Ethically, I know my professor has not many good reasons to be a co-author doing not much more then visiting meetings and reviewing the publications. Technically this is the common case, but due to junior professorships I think the situation changed a lot in comparision to 10 years ago when habilitation was the common and only way to become professor working until then for an already tenured professor.

EDIT: this is experimental sciences. So you are often dependent on expensive lab equipment of your supervising professor. Maybe an idea then is also to work more on theoretical papers, then authoring alone should be acceptable/negotiateable with professor?

  • I don't understand "the professor is project leader..." Which professor. The "you" in the description or that person's original advisor? Make it a bit clearer.
    – Buffy
    Oct 30, 2019 at 22:02
  • Probably field-specific, but in my experiences in German academia, I do not find at all that the level of autonomy of young researchers is mostly determined by formal titles (juniorprofessor / post-doc etc). Instead, it mostly depends on the understanding of the senior professor in the group. I have seen late PhD candidates and early post-docs publishing independently, and junior professors being hired as a kind of "glorified post-doc". Oct 30, 2019 at 22:35
  • @Buffy project leader/PI is normally the person officially applying for funding, ín my case idea, proposal, arranging the research partners has been done by me, my professors appreciates this of course and I will manage the project, research, PhD work, but technically he is responsible. This is not uncommon here, for a funding of several millions a fresh PhD graduate cannot be the experienced project leader, strategically it's better if the professor applies and you work for him. This the common case in germany, PhD students/graduates write proposal, professor gets funding :-) Oct 30, 2019 at 22:36
  • Have you stayed at the same place after completing the degree? So the "professor" was previously your advisor and is now your boss? Or are there two people here? You said "which you owe more or less for your PhD".
    – Buffy
    Oct 30, 2019 at 22:40
  • @Buffy I though implicitly clear, I didn't change place. Additional note, normaly it's common to become a professor only at a university you have not been postdoc most of the time in Germany. The case PhD, postdoc, professor at same place is nearly not existing, at least no one never heard of it in Germany. But for seeking professorship at another university I'm currently at I need to show autonomy after PhD, the question is how, I cannot leave the project is my idea and needs my expertise. Oct 30, 2019 at 22:53

2 Answers 2


Assuming that I understand it now, I do have a suggestion. Given the norms in your field, in which the PI is (I think) a co-author of every paper and who controls the grant and the research, you can't really distinguish yourself without help. But if others speak to your qualities more than you do, it might be enough - or even better. That would be the case in the US, anyway. Especially if that other is your PI and former advisor. You are, after all, his academic descendant.

Suppose you are looking for a position elsewhere. Suppose your professor writes the letter that says you wrote the grant and were the lead investigator for much of what grew out of the grant. Not your words, but theirs. That is pretty strong.

That may be easier to negotiate than trying to write as sole author, acknowledging the professor. Such might be possible, depending on personalities and norms, but maybe not.

At the opposite extreme is excluding your professor unilaterally. I'm guessing that would be breaking norms in your field and place. It is also a terrible way to move forward if you become alienated from that professor. They are not going to be there for you either in career moves or research opportunities.

In any case, it would be useful to have a conversation (or series of conversations) with your professor about this very question. "How can I distinguish myself here sufficiently so that I can move to an independent position? Can you help me do that? What should we do to enable it?" If the professor is honorable, and you don't suggest otherwise, you should get the help you need. And the professor, knowing the entire story may have options for you that none of us here can conceive of.

  • 1
    Thanks. I will of course talk with him, I asked here to sound out how much I can/should negotiate with him. Of courese I would expect he mentions the project related responsibility and work in a letter, additionally I have the other two professors of the research affiliation. But an option would maybe also to co-authro all project relevant stuff with my professor and to work part-time on a very different new topic with other collaborators, publish here without him, still using his lab, for new PhD students I would have to acquire funding then as a PI myself, but I have 4 years to do so. Oct 31, 2019 at 12:10
  • Junior professors have a similar situation, they get their position for 6 years and maybe 1 or a half additionally, but the rest they have to acquire by funding. They do have their own lab space though, but this is no big advantage if you don't need much. Oct 31, 2019 at 12:12
  • "Given the norms in your field, in which the PI is (I think) a co-author of every paper and who controls the grant and the research, you can't really distinguish yourself without help." It is important to point out, that this "norm" is considered as academic misconduct by DFG: academia.stackexchange.com/a/19396/11808
    – Daniel
    Nov 5, 2019 at 21:38

For both sakes, reaching a Habilitation or being attested "Habilitation equivalence" by a hire committee (either one is mandatory to become a full professor in Germany), you need to show that you have moved on. Papers that do not list your PhD supervisor as a coauthor are considered a strong indicator for this.

However, this does not mean that you need to ban you former supervisor completely. If you have a few reasonably good papers after your PhD without them (say: one out of four to six, ideally also in a field/topic that differs from the one you addressed in you PhD), you should be fine. No hiring committee would expect total independence in you situation.

So, yes, it is a delicate question to discuss with your professor. But nevertheless, you should discuss it openly. A honorable prior supervisor will be able to deal with this. And of course, on the papers that do not list them as coauthor, you can still thank them in the acknowledgements.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .