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The German Research Foundation (DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) is a funding body that funds fundamental research in Germany. The DFG has a following rule (100% rule from now on): if a person is funded 100% by a DFG project as a postdoctoral researcher, it is not possible for this person to apply for another project in the role of a Principal Investigator (PI).

The DFG offers other funding sources for postdoctoral researchers:

  1. Research Grant for own position (Eigene Stelle) that funds the position of the postdoctoral researcher.
  2. Research Grant for a doctoral position, which enables a postdoc to act as PI and supervise a project. Because of the 100% rule, this is only available to researchers that are not funded by the DFG, but by university positions handed out by professors.
  3. Emmy Noether Group Leader (Emmy Noether): an elite funding source that covers funding for the postdoctoral researcher position as a group leader, and additional funds for PhD students.

Now let's look at some scenarios.

If a postdoctoral researcher applies for her/his own position, and obtains it, only the researcher's position is funded, and the researcher does not gather experience as a PI.

If a postdoctoral researcher applies for an Eigene Stelle and a Doctoral Position as a PI, it is unlikely to obtain this combination of funding because of the large amount of funds (for both positions) requested in a very early stage of a research career, with no experience as a PI. Another problem is that professors use Research Grants as a standard funding source. This means that a young researcher is competing directly with established scientists. Of course, a counterargument will be that this is taken into account in the application process - in my experience and communication with colleagues it is not. Even excellently rated proposals get rejected because of the limited funds. The lack of funds, in my opinion, is also driven by the fact that professors that review these proposals are unlikely willing to reduce their own chances of funding by providing funding to a young researcher, since everyone is funded from the same source. If one looks at the DFG statistics for Research Grants, it seems very positive, 40% of requested projects are funded - there is however no statistics on what percentage of those were requested by professors, and what by early stage researchers, that I could find.

Applying for Emmy Noether requires a demonstration of experience in successful mentoring of PhD students: it is unlikely one will receive 1.5 Million Euro to fund a research group, having never supervised PhD students successfully. This requirement does not appear in the official documentation, it pops up during the review process, it seems to be expected by the professors that review the application.

Supervising PhD students is a critical requirement for applying for professorships and tenured positions.

I believe this information is also very relevant to researchers that emigrate to Germany: negotiate with the department if you're funded as a postdoc by the DFG and arrange 80% / 20% split of funding if possible, otherwise, don't stay on this position longer than ~1 year.

Interestingly, postdocs funded by Universities / Industry / Other have literally no limit in the number of projects they can apply for as PIs. Such a person is allowed to work for whatever project funds him/her and supervise 6 DFG projects at the same time.

Is it therefore possible to achieve tenure in Germany as a postdoctoral researcher, funded 100% by the German research foundation?

My vote is: no.

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    "Tenure" isn't really a concept in German academia; and "achieving tenure as a postdoc" seems a very odd concept overall. Do you mean to ask whether it is viable to become a professor in Germany after having had exclusively DFG-funded positions as a postdoc?
    – Arno
    Feb 2 at 12:08
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    You can get supervision experience with PhD students without being the formal main supervisor. You can get project management experience without being the formal PI of a project (even more so in a large project that involves co-investigators). Having secured an "Eigene Stelle" also counts as funding experience. All of these items count in applications for professorships and probably also for career grants like Emmy Noether. Feb 2 at 14:14
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    This is a rant much more than a question.
    – user151413
    Feb 2 at 23:32
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    (1) DFG has an official rule to treat first-time applicants better. (2) I'd strongly suspect that you can still apply for another project with an own position which funds you; you would likely then have to either cancel or reduce the other fund if you get the grant. Same holds for Emmy Noether. (3) Noether-people usually didn't have own grants before that, to the best of my knowledge, and I don't think it is meant like that. Supervision experience is certainly helpful, but need not be through an own grant.
    – user151413
    Feb 2 at 23:37
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    academia.se is not for rants.
    – user151413
    Feb 3 at 9:05

2 Answers 2

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The DFG funds projects, and these projects can run for a couple of years. So taking your question literally: No, the DFG cannot give you tenure, that would mean that a single project would have a duration equal to the amount of time it takes for you to retire.

You can do postdocs on DFG funded projects and than apply for a job as a professor (becoming a professor is the main way people get "tenure" in Germany). In fact, in many fields that is the "normal" way getting a professorship. This statement does not mean it is easy. It means that of those people who made it, many got there through a DFG funded project. So we need to be careful about survivorship bias. The best thing that can be said about this is that it is definitely possible, but not necessarily easy. However, that is mainly because getting a professorship is very hard, whichever way you try to attain that, not something specific about DFG projects.

Notice that you don't have to be a PI to get benefits. In my field I would expects someone to not be the PI for the first DFG project (s)he is involved in. First get some experience, and than become a PI, is pretty much the norm in my field.

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  • My literal question was: "Is it therefore possible to achieve tenure in Germany as a postdoctoral researcher, funded 100% by the German research foundation?" This is not the same as DFG giving me tenure. It means achieving the right conditions to obtain tenure while being funded 100% by the DFG. Feb 2 at 17:42
  • Regarding the rest: even if a person gets experience via multiple postdocs, and is still funded 100% by the DFG, he/she cannot act as a PI, because of the 100% rule. The only way to get PI experience, is therefore not being 100% funded by the DFG, and submitting proposals as PI. I therefore disagree: it is specific to postdoc positions 100% funded by the DFG, not the fact that it is a difficult career path. Without PI experience, there is no professorship in my field, and I believe, in most fields. Feb 2 at 17:44
  • You do the post docs one after another, not at the same time. You write your proposal for the next post doc, with you as PI, during your current one. This is the norm in my field, so there is empirical evidence that your statement that that is impossible is false. Just look at the CV s of young professors in Germany. You have strong feelings about this, and I understand your frustration. Feb 3 at 20:27
  • I do not know the statistics, but I believe strongly (0.9), that the vast majority of professors in Germany obtained their positions from non-DFG funded positions, such as government positions (Landesstelle), where one can apply for multiple projects as PI. Just imagine the two scenarios, and compare the CV of the first person with the path you suggested, with the CV of the second person on a Landesstele that has in the same time acted as PI in 4-5 projects, and obtained funding for them as independent researcher. It's strong feelings, yes, but also there is some logic in what I'm saying... Feb 4 at 8:24
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    The way you come across to me is that you only want to confirm your beliefs. That may or may not be true, but that is how your comments and the question comes across to me. The problem is that the purpose of a conversation is that both sides can learn something new, i.e. change their position. If that is not possible, then a conversation has no use. Feb 4 at 8:55
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The answer to the question "Is it possible to achieve tenure in Germany as a postdoctoral researcher, funded 100% by the German research foundation?" is yes. In fact, most tenured professors in Germany I know have been funded by DFG (German research foundation) as some point in their career, many of them during their postdoc phase.

I haven't heard of the rules you cite, but I can add one possibility you probably missed: As a non-tenured postdoc you can get funding for a project for you and a PhD students, i.e. you apply for a grant that includes you as PI and a PhD student (I know of several cases where this happened).

Regarding the Emmy Noether program: The case you cite is for sure not the only one, but there are others as well. Officially one does not need to have experience in supervision to get that grant, and in practice, it happens quite some time that people get this grant without any supervision experience (again, I know several examples). What is true: If you are funded as a group leader via Emmy Noether, you can't submit another proposal for the DFG. My comments on that: If you head an Emmy Noether group you have a very strong standing in the German academic job market already. Moreover, it is still possible that you participate in a larger research project like an SFB and supervise more students this way.

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  • I think that this answer would be better without the second sentence. Many professors who were at some point funded by the DFG are poor examples for OP's question, because they also received lots of Non-DFG funding (e.g., EU grants, BMBF grants, grants secured abroad). Feb 15 at 13:02

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