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:
- Research Grant for own position (Eigene Stelle) that funds the position of the postdoctoral researcher.
- 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.
- 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.