With the introduction of the first programs to establish junior research group leadership positions in the late 1990’s, another alternative qualification possibility on the road to a professorship has been created for outstanding young researchers in their postdoctoral phase. These programs are either based at non-university research institutes or support the junior research group leader’s work at a university.
These qualification posts are exclusively funded by third-party resources and are marked by a very high degree of autonomy in designing research and teaching, similar to that of a professor. By leading their own junior research group, which is usually funded for a period of five years, postdoctoral researchers can acquire the necessary professorship qualifications at a very early stage in their career. Junior research group leadership positions offer a high level of research autonomy and the research groups usually have generous budgets.
Applications for these positions are submitted by the young researchers themselves. In most cases, two to four years of postdoctoral – and often international – research experience as well as early proof of their academic excellence are required. As a rule, the research group can be based at a university or an institution of the researcher’s choice. This enables funding recipients to not only negotiate their equipment and resources with the selected institution, but also their rights and obligations as well as, where applicable, their status within the university (research associate or junior professor). Points of negotiation include, for instance, the right to award doctorates and – if no teaching obligation is in place – the researcher’s teaching authorization. Some funding organizations provide their recipients with templates naming important aspects that have to be determined.
Tenure track options have so far been scarce, the prospects of being appointed to a professorship, however, are very promising, as an evaluation of the junior research group leaders supported by the Emmy Noether Program and Volkswagen Foundation has shown.