What to do to become a full professor?

13 minute read

I recently received an offer for a full professor position, which I accepted. I will write a bit more about that in a couple of weeks. Personally, the process to get this position was challenging from many different angles, and I think that it would have been easier for me if somebody wrote down how it all worked out for them. That’s what I would like to do with this blog post. I think there are three phases of becoming a professor (in Germany), and I will say a couple of things about each of them: (1) Qualifying to become a professor, (2) Applying (and getting rejected), (3) Applying and going through the process of being accepted.

With this information, I’d like to help people who want to understand what they need to do to be able to become a professor (see 1). I hope this helps people who apply without any success (see 2). And I want to help those who might receive an offer (see 3). This whole text is heavily Germany-focused, but some aspects might be similar or the same in other places in the world. It’s also biased towards my own experiences in computer sciences and natural language processing, and of course other people or people in other research areas might have other opinions.

Before we start: what is a professor?

The term “professor” is, in Germany, nearly exclusively used for full professors (salary level W3) or associate professors (salary level W2) at Universities. However, there are other positions that have a similar profile in what people do in their everyday job. Probably you don’t really care about the “title”. What most people who want to enter this system care about is the possibility to do their own research, follow their own ideas, with a large amount of independence and freedom (nobody tells them what to do research on). Finding such jobs is also possible outside of academia, of course. In Germany, you could be a research group leader in a research association, for instance the Leibniz Association, the Fraunhofer Society, the Max-Planck Society, or the Hemholtz Association. Some of these organizations have a stronger focus on foundational research (Max-Planck), some focus on applied research (Fraunhofer). Some have a substantial funding, others need to get (more) money from industry or other third parties. Some nearly solely have time-limited contracts, in others, you can get a tenured position with a higher probability. And of course, there is also great research happening in industry.

What I am talking about here are, however, tenured positions at Universities, where teaching and research are both obligatory, at least to some degree. These positions can be obtained in various ways. I won’t talk too much about Universities of Applied Research (FH or HAW) because I know too little about them (I’ve just not personally been exposed to this career option). Instead, I focus on “research universities”. Here, the term “professor” is typically equated to a chair holder, something like the head of a department. These positions often come with substantial long-term funding for PhD students or postdocs to hire, technical staff, and a secretary. In addition to this “proper” professor positions, there are other tenured positions at universities, but these are quite diverse and it’s hard to say anything about them without inappropriately generalizing. If you have questions about that, send me a mail. I will, in the following, focus on professor positions at universities according to the salary ranks W2 and W3. That’s what’s typically understood to be a “professor” in Germany.

1. Qualifying for Professor Positions (or another similar position)

The typical way to become a professor in most research areas is to study a topic based on your interest (I studied computer science) and then get a Ph.D. degree to gather practical research experience under guideance but with some degree of independence. Commonly, the Ph.D. is in an area very closely related to what you studied (I stumbled into text mining and NLP, accidentially). What to expect from a Ph.D. student is hard to generalize, but typically it involves writing multiple papers, going to conferences to present the own work. It’s typically highly competitive to get these papers into conferences and journal, so once this all is achieved and you defended your Ph.D. thesis in front of a commitee: Great, now you are a doctor. What’s next?

In computer science and related areas, it is not at all expected that you do a postdoc before going to industry - you will very likely find a nice job in some small or big company that is interesting. If you want to go for a professor position, you need to develop yourself into an independent researcher. And, importantly, you need to do it in a way that is visible, that people perceive you as an independent researcher (that’s not necessarily the same thing).

That means, you need to develop the skill to identify research questions. You might already have done that during the Ph.D., for instance by defining Master’s theses topics. It’s also fine to work on research questions yourself and, at some point, look back to identify a common theme how things come together. If you come up with an idea that is bigger than something you can do yourself, it might be worth writing a grant proposal to hire somebody. The prerequisites to do that differ by funding agency, and I won’t go into detail here, but writing (and getting) a third-party funded grant shows that you are able to develop a research idea and plan that is successfully reviewed by independent reviewers. That’s a huge argument to convince others to perceive you as an independent researcher. Having good papers accepted is of course another one. By the way: being independent doesn’t mean you cannot accept any help.

Once you are a postdoc with some history of defining own research ideas and perhaps you even got some grants, you can go for applying for professor positions. Depending on the field, it might also be helpful to put the past research together in a “second book”, the habilitation. That will give you the right to be a Ph.D. student reviewer. In some areas (for instance some that are more humanities-oriented) a habilitation might also be expected. I must say that the habilitation for me was a “no-brainer” in comparison to the Ph.D. In the Ph.D., I was quite stressed to do things that somehow fit together in a Ph.D. thesis. When working towards the habilitation, I did nearly never think about how to put things together, because I already had a quite clear vision what I want to do. I only needed to put it together in writing.

Postdoc positions are also not the only way to go. Others are

  • becoming a junior professor (assistant professor), but getting such positions directly after the Ph.D. is (in Germany) not too likely (but not impossible).
  • applying for grants to lead a junior research group.

These are nice, but require at least some degree of independence and ability to define research questions. Most people will likely postdoc a bit before going this way. Then, however, it’s a great way to develop an own research profile and it supports you in doing so more than most postdoc positions. if you have the chance – go for it! If you are not sure if you are ready for that step yet, I’d suggest to try. Learning from the process is already quite valuable.

Technically, in the end, you need to able to show a “habilitation equivalent qualification” as a prerequisite for being hired as a professor. That involves excellent research and the ability to teach well (the original law for Baden-Wuerttemberg for instance can be found here).

2. Applying and Failing


Great, you are now an independent researcher and already supervised some Ph.D. students or led some projects. Let’s apply for professor positions.

These positions are typically published in various ways. I personally like the job market of the newspaper Die Zeit. Alternatives include the mailing lists of the Deutscher Hochschulverband. Once you find a call for applications that seems to suit you, you need to apply. The call will likely say something like “with the typical documents”. That’s the first challenge. These documents clearly contain:

  1. A motivation letter
  2. Your curriculum vitae, including education, jobs, publication lists, invited talks, awards, grants, scientific service.
  3. Lists of teaching experience
  4. Lists of supervised students (on all levels, particularly Ph.D.)
  5. Copies of certificates

Commonly, the hiring committee also wants to see:

  1. Concept paper for research at the new place
  2. Concept paper for teaching at the new place

These two documents are, together with the motivation letter, probably the most difficult things to write. Make sure that they show your excellence but also how you fit into the new environment.

The committee might also ask for additional documents, for instance teaching evaluations or your most important and influential three papers, perhaps with explanations why you find them relevant. Sometimes they also want you to fill standardized forms (what’s your h score, how many papers did you write). My last application document was a PDF with altogether 468 pages. They asked for it… ;-)


Once your application documents are evaluated positively, you will be invited. The meeting typically consists of a scientific presentation and an explanation of the future planned work and how that fits into the new environment. The talk is typically public to the university. That also means that at this moment in time, it is likely that somehow people at your current university might learn about your application. That’s not desirable, but sometimes cannot be avoided. The community is too small. Part of the presentation is sometimes also a teaching unit, where you need to give a lecture on a topic of your choice or on a predefined topic. Often, this part is just something like 20 minutes long.

After the presentation, there will be a session in which the committee asks you questions. Questions that I remember to have heard often are the following (these are explicitly not questions that describe the situation in one specific university or hiring process I was part of):

  • Why is your research important? Why is it excellent?
  • How do you complement the work of professor X who we already have?
  • Great work, but how do you plan to work together with professor Y?
  • With whom do you want to work together?
  • Which network do you contribute to our institution?
  • Do you have plans for bigger grants? Which ones? What’s the topic?
  • Do you want to involve yourself in the administration of the faculty/university/department? How?
  • Why did you not achieve Z yet?
  • How do you motivate your Ph.D. students?
  • What do you do if one of your Ph.D. students develops a problem with alcohol?
  • What do you do if one of your Ph.D. students is sad because of frequent paper rejections?
  • How do you plan to support minorities in the field?
  • How will you make the study programs at our university more attractive to students?

After that, you can ask questions to the committee. And after that, there is typically a session in which you talk to student representative who can also ask questions. They often focus on the teaching experiences and style. They often want to know that you actually care about educating them well.

Waiting and Failing

After that, things take a while, definitely months, sometimes (a low number of) years. If you don’t hear anything after a couple of weeks, it’s likely that you are out of the process. Sometimes, I received feedback informally about the application once everything was over. The negative feedback that I heard over the years was:

  • Your work does not fit to what we want.
  • We did not see that you were enthusiastic about your plans.
  • You appeared to be too informal for such prestigious position.
  • You appeared to be too little approachable to the students.
  • Your work is not as excellent as other people’s work who applied.
  • You clearly did not prepare well.
  • The students did not like you.
  • Your presentation was not entertaining, you did not even make a single joke.
  • We did not have the impression that you actually want this position.

I am not kidding. Every single sentence I heard in some place.

You see that this is quite personal, and often it hurt, particularly because I found some of this criticism inappropriate or even wrong. But that’s difficult - the interview is an extreme situation, and even if you are an extreme extravert, it might be different in this situation (or the other way around). That means: you need to practice. Try to get invited to such interviews, even if you think that you have no chance. I needed around 10 attempts to succeed.

What I took from it was essentially: No need to try to appear to be a person who you not are (I did do that). Be authentic (I did only do that in the more recent applications).

It can also help to make everything easier if you talked to the head of the committee before applying. Send them a mail or call them on the phone. It’s normal to do that. They won’t be surprised.

3. Applying and Succeeding

The following things I only know as a candidate. I never was part of a search committee, so some things might be (slightly) wrong.

Once you are successful in the interview and the committee things that you will be a good fit, they compile a so-called list. This list contains one or multiple people. Funnily, the list can only have three positions (at least in some universities or states), so the entries are called 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 3c,… Lists of length 3 are, however, common. These lists might be compiled strategically: The first person might be the big shot the university really wants to have and at later ranks there are people who are more likely to accept an offer, such that the university does not need to write a call again and go through the whole process. I am not sure how often that actually happens, but I heard such stories.

Part of the list creation is a process in which external reviews are acquired. To do so, other professors are asked to write reviews about the candidates, sometimes in a comparative manner. I have never seen such reviews, so I cannot say too much about that. I heard that sometimes these reviews are quite personal, sometimes they are wrong. I believe that this is also a difficult business, because people who know you too well might have a conflict of interest. Those who don’t might be slightly outside of your main research field.

Once you are on the first position of this list (or people higher in this list reject an offer) you will receive a letter from the president with the call (“dem Ruf”). This is an invitation to start negotiations and you are expected to prepare concept papers for research and teaching in which you explain what you plan to do and how many positions you need, how many rooms, how much money to get started, and how much money you want to have as a yearly budget. These concept papers can be based on the concept papers you prepared for the application, but they need to be more concrete. Every item needs to be explained clearly. It has been very helpful for me to have seen such documents that other people prepared in the past. I won’t share mine with you publicly, but perhaps you have friends who recently succeeded in getting a professor position who you could ask? Also the DHV was very helpful in reviewing draft version of these documents and giving feedback. They also publish average numbers that you can expect to get (which look, from my perspective, very high, because they include people’s successes who are in the system for longer than I am).

These documents are read by the chancellor (the person who is responsible for money) and the president of the University. Then, you have a meeting with them and you talk about the various items. They will tell you what they can offer, and you can try to negotiate. Once this meeting is over, they will send a formal offer that you can accept or reject. Or you try to further negotiate. That’s it.

After that, all other applicants for the position are informed and they can formally complain to not have been considered appropriately. Hope that this does not happen, because it can delay the process.

Once you got the offer, the bureaucratic process starts to get you the position. It’s tedious, but not likely to fail. Congrats :-).