Biological age or academic age

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In my office I find the application of a female academic in her early forties. The file feels heavy, 22 pages. Once I see that she is applying for a full professorship, I also know why. Fortunately, there is a table of contents, telling me what to expect at one quick glance.

By now she has been unsuccessfully applying for positions as a professor or team leader for two years. As an example, she has attached a job posting she applied for. She didn´t even get invited for an interview, although she thought she was perfect for the position.

Career options for scientists

I immediately jump to item no. 7, the list of publications, which is still the most important selection criterion in academia. 13 papers, of which she was the primary author on 8. The really big journals, like Nature or Science, are not among them, but the journals in which she has published are definitely respectable. I flip back to the section “Education and academic career”: She had started writing her PhD thesis in 2000. 13 publications in 16 years, that is probably not enough to show for when applying for a full professorship, I think to myself, perhaps even the reason why her application didn’t make the cut. Then I start working my way through the documents. On page 5, I come across the section “Maternity and parental leave”.

She had been on maternity leave for 10 months for each of her two children. In the fine print, I discover the following footnote: “Since 2009, I have been working part-time (65%).” I do the maths: 16 years minus 20 months, 7 years times 0.65.

Accordingly, her academic age is not 16 but only 10. That puts the number of 13 publications in a very different perspective all of a sudden. But which employer takes the trouble to run the numbers and piece together this information spread around through awfully long documents? I continue to read until the entry “Third-party funds” catches my eye. Again: For the 12 years since the completion of her PhD, the output is rather low; relative to 6 academic years, it is respectable.

I comment her CV, “In your case, you should mention your academic output per academic year on the first page of your application and, likewise, make sure it is readily visible next to the list of publications. Further, you should indicate whether you want to work as a professor full-time or part-time. That information is crucial for your future employer, but unfortunately I cannot find it anywhere.”

The major research institutions have decided to base their judgement with regard to excellence in research on the academic age (i.e. the years of active research) and not on the biological age (i.e. the years of one’s life). This is meant to even out twists and turns in the CV, such as parental leave. This is an important change of rules.

But applicants should not make the search committee go through the file looking for such facts. They should shove it right in their faces. That is not impertinent, but merely helpful for both parties.


This article was first published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (issue 09-2016).


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