Exclusive and precarious: Academic careers in German Higher Education

CERIC Seminar Series


Maria Keil (Free University in Berlin)


Based on my PhD thesis, a qualitative Grounded Theory study on reproduction mechanisms of social exclusiveness in German HE, I will discuss the phenomenon of uncertainty within academic careers and the management of precarity against the backdrop of social inequalities. Therefore, I will shortly outline the main results of the research project, including current developments of the German academic labour market and their impact on academic careers and biographies. I will then focus on the practical strategies of managing uncertainty and risk that can be presented from the data.

Overall, it can be seen that an all-in strategy with a comprehensive focus on academia is necessary in order to stay in the field long term and to achieve academic success. However, the actual management of uncertainty does not only vary with the employment situation, but also with the resources that arise from the actual living and partnership situation as well as from the social background. It can be shown that managing precarity and herewith mastering contingency is a specific skill within German academia that builds on cultural and economic capital and presents itself in a certain conduct of life and academic habitus that obscures the existential seriousness of the 'academic game'. In the interplay of the outlined field structures and the agents’ practical strategies that are bound to their resources, social closure is produced and the boundaries of the field are maintained. Consequently, German academia nowadays stays and becomes even more socially exclusive.

Short biography

I am a research associate and lecturer at the Chair of Macrosociology (Institute of Sociology) at Free University in Berlin. I am visiting CERIC from September – October to work on a comparative study of precarious work in German and British HE and the formation of protest together with Vera Trappmann.

Former positions include the Technical University Darmstadt and the Humboldt-University Berlin. My PhD thesis at the Technical University Darmstadt, which I completed this year, is on ‘The Reproduction of Social Inequality in German Academia’. Prior to my PhD I studied Sociology, Economics, Political Sciences and Social Psychology at Humboldt-University Berlin, The New School for Social Research (New York) and the University of Potsdam.

My main research interests are on social inequality and the mechanisms of reproduction in the fields of education and higher education. I have been working on educational decision making, transitions from school to the labour market and to higher education, precarity and employment biographies of academics and on the reproduction of social exclusiveness in German HE based on Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction and concept of the social field.