Welcome: Reflections on the first 5 years of the Max Weber Programme

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By Ramon Marimon, Director of the Max Weber Programme, European University Institute 

In its first five years of existence the Max Weber Programme has proved to be a unique and pioneer experience in post-doctoral education in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Now that the post-doctoral phase of a research and academic career is starting to become a normal step in SSH (as it has been in the natural sciences for many years) there is no comparable post-doctoral programme with similar selection, dimension and offer.

The pool of applicants has doubled from 555 in the first call (2006-2007), to 1,139 in the latest call (2011-2012) and, even though the budget has remained the same, we have succeeded in expanding the number of Max Weber Fellows from 40 to 51, in part by opening the possibility for candidates, subjected to the same rigorous selection procedures, to join the MWP with outside sources of funding. This means however that the success rate for a funded fellowship has halved (from 7.2% to 3.8%), which is an undeniable sign of the perceived value of the programme. Or is it perhaps just the value of spending a year under the Tuscan sun, while in that limbo between the PhD and a real academic job, or in a sabbatical year from an academic position…?

The latter is not a rhetorical question, since it’s an actual question to which, to my surprise, I sometimes have to reply. Of course, this is a question that is better answered by former and current Max Weber Fellows. This new newsletter should be a vehicle to provide such answers, as will be our ‘Five Year Max Weber Fellows Conference’ this coming June. But just let me briefly put forward a few thoughts. First, and the reason for my surprise, is that the question reflects poor knowledge of the facts. One fact being that other post-doctoral programmes provide time, space and a version of the Tuscan sun, without being in such demand. A second fact is that, after having invested time and effort in a PhD, and given the current situation of the academic job market in the Social Sciences and Humanities, post-docs have a clear incentive to go to the best possible place for their career advancement, and not to waste their time once there.

This leads me to think that the ‘revealed preference’ for the MWP may well be in its unique character. A unique character reflected in its combination of departmental research activities, multidisciplinary research activities and academic practice activities within the MWP, and the informal interchange of ideas about research and academia among a large group of Max Weber Fellows, who can become a source of both professional contacts and friends. In summary, the identity of the MWP is its ability to help Max Weber Fellows in developing, and broadening, their research agendas, as well as making them better teachers and academics, aspects that can only be valued in their future international careers.

But then the question can be turned around. “That’s fine, but what is the gain for the EUI, or for the European tax-payers, who finance the Programme?” This question also reflects poor understanding. An international competitive post-doctoral programme strengthens the role of the EUI in higher education in the social sciences and humanities, and former Max Weber Fellows around the world are proof of this. Furthermore, Max Weber Fellows have recently finished their PhD and are engaged in the new frontiers of SSH research, therefore, they are a very valuable asset to the departments and, in particular, to the PhD researchers, being closer to their experience than are more established faculty members. This in itself is valuable, but it is primarily in the ability of the MWProgramme to produce more professional, creative and problem-conscious international social science researchers and professors, where the European tax-payers will get their return.

Much has been achieved in these five years, and this is thanks to all the people who have collaborated with the programme (EUI professors, the Fiesole Group, invited participants, the MWP team) and, especially, the Max Weber Fellows who have actively participated in the Max Weber Programme. A lustrum is time for celebration, but it is also time to look-ahead. Time to see what is redundant or should be changed,and what should be preserved and enhanced. Regarding the former, we can discuss, for example, the length of the fellowship; regarding the latter, I have no doubts: the unique character of the Max Weber Post-doctoral Programme.