Einstein: His Space and Times by Steven Gimbel
Even Einstein Was Not Immune to Academic Jockeying
An excerpt from Steven Gimbel’s new biography of the great scientist follows his quest for a permanent position, through Zurich after 1909
Between the correspondences, visits, and other professional attention he and his work were receiving, and because he’d been publishing numerous reviews and other articles, Einstein felt himself becoming more and more a part of the scientific community, even if he was in its outer orbit. To really be in the thick of it, he needed a university post. As with so much else, Einstein assumed the rules did not apply to him. Rather than the usual process, a professorship would simply appear for him because of the strength of his ideas.
The universities of the time were government institutions at which the appointment of professors was a matter of a central bureaucracy, and, as is the case with bureaucracies, there was a procedure. After you received a degree and a doctorate, you became a privatdozent at a university. This is where you paid your dues. As a privatdozent, you were considered an adjunct member of the department but received no pay. You were expected to give regularly scheduled classes that augmented the lectures of the professors, but the students would pay the instructor directly—that is the “privat” part. If you were a good teacher lecturing on relevant subjects, you would have lots of students and would get both money and a reputation. In addition to teaching, there was a research component and you were expected to write a Habilitationsschrift, a written work that showed you to be a cutting-edge researcher. In modern terms, the doctoral dissertation was what we now think of as a master’s thesis, while the Habilitation was what we now consider a dissertation.