I presently wish to understand more fully the literal meaning, etymology, or grammatical features of the ranks used in German academia [1]:

  • Hilfassistent/innen: Undergraduate research assistant / Undergraduate teaching assistant
  • Assistent/innen: research assistant (typically a PhD student)
  • Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter/innen: Scientific Staff (synonymous with "Assistent/innen")
  • Postdoc: Postdoc (i.e., after PhD)
  • Oberassistent/innen: senior researcher/lecturer (typically after 1–2 years as a postdoc)
  • Lehrbeauftragte: lecturer / adjunct professor
  • Gastdozent/innen: visiting lecturer
  • Assistenzprofessor: assistant professor (requires PhD)
  • Privatdozent/innen: senior lecturer (has the habilitation but not professorship)
  • Professor: full professor (ordinary and extraordinary)
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    Just to make sure: You are asking this about Germany, not German speaking countries in general? There will be differences. A quick Google search for Oberassistent only turned up positions in Switzerland, I am not sure whether it is an official job description in Germany. – Carsten S Jun 20 '17 at 16:56
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    Regarding your bold stems: The male/female are Assistent and Assistentin, Dozent and Dozentin. So female is only the "-in". – IQV Jun 21 '17 at 5:44
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it deals with the structure of an organization in the nation called Germany. It doesn't deal with the language called German. – Hubert Schölnast Jun 21 '17 at 9:22
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    @HubertSchölnast, I agree that the question is not very clear on that, but it seems to be actually also about the words, their origin and grammatical structure. – Carsten S Jun 21 '17 at 12:03
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    If the community votes accept @HubertSchölnast 's opinion, then your question is off-topic here. But, you can re-ask this on the academia.stackexchange.com, there it would be ontopic. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Jun 21 '17 at 17:06

Here is my experience from three german universities and one german research institution:

  • Hilfswissenschaftler (HiWi): This is an undergraduate research assistant or an undergraduate teaching assistant. In my contracts, always the term studentische Hilfskraft was used. The term Hilfsassistent is not familiar to me, but I would understand what you mean. However, also see the term Assistent below.
  • wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter: This is a collective term for all the scientific staff that is working within a defined group or area, including

    • Doktorand: Ph.D. student
    • PostDoc: postdoc

    but excluding the

    • Privatdozent: Someone who is habilitated but not a professor.
    • Professor: Professor
  • Lehrbeauftragter: lecturer

There are some special forms, such as Akademischer Rat, Hochschulprofessor, Juniorprofessor and others.

The term Oberassistent is entirely unfamiliar to me. In my current institution and the nearby university hospital, Assistent always exclusively refers to assisting staff, such as a medical technical assistant, a laboratory assistent, or similar.

Apart from this, you can usually append the postfix in to obtain the female forms: Dozentin, Assistentin, Professorin, etc.

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For words derived from Latin, -en is the plural suffix. In general, -in is used for a specifically female form, with plural -innen.


The Latin verb assistere "to stand by, to help", literally "to stand next to", has the present participle assistens which becomes assistent- in all forms except nominanitive. From this derives the English word assistant (with a spelling change) and the German word Assistent, "someone who helps". The corresponding native German word is Mitarbeiter, which derives from the verb mitarbeiten "work together".

So a professor had someone to help him, which would be an older student, and that ossified into a position for graduate students called "Assistent" or "wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter" to make it clear it's about assisting in research, and not in manual labor etc. The prefix "Hilfs-" is "auxiliary" in English, so an undergraduate student helping in research or teaching would become a "Hilfsassistent". Another word for that is "Hilfswissenschaftler" or short "Hiwi".

"Ober-" indicates superior rank (literally "ober" = above), and is also frequently used in other german compounds. In practice, I've never heard the term "Oberassistent".

The Latin word docere "to teach" forms German Dozent in the same way as above, with a spelling change to adapt to German orthography. "Gast" is a visitor, so a "Gastdozent" is a "visiting" scientist who also teaches during his stay.

"Privat" means "on one's own, not in official capacity", so a "Privatdozent" is someone who has no "official" position, because he is (not yet) a professor.

"Lehrbeauftragter" means "someone who has been appointed (beauftragt) to teach (lehren)", so that is anyone who holds lectures and teaches, but doesn't hold one of the other titles.

As for usage, see the other answer.

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    Was meinst du bei Privatdozent mit has no "official" position? Bei uns haben alle Privatdozenten eine feste Stelle. Vielleicht meinst du aber etwas anderes? – Björn Friedrich Jun 21 '17 at 10:38

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