“Doing research at universities of applied sciences is exciting”

This article was published in the April 2020 edition of our newsletter.

Subscribe to our newsletter!
Portrait of Muriel Helbig.

Dr Helbig, what distinguishes research at a German university of applied sciences (UAS)? 

Research at a university of applied sciences – as the very name suggests – stands out because of its focus on the application of knowledge. It is not solely based on theory, but also firmly dedicated to resolving practical problems. It aims to produce usable results, or to put it another way: to realise concrete innovations.

This application-oriented research at universities of applied sciences is frequently carried out jointly with practitioners in the field – for example, with partners in enterprises or social institutions. This joint research activity is important for UASs because it helps keep their teaching close to the needs and realities of the world of work.

What differentiates research at a UAS from research at a German university or non-university research institution?

The focus at a UAS is always firmly on knowledge transfer and practical solutions; publications and building an academic reputation are less of a priority here. A special feature and strength of research at universities of applied sciences is that their researchers are practitioners in their respective field. Several years of professional experience outside higher education is a prerequisite for appointment as a professor. That leads to a common mindset, a common language, between these universities and their partners. Individuals here frequently already know one another from their previous work environment, and often professors bring their contacts with them into the UAS. That is naturally an enormous advantage for cooperation between theory and practice.


What are the main emphases of research at UASs?

Research is carried out in the fields that are taught. The range of subjects extends from agricultural sciences to economic psychology. Because universities of applied sciences formed 50 years ago out of the engineering colleges that existed at that time and comparable institutions, especially commercial colleges, for example, technical, engineering and MINT (mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology) subjects are traditionally common, as are subjects in the economic and social sciences.


How strong is the international orientation of UASs – institutionally and in relation to research?

Universities of applied sciences are based in their regions and internationally oriented. Incidentally, the UAS model is experiencing strong demand from abroad. When it comes to international research partnerships, especially within the HORIZON 2020 research framework programme of the European Union (EU), more and more opportunities are being offered for application-oriented research – the ideal subject matter for UASs. After all, the strong focus on results that is demanded by policymakers (keyword: impact) is directly within their area of competence. Frequently, however, these competitively awarded EU funds are considerably oversubscribed. And since UAS professors have less resources for research projects because of the lack of mid-level academic staffing and the high proportion of time they spend teaching, they tend – at least, in the experience of the TH Lübeck – to apply to national funding organisations for third-party funds. The chances of approval are higher there. As a result, UASs are usually strongly dependent on initial start-up funding from the Federal Government or individual states to support their applicants.


Who would you advise to do research and, where possible, complete a doctorate at a UAS?

I would recommend that to anyone who is interested in solving a practical problem and applying their findings – in other words, knowledge transfer – and also to all those who prefer working in a team and collaborating with others. Since we frequently work with practical partners and – with a few exceptions – need to cooperate with a university in order to award doctorates, research here is less hidden away in "ivory towers" and more likely to involve different partners and therefore different interests.

Let me mention just two examples of applied research. Overuse of water is leading to the intrusion of saline groundwater in coastal areas in Greece, Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia. Here civil engineers are investigating how the causes of this salination can be detected swiftly for farmers and water suppliers and the groundwater protected against salination. Another example involving a partnership between medical technology specialists and a hospital is the development of a single-use device that facilitates the fixation process following forearm fractures in children without the need for an operation. This is achieved by integrating an easy-to-adjust component within the plaster cast to enable continuous adjustment over a period of roughly one week. In the meantime the device has been patented. These kinds of research projects are exciting!

Personal details

Dr Muriel Kim Helbig was born in Washington, DC in 1975 and has been President of the Technische Hochschule Lübeck (partly in German) since 2014. The psychologist’s previous positions include Head of International Relations at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. She became Vice President of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in January 2020, after having been a Member of its Executive Committee since 2016.