Joachim Nettelbeck was born in Mannheim in 1944. He studied Jurisprudence and Sociology in Freiburg im Breisgau and Berlin. From 1971 to 1978, he was Administrative Director of the Berlin School of Economics. During a research residency in France, he earned his doctorate in 1978/79 with a dissertation titled "Zur Berufung von Hochschullehrern in der Bundesrepublik und in Frankreich" (The appointment of instructors of higher education in the Federal Republic of Germany and France). From 1979 to 1981, Mr. Nettelbeck was Executive Board Assistant of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD – German academic exchange service) in Bonn.
In 1981 he became the Secretary of the newly founded Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and remained in this position until 2012.