Doing a PhD in Germany can seem difficult at first because of the number of decisions you have to make before you even apply. However, it really only seems like a ton at first because the US just doesn’t work exactly the same; once you’ve read a little bit about how it works you’ll see it really is just one more adventure in the long string of new stuff to come. Below, I’ve tried to list some of the most important aspects I found when applying for a PhD program over here.
The basic steps to completing a PhD are:
- Deciding what kind of program and thesis you want to complete
- Applying to a program
- Working with an advisor on your research
- Handing in your completed thesis to the department
- Defense, which is basically an oral exam, in which approx. 3 professors listen to your presentation and test you on your knowledge of your field of research
- Publishing your thesis
Before you apply: decisions, decisions…
Important decisions you need to make before you apply are:
- Cumulative vs traditional dissertation: The cumulative thesis is relatively new, but is a great option for people wanting to get into publishing journal articles and get their work out there. I chose the cumulative option because following my undergrad degree and during my master’s in neuroscience, I had already coauthored a few publications, and it seemed a shame to throw these away and write a huge thesis in their place. The cumulative thesis gives you the option of submitting a series of publications (you don’t have to be first author on all of them but you should have at least one first authorship) and writing a shorter thesis tying the publications together. The traditional, still very popular, dissertation is the same as the one generally written in the US.
- Dr. rer. nat., Dr. phil., Dr. iur., PhD, Dr. med., and soooo many more: These are various titles given for different doctoral programs. I’ve chosen a few of the more common ones here, including Dr. rer nat., which is typically given for the natural sciences, psychology, math, pharmacy, or computer science; Dr. phil. (Doctor of Philosophy), given for work in basically all the humanities, political science, psychology, education, and sometimes for math and science; Dr. iur., given to work in law. Also, the title of PhD is becoming more prevalent as more universities are adopting international (more easily transferable) titles. The exception to the rule here is Dr. med., which is given for work in medicine, but isn’t equivalent to a PhD (it also involves a lot fewer hours of labor). (From now on, I often just write PhD, just because this is the most common wording in English and it’s shorter than writing doctoral thesis or dissertation — with this I mean PhD as well as other German doctoral titles.)Here’s where it can seem (at first to be a little confusing): the title you receive is specific for the university, in that certain departments can belong to one faculty at one university but a different faculty at a different university. Your degree title will indirectly reflect which faculty you graduate from.
Some subjects are fairly consistent in where they are found; for instance, a PhD in German or English literature will most likely always end in a Dr. phil. Others, however, will vary. For example, I decided to apply for a doctoral program in psychology. I had the choice between Dr. phil., Dr. rer. nat., and Dr. med. (I might have had the choice to complete this at yet another faculty somewhere else, but these were the choices I saw popping up most often when I started to think about where to apply.) Because I had conducted clinical and pharmacological research and want to continue this later on in my career, I decided against a Dr. phil. because that would have required a concentration on the humanities side of my research. I decided against a Dr. med. because, as written above, I would have been submitting quite a bit of work to get a lesser degree. So, deciding on a Dr. rer. nat., I had to look for a university at which psychology was taught at a faculty which awards this degree, such as the Faculty of Math and Science, where I am now. If you are unsure about which degree you will get, you can look in the “Studienordnung” for the doctoral programs. By now, most if not all universities have an English website, but you might have to do a bit of searching a German language Studienordnung to find out what degree is awarded.
Why is this important? If you are definitely planning to leave Germany once you have the degree, then it’s really not. Whatever title you choose (other than Dr. med.) is going to be treated as a regular PhD. But the work you do during the PhD will probably be different depending on what faculty you choose. Had I chosen a Dr. phil., I would now have an advisor who would probably be more focused on the humanities side of my work, which I was less interested in than the clinical aspects.
- Taught program vs independent learning: You need to decide whether you want to enroll in a structured PhD (or Dr. xyz) program (strukturierte Doktorandenausbildung) or whether you want to work without having to complete classroom time in addition. This is a good option if you don’t have a specific person you would like to work with as an advisor, or if you would like to take an interdisciplinary approach. Some universities offer structured PhD programs with the opportunity to complete coursework at other partner universities or departments within the same university.If there is a professor you know you would like to work with, you can ask him or her directly if they would take you on as a doctoral candidate (here a quick vocab lesson: “Promotion” is a doctoral program, “Promovieren” is the act of working on a PhD, “Doktorand” is a PhD candidate). If they accept, you can then apply to the university with a letter from them agreeing to be your advisor (Betreuer/in or Doktorvater/Doktormutter), along with your transcripts from your previous degrees.
- University vs. research center: although this post has focused on universities, there is also the opportunity to do a PhD at a research center. For instance, when I was starting out as an intern, I completed work with PhD students at the Julich Research Center, which has hundreds of PhD positions open and has a fantastic international atmosphere due to the number of foreign researchers and PhD students working there. The Max-Planck Institutes are another place to complete a PhD in many different branches of research, including natural sciences but also cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, and political science to name a few.If you aren’t quite sure and want to look around to see what programs would be open to you, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has a great database of open PhD positions here: https://www.daad.de/deutschland/promotion/phd/en/13306-phdgermany-database/
A fantastic resource to use when deciding whether to do a PhD in Germany is the DAAD website: https://www.daad.de/deutschland/promotion/en/ .
In Germany, if you choose to directly apply to your advisor, you are often expected to work full time at the university on your PhD (or Dr. xyz), but you will most likely (depending on your field) be given a part-time contract. The salary is therefore 50% of what you would be getting judging by the number of hours you work. (However, in my experience I was given the full vacation time awarded anyone with a full-time contract, and was informed by HR that this was, in fact, the law regardless of salary.) Sometimes, you will be given a salary in the TV-L 13 category as an Academic Researcher (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter). Sometimes, you will be funded by a third party project (Drittmittelprojekt), so your salary will depend on the source. You can often expect to earn just over 1,000 euros per month after taxes. If you are funded directly by the university, you may need to do some teaching. Most funding programs run for three years.
A third option is to fund yourself through a scholarship. I will be putting up some more information specifically on scholarships for graduate and doctoral work in my next post, “Financing your graduate and PhD work” (coming asap).
There are quite a few English-speaking programs in Germany. Especially in the sciences or math areas, it will be relatively easy to find a lab which is run in English. Most (if not all) universities allow you to write your thesis and complete your oral defense in English as well.
Once you have been accepted to a a program and can show funding, you can apply for a visa. The university’s international student office can help with questions regarding paperwork.
What are the downsides to doing a PhD in Germany?
Although I would completely recommend doing a PhD here in Germany, there are a few downsides you might want to be aware of beforehand. First, Germany has an extremely heirarchical structure. Your advisor, a university professor, has a lot of freedom and power compared to advisors in the US, which means that you have a lot fewer options to mediate a bad situation. Because many PhD positions in Germany in an office or lab are headed by one professor and are not part of a larger, structured program, it can be difficult to switch advisors easily. It is doable, but it can require applying to another university if there is not another advisor in a different department who will take you on and who has close enough research interests that you can continue your research.
Also, as mentioned above, if you are given a paid position, it will probably be a part-time contract but be expected to work 5 full days a week at the university. I personally do know a couple people who work 1 day a week from home, but the vast majority work in the office or lab. Unfortunately, this is the norm for popular subjects because there will always be a PhD candidate willing to take the part-time contract if you decide it’s too unfair.
If possible, you should ask to contact current PhD students at the lab or office to get more informal details on what the atmosphere and working conditions are like. It might not help, but they might be able to say whether you will be working on evenings and weekends, or whether there are office parties or get-togethers once in a while.