Doing a PhD in Germany

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: 

  1. Deciding what kind of program and thesis you want to complete
  2. Applying to a program
  3. Working with an advisor on your research
  4. Handing in your completed thesis to the department
  5. 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
  6. 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/ .

Salary

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).

Language

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.

Visa

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.

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8 comments

  1. Colleen · · Reply

    Thank you very much for this post! I checked out the DAAD site you linked and I noticed that the PhD positions expect applicants to have a masters degree. For science/engineering in Germany, do most people get a masters first?

  2. Hi Colleen! Yes, most (if not all) people get a master’s before entering a PhD program. It used to be the case that you could, if you were at the top of your class, go directly into a PhD program after completing undergrad coursework, but I would be surprised to hear that this was still the case anywhere. The exact master’s degree is somewhat flexible, but you would need to make a case for the knowledge from the master’s being applicable to the PhD. For example, I was able to enter a PhD in Psychology at the Faculty of Math and Science, Dusseldorf, after completing a master’s in the Netherlands in Neuroscience. So, although the degrees/coursework should be related, the exact degree you need to do isn’t set in stone. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many programs combining a master’s and PhD degree, but I have definitely heard of this or variations of this. For example, in Cologne, which takes part in the EURON program for PhDs in Neurosciences, you are able (and in many cases expected) to do both the master’s and PhD.

    Also, as I mentioned, your master’s definitely doesn’t have to be completed in Germany. Because I did mine in the Netherlands, I was able to take on a bit more coursework and finish in one year. So that, too, isn’t set in stone. Also, once you complete a master’s with a good grade (this is different for every university, my university’s grade cutoff was I believe a 2.0 for my program’s admission requirements), you won’t need to worry about getting into a program. The admission’s process is clear cut and, depending on your university, based entirely on grades or whether you have found a prof who as agreed to advise your dissertation, but not masses of tricky application essays.

    Hope this helped a little

  3. Thanks very much for clearing this up!

    1. No problem, hope you have a good time figuring out where to go :-)

  4. I have a question. I already have a phd in one area and I’m interested in getting another. Stupid, I know but it’s an idea I’m toying with. Would I need to do a Masters or does my phd qualify me?

    1. Hi Jennifer, I’m really sorry this answer took so long, I was doing some traveling. This is, by the way, definitely not considered a stupid idea in Germany — even the Lufthansa website has an option to click on either “Dr.” or “Dr. Dr.” when booking your ticket online! Your PhD should qualify you at any university, if you can show that undergraduate work relates to the PhD field you want to go into. When applying, if you don’t have a Masters from a German university, your application will probably have to undergo an “Anerkennungsverfahren” (recognition process). This just means that once you apply, your application will be checked by the dean’s office to make sure your credentials are equivalent to a German Masters. (This process is also done when applying for other degrees, not just PhDs.) It takes a few weeks and, in the words of the secretary when I applied for a PhD with a foreign Masters, generally will be decided in favor of the applicant for North American and European countries (she used these examples because this was my educational background, I’m not sure whether other countries are also generally accepted).

      When I read your comment, I tried to call the secretary at my university to ask what the case would be if you wanted to do a PhD in a completely different field. Unfortunately, she had left for vacation and afterwards I was traveling so I haven’t been able to ask her opinion. At the start of the new year both of us will be back so I will ask her then if you are still interested, seeing as the process is probably the same almost everywhere.

      If you decide on a specific university or research institution offering the possibility of also doing a PhD, you can check with the “Prüfungsamt” of the specific faculty and hopefully the secretary will be as friendly as the one working at my university.

  5. Hi, i appreciate the article. However, I have a really important question. I now am in middle of my PhD thesis. It is officially one and a half year old. But, I have done my master thesis in the same lab and on the same project. So, together, I worked on the project for 2.5 yrs. So far, I have quite a lot of results (far more than a dr.rer.med would have, because I have seen a few dissertations of dr.rer.med). But our lab is now facing a financial crisis and so my boss says that i can write my thesis and finish it with dr.rer.med. But, i actually wanted to do dr.rer.nat. I have done my masters in a fachhochschule with 90 credits. So, does the title dr.rer.med will affect me finding a postdoc position in 1.EU and 2.outside EU eg. US. How good will be my chances with med. title and how do they affect later if i want to go into the industry? Does people really consider my dr.med title if i have a couple of publication (one with a 1st author in a good journal and a 2/3 as a second author) when I am applying for postdoc position is US or UK? awaiting your valuable answers……..

    1. Hi Sanjeev,

      so there are a couple of issues that you mention which I also went through and can answer based on my personal experience.

      1) “But, I have done my master thesis in the same lab and on the same project.”
      I also worked on my masters thesis and PhD projects in the same lab. The university I was enrolled in for the masters and was planning on continuing my PhD research at had no problem with the masters project extending into the PhD. However, I changed universities and the new university said any material I had already used as a part of my masters was absolutely not allowed to be considered into the graded part of my PhD. Basically, I was allowed to include the research used for my masters ONLY as background for the PhD, but it had to be quoted as being a part of a separate body of work and it was not allowed to be used as PhD research.
      This left me with a problem, because although I was completing a cumulative PhD dissertation with multiple publications, the publication from my masters thesis was a huge part of my PhD and I was left with the prospect of submitting a PhD dissertation with only coauthorships on a few studies. I ended up deciding to write another literature review of related research to replace the lost masters research and have another first authorship to supplement my coauthorships. It added quite a lot of time and effort to a dissertation I had figured was basically already finished, but it was really the only way to avoid the risk of a low grade.

      2) “But our lab is now facing a financial crisis and so my boss says that i can write my thesis and finish it with dr.rer.med. But, i actually wanted to do dr.rer.nat. ”
      Do you have the possibility to transfer to another university to complete the dr. rer. nat.? If yes, I would consider it. A similar situation happened to me, not related to funding but because of time constraints, and I decided to transfer universities and work with an advisor who could help me get a dr. rer. nat. In order to do this, I asked my colleagues at the lab if they had worked with any psychology professors who had similar research interests to what we had worked on in the lab. I was able to get a couple names and I wrote to these professors explaining the situation and also that it was really important for me to keep my dissertation more focused on a psychology research perspective instead of the medical perspective. Luckily, I found a fantastic advisor willing to take me on with the research I already had.

      3) “But, i actually wanted to do dr.rer.nat. I have done my masters in a fachhochschule with 90 credits.”
      I’m not sure whether the university would need to do an “Anerkennungsverfahren” mentioned in the comment above for the fachhochschule. I suspect not, but you might want to double check this in the “Promotionsordnung” if you decide to transfer universities.

      4) “So, does the title dr.rer.med will affect me finding a postdoc position in 1.EU and 2.outside EU eg. US. How good will be my chances with med. title and how do they affect later if i want to go into the industry? Does people really consider my dr.med title if i have a couple of publication (one with a 1st author in a good journal and a 2/3 as a second author) when I am applying for postdoc position is US or UK?”
      It might be changing, but from what I have heard, the dr. med. is inferior to the dr. rer. nat. I do not know what the case is with dr. rer. med. vs dr. rer. nat. I did a quick google search on this and came up with this interesting article from Die Zeit from October, 2009 (it’s in German, not sure how good your German is so if you want help with paraphrasing more of the article just let me know).
      http://www.zeit.de/2009/43/C-Doktor-Med
      The most relevant point for your problem is the following: “Bei seinen eigenen naturwissenschaftlichen Doktoranden legt er Wert darauf, dass sie den Dr. rer. nat. anstreben: »Damit haben sie auf dem Markt immer noch die besseren Chancen.« Tatsächlich gilt der Doktor der theoretischen Medizin manchem Naturwissenschaftler als Fremdling.” (Loose translation: “[The immunologist interviewed, Lothar Rink,] believes it is important that his own doctoral candidates aim for the Dr. rer. nat. ‘In doing so, they still have the better chances in the job market.’ Indeed, the doctor of theoretical medicine is considered to be a stranger to some scientists.”)
      I honestly don’t know how the dr. rer. med. degree is considered outside of Germany because it’s one I hadn’t heard of prior to your question, seeing as apparently so few universities award this. Based on talks with other PhD candidates here in the US, you might want to just try contacting a lab you would like to apply for a postdoc in and just run by them how they weigh the title name vs the actual list of publications. You might have some luck and someone will take the time to send you a quick response. The worst that can happen is they don’t… :-)

      Sorry I couldn’t help you more regarding your last question, but I hope I was able to at least give you some input!

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