Scientists in the World

Doing the PhD in Germany

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Germany is an attractive destination for foreign researchers in all career stages. Every year, more than 5000 international PhD students successfully complete their doctorates at a German research institution, just in 2018 Germany had the highest number of doctoral students in all EU countries. But before you can start your doctoral studies in Germany, you need to prepare some essentials. Here, you will find information about the main requirements and what to prepare for.

Finding a PhD position

To find the right PhD position, you should be very clear about what you want. What are your scientific interests? What qualifications did you gain during your studies? What new techniques or methods do you want to learn? Besides this, you should be clear on how you want to do your doctorate. In Germany, you can in fact choose between two different forms of studies:

  • The individual doctorate is based on independent research and a dissertation written under the supervision of a university professor. This path is the traditional one in German universities and is chosen by more than three-quarters of all doctoral students in Germany.
  • The structured PhD programme offers a team of supervisors and structured training in scientific and professional skills.
    Depending on where you are landing for your PhD, you can choose between the two options or only one of them. You may also choose which title you prefer to get in the end.

Where to do your PhD in Germany?

In Germany, you can do your PhD at universities, university hospital schools or accredited research organizations (we have already talked about the main independent German research organisations). No matter where you will do your PhD, with all probability your degree will be issued by a university. In fact, in Germany doctoral degrees can be issued only by accredited educational institutions.

Nowadays, there are many graduate schools associated with various German research organisations (you’ll find some examples here).  Thanks to funding from the EU or from the German Research Foundation (DFG), there are many doctoral training programmes, e.g. individual Training Networks (iTNs, EU-funded) or Research Training Groups (RTGs, DFG-funded). Such programmes are created around a core scientific topic and include research groups from different universities who join to collaborate. The funding given to these networks allows them to hire PhD students as well as to organise training, both in scientific and professional skills.

Recognition of degrees & enrollment

If you have found a supervisor for your doctoral research, or if you have made it into a PhD programme, you still need to be accepted as a doctoral candidate in a university faculty. A pivotal moment for the start of your scientific career in Germany is the recognition of your foreign university degree, which must be equal to a German Master’s degree (and issued or translated either in English or German). Furthermore, during your university degree you must have collected ECTS points equivalent to those required by the German system of higher education for admission to doctoral studies. For the recognition of your foreign degrees (Anerkennung), you need to submit them to the appropriate office in the university where you are enrolling as a doctoral student. They will run them through a process of evaluation and inform you of whether you can enrol as a PhD student right away or not.

Why wouldn’t they allow you to be a PhD student? As mentioned just above, to enrol as a PhD student in Germany it is necessary to have collected throughout the university studies as many ECTS as required by the German system. Therefore, some foreign degrees are not recognised as a prerequisite for your doctoral degree. For instance, a 4-years Bachelor degree doesn’t allow you to get a PhD in Germany. Does this mean that you cannot do your PhD in Germany? No, not all. In fact, several universities already have a fast-track programme. Alternatively, you may need to enrol for a Master’s degree in Germany to gather the ECTS you are missing in order to be able to start your doctorate.

Each faculty at every university is regulating doctoral degrees in its own way, meaning that there may not be two faculties with the same regulations for the doctoral degree. For instance, the number of semesters during which you should be enrolled as a student prior to being allowed to submit your doctoral thesis may change.

Is German necessary to become a PhD student in Germany? Although it is very useful to speak the language of the Country you live in, it is usually not necessary for your daily lab work. Most of the time it is also possible to write your doctoral thesis in English. You can find out in which languages you are allowed to write your thesis in the doctoral regulations of the faculty in which you are enrolled.

Obtaining a doctoral degree in Germany

Doctoral studies primarily mean dealing intensively with a specific topic or research project over a longer period of time. Among many favorable aspects of the German education system, the most beneficial one is the lack of tuition fees. The reality behind this, is that public universities are sponsored by the government.

We have previously written about how research positions are funded in Germany and the difference between contracts and stipends. Doctoral contracts can be funded through public funds, such as the ones from Research Training Groups. The industry is also a significant contributor in funding research and innovation activities through its own research institutes, as well as through close cooperation with universities and other research institutions. The European Union is an additional supporter in this regard, allocating education and research funds inside the Research Framework Programme.

Doctoral candidates either work at universities or research institutes as research assistants or academic assistants, or receive a scholarship, or have a company-paid position. German doctoral contracts are usually limited to 3 years but most of the time are extendable, depending on how the project is proceeding. In fact a 3-year doctorate is unrealistic in many disciplines; it takes on average 4.5 years in the life sciences, while there are also many cases of doctoral students obtaining their degree after 5 or more years.

Many funding organisations support international doctoral students, like the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which funds around 5,000 international doctoral students per year. If you are an outstanding doctoral student, you will have the option to find a German funding organisation to support you. In general, you need an above-average university degree to obtain these stipends.

Additional requirements for foreigners

As a non-EU citizen, you need a visa to legitimately enter and reside in Germany for your doctoral studies. We have already discussed some of the main requirements for international candidates. German embassies or consulates are the sole legitimized authorities for issuing visas – an official authorization for a lawful entrance, a reserved right for non-German nationals. As an admitted doctoral candidate in Germany, you will be required to apply for a German “Student Visa”. To obtain this, you will need a valid passport, a proof of acceptance from your PhD supervisor stating that he/she will supervise your cortoral thesis, and certificates of education, amongst other standard bureaucratic documents. For a complete list of requirements, you should get in touch with the German embassy or consulate closest to you.

Good luck, and may you soon start your research career as a PhD student in Germany!

Written by Mirjam Ax, Sadhna Sahani & Chiara Galante; Edited by Gabrielle Sant. Featured image: NGC Mainz/Design.


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