Scientists in the World
Doing the PhD in Mainz, Germany
Written by Chiara
Continuing our series of articles about research opportunities in Germany, we want to give you an overview of the research landscape for prospective life sciences PhD students in Mainz, where NGC originates and operates. Mainz hosts mainly two PhD programmes in the field, but it is possible to also pursue a PhD without being associated with a programme. Here you can read the personal experiences of Chiara, Karla and Margaryta.
Chiara: Individual PhD at the Faculty of Biology, Mainz University
Application & Admission
Individual PhDs are the most common way of getting a doctoral degree in Germany and there is no structured application system. To apply for my PhD, I sent my application (including CV and motivation letter) via email to the labs that had raised my interest. Sometimes individual positions are advertised, butit is possible to contact lab heads even if no position is advertised. If a group is interested in your CV, they will invite you for an interview, in which you will presumably present your master thesis’ work and talk with the lab head and some group members. If they select you as their new PhD student, you are directly hired by the group and you will likely have a research assistant position. This can happen anytime during the year, without waiting for calls for applications and deadlines.
Requirements & Degree
Because in Germany only universities can award a doctoral degree, I enrolled at the Faculty of Biology of Mainz University. There are a few requirements [read our previous article] and you need two official thesis reviewers who will evaluate the thesis, one of whom is your supervisor. Any PhD student from Mainz University, the University Medical Center and the other research institutes on campus working in the life sciences can enrol at the Biology Faculty to obtain the title of Dr. rer. nat. [read our previous article about the difference between Dr. rer. nat. and PhD titles].
Once I started my PhD, my job consisted of the usual PhD-slog, with experiments, data analysis, progress reports, attending talks and conferences etc. “No structured programme” means that you are not forced to collect a certain amount of credit points and attend mandatory activities. This was very important to me, perhaps even the main reason why I opted for an individual PhD: I was done with university and mandatory curricula, I wanted to get down to business and do my work. However, I felt something was missing, namely an offer of training in professional skills - usually a staple of any PhD programme. As I tend to be very proactive, I looked on my own for courses from PhD programmes on campus, when accessible, and for online courses. Another thing missing in individual PhDs is the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC), which may be useful in case of disagreements with your supervisor (in my case, a TAC might have considerably shortened my PhD-life and prevented my supervisor from changing my project 4 times).
In hindsight, I would still do an individual PhD: I feel too strongly about the constrictions of a PhD programme’s curriculum and I prefer the flexibility of choosing what to do (or not do) besides my experiments. I would however urge all universities to establish a broad range of training in professional skills available to all PhD students and postdocs, at a quality comparable to that of the training provided by PhD programmes: all scientists are on a path of continuous education and should be offered training opportunities by their institutions, no matter at which career stage or in which programme they are.
Karla: International PhD Programme (IPP) Mainz
Application & Admission
When I was still in Mexico and I was looking for a PhD position in Germany, I found I could either apply directly to an open position within a laboratory or I could apply to an established PhD programme. I decided to apply for the so-called International PhD Programme (IPP) in Mainz. The IPP usually has 2-3 calls for applications throughout the year, and includes research groups from three institutes in Mainz: Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU, Mainz University) and University Medical Center (UMC). When you apply you need to indicate your 5 favourite laboratories among those offering a project in that call. You send your CV, which serves as an overview of your career, together with a motivation letter explaining why you are interested in the programme. I also described why I was interested in the projects offered by the laboratories I chose. Additionally, at least 2 letters of recommendation are required. If you pass the first round of selection, which is based on your written application, you will be invited to participate in the IPP interview days. Before the corona-pandemic times, pre-selected applicants would come to Mainz for 3 days. At the interviews they get to listen to all of the group leaders present their research, and present their Master’s thesis to all recruiting group leaders. The interview process continues with a round of short interviews, in which you talk with various group leaders for 15 minutes. At last, you will get the chance of having a long interview (typically 2 h long) with group leaders who are interested in you. Note that when the IPP interview days occurred physically, the travel expenses of the applicant were 100% reimbursed by the IPP programme, regardless of the result of the interview days.
Requirements & Degree
Anyone with a Masters degree can apply for a PhD position through the IPP. There are also a few cases of students doing a “fast track” PhD, which means they have only obtained a bachelor's degree before starting their PhD. As far as I know, this is possible for people, who can demonstrate remarkable research experience, reflected in scientific internships, conferences, publications, as well as excellent grades during their bachelor. In order to obtain a degree, we need to enrol at Mainz University, which is the institution that in the end will give us the degree of Dr. rer. nat. Most of us enrol at the Faculty of Biology.
The application process is very straightforward from the beginning. As the IPP is a well established PhD programme, there is a team ready to solve all the doubts you have while applying to the programme and also after you have joined it. I have always felt very well supported and informed in that regard. I also enjoy the security of having funding ready for the time-frame of my stay. When I was offered the PhD position, I received a stipend for 3 years with the possibility of extensions up to 5 years. Having the certainty of sufficient funding for my research and living gives me the privilege to devote my energy to get research done. Besides, being part of a structured program gives you the opportunity to keep taking courses on methodologies and soft skills. This possibility of further training during your PhD is priceless. While some of the courses offered in the IPP are optional, there are however some courses that are mandatory, which need to be attended and passed.
Unfortunately, at the moment of application not all of the participating groups are looking for a candidate, it might therefore be the case that you are very interested in the research done by one laboratory that is actually not able to offer a position in that call. Overall, I am still very happy with my decision of applying to a PhD Programme. I feel well-supported by the programme management, who already have experience with many different situations that can occur during your PhD. I also love that in addition to the mandatory courses, I am still able to attend very nice courses that might be helpful for life after the PhD, which would be very costly outside of the IPP. Feel free to check out the IPP website.
All scientists are on a path of continuous education and should be offered training opportunities by their institutions, no matter at which career stage or in which programme they are.
Margaryta: TransMed PhD Programme
Application & Admission
I wanted to start my PhD in the lab where I did my Master’s thesis and my supervisor suggested joining the TransMed (Translational Medicine) structured PhD Programme, which includes several immunology, cardiology and neuroscience groups of the University Medical Center (UMC). I wrote a project proposal and submitted it together with my CV. My PhD supervisor also had to support my application. Importantly, it is possible to apply to TransMed also after having started your PhD in one of the participating groups; admission to the programme is not a prerequisite for a PhD position in those groups.
Requirements & Degree
You have to fulfil basic requirements for starting a PhD, such as having a Master’s degree and prove a proficient level of English. You also need a feasible project proposal and your supervisor has to agree to host you in their lab as their PhD student. Additionally, you need to find a second supervisor. I know of rare cases of Fast Track students who applied without having a Master’s, but it’s quite tricky, since you need to take classes and exams from a Master’s programme to get enough credit points at the end of your PhD. At the end of the programme, you can get the title of PhD in Translational Biomedicine. It is issued in collaboration by Mainz University and the faculty of medicine of UMC. To those who are wondering: yes, you can officially put the title Dr. in front of your surname after receiving a PhD in Germany.
As a non-EU national, I needed to be enrolled at the university from the beginning. The student status gives you a lot of benefits, e.g. the Semesterticket allows you to use all public transport in Mainz and even travel to neighbouring cities, besides giving access to various students’ discounts. There are a number of sport classes (ranging from Aikido to swimming) you can participate in for free. You can also attend university lectures on general topics, such as philosophy, and even learn a foreign language if you find time. However, the student status is not so beneficial for your visa if you plan to stay in Germany after your PhD.
I enjoyed the structured PhD programme a lot, because it gave me many possibilities to attend courses, seminars, and workshops ranging from academic writing to project management. I didn’t feel restricted, because the programme doesn’t force you to attend mandatory courses, you only have to collect enough credit points by the end of your PhD. The coordinators told me that in all of the years that the programme existed, only one student failed to provide proof of collecting enough credit points and had to do some workshops before submitting their thesis. In my case, the necessary amount of credit points was collected after my second year. Obviously, I like attending seminars and workshops!
As you can see, there are different opportunities for a PhD in the life sciences in Mainz. If you are instead interested in a doctoral position in industry, there may be opportunities at local biotech companies (TRON, BioNTech). PhD students working at these companies usually enrol at the Faculty of Biology at Mainz University for their doctoral title.
Written by Chiara Galante, Karla Blöcher-Juárez, Margaryta Tevosian; Edited by Debbie Shi. Featured Image: NGC/Design.