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PhD Programs in Germany

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Featured Universities

Why do your PhD in Germany?

Germany has long enjoyed a fantastic reputation for its excellent education system, in addition to a strong labour market. The country, although well-known for its engineering and manufacturing tradition, is also a hub for scientific, medical, social and artistic research. The research infrastructure in Germany is second-to-none (Germany having produced over 100 Nobel prize-winners over the years!). On average, 25,000 doctoral candidates a year earn their PhD in Germany, making it one of the top countries in Europe for doctoral training.

As well as strong links to industry, every major city you can think of has at least one top university in international rankings. Many of the newer higher education institutions in Germany have climbed to the top in no time at all, demonstrating the strength of the German system. The number of foreign students registered for a PhD has more than doubled in the last 12 years to just over 18,000.

German University System

There are mainly two types of higher education institutions in Germany:

  • Universities (including Technische Universität, also known as TU) are research-oriented and offer a wide variety of subjects. These can award doctorate degrees.
  • Fachhochschulen on the other hand, are practice-oriented and offer courses mainly in engineering, business administration, social sciences and design. They do not award doctorates.

Germany is also home to a number of prestigious research institutions, such as EMBL, which do not have degree-awarding powers but host doctoral students for the major part of their doctorates. These students are jointly-supervised by a professor in a university (in Germany or abroad) from which the PhD will be awarded.

As in many countries, the aim of the doctorate is to draw up and publish a written doctoral thesis/dissertation. The award of PhD is based on examination of the thesis (which must be published within regulations specific to each university) and by an oral examination.

Types of PhD in Germany

PhD students in Germany are most often referred to as Doctoral Candidates. There are two types of PhDs in Germany:

  • The traditional approach
    The traditional approach involves identifying a supervisor (Doktorvater/Doktormutter, interestingly meaning a thesis father or mother!) at a German university who is willing to guide your research. This system offers a lot of flexibility since there is no compulsory attendance, deadlines or curriculum, but requires a great deal of dedication. The average length of this kind of PhD is 4 years.
  • Structured doctoral programmes
    Structured doctoral programmes are internationally-oriented, conducted largely in English and are comparable to PhD programmes offered in Doctoral Training Centres in the UK for example. Doctoral candidates work individually and also in wider research projects. Structured graduate courses and transferable skills training are an essential part of these programmes which normally lead to a PhD in about 3 years.

According to the German Council of Science and Humanities, the majority of doctoral candidates still complete a traditional doctorate but a growing proportion choose structured programmes, especially in the natural sciences and mathematics.

PhD Funding / Fees

As a doctoral student, you do not have to pay tuition fees, but you will be asked to pay an administrative fee called Semesterbeitrag (special semester contribution) of 50-250 euros depending on the institution. This covers costs for services such as student governance, public transport, and Studentenwerk (student services). Health insurance is also required and if you are self-funded you will have to pay for it yourself.

Students completing a traditional doctorate with a supervisor will often have to raise the necessary funds themselves. Teaching appointments can provide part of a doctoral candidate's income. Other financing options include scholarships. The supervisor may nominate the doctoral candidate forward for a grant, for example from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation).

PhD candidates can also apply for a scholarship themselves. Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service) sponsors doctoral candidates from abroad. DAAD offices in country (for example in India) will provide information on available sponsorship schemes.

Depending on the subject, there are also numerous organisations in Germany that award individual grants. These include Federal states, foundations, religious organisations or foundations associated with political parties. Funding periods and eligibility criteria will vary but may include allowances for language course, families with children as well as research travel costs.

In addition to scholarships or academic employment, doctoral candidates also have the option of financing their living costs with part-time jobs. If you are a non-EU citizen, you must make sure that your residence permit allows you to undetake paid work.

For students taking a structured doctoral degree course or attending a graduate school, financing is a different matter. Candidates interested in one of the structured programmes should include an application for funding when applying for the graduate programme; if they are accepted, funding is then already secured and students can expect a monthly allowance of 1,000 - 1,400 euros.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for A PhD in Germany

There is no national or federal structure to apply for doctoral studies in Germany and you will have to apply to individual institutions directly.

  • Step 1: Find a supervisor or a structured programme
    If you decide to apply for a traditional PhD, you should contact potential supervisors directly and send a brief and well-structured outline of your proposed PhD project. You should allow plenty of time before the intended start of your PhD.
    If you are planning to apply for a structured PhD programme, you should contact the selected university and complete the application procedure, as instructed and within the deadline.
  • Step 2: Admission procedures
    Once you have a letter of acceptance from your supervisor or a confirmation of admission on a structured programme, you should apply for formal admissions. These vary depending on the institution. At this stage, the relevant department or doctoral committee must confirm your eligibility as a doctoral candidate. This usually involves completing an application that includes a statement by your doctoral supervisor, certified copies of certificates and the university degree that entitles you to engage in doctoral study.
  • Step 3. Enrolment
    Your next step is to enrol. There are several advantages to enrolling as a doctoral candidate, for instance, securing better legal status as a foreign resident. To be eligible for enrolment, the university must first accept your application for doctoral studies. However, not all departments require doctoral candidates to officially enrol at university and this will be stipulated in the doctoral regulations of your institution.

PhD Entry Requirements

In Germany, every university/study programme has its own set of entry requirements. As a general rule, however, a qualification equivalent to a German master or magister is required for admissions to PhD studies. Each university is responsible for decisions on the admission of doctoral students and the accreditation of qualifications. Exceptionally well-qualified international applicants might be admitted as doctoral students with a Bachelor degree (fast-track programme). Usually an examination will then be required.

Some universities may ask for proof of English language proficiency, for example by requesting TOEFL or IELTS scores, while universities will ask for very good German language skills if your thesis is to be written in German. In such cases, your knowledge of German needs to be certified through examinations like the TestDaF or DSH.

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