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PhD Study in Germany - A Guide for 2018

Germany’s historic (and highly-ranked) universities make it an excellent choice for study abroad, but when it comes to doctoral research the country has even more to offer. Having first introduced the PhD in the nineteenth century, German universities and specialist research centres continue to offer innovative, tuition-free, postgraduate programmes.

This page covers everything you need to know about studying your doctorate in Germany, including an overview of the German higher education system, an explanation of the types of German PhD and advice for your application.

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PhD opportunities in Germany - what's on offer for 2018?

With striking landscapes, medieval and modern heritage sites and seasonal events ranging from Oktoberfest to Christmas Markets, it’s no surprise Germany is the seventh-most-visited country in the world.

The German higher education system is also world-class and has produced some of history’s most formidable thinkers, including theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.

Here are a few of reasons why you should consider studying for your PhD in Germany this year:

  • Globally ranked institutions – Germany is home to more globally-ranked institutions than any other country outside the USA and UK – and ten of them feature in the current top 100
  • Dedicated research institutes – In addition to its universities, Germany is also home to networks of dedicated research centres, including its prestigious Max Planck Institutes
  • Affordability – Most German universities charge no tuition fees for PhD students, regardless of nationality
  • The home of the PhD – The PhD (in its modern form as a thesis-based research degree) was actually developed in Germany – perhaps this ‘original contribution to knowledge’ can help inspire yours?

PhD Study in Germany - Key Details
Universities 520
Nobel prizes 108
Oldest University University of Heidelberg (1386)
International Students 228,756
PhD Length 3-4 years
Typical Fees None
Academic Year October to September

German universities

Germany is home to over 500 higher education institutions. Not all of them award PhDs, but those that do are renowned for generating highly trained researchers.

Types of German university

The German higher education system is made up of the following:

  • Research Universities (Universität) carry out original academic research in various subjects.
  • Technical Universities (Technische Universität) specialise in Science, Technology and Engineering research. However, they have recently begun to offer qualifications in some other subjects.
  • Universities of Applied Science (Fachhochschulen) focus on professional and vocational subjects such as Engineering, Business or Social Science. They do not award PhDs.
  • Research Institutes carry out important research projects (including PhD work) in partnership with universities, businesses and industry. Most operate within larger networks such as the Max Planck Society.
  • Colleges of Art, Film and Music focus on practical and performance-related work and don’t award PhDs.

As a PhD student you will be applying to the research/technical universities or research institutes.

Public and private universities

Germany is divided into 16 states (lander). Each state is responsible for administering its own public universities and providing them with funding. A small number of public universities also receive funding from the Protestant or Catholic church.

There are 400 in Germany and, as a PhD student, you'll probably be studying at one of them (along with 95% of other students within the country).

The other 5% of the student body attend the 120 private universities. These do not receive state funding. Many of these private institutions are Universities of Applied Sciences, which do not offer PhD programmes.

German university rankings


Top German Universities in 2018
University THE 2018 QS 2018 ARWU 2017
LMU Munich =34 66 57
Technical University of Munich 41 64 50
University of Heidelberg 45 30 201-300
Humboldt University of Berlin 62 120 -
RWTH Aachen University 79 141 201-300
University of Freiburg 82 171 101-150
Free University of Berlin 88 =125 -
Technical University of Berlin 92 144 401-500
University of Tübingen 94 =164 -
University of Bonn =100 239 101-150
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Note that independent research centres (such as Max Planck Institutes) are not usually included within rankings. This isn’t any reflection on the quality of their PhDs. Instead it’s for the simple reason that they aren’t technically ‘universities’ and don’t teach undergraduates.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

German university cities

The capital city of Germany – Berlin, is popular amongst both tourists and international students. However, if you fancy living away from the hustle and bustle of a capital city, don’t worry: Germany has a number of other thriving, student-friendly cities and towns:

PhD Structure

A doctorate in Germany is a third-cycle qualification, in accordance with the European qualification framework adopted as part of the Bologna Process.

The Bologna Process

The Bologna Process brings together a range of countries to form the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Members of the EHEA share a common three-cycle framework that allows degrees from one country to be easily recognised within others.

Although German PhDs follow the format of the Bologna Process, they are very individual in nature; Germany doesn’t see the PhD purely as the third phase in a course of studies, instead it is a separate research achievement.

Types of PhD in Germany

The doctoral degree – based upon independent research towards the submission and examination of a thesis – was a German innovation. This format is still offered at most universities, but some also offer more ‘structured’ programmes:

  • The traditional PhD – you will identify a research project and pursue it independently with the guidance of an expert supervisor (Doktorvater / Doktomutter). The candidate chooses the institution where they would like to conduct their research: at a university or non-university organisation, or within a German company.
  • Structured doctoral programmes – these are conducted largely in English and are internationally-oriented. You will complete additional training alongside your thesis, sometimes including collaborations and placements with external research institutes.

Programme length

The academic year in Germany is usually comprised of two semesters, the exact start and end dates will vary depending upon your institution but are typically as follows:

  • The Wintersemester (WiSe) – runs from 1 October to 31 March with a two-week break at Christmas and Easter
  • The Sommersemester (SoSe) – runs from 1 April to 30 September with a break from July to September

The length of your PhD will depend upon whether you are doing a traditional PhD (typically 4-years) or a structured doctoral programme (typically 3 years).

The German PhD process

The PhD process in Germany depends upon the type of doctorate you are working towards.

In general, both will involve conducting a research project and writing a thesis; however, besides this there are some key differences:

  • Traditional PhDs – offer a more independent and flexible PhD with no compulsory attendance, deadlines or curriculum. You will focus on completing your research and writing a thesis.
  • Structured doctoral programmes –involve completing compulsory lectures, seminars and interim assessments on research related topics. You will attend transferable skills training in academic/scientific methods and soft skills. You will work individually and collaboratively on wider research projects with the students and team of academics within the programme.

The majority of doctoral candidates complete the traditional doctorate; however, a growing proportion are choosing structured programmes – especially in the natural sciences and mathematics.

Supervision

The number of supervisors you have will also depend upon the PhD programme you have chosen.

If you are planning to apply for a traditional doctorate you will have to choose one supervisor to conduct your research project under. Although there to guide you, your supervisor will have little input into the content of your project and you will be expected to largely work independently towards your own thesis.

For structured doctoral students there will typically be a team of supervisors who look after all the PhD students within a doctoral programme. This helps to promote interdisciplinary collaborations. These projects involve more support and training from supervisors and other members of your programme.

PhD supervision

The relationship with your supervisor will be an important part of the PhD process - wherever you choose to study. Our guides offer advice on choosing a PhD supervisor, how you'll work with them and what to expect from the experience.

Assessment and examination

Again, the assessment procedure for a German PhD depends on the type of programme you pursue.

Students following a traditional PhD will submit a doctoral thesis and complete an oral presentation and examination of their work (Rigosorum) in front of at least two professors in related fields.

In some cases, the oral examinations are replaced with a defence of your thesis (Disputation). The thesis defence focuses more on the research you have conducted and why you did it, whereas the oral examinations test your wider knowledge in the field.

If you choose a structured programme you will need to complete several compulsory units in order to attain the 180-240 ECTS credits that are typically required for doctoral students. You will be assessed on your knowledge of course content delivered in lectures and seminars. This is similar to an undergraduate degree (but quite a bit more advanced). In addition you will still have to submit a thesis, and complete the oral examinations.

ECTS credits

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) provides a standard measurement for academic progress and achievement across a range of different national university systems. A PhD is normally worth at least 180 ECTS credits.

Fees and funding

Generous public invest in education means that doctoral degrees in Germany are normally free for all students, regardless of nationality. However, you may have to pay some other fees during your studies.

PhD fees

At doctoral level, tuition is free across all public universitiespublic in Germany for up to three years (six semesters) of study. You may be required to pay tuition fees for any extension period beyond the standard length for your PhD.

Though you won't pay fees, you will need to make a semester contribution (Semesterbeitrag) of €150-200. This covers administration costs, student governance and student services (Studentenwerk).

Living costs

As you will not be paying tuition fees, your main expenses within Germany will be your living costs. These can be higher than other European countries.

According to the German Studentenwerk (student union network) international students will need about €820 per month to cover accommodation, food and other living expenses.

There are three different options for accommodation for international students within Germany:

  • Halls of residence – A single dormitory room is €160-360 per month, this may include health insurance and a Semesterticket for transport
  • Wohngemeinschaften – WG (private shared flats) are the most popular and cheapest form of accommodation at €150-350 per month
  • Private rental – The most expensive option costing €400 (or more) per month

Help from your student union

The student services (Studentenwerk) at your institution can help you find a room in halls of residence. Try contacting them if you are struggling to find accommodation.

Prices in Germany

The following table gives an indication of some common expenses during a PhD in Germany:


Student Cost of Living in Germany - 2018
Restaurant Meal €10.00
Cinema Ticket €10.00
Monthly Travel Pass €70.00
Monthly Utilities €214.00
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Scholarships

There are several scholarships available for international PhD students to help cover your living costs whilst you are studying within Germany:

  • Student grant – your supervisor may nominate you for a grant of €1,250 per month from the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutsche Volkes)
  • DAAD scholarships - the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst)offers scholarships of €1,200 per month for foreign students to study a PhD in Germany
  • StipendiumPlus – provided by a group of 13 organisations that offer funding of €1,350 per month to international students in Germany

There are also various other funding programmes within Germany, making international PhD study an affordable option for you.

If you're applying for a structured doctoral degree programme you should apply for funding along with your PhD. If accepted, you will receive a monthly allowance of €1,000-1,400.

Working whilst studying

As an international PhD student in Germany you are permitted to work whilst studying; however, there are certain restrictions depending upon your nationality:

  • Citizens of the EU, EEA and Switzerland may work without a residence permit, with no restrictions on hours. However, if you work over 20 hours a week you will pay national insurance contributions.
  • Other international students are permitted to work 120 full-days or 240 half-days per year. If you wish to work longer than this, you must seek permission from the local Employment Agency (Agentur für Arbeit) and Foreigner's Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde).

International PhD students are sometimes employed by the university under teaching appointments or as student assistants. You will receive a salary based upon hours spent supervising the library, leading tutorials, researching literature for professors or demonstrating in labs. The 120-day rule does not apply for this type of work.

Working with your scholarship

If you are in receipt of a scholarship or grant you must attain approval from your funding body and institution before you take on any additional work.

Applying for a PhD in Germany

The application procedure in Germany is slightly different to other countries.

If you apply for a traditional PhD, you must identify and contact a supervisor to request they supervise your thesis.

Applications for structured PhDs are made directly to the institution or graduate school providing the programme you wish to study on.

Entry requirements

To study for a PhD in Germany you will generally need to have completed a minimum of eight semesters of academic study prior to the doctorate. The final qualification you obtained must be equivalent to a German Masters degree.

Your previous higher education degree/s must also be recognised by the Dean's Office (Dekanat) or Board of Examiners (Promotionsausschuss) at your university.

Exceptionally well-qualified international students may be admitted onto a PhD with a Bachelor degree (fast-track programme), for this you will typically have to complete an entrance examination.

Language requirements

The language requirements for a PhD in Germany will depend on the programme you apply for.

Structured doctoral programmes are typically taught in English. If this isn’t your first language you may have to complete an English language proficiency test, such as the TOEFL or IELTS. Individual institutions will set their required scores for these tests.

Traditional PhDs may require you to write your thesis in German (though some institutions allow thesis completion in other languages). Therefore, you may need to prove your German language proficiency. Your knowledge of German will need to be certified through a TestDaF or DSH.

Application process

Applications requirements for a PhD in Germany will normally require you to submit the following:

  • A statement from your doctoral supervisor – if you are applying to complete a traditional PhD project you must submit a statement from your chosen supervisor describing their intent to supervise your thesis
  • Academic documents – you will need to provide certified copies of certificates and academic transcripts from previous degrees
  • Proof of recognition – you must obtain recognition of your qualifications from the Dean’s Office or University Board of Examiners
  • Academic references – your referees should include at least two professors who have worked with you

Once you have supplied these materials the department / doctoral committee you are applying to can confirm your eligibility as a PhD candidate.

Interviews

For admission onto the structured PhD programmes some institutions may require you to complete an interview. This will typically be in front of the supervising board for that programme. Interviews for traditional programmes are usually conducted with your chosen supervisor (and may be more informal).

Interviews for international students are typically conducted over skype.

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in Germany will follow a fairly standard format (apart from the fact in may take place online). Our guides give advice on what happens at a PhD interview and an overview of some questions you might be asked.

Student visas

Germany is a popular destination for international study in Europe, and this is reflected in its immigration system. Students from a wide range of countries are able to enter Germany freely without a visa.

Who needs a visa to study in Germany?

Students from the following countries are able to study in Germany without a visa:

  • The EU, EEA and Switzerland
  • Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the USA
  • China, Hong Kong and Macao (you must hold a Special Administrative Region passport)
  • Taiwan (your passport must have an identity card number)
  • Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine (you must hold a biometric passport)
  • Andorra, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Monaco and San Marino (you must not intend to seek separate employment before or after your degree)

If you are an international student from another country, you must obtain a visa in order to enter and study for your PhD in Germany.

Visa types

There are two types of visa for PhD students in Germany:

  • A Student Applicant Visa (Visum zur Studienbewerbung) allows you to enter Germany for 3-months to complete your admissions, you use this to apply for your full Student Visa
  • A Student Visa (Visum zu Studienzwecken) allows you to enter Germany for up to 3-months once accepted for PhD study - you can then apply for a residence permit

Regardless of your visa requirements, you will also need to register your presence in Germany once you arrive:

  • Students of all nationalities should visit the Resident Registration Office (Bürgeramt / Bürgerbüro) within one-week of arriving in Germany to obtain a confirmation of registration (Meldebestätigung) proving you are living in Germany legally
  • Non-EU / EEA students must also visit the Alien Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde) before your student visa expires to apply for a residence permit

What you'll need for a visa

There are several requirements and documents you must take with you when you apply for your visa or residence permit:

  • Academic documents – including a letter of admission to a recognised German university and your full academic transcripts
  • Personal documents – including your passport (valid for the duration of your PhD), two passport photos and a tenancy agreement proving you have secured accommodation for your stay
  • Other documents – proof of health insurance valid for your entire stay, language qualifications for the language your thesis will be in, evidence of financial resources (€8,700 per year) and your Meldebestätigung (if applying for a residence permit)

A residence permit will cost €110 and your visa €75.

Health insurance

By law every resident in Germany must have valid health insurance, you will not be allowed to enrol at university or apply for a student visa without it.

For members of the EU, Germany has social insurance agreements with the European Union member states, meaning your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will cover you within Germany.

For students from other countries there are many insurers within Germany that will provide medical insurance for international students. Your university’s international office may also be able to provide assistance and advice.

For students from other countries there are many insurers within Germany that will provide medical insurance for international students. Your university’s international office may also be able to provide assistance and advice.

Next steps

Germany is a popular destination for international workers, but it is important to begin career-planning during your doctorate. For example, most employers in Germany will prefer you to be able to speak German.

Can I work in Germany after my PhD?

The regulations for working in Germany after a PhD depend upon your nationality.

Students from EU and EEA countries will not need a work permit. You will have the same access to the employment market as German nationals.

Students from outside the EU and EEA may extend their residence permit for up to 18-months to seek work related to their studies.

EU Blue Card

Once you have accepted a job you must apply for a German residence permit or an EU Blue Card. The EU Blue Card is preferable if you intend to work in another EU state, however you must have secured a job that pays at least €49,600 per year.

Find a PhD in Germany

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Germany? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 23/05/2018

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