Find your structured PhD programme

Structured PhD programmes in Germany are frequently very similar to the PhD programmes in English-speaking countries, in which a team of supervisors look after a group of doctoral students. Around 10,000 international doctoral students – roughly one in four – do their PhDs in structured programmes. As a rule, it is possible to complete a doctorate in three to five years.

There is no central database of all structured PhD programmes in Germany. You can usually find these programmes directly through the respective universities, graduate schools or non-university research institutions. The DAAD database is also a good place to look. Here you will find a large number of PhD programmes that are specially aimed at international doctoral students.

International doctoral programme database
Are you interested in an international doctoral programme in Germany? This German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) database presents a selection of roughly 250 international doctoral programmes in Germany. The database can be searched according to different criteria. 

Doctoral programmes at universities
Many universities offer structured doctoral programmes, which they publicise on their websites. The Student Advisory Service or Graduate Centre at the respective university will also provide help here. You can find the relevant addresses using the Higher Education Compass provided by the German Rectors’ Conference.

Graduate schools and research training groups

DFG-funded research training groups
Research training groups are also funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG) for a period of up to nine years. Their key emphasis is on the qualification of doctoral researchers within the framework of a focused research programme and a structured training strategy. > Current Research Training Groups

Helmholtz Research Schools, Colleges and Graduate Schools
The Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation. In collaboration with various institutions of higher education, Helmholtz Association research centres have established structured PhD programmes under the auspices of Helmholtz Graduate Schools, Helmholtz Research Schools and Colleges. > PhD Candidates 

Leibniz Graduate Schools
The Leibniz Association connects almost 100 research institutes that conduct problem-oriented research and provide scientific infrastructure of national and international importance. Together with universities they run structured PhD programmes in Leibniz Graduate Schools. > Leibniz Graduate Schools

International Max Planck Research Schools
The Max Planck Society specialises in innovative basic research and its institutes are able to offer up-and-coming researchers excellent infrastructure and support. The website lists the programmes available at International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS). > International Max Planck Research Schools

Max Planck Schools
In Germany, the best researchers in a specific field are often work at different universities and non-university research institutions spread throughout the country. The Max Planck Schools serve as hubs which gather this distributed knowledge. Here, the brightest minds in their fields have come together from within the scientific community to interconnect in faculties made up of active researchers. Students gain access to these unique networks, learn in close personal exchange from leaders in their fields and their peers, and enjoy access to outstanding infrastructure. Currently, three Schools are operating in the fields of Cognition, Matter to Life, and Photonics.

Application procedures differ from programme to programme. The precise requirements and deadlines can be found on the website of the respective university, research training group or graduate school. You should therefore first choose a PhD programme and/or graduate school.

Researcher working with computer
Researcher working with computer

When making your selection, you should focus on the following questions: Do the programme, the institution and the environment suit my doctoral proposal? What are the requirements? What is expected of doctoral students?

Once you have found a PhD programme, you should invest sufficient time and care in preparing your application. In some cases, there are application deadlines for admission to programmes. It is therefore advisable to begin looking for a suitable programme in good time before graduation.

Multistage application procedure

For your application to be successful, your planned doctoral thesis must fit in with the main emphases of the programme and you will need a good or very good degree that is recognised in Germany. Initial contacts are usually made over the Internet.

The application procedure itself often involves a number of different stages, but differs from programme to programme.

  • Generally, however, as a first step you will need to submit a curriculum vitae, a copy of your degree certificate, a brief description of your doctoral research proposal and a letter outlining the reasons for your application.
  • The second step, usually on request, involves a detailed application with a comprehensive exposé of the research project. This includes details of your time schedule, references from previous professors, copies of all certificates and your thesis and, possibly, proof of language proficiency.
  • If these documents win over the admissions committee, the applicant is usually invited to a personal interview, which can under certain circumstances also be held as a telephone conference.

When you have found a suitable programme, submit an application to one of the professors in the PhD programme or to the appropriate selection committee – depending on the programme or call for proposals. Here are some useful tips that may help you succeed in your application:

  • Invest a lot of time and effort in your search for the right programme.
  • Choose your thesis topic in a way that fits in with the programme. Graduate schools are more broadly based in terms of subject matter and work in an interdisciplinary way. Nevertheless, your thesis must fit in with their specific fields of research.
  • Make your motives clear. It is important to show where your interest lies in your very first contact.
  • Demonstrate your interest: show that you know the doctoral programme and you know what to expect.
  • Give details of your own experience in this research field.
  • Show that you are well-informed: you know the requirements for a doctorate in Germany.
  • In your covering letter you should be brief and precise.

In your application, you should provide information regarding your prior academic achievement, the topic of your master’s thesis and the subject area in which you wish to specialise. 

You should explain your reason for applying, describe your research project and possibly submit a position paper for your planned doctoral thesis. In some cases you will already be expected to know what you would like to do in your thesis and produce a research proposal on the subject.

What you need to bear in mind when submitting your research proposal:

  • Be precise: say exactly why you are writing and what your research project is.
  • Give precise details of what your research involves – and what it does not involve.
  • What do you want to discover in your research? Which problem would you like to solve?
  • Focus on your research topic and do not get lost in sideshows.
  • Develop a coherent and convincing argument in favour of your research project.
  • Don’t get tied up in minor details.
  • Don’t forget to mention the most important works in your research area.
  • Make sure your grammar and spelling are correct.

Download our brochure:


Doing a PhD in Germany (2019, 40 pages)

This booklet for (prospective) international doctoral students presents the different options for doing a doctorate in Germany. It explains the formal requirements and gives some practical advice on finding the right supervisor or doctoral programme. It also outlines different sponsorship and funding options.