How to apply for your PhD

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Applying for your individual doctorate

Two young researchers are sitting on a lab desk listening to a standing professor and taking notes. The professor holds a molecular model in his hands.

Once you have decided on a potential supervisor, you have to apply directly to the professor in question. 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 supervisor
  • Demonstrate your interest: show that you know the potential supervisor’s research field and you know what to expect
  • Give details of your own experience in this research field
  • Give explicit reasons why you would like this professor to supervise your thesis
  • Make your motives clear. It is important to show where your interest lies in your very first contact
  • Choose the subject of your thesis in a way that fits in with the academic orientation of your supervisor
  • 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. Your application should also include a well thought-out proposal for your doctoral thesis.

What's next?

After you have found a professor willing to act as your supervisor, the responsible department or doctoral committee must then confirm your eligibility as a doctoral candidate. At some universities, candidates have to apply for admission to the doctoral examination at this stage.

Although it is not always necessary, it can be advantageous for international students to enrol as a doctoral student even when they have opted for a traditional individual doctorate. The prerequisite for this is admission to the doctoral studies programme.

You may need to present proof that you have passed the relevant German language examination. The International Office at the respective university can provide more details. The doctoral regulations on departmental websites also provide information about requirements.

Applying for a structured PhD programme

A researcher is sitting at a desk in an office building and is taking notes in a small book. In front of him is a laptop.

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.

Tips for your application

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.

How to write 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 doesn’t involve
  • Explain what you want to discover in your research, what problem you would 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
The cover of the brochure "Doing a PhD in Germany". It depicts a graduation cap and a diploma. On the bottom left there is the logo of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. On the bottom right is the logo of "Research in Germany"

Check out 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.