A doctorate is the highest academic degree that a university can award. In Germany, studying for a doctorate primarily means working intensely on a specific subject or research project for a long period of time. The length of time a doctorate takes also varies. Three to five years are typical.
If you decide to do a doctorate, you can choose between different forms of study. Depending on your discipline, research area, personal circumstances and formal qualifications, there are two different paths:
©DAAD / Jan Zappner
The "traditional" or "individual" path to a PhD remains the most common in Germany. An individual doctorate involves a thesis or dissertation that is produced under the supervision of one professor.
This form of PhD study offers a great deal of flexibility, but also demands a high degree of personal initiative and responsibility. A professor supervises a PhD student, who works on his or her subject in consultation with the professor, but largely independently.
How long a traditional individual doctorate takes depends on your own time schedule – or on the duration of your work contract. Three to five years are typical. Although a university is normally responsible for the doctoral process, you can also carry out your research at other institutions.
Depending on your subject, research area and interests, you can choose whether to work on a research project and your PhD at a university or non-university research institute – or indeed in industry. However, no matter where you conduct your research, a professor will always supervise your PhD.
You can obtain a doctorate by pursuing research:
The "typical" PhD student in Germany works – usually part-time – as a research associate at his or her university. Although research is usually part of the job description, most of the associate’s own doctoral research usually has to be carried out outside working hours. How closely teaching, research and/or administrative duties are actually tied into the doctoral student’s own research depends very much on the individual situation.
Non-university research establishments – such as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Helmholtz Association, Leibniz Association and Max Planck Society – offer an excellent research environment in which to conduct your research. These institutions do not have the right to award doctorates themselves, but collaborate with universities for that purpose. They offer PhD students scholarships and/or (usually fixed-term) contracts of employment – or a combination of the two. However, support is also possible in the form of regular research posts, which are especially typical of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Max Planck Society.
The traditional individual path to a doctorate remains the most common in Germany. Here, a professor supervises a doctoral student, who works on his or her subject in consultation with the professor, but largely independently.
©DAAD / Volker Lannert
Structured doctoral programmes differ from traditional doctoral research. In Germany, structured doctoral programmes are very similar to the PhD programmes in English-speaking countries, in which a team of supervisors look after a group of doctoral students.
Structured doctoral programmes often have a strong international orientation with English as the team language. Unlike the individual doctorate model that can be freely structured to suit the individual research project, here doctoral students and their research proposals have to fit in with an existing PhD programme.
The doctorate frequently entails a clearly structured doctoral study programme with compulsory attendance at lectures or seminars and interim assessment (credit points). The programme frequently also covers academic and scientific methods or soft skills, such as presentation techniques.
As a rule, PhD Students work steadily at realising their research project within the team and with intensive support from a group of academic staff (often referred to as the “thesis committee”).
The duration of your studies is generally limited to three to five years, and there is usually a fixed curriculum within which you work toward your doctorate and write your thesis.
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.
www.dfg.de > 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.
www.helmholtz.de > 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.
www.leibniz-association.eu > 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).
www.mpg.de > 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.
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.
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:
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:
The precondition for initiating the doctoral examination process is the submission of a written doctoral thesis. The requirements are high: a thesis is expected to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to engage in profound independent academic research. Furthermore, it must constitute an advance in scientific or scholarly knowledge.
Additionally, it must satisfy specific formal criteria, which are defined in the examination regulations of the relevant departments. Writing the doctoral thesis in German is often not a requirement. By arrangement with the supervisor and subject to the relevant examination regulations, the thesis can also be written in English or another language.
According to surveys by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the doctoral regulations at more than one in two departments allow candidates to complete their doctorate in a number of cumulative steps. Primarily in the natural sciences or medicine, it is meaningful to combine several essays published in prestigious specialist journals as a cumulative thesis instead of an exhaustive monograph, in other words, a single text.
In addition to an assessment of the thesis, the doctoral examination process also includes an oral examination in the form of either a disputation or rigorosum. This differs from university to university and from department to department. The oral examination normally lasts between one and two hours and, depending on the doctoral regulations, can be conducted in a foreign language.
As a rule, the doctoral title is only awarded to the candidate after the thesis has been made available to an academic audience by printing or equivalent forms of reproduction within a specific period and a specific number of obligatory copies have been presented to the university. The candidate then receives the right to bear the doctoral title.
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.