Applying for a PhD in Germany

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PhD Application Tips

Why do a PhD in Germany?

Germany enjoys a global reputation for excellence in research, making it one of the most attractive destinations for international PhD candidates. The German system offers many paths to a doctorate, from following a structured programme in a research institute to pursuing individual doctoral study under professorial supervision. A German doctorate is highly regarded worldwide and the mainstream use of English, from enrolment to thesis, means it is increasingly accessible to non-German speakers.

What you need to know

You may be surprised to know that German is not necessary to obtain a PhD in Germany. The majority of people within academia communicate in English and the awarding institution will usually allow you to write your thesis in English. However, learning German, even a basic level will make communicating and building relationships much easier outside of academia and will be favourable for future employers.

The first step is deciding exactly what area of research you want to go into. It is likely that you will have some indication due to your previous studies. Once you have decided what area of research you want to go into. The next equally important step is to decide which type of PhD you want to pursue. In Germany the two main routes to a PhD qualification are:

Individual Doctorate: The most common way to obtain a PhD in Germany is via the individual doctorate route. Whereby the thesis is produced under the supervision of a professor. This style of PhD is very much independent working, with very few scheduled activities. You can study for this type of PhD at a University, a research institute or a German company. The individual doctorate route allows for greater flexibility on completion time, usually 3-5 years.

Structured PhD Programmes: The structured option has greater similarities to PhD’s in the UK, whereby a team of supervisors will look after a cluster of doctoral students with related PhD projects. This type of PhD provides less flexibility, as there is a more structured curriculum to follow, as well as a usual time constraint of 3 years.

It is also important to bear in mind the difference between graduate schools and independent research groups. Graduate schools can provide greater opportunities for extracurricular activities. On the whole applicants may find it easier to secure a place with an independent research team due to the lower volume of applicants they are likely to receive.

Find out more about the different types of research organisations in Germany.

Personal Approach: Once you have decided what type of PhD route you’d like to do, you will need to find your graduate school, company or independent research group. This process of finding where to do your PhD is very individual, decentralized and personal. It would not be unusual to get in touch with professors or group leaders via telephone or email before submitting your formal application.

PhD entrance requirements

Most candidates will normally have been awarded a Master’s degree before embarking on a PhD in Germany. An individual’s higher education qualifications will then need to be ‘recognised’ by the Deans office or a board of examiners. Your higher education may be recognised and accepted, or you may be required to sit an examination to demonstrate your knowledge is up to the standard required. A further German/English language proficiency may also be required.

In rare cases, some international applicants may be eligible for the fast-track programme. Gaining entry to a PhD with only a bachelor’s degree. Candidates should enquire about individual university regulations regarding fast track programmes. The fast track programme usually involves an examination to test your level of knowledge and understanding.

What makes a good PhD proposal?

You may not always be required to submit a thesis proposal before you start a PhD. Often different PhD awarding institutes will have varying requirements. If you are asked to write a formal proposal it would be wise to confirm specific criteria such as word limits because the German system is so individual. Pay close attention to the different requirements between proposals for research institutes and for funding bodies, who may want to know differing information. We have asked senior professors and current PhD students from Germany to provide some helpful tips regarding proposals.

They have suggested it is important to remember these key points that are applicable to all proposals:

  • Keep it clear & concise, don’t try to use big words
  • Highlight the facts and don’t try to make it sound over exciting
  • You don’t need to state how much it will cost as this is more for post doc
  • Highlight how society will benefit from your research
  • Explain why you want to do your research
  • Try to adopt the mind-set of a supervisor and review your own application
  • Contact the supervisor before you submit a proposal

If you’re still unsure you can download our free eBook ‘A guide to doing a PhD in Germany.’ Additionally you can search our live PhD adverts.