As home to a strong economy and some of the world’s oldest universities, Germany has long been a draw for ambitious postgraduate students. This is especially true for those seeking a PhD in scientific or medical fields.
As in the UK, students can choose between working on their own with support from a PhD supervisor, or joining a structured programme that includes at least some taught elements. Structured programmes are less common.
Full funding is often available, especially for individual students who are joining an existing research project. This will require you to pursue a topic of your supervisor’s choice, although there is also usually scope to expand beyond it.
One surprise for outside applicants is that about one-third of German doctoral programmes are based at external research institutes rather than universities. These programmes tend to be high-prestige and very focused. Doctoral programmes can also be industry-based, but these usually involve a partnership between a large company (for example, Volkswagen’s AutoUni programme) and a university. Industry-based PhD students receive a salary.
All doctoral students in Germany will find that the criteria for success are not very fluid. Your university or research organisation will provide you with these at the start of your study, and your progress against them will be regularly monitored.
The end product is not always a single document in the style of the British doctoral thesis. Some students (especially in maths and the sciences) earn their degree via authoring a series of published articles about their research. Oral examinations are part of some but not all programmes; for many the final act will presenting your research to your department in the form of a lecture (in addition to meeting all of the other requirements).
A Masters (MA, MSc or MPhil) is normally a prerequisite for undertaking a PhD in Germany (unlike the UK, where combined MA/PhD programmes are more common). You will need to submit information about your MA programme and your degree certificate to the university where you intend to study as part of the application process, and it will decide whether it measures up against a German Masters. UK students may fall at the first hurdle, because German Masters normally take at least two years of full-time study, whereas many UK programmes last for a single year. More information is available from DAAD and ZAB (see Resources).
If your credentials are found wanting, it may be possible to take an exam to prove subject mastery and ability for further study, but at most universities the alternative entry exam is in German only.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of PhD programmes do require that students can speak, read and write German at a relatively high level. However, this is not the case for all—programmes in STEM subjects are increasingly open to English speakers, and some programmes in areas such as international development, business and so on are also available with an English-language thesis as an option.
That said, learning German will be important for your everyday life—the Goethe Institute (Germany’s answer to the British Council: see Resources) is a good source for information about lessons and exams.
Germany has a federal political system, so universities answer to the state in which they are based rather than the central government alone. Universities also have a great deal of autonomy, so regulations may vary substantially.
Your best course of action is to look for a German professor who is well-respected in your intended area of research, and make a direct approach. Top scholars receive many such requests, so research carefully—be sure to pursue contacts at conferences and through international research organisations. The Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD: see Resources) is a good starting point, but you will typically be expected to use your own initiative rather than seeking a listing.
EU-based students do not need a visa to study, but non-EU applicants will—contact your nearest German Embassy for information. Private health insurance is also required, and you will need to show proof of this to enroll.
This programme provides an example of how large German businesses partner with universities to embed PhD students in industry-based research.
Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD: German Academic Exchange Service)
Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen (ZAB: Central Office for Foreign Education)