PhD Options: Doing a PhD in Germany - Google+ Hangout on Air Summary

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PhD Application Tips

We recently hosted a live Google+ Hangout on Air with four inspirational panellists with one simple objective: to help you consider opportunities open to you and specifically options for doing a PhD in Germany.

The panel included Dr. Barbara Janssens, a Belgian biologist who since 2011 has been part of the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) managing the careers service for students and postdocs. Dr. Thomas Ekman Jørgensen, the Head of Unit at the European University Association (EUA), responsible for the EUA council for doctoral education.  Samira Parhizkar, a second year Biochemistry/ Molecular Medicine PhD student at the Centre for Stroke and Dementia, part of the international Max Planck Research School. Last but not least was Prof. Dr. Martin Wild, who completed his Postdoc at Oxford University and is currently the Coordinator of the joint Graduate School of the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine.

We were delighted with the number of questions the panel received and wanted to sum up the key topics and main areas of discussion in this article. You can also watch the full event recording here.

What are the routes to getting a PhD in Germany, and how can you get in contact with the supervisor?

The two key ways for individuals to get a PhD in Germany are through a specific graduate school or an independent research group willing to accommodate your PhD. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, for instance graduate schools provide many extra-curricular activities for doctoral researchers. However individual research groups may increase the likelihood of being accepted for a PhD due to the lower volume of candidates applying.

Where do you find graduate schools & how can you finance the PhD?

The process of finding a graduate school in Germany is very individual, decentralized and personal.

Firstly, you should decide a research area of interest. Secondly, you should find places you are interested in, may be of particular use. Thirdly, you should find out if what they are offering aligns with your research interests.

Samira’s journey of finding her PhD position involved actively seeking labs that were publishing in her area of interest as well as using the universities website to find professors and students whom she could contact to gain a fuller understanding of the PhD positions.

For many institutions there will be funding in place already, or there will be part funding. However the majority of Graduate Schools will strongly recommend that you also apply for funding yourself from specific funding bodies. As the system is so personal and individual, some students may be able to bring their own funding, although this will be reliant on permission from your supervisor.

With regards to funding it is also important to remember that graduate schools offer a safety net if your funding runs out, whereas individual programmes are not obliged to offer the same safety net. Whilst many individual programmes will have the funding to continue supporting you, it is your responsibility to check before you start the programme what happens if your funding runs out.

Do you need to be able to speak German?

Being of Swedish origin Samira recommends you learn basic German to help you communicate with people outside of your Doctoral programme as in academia everyone speaks English. Barbara agreed with this statement, and suggests that you start learning German as soon as you start your PhD, as it only becomes harder the longer you leave it. Thomas and Martin also agree, but they state that it is not essential, and you can definitely complete your PhD without learning German. However future employers may question why you didn’t learn even a small amount of German after 3 or 4 years of studying.

What are the cultural differences?

The general consensus from our panel is that Germany is very similar to other European countries such as Sweden and the UK. Whilst there may not be a culture shock for Europeans, the major difference in Germany can be the directness of the people. Barbara says that she found this surprising initially, but says the directness definitely has its benefits as it creates an openness and clarity in communication. However it is important to stress that people are very much individual and this cannot be said for everyone in Germany.

What makes a good proposal?

It depends if you are applying to a graduate school for a PhD or to a funding body. Some graduate schools will not ask you for a project proposal whereas others will, again highlighting the individuality of the German system. The main time you would have to submit a project proposal is for the funding bodies. This again can vary from one funding body to another, some may ask for 2 pages and others 10 pages.

When applying for your PhD if you do need to submit a proposal you should remember these key points:

  • Keep it clear and don’t 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
  • Think like a supervisor reviewing your own application
  • Contact the supervisor before you submit a proposal

What is involved in doing a German PhD?

Much like PhDs in other countries the majority of doctoral programmes are research orientated, with a very minimal amount of mandatory sessions per week. The major difference is that it is very uncommon for students to undertake a part time PhD as they do in the UK.

Samira’s experience of her Biochemistry PhD has involved many seminars, lab work and method trainings as well as collaborations with other departments. Whilst Samira’s experience may differ from other subject areas, a common theme in all graduate schools is the advisory committee. The advisory committee includes two external individuals who you will present your ideas to and whom will provide you with guidance on your thesis.

Extra credit can also be gained by students who participate in extracurricular activities such as organising conferences or student community events.

What are the practicalities of living in Germany?

Generally the PhD’s have a great level of funding, it is usually more than enough to be able to afford rent and to live comfortably even in the most expensive parts of Germany such as Munich. The quality of student housing in Germany is perceived as being very high for reasonable prices, especially when compared with the UK.

You can find housing in many ways including Facebook pages and through contacting your graduate school directly.

Watch the for further information and top tips from our expert panel!

You can also download our free ebook: A Guide to Doing a PhD in Germany