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Doctoral Education in Germany


In Germany, only universities are entitled to hand out the Ph.D. degree "Doktor." So even if you are doing your Ph.D. research externally at some other independent research institute, you will need a "Doktorvater," i.e., a full professor at a university, to accept your thesis and lead the final exam. The average time for Ph.D. studies is about 4 years, although most stipends (see Funding section below) cover only 3 years.

The Age Issue

The average age for receiving the first degree in Germany is 28--considerably older than in the U.K. or U.S. (both 22 on average). There are several reasons for this high graduation age, many of them resulting from the current structure of the higher education system. One problem is the extended breaks during the academic year: German students have 5 months without lectures per year, which, depending on your subject, can't always be filled with study-related work or internships. Therefore it takes an average of more than 6 years to obtain the first degree ("Diplom," "Magister," or "Staatsexamen") at German universities.

One attempt to shorten the university education has been made with a new project (open to a limited number of students) in the state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). At the University of Göttingen it is possible to obtain a university degree after a shorter period, because the usual 5-month lecture-free time was drastically shortened and semesters were replaced by trimesters.

New Academic Career Paths: Junior Professorships vs. Habilitation

Such experiments to shorten the academic career path deserve broader attention, because under the current system many of the brightest people are lost due to delays at all stages. And on the way to full professorship, Germany presents one last unique obstacle: the Ph.D. is followed by a so-called habilitation. The habilitation includes writing a second(!) thesis in a slightly different subject area, as well as giving a number of lectures, a procedure that takes, in all, about 6 more years. As a result the average age at which German academics get their first full professorship is about 42. This is an age at which a new professional orientation is nearly impossible, if someone is not able to find a professorship.

To shorten the long and winding road to professorship, a law has recently been introduced to abolish the habilitation within the next 10 years. It is to be replaced by a so-called junior professorship, as Next Wave reported. Unfortunately, however, this change has no great immediate influence on the situation of Ph.D. students.


Ph.D. studies are funded through two primary routes, project-related positions and scholarships. Although scholarships are undoubtedly the more attractive option, because they provide greater independence, care must be taken since there can be considerable differences in the generosity of the monthly payments. For example, the scholarships of the federal states (Stipendien der Bundesländer) pay a maximum of 1400 DM (715 euros) per month. This may not be enough to live on, and if you are forced to take on part-time work to supplement your income, it is difficult to conduct focused and success-orientated Ph.D. research.

Because of this, in October 2000 Germany's Associations for the Promotion of Highly Gifted Students (Begabtenförderungswerke) increased their scholarship rates to 1800 DM (920 euros) monthly, plus a lump sum of 200 DM (100 euros) for expenses such as research books. This is also the standard rate for the DFG's Graduate Colleges.

Ph.D. scholarships are available from a considerable number of funding bodies (see box). A detailed overview of the major scholarship donors can be found at the Department of Budget, Research Funding Office, University of Kassel.

Germany's Larger Funding Bodies

Third-party funds (Drittmittelprojekt) or project-related positions may suit you better, especially because such funding covers not just a half-time (BAT IIa) position (about 1800 DM) but also funding for materials and travel expenses. Under such a contract a Ph.D. student is paid half the salary that would be paid to a researcher with a Ph.D., and the student should also work only half-time, for example by leading seminars, tutoring student groups, or working for the research lab of his or her professor. The rest of the time he or she is free to concentrate on Ph.D. research. In practice this depends very much of what your professor expects you to do and is thus subject to negotiation (or not, since you're dependent on your professor). In addition, as a Ph.D. student in Germany, you cannot apply for money for your own position. Thus if you are looking for third-party funding for your Ph.D. research, you need to try to motivate your supervisor to apply for funding from a grant-giving agency on your behalf.

Information about current research funding programs and projects can be found easily at ELFI, a service point for electronic research funding information.

Further Reading

Interesting links for German Ph.D. students can be found on the THESIS Web site.

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