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German PhD Students: Free But Lonely

In Germany, PhD students enjoy a lot of freedom. In fact, it could almost be said that they enjoy too much freedom. There are very few regulations governing doctoral research. All you need is a university degree, an idea, and a professor who will read your thesis and give your exam. In fact, many PhD candidates are not registered anywhere, which means that it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the true situation of doctoral students in Germany.

Problems arise because, under this system, students are heavily dependent on the guidance of their direct supervisor (usually someone undertaking their Habilitation requirements--see sidebar) and their "doctor-father", the supervising professor who gives the final exam. In general there are no PhD courses to provide independent guidelines for your work. There is no general obligation to write a status report after certain intervals, although in most fellowships or institutions it is part of the contract. It comes as no surprise then, that in a recent poll of doctoral students, 40% of all students said that they would appreciate more regular control 1!

Although it is formally no problem to change one's supervisor, the practical difficulty lies in finding a professor who is willing to guide and help you without directly profiting from your working power. So it sometimes occurs that candidates, after 3 or 4 years of research, ask fellow students: 'Can you recommend a professor to me?', which rather defeats the point of having a doctor-father, who should actually mentor you from the first days of your PhD research project.

There is one group of PhD students who can suffer more than most for a lack of mentoring and support. In Germany, PhD research does not have to be done at a university. The 'promotion', or process of working toward and obtaining a doctorate, can also be carried out externally. In the natural sciences and engineering, the term "external promotion" usually means work at a research institute or in industry--an environment that may actually be more stimulating that "ordinary" university life. However an external promotion may mean sitting at your computer at home, isolated from other PhD students with whom you can discuss your experiences. Exchanging ideas is sometimes crucial for the progress of your work, especially when you find yourself stuck in a dead-end. As a "homey" there is a risk that you might suffer from the lack of this kind of stimulating discussion with fellow PhD students.

In addition, "external" students are generally burdened with more responsibilities, from securing their research funding to finding the right supervisor and convincing him or her to take them on. However, external promotions have also a clear advantage: There is usually no obligation to teach (see sidebar), which allows external students to focus 100% on their research.

Top Priorities for Germany's Policy-Makers

  • Introduce a clearly defined status for PhD students.

  • Introduce the so-called "Junior-Professorships" (see sidebar) but with reduced lecture duties (6, instead of the planned 12, hours per week) and better transition regulations for those currently qualifying under the "old" system.

  • Consider the specific problems faced by the group of academics now aged 25 to 35 as a result of the current reform of the university service regulations (Dienstrechtsreform).

  • Improve salaries for scientific assistant positions (currently so-called 50% positions).

  • Improve mentoring during PhD research training.

  • Despite all the recent (and not so recent) efforts to restructure Germany's higher education system, the high average graduation age in Germany remains a serious issue for young academics here. Such late graduation not only makes it difficult to compete in the job market with graduates from other countries, it also, naturally, affects the age at which doctoral studies are started. According to a poll conducted in 1998, the average age at the start of the promotion lies around 28, and 24% of all doctoral students start their thesis at the age of 30 or older.

    Ageism is rampant in German industry, which looks to employ very young people with a lot of work experience. A PhD can be a real disadvantage, unless you have somehow managed to complete your doctorate at a very young age, or you are aiming for a university career. Depending on their job aspirations, it is not uncommon for German PhDs to find that they are too old for some jobs and overqualified for the rest.

    And it seems that the disadvantages of this greater maturity affect female PhD students disproportionately. Throughout Europe, women disappear as one looks higher up the academic career ladder. However, with the exception of the Netherlands, the German-speaking countries have the worst record in this respect. There are fewer female PhD students than male students in nearly all subjects.

    There are different patterns in different subject areas. In subjects that attract few women at the undergraduate level, the percentage of women continuing on to PhD study remains low. For example, in physics, approximately 9% of both undergraduate and postgraduate students are women. Subjects that attract low numbers of women from the start also tend to be the subjects where a high percentage of graduates continue on to PhD study. Meanwhile, in subjects that initially attract high numbers of women, the dropout of women after the Diplom (master's degree) is considerable. For example, the share of women in Languages and Cultural Sciences drops from 67% before the master's degree to 42% at the PhD level.

    One reason might be the continuing dominance of traditional gender roles in our society. Women are not expected to have great professional ambitions, and a lot of men have problems with successful women, whether at work or in relationships. But the advanced age of German graduates is also an important factor. It means that the time of the promotion coincides with the usual time for having children, and in Germany combining PhD study with raising a family can be very difficult, not just because of the added pressures of juggling home and work commitments, but because, it seems, it is more difficult for women with families to find funding for their research.

    Sabine D., a geologist, had just received a 2-year PhD fellowship at the age of 27 when she became pregnant. She continued with her research, but when she applied for an extension of her grant at the end of the 2 years, she received only 3 months instead of the usual 1 year. She started to work part-time at a newspaper, became pregnant again, and stopped her promotion after 5 years because she was afraid of becoming too old for the job market. Her husband, meanwhile, successfully finished his doctorate within 3 years. Monica C., an electronic engineer, became pregnant while writing her master's thesis. Having very good results, she applied to a research institute for a part-time PhD job. Although officially all PhD jobs at the institute are part time, she was rejected. When her son was 1 year old, she retrained and became a teacher.

    Even women who don't plan to start a family immediately after the Diplom often choose to forgo a PhD and get some 'proper' work experience instead. This gives them a better standing in the job market when it is time to return to work after having their children, but also means that they can pay social contributions to secure their income at retirement.

    References1. Marburg Poll. 1200 PhD students of Marburg's Philipps University were asked about their situation and possible improvements.

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