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How to Apply to a German Graduate School

By Christian Wilbers

A well-prepared application is key if you want to snatch one of the highly sought-after PhD positions at a German Graduate School. But with the right qualifications and perfectly crafted application materials - CV, project description and personal statement - you stand a fair chance of being among the chosen few. academics knows what it takes to get there.

How to Apply to a German Graduate School © Lise Gagne - iStockphoto.com The application to a German Graduate School offers the possibility to earn a PhD within two or three years
The graduate school selection process is a science in its own right. There is no single strategy that all institutions pursue when choosing their future PhD candidates. Most importantly, applicants need to demonstrate their personal motivation for choosing the respective graduate school. Committee members are looking for candidates who understand the specialties of the school they are applying to and who fit into one of the school's existing working groups. Even though grades and test results are factors in the decision, equally important is the applicant's enthusiasm and his or her motivation to get involved in the activities of the research group. Thus, applicants should look into the thematic specialties of the graduate school und tailor their applications to the respective requirements of the advertised PhD positions. Application materials that are incomplete or generic will quickly be rejected.

What should be included in an application?

Although not every graduate school asks for the same application materials, there are standards that are required almost everywhere: Nearly every application package includes a CV and cover letter as well as a transcript, a personal statement and an exposé of the dissertation project. Additionally, German graduate schools usually ask for letters of recommendation, written by a university mentor or former superior at work. Such personal references are very popular among selection committees - they provide a first-hand account of the candidates' skills. Occasionally, graduate schools also request the results of language exams such as GRE (Graduate Record Examination) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). However, these tests rarely determine the fate of an applicant - unless, of course, the results show that the candidate lacks the necessary skills to communicate effectively.

Applicants should make sure to fully and comprehensively complete each of the application's respective parts. For example, a CV should always contain information about university degrees, publications, and awards or scholarships the applicant received for his or her academic work so far. A list of internships and other job experiences should not be missing. Some German graduate schools are also interested in the candidate's secondary education - so it always makes sense to include information on the time and location of your high school degree. Less important are factors such as volunteer activities or teaching experiences, which play a smaller role in the German academic world. However, here as everywhere, the same rule applies: know the respective graduate school's specific expectations and tailor the application accordingly. If the advertisement for the PhD positions asks for social engagement, applicants should highlight such activities in both the CV and the personal statement.

The Personal Statement: The centerpiece of every application

A persuasive, informative personal statement is the centerpiece of every successful application. Here, candidates present the highlights of their vita, define research interests and lend some personal character to their application. The personal statement is an opportunity for the applicant to describe his or her expectations for the time at the graduate school and lay out future plans. It helps selection committees recognize candidates who prepared their applications well, who bring along the right personal background and who fit into the respective research groups both personally and professionally. Candidates should clearly define their motivation to pursue a PhD - general statements that lack specific applicability to the graduate school almost automatically result in a rejection.

The same holds true for the dissertation exposé. Ideally, candidates not only show their professional competencies on ten to 15 pages but also comprehensive preparation of their project. German graduate schools look for dissertations that are empirically and theoretically relevant and that fit with the school's specialties. The best way for candidates to reach that goal is to start thinking about the dissertation as early as possible and by exchanging ideas and getting advice - for example from professors while still pursuing the Bachelor's or Master's degree.

A unique feature of the German graduate school application process is the interview. If an application arouses the selection committee's interest, a personal interview will ensure that the candidate's professional and personal qualities indeed meet the expectations of the graduate school.

Application formalities

A lot has changed in the last couple of years regarding application formalities. German graduate schools have modernized the application process, not least because of their own aspiration to conduct research that is competitive internationally. For example, online applications are now preferred over applications by mail and English has become the standard language even though almost half of all German graduate schools still accept application materials in German. Despite such changes, you should make sure to adhere to certain standards when applying electronically. The materials should be sent as an email attachment in one PDF-file instead of being spread out over separate documents or, worse, several emails. Additionally, it is still highly recommended to seek out a contact person and directly address that person in the cover letter accordingly. There may be no clearer signal of an ill-prepared applicant than the impersonal standard greeting "Dear Sir or Madam".

Ultimately, there are a lot of candidates who fail because of qualitative deficiencies that can be easily avoided with a bit of care and diligence. German graduate schools frequently receive materials with grave style and spelling errors as well as costly omissions. For example, if the personal statement is missing, an application is doomed to failure from the outset. Moreover, applications that lack personal character and are not tailored to the specific PhD position rarely make it onto the shortlist. Here, as elsewhere in the application process, it is worth checking out the graduate school's homepage. There, the institutions define their character and scholarly aspirations and provide answers to many frequently-asked questions. If an applicant takes the time to do this simple homework and is well-informed about the graduate school, that candidate has made an important first step towards securing a PhD position at the graduate school of his or her choice.

Apply to a German Graduate School - Application-Guide
Dissertation Topic»
Dissertation Exposé»
Curriculum Vitae (PDF)»
Letter of Motivation»
Language & Admissions-Test»
Personal Interview»

academics :: January 2014

If you are looking for a PhD position, a place at the right graduate school is an amazing choice - with secured financial support, a fixed time frame and a course focused around you. academics.com gives you an overview of all the graduate school options.

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