How to apply to a German Graduate School? Practical tips to help you with application documents, including research proposals, cover letters and CVs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Curriculum Vitae (PDF)»
Letter of Motivation»
Language & Admissions-Test»
What should your CV look like when you are applying for a place at grad school? At academics.com you can find a CV template (which you can download here) with important hints for you to keep in mind for your PhD application.
It is an important part of every application, for some graduate schools the most important one: the letter of motivation. It helps selection committees recognize a candidate's academic enthusiasm, the most reliable sign for the personal perseverance necessary to make it to the PhD finish line. academics has summarized what you should include in your personal statement - and what you would do better to leave out.
Personal motivation is one of the most reliable predictors of a successful dissertation project. Whether it's academic passion, the prospect of career advancement or a higher salary - with the right goal in mind, many PhD students successfully weather even the most difficult periods in the dissertation process. But even though one's desire for career advancement may well provide enough personal drive for an individual to push through, German graduate schools prefer those PhD students who are looking to pursue a career in academia, motivated by personal idealism or scientific enthusiasm. That is why the letter of motivation is an important indicator for many German graduate schools during the selection process. After all, those in charge of making the decision need to find out, which candidates have the necessary perseverance and are in it with their whole heart instead of just professional advantage. Therefore, the letter of motivation is your chance to give a personal note to the application and convince the committee of your passion for research and science.
Graduate schools in Germany seek motivated PhD students. In the letter, you should describe your motivation to pursue your research using tangible examples. These could be anything from your personal connection to the country, whose society you want to discuss in your dissertation, or the passion for technology that you discovered during a volunteer engagement that now pushes you towards a career in research and development. At the same time, you need to be careful not to rely too much on personal anecdote: Unlike the "personal statements" that most American universities ask for, the letter of motivation should not become too personal. More importantly, you should illustrate how you have already prepared yourself for a career in academia and why now is the right time for you to pursue a PhD at a German graduate school. The letter of motivation should not, however, be used as a platform to explain potential gaps in your vita, unless those breaks contributed to your decision to write a dissertation. "Don't explain your deficits," recommends Andreas Stützer, who helps students across Germany write their letter of motivation. "Instead, you should document your strengths and show the selection committee why you are the right person for the position."
No question: To accomplish all of that in one to two pages is no walk in the park. Nonetheless, many applicants get lost in empty phrases that bore readers rather than exciting them - and thus give away a great opportunity to impress the members of the selection committee. To avoid sharing that fate, allow as much time as possible for the preparation of the letter of motivation and go about it methodically - for example by following the academics-plan in four steps
Step 1 - The concept
First, you should think about (a) why you are pursuing a PhD, (b) what qualities you bring to the program, and (c) why the graduate school you are applying to is the right one for you. Brainstorm for ideas, collect them and shape them into a convincing concept. Make sure that everything is perfectly tailored to the specific graduate school's expectations, for example the location, research opportunities or faculty at the university you are applying to.
Step 2 - Layout/Formalities
Just like the rest of the application materials, the letter of motivation should have a personalized, consistent letterhead. Use the setup function of your word processor to ensure that the font, line spacing (1,5 or 2), and margins convey your professionalism. And: Make sure you are aware of the graduate school's preferred formatting expectations and standards. Do they ask for one or two pages? Is there a maximum number of words? Do they prescribe font size or line spacing? Of course, you should adhere to such standards. If no such standards exist, we recommend submitting a letter of motivation no longer than two double-spaced pages (ca. 750 words).
Step 3 - The structure
Just like every academic essay, your letter of motivation should open with an introduction that can be recognized as such and be followed by the main body of your writing. However, it makes sense to start writing the main part first and then formulate the introduction to your letter of motivation last. After writing the body, you will have a better understanding of how to summarize its contents. After all, the first sentences usually briefly summarize the arguments that are discussed in the main part. This strategy will help you create a common thread that will run through your letter and culminate in an effective conclusion, which once more indicates your personal advantages.
Step 4 - Fine-tuning
Even though complex syntactical constructions are popular among academics, you should avoid them in your letter of motivation. Instead of unnerving the reader with long sentences, you should keep them short and simple. Try to get feedback from friends and fellow students, who will give useful advice and find spelling errors that may have escaped your attention. Spelling and grammar are critical factors in every application: Overlooking mistakes in your own application demonstrates a lack of thoroughness that may lead the selection committee to conclude that you are not a careful researcher. Such errors are seen as indicators that the applicant's work lacks quality and are frequent reasons for a candidate's rejection.
It is the central document of every application and the testament of your previous academic training: the dissertation exposé or proposal. The proposal is your opportunity to define a framework for your research project, establish a working schedule and do important groundwork for a successful dissertation.
Many Bachelor's and Master's students are familiar with the procedure: Before accepting a topic for the term paper, the professor asks for a prospectus, an exposé that describes the basic structure and plan behind the paper. What are the questions the paper is trying to answer, what is the theoretical approach, and what sources will be exploited for it? In principle, a dissertation exposé is exactly the same thing - with the important exception that you are not laying out the plan for a short paper, which can be fully completed within a few weeks. It is therefore critical to proceed as carefully as possible. Your readers are experienced academics that not only evaluate the relevance of your proposal but also its feasibility. Approach the exposé as systematically as possible so as not to forget any of the essential parts and seek out help from professors or other experienced academics. Try to find out if your department lets you consult older dissertation proposals and look for online resources that can help you write your own. The following components should not be missing in any dissertation exposé.
The topic: This is where you define the objectives and the guiding questions you are trying to answer in your project. Whether you are dealing with political resistance in Franco's Spain or the synthesis of metal oxide materials - when it comes to the legitimization of the topic the key issues are almost always the same. Besides setting the thematic boundaries of your project you need to explain how your work relates to the existing research and describe its current relevance within the academic world. In other words, you need to explain where you see the knowledge gap and why right now is the right time to close that gap. Depending on your field, you may also need to develop hypotheses on the potential outcomes of your study in the dissertation proposal. Remember: Always align your exposé with the research specialties of the graduate school that you are applying to. Your application will only be successful if your project fits into the graduate school's program. It is also important to work according to academic standards right away, i.e. to include footnotes or reference sources in parentheses.
The method: Many academics have a hate-love relationship with the theoretic portion of their dissertation. On the one hand, a well-chosen methodology is the foundation of a successful dissertation; on the other it is a tedious distraction from the real research work. However, the fact of the matter is that no scholar of any discipline will succeed without a solid methodology. Therefore, you should carefully consider which method or theory you want to utilize and how you want to test your hypotheses. Develop a sound reasoning for your approach. Part of the methodology is the definition and operationalization of all pertinent terms, i.e. an explanation of how you plan to use them throughout the dissertation. While all that sounds complicated it is worth remembering that unlike the dissertation itself, the methodology is not exercise in academic innovation - you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, it makes complete sense to check how other scholars in the past have approached questions similar to your own and it is legitimate to reference those approaches in the dissertation exposé. That saves time and shows your understanding of the academic process.
Outline and schedule: Both outline and schedule are always hypothetical. Nobody knows what the lab results will be, which surprises are awaiting you in the archives or what will come out of the interviews that are the basis of your dissertation. Nonetheless, a well-conceived outline and a coherent schedule are incredibly important for the assessment of your dissertation project. Many German graduate schools aim to produce PhDs within three years. If your dissertation exposé is too extensive or too unorganized to make such a timetable realistic, chances are your application will be rejected. Therefore you need to develop a concept, which lays out step-by-step how you plan on answering your questions or how you want to test your hypotheses. Rather than proposing a project that is too extensive just to impress the selection committee, it makes sense to submit a more conservative exposé that is comparable to previous exposés submitted by older PhD students.
The format: Just like any academic work of this size, the exposé should start with a title page that lists information about yourself (name, date of birth, email address, address, phone number, etc.) as well as a provisional title for the dissertation project. A table of contents on the next page should provide an overview of all the sections contained in the proposal. You also need to make sure to have a consistent, professional layout (font, line spacing, etc.) and include page numbers. Finally, you should review the style of writing to make the text as eloquent as possible and ensure that no spelling errors ruin the positive assessment of your application.
Bibliography: Each dissertation exposé must of course end with a bibliography of all sources quoted in the text. It might also be helpful to list some important texts from your research area even if you did not explicitly cite them. Ideally, you not only identified such texts during the preparation of your exposé but also read them. After all, you may well be asked about them during the interview.
TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, TestDaF - confusing acronyms dominate the global language and admissions test market. academics explains what is behind those acronyms and what you should keep in mind when you prepare, sign up for and take such exams.
No matter where you apply, whether a German graduate school, a research training group or PhD program at a German university, you will likely need to provide evidence of your language skills to complete the application materials. In most cases PhD candidates should have a solid command of both English and German. It is common for specialized area and linguistic studies programs to ask for knowledge of other languages relevant to the course of study. Some graduate schools may simply accept documentation that verifies the applicant's high school education in the respective language. More frequently, however, the schools will ask the applicants for standardized language and admissions tests scores. Even if you speak a language very well, you should prepare for such tests carefully. Results are often determined not merely by a candidate's skills, but by his or her familiarity with the test format. Most exams are computer-based and will subject candidates to a series of stress tests that will almost certainly negatively affect test scores without adequate preparation.
TOEFL: The Test of English as a Foreign Language is the exam that graduate schools around the world require most frequently. The four core competencies tested in the TOEFL (which adheres to US English) are reading, listening, writing, and speaking. The biggest advantage of the TOEFL is the infrastructure provided by the test administrator ETS, which offers more than 50 dates every year and delivers results quickly (ca. 40 testing centers in Germany and more than 4,500 worldwide). Moreover, there are many different ways to prepare for the TOEFL, both online and through extensive preparation programs. The test itself usually takes between four and four and a half hours to complete, making it the longest of all comparable examinations. Most PhD programs require a score between 80 and 100 out of 120 possible points for the so-called TOEFL ibT - the internet-based version of the test, which is the only version still offered in Germany. Depending on the test location, the price for the TOEFL ranges from the local equivalent of $160 to $250.
IELTS: The International English Language Testing System represents British English in the global testing realm. It is administered by the nonprofit British Council, which offers both a general (IELTS General Training) and an academic version (IELTS Academic). Just like the TOEFL, the IELTS tests the four core competencies of reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Substantively, the three-hour IELTS exam is comparable to the TOEFL, however, someone with a background in British English might feel more comfortable in the IELTS listening section. The biggest difference between the TOEFL and IELTS exams is the speaking section: The score to this section of the IELTS exam is determined by a face-to-face personal interview, unlike the TOEFL, which requires candidates to speak into a microphone during the speaking section of the exam. Most PhD programs in Germany require an IELTS score between 5.0 and 7.0 of 9 possible points. The IELTS costs around $200.
GRE: The Graduate Record Examination is a standardized admissions test that nearly all American graduate schools require for application. It has various specialized editions, which test particular fields of study relevant for specific graduate programs, and one general version, the so-called GRE General Test. The latter, which is most frequently requested by schools, has three components: analytical, which requires test takers to argue a point persuasively; quantitative, an advanced math exam; and verbal, which tests for the candidate's knowledge of academic English vocabulary. It should be noted that the skill level required for the GRE is much higher than for the TOEFL or IELTS exams - even native English speakers often prepare for months to master the GRE. However, the GRE is a much less common component of application packages in Germany. Fees for the GRE range between $160 and $190.
TestDaF: To study at a German university, foreign applicants usually prove their working knowledge of the German language with the so-called Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache ("German as a Foreign Language Test"). The TestDaF is offered in 93 countries across the world, which ensures that applicants can take the test in their respective home countries much like TOEFL or IELTS. However, there are only six test dates in 2014 and the deadline to sign up is often set weeks before the actual test date. Thus, you should prepare for the test well in advance. Generally, TestDaF level 4 will qualify you for acceptance into a German university, although some graduate schools require level 5 for admission. Depending on the test location, the TestDaF costs between $130 and $180.
It is the final hurdle before a German graduate school will accept a candidate: the personal interview. However, not unlike the private sector, there is no one strategy that helps you master every interview. Nonetheless, if you prepare well and know the expectations of the selection committee you have every chance to Excel.
For roughly 90 percent of all German graduate schools, the personal interview is a necessary requirement before applicants are ultimately accepted as PhD candidates. Usually, these interviews are conducted at the school in Germany, though some institutions offer phone interviews via Skype, telephone or in some cases even at education fairs across the globe. For candidates, these short conversations are an extreme situation: After months of research, the careful crafting of an application and the long wait for a response, it all comes down to this one moment. But an invitation to interview also means that the application materials were impressive enough to consider the candidate. Applicants should translate this knowledge into the necessary self-confidence it takes to succeed in the interview - in combination, of course, with a good preparation. After all, selection committees are looking for competent, well-prepared candidates who know details about the respective graduate school, convince professionally and fit into one of the current research teams.
Even though not every interview follows the same routine, there are some commonalities that all graduate schools share. Generally, the candidate is initially given the opportunity to present their prospective dissertation project - sometimes in the form of an academic presentation that can last up to 30 minutes. Afterwards, the candidate will answer the committee's questions. What do you hope to achieve with your dissertation at this graduate school? Which area of research do you seek to participate in and what will be your particular contribution? To answer such questions, candidates need to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of their field such as the current state of research, as well as detailed knowledge of the graduate school's research objectives. Candidates who present competently and communicate effectively will be received favorably by the selection committee. So prepare your presentation well, adhere to time limits and answer questions as briefly and precisely as possible. Most importantly, however, you need to demonstrate your academic motivation authentically. The selection committee is already interested in your work - otherwise you would not have been invited in the first place. Now you need to explain to the members of the committee why the PhD is right for you and why you cannot wait to get started.
In order to better prepare for the interview, talk to those who have already gone through the process: Try establishing contact with older PhD students at the graduate school that you are applying to and learn about their experiences and the daily routine at the institution. This will help you gauge the atmosphere and allow you to ask more specific questions. Also try to find out as much as possible about the procedure: Will the interview be held in German or English? How long will it take? And who will be sitting across the table from you? Your preparation will help you anticipate the situation, avoid any unsettling surprises and allow you to focus entirely on thematic aspects, which, of course, are still the priority. International applicants to German graduate schools should not let direct criticism discourage them. Intense debating is part of academic culture in Germany, even a sign of respect. Look at it this way: critical questions are better than no questions. And: You are not only encouraged to ask your own questions, it is expected that you do so. German graduate schools look for self-confident young scholars who have clear goals in mind with their application. Feel free to ask about academic supervision at the school, transferable skills training or financial support for conference travel abroad. Note that even though many German graduate schools cover travel costs within the country, they do not have the financial means to do so for international travel. Make sure to ask about potential reimbursements before you go.
Many German graduate schools maintain a rather relaxed dress code; professors may even appear for seminars in jeans and a t-shirt. This is not to say, of course, that applicants should completely neglect the question of how to dress for the interview. A good place to start and get an idea of what to wear is the graduate school's homepage or a conversation with a PhD student already working at the institution. Unlike the private sector, you may feel out of place if you show up in a suit and tie - nice jeans, a collared shirt and a coat may be enough. But there is no general rule that applies everywhere. The most important piece of advice is to ensure that you feel comfortable in whatever it is you are wearing. Feeling at ease and confident in your clothing will help you to relax during the interview and get one step closer to reaching your goal: a PhD position at a German graduate school.