Financing a doctorate
What sources of funding are available to doctoral students?

A smiling PhD student

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From doctoral positions and scholarships to industrial doctorates: There are many different ways of financing the pursuit of a doctoral degree. An overview.

Published: 2024-03-11

By: Darly Lindsey

Once the decision to pursue a doctorate has been made and the dissertation topic has been established, the next question arises: How can funding be secured for the period of doctoral study? 

The 21st Social Survey of the German Education Ministry found that, on average, students in Germany need around 819 euros a month to cover their rent, food, clothing, travel costs, work materials, leisure activities and health insurance. Doctoral students can use this sum as a guide as well, but they should expect higher expenses – for health insurance, for example.
Generally, they no longer qualify for student benefitsbecause having earned an initial degree, they already have a professional qualification. 

So what options are available to doctoral students for covering living expenses while writing their doctoral thesis? The following are examples of the options available:

·      A doctoral job at the university

·      Third-party funding

·      Doctoral scholarships

·      A doctoral programme or a Research Training Group

·      Industrial doctorate

·      Doctoral loans

What are the respective conditions and requirements? 

Given the close ties with the university or research institution developed through the PhD programme, many doctoral candidates secure financing by taking a full- or part-time position at their university and receive a doctoral salary. 

This is possible, for example, through a job as a research assistant in a university-funded position or as a research assistant in a third-party funded or project position. The latter has the advantage that the doctoral thesis subject is closely linked to the project in question. This is not always the case with university-funded positions, and there is often little time left for the candidate to pursue his or her own dissertation research. Jobs directly on the faculty are particularly attractive to doctoral students in natural science subjects since they also have access to laboratories and technical equipment to work on their doctorate.

But there are also other ways to finance a doctorate: In addition to various doctoral scholarships, it is also possible to pursue a doctorate as part of doctoral programmes or research training groups (RTGs). Candidates in such programmes or groups benefit from funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Max Planck Society or the Helmholtz Association, for example. In addition, such doctorates include coursework, seminars, colloquia and workshops – and are thus quite structured. This is particularly well suited to doctoral candidates who are concerned about their ability to complete a doctorate alongside a position at the university.

There are also doctoral funding opportunities outside the university. These include industrial doctorates, which provide financial security. The company in question pays for the research work that is carried out. 

Last, but not least, doctoral students can also fall back on financial support from their family or partner for the years spent pursuing their doctorate.


If the above options are not possible, it is also possible to finance doctoral studies in the form of a loan. Some providers of student loans also offer doctoral loans. It is worth comparing the conditions carefully. For example, the German government’s development bank, KfW, offers loans for doctoral students for up to six semesters. The loans are for between 100 and 650 euros per month, up to a maximum of 23,400 euros.

KfW’s student loans (KfW Studienkredit) are generally open to EU citizens with permanent residency in Germany. For third-country nationals from outside the EU, there are only two conditions under which a prospective doctoral student can apply for these loans: The first is if they have a family member who is an EU citizen and a resident of Germany. The second is if they qualify as a “Bildungsinländer*innen” (educational residents), meaning they have obtained their university entrance qualification by graduating from a high school in Germany or a German high school abroad.

Another potential loan available to foreign doctoral students is KfW’s education loan (KfW Bildungskredit), which is made in the form of a set one-time disbursement followed by monthly instalments for an overall total of up to 7,200 euros. The loans are available to foreigners married to or partnered with a German national or an EU or European Economic Area (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland) national with permanent residency in Germany. Doctoral candidates also qualify if they have a child who is a German citizen or EU or EEC member state citizen with permanent German residency status. Non-EU/EEA nationals with permanent residency in Germany also qualify. EU citizens and citizens of Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland who have been legal residents of Germany for at least five years can also qualify for the loans.

In very limited cases, foreigners can also qualify to obtain grants and loans from the government-run BAföG financial aid programme that are based on personal financial circumstances. The scheme is designed to ensure that German nationals have access to higher education, but it is also open to individuals with recognized refugee status or those officially recognized as being stateless with legal residence in Germany. The scheme is also open to citizens of EU member states, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway (“union citizens”) who have permanent residency status after five years of living in Germany, the freedom of movement and the right to employment or self-employment. Union citizens can fulfil the permanent residency requirement in less than five years if they are a family member of a Union citizen entitled to freedom of movement and live with that family member in Germany. Union citizens married to a person with German citizenship or have a child with German citizenship also qualify. Additionally, if a person is a foreigner with a parent, spouse or partner who is employed or self-employed in Germany and that person is entitled to freedom of movement under EU law, then it does not matter what nationality the financial aid candidate has. 

The disadvantage to the loan approach, of course, is that loan recipients are already in debt before they start their career. Still, the repayment periods are usually relatively long. This path also allows doctoral students to concentrate fully on their doctorate without any side job, thus giving them the possibility of completing it more quickly and starting their career earlier – especially in subject areas where job prospects are good and starting salaries high. 

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The National Academics Panel Study (NACAPS) recently found that “fixed employment (as a research assistant at the university, for example) or funding through a scholarship are the most common options for financing a doctorate.” The longitudinal study of doctoral students and doctoral graduates was conducted by the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). 
Similar to the “Federal Report on Early Career Researchers” (BuWin), the NACAPS concluded that around 60 percent of respondents earn their living by working at a university or research institution. Some 17.4 percent are employed outside of academia. Together with the almost 10 percent who work on a freelance basis with or without a research affiliation, they form the group of those who are doing a part-time doctorate or an industrial doctorate. Just under 16 percent are financed by a scholarship and 13.5 percent by through regular financial support from their partner or parents. Only a small percentage of doctoral students finance their studies through a loan.


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