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How to Prepare for a PhD

By Christian Wilbers

Pursuing a PhD rarely is a spontaneous idea. In most cases, the decision to devote a career to science and academia has matured over many years. academics recommends you get started while still working on your Bachelor's and Master's degree. If you use the time effectively, you will create the perfect preconditions for a successful application to a German graduate school.

How to Prepare for a PhD© contrastwerkstatt - Fotolia.com The preparation for a PhD cannot start early enough
An important question marks the beginning of every successful academic career: Is a PhD the right choice for me? Even a structured dissertation at a German graduate school requires more than just discipline and resilience. If you want to devote your life, or at least the next three to four years, to science and research, your heart has to be in it. Because without the right amount of enthusiasm, the daily work in the archives or the lab will become an ordeal. Each aspiring PhD candidate should thus carefully think about the implications of this step before actually applying to graduate school. The decision to pursue a PhD will be worth it, if you are both committed and passionate about it or if your career goals simply require the title. For some, however, the PhD will be a dead end: It is no accident that a great number of PhD students every year abandon their dissertation for a career in the private sector.

When should I begin preparing for the PhD?

You cannot start early enough with your preparation for the PhD. Seek out professors you would like to work with while still pursuing your Bachelor's or Master's and get in touch with PhD candidates at your university or elsewhere. Learn about PhD opportunities both at home and abroad. Ambitious students who work as teaching or research assistants make a good impression, gather important experience and establish valuable contacts. Networking is incredible important because the world of academia is small. Divided into many sub-disciplines and specialties, there are frequently only a hand full of scholars who research a specific topic. And if you already know one of the experts in the discipline of your choice, you have a clear advantage in the race for one of the sought-after PhD positions.

It is also helpful to find an area of interest as early as possible and to familiarize yourself with that field. Attend as many advanced level classes as possible and learn about the state of research: What are current trends in your field and what are tomorrow's questions? Here, too, professors and older PhD students can help you develop relevant emphases that are worth pursuing. Ideally, you can start your research and answer some of its questions in your Master's thesis. This will get you started on the project and show others that you are capable of working academically. The goal is to end up with a set of questions that are both relevant to your discipline and mirror your personal interests. You can learn more on how to find the right topic for your dissertation here.

How do I find the right graduate school?

Getting to know your discipline well is the first step towards finding the graduate program that is right for you. From conversations and your own research you should know where experts in your field are located and which university can provide the best infrastructure for research. Now think about your personal preferences: Which graduate school offers exactly what you are looking for? Who has the most comprehensive skills training program? Which school provides the best financial support? Where are the researchers that you really want to collaborate with? And don't underestimate the question of life quality: Which location offers exactly what you need to be happy? Your personal wellbeing is an important factor contributing to the ultimate success of your dissertation, because only with the right balance of work and regeneration will you be able to stay focused and energized for three or four years. There is no one recipe for such a balance. Some find it in the city, others on the countryside, some at a large university that offers anonymity and diversity, others at a small private school that guarantees intimacy and trust. If at all possible, visit the school that you are interested in and talk to your future colleagues to find out whether or not you can find the right balance there. Requirements for admission: meet the deadlines

Once you have selected a fitting PhD program, look into the respective deadlines and modalities. An application should be planned long before the deadlines, not least because applicants from abroad must show that they have all the prerequisites necessary to attend. That includes an accredited degree, usually a Master's or the equivalent of the German "Diplom". Some German graduate schools also accept candidates with a Bachelor's degree - it is contingent upon the respective doctoral degree regulations. Whether or not your specific degree will be accepted also depends on the institution itself. Many German graduate schools have established standardized accreditation proceedings that are sometimes subject to fees. Make sure you find out as early as possible whether or not there could be issues with your particular degree.

Language requirements are just as important. Since many PhD programs have English as their working language, many graduate schools will ask you for a certificate of competence, for example the Test of English as a Foreign Langauge (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Always remember that these tests can come with significant registration deadlines and preparation times of their own - they simply cannot be done overnight. And even though language test results rarely determine the admission of a candidate, they can be a reason for his or her rejection. Make sure you take the time to prepare for the PhD wisely - both regarding your knowledge of the discipline and your language skills.

Apply to a German Graduate School - Application-Guide
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Curriculum Vitae (PDF)»
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Language & Admissions-Test»
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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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