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Doing a Doctorate in the Land of Poets and Philosophers

By Katrin Zinoun

Germany is the centre of science and academia for many humanities subjects. Researchers interested in philosophy, sociology or history find it useful to do at least part of their training here.

Doing a doctorate in the land of poets and philosophers© jcarter - iStockphoto.com
In their historical development, the humanities in Germany have never been exposed to the pressure of having to exploit their results. Scholars from the humanities enjoyed unique freedoms. A definition of "The Humanities" includes Philosophy, Linguistics and Literary Studies, History, Regional Studies, Religious Studies, Ethnology, Media, Art and Theatre Studies, as well as Musicology. The Social Sciences and Law also count among the humanities. In Germany today, the humanities not only have an exceptionally diverse and productive research landscape at their disposal. They also have several outstanding disciplines to present: History, Philosophy, Egyptology, Ancient Oriental Studies, and Art History. In some of these fields, German is still the preferred language of science. Germany's universities welcome international exchange within their departments and institutes, and fully support this development. Doctoral students have the status of "early researchers" in Germany. This means they are researchers in all respects, rights and duties, who contribute significantly to their respective disciplines.

Individual Research Prevails in the Humanities

Major research networks and alliances of the kind commonly found in the natural sciences are not to be found in the humanities. A model of individual research generally prevails. At the same time, however, importance is attached to ensuring that doctoral students are able to develop cross-disciplinary competence so that they can research independently and autonomously. The Master-Apprentice model is the principal path to a doctorate, the "Promotion", where candidates are under the academic supervision of their "Doktorvater" or "Doktormutter", as the case may be. However, an increase of structured doctoral programmes is also to be seen. Indeed, the particular diversity of paths to a doctorate is one of the strengths of the German system. The decision of what form the doctoral process actually takes depends greatly on the department or subject area in question. The newly-established DFG Research Training Groups (Graduiertenkollegs) and Max Planck Research Schools are becoming ever more popular in the humanities as well. Structured doctoral training overcomes the dependence on an academic supervisor. In the humanities, the path to a doctorate tends to be understood more as a "community" responsibility. The average time to doctorate of 4.5 years is being further reduced by these structured doctoral programmes.

Qualifying for a Doctorate in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Doctoral candidates in Germany are expected to achieve a very high academic level in their respective field. When submitting their application, it is particularly important for scholars from the humanities to propose and present a convincing topic which they have developed themselves. Further selection criteria include their academic curriculum vitae, the grades they achieved, documented by certificates, letters of recommendation, details of the academic setting in which they gained their previous qualifications. Whether a knowledge of German is needed or not depends on the respective subject. English is the lingua franca in many doctoral programmes. However, German courses are often offered to help doctoral students settle into the social environment and everyday life. The Research Explorer jointly developed by the DFG and DAAD gives users an opportunity to find out more about the current research projects and doctoral programmes. Useful information can also be gained from university homepages, the website of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the internet pages of various foundations. Foundations and grant programmes also offer a wide range of funding sources, and welcome applications from well-qualified students. The best known of these sources include, among others, the "Pro Geisteswissenschaften" initiative (Focus on Humanities), which is jointly offered by the Volkswagen Stiftung and the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, or that offered by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

And after the Doctorate?

Germany's universities know that they are training ever more top management executives and professionals for positions outside academia. The humanities, in particular, train students and graduates for positions that build on delivering an historical-cultural understanding of the world.

DAAD» :: June 2009

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