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Graduate Schools in Germany - An Overview

By Christian Wilbers

Merely ten years ago graduate schools were more or less unknown among German universities. But when the country reorganized its system of higher education to make it more compatible with international standards, the first graduate schools were established. Today a growing number of them offer PhD students the opportunity to pursue a so-called "structured PhD" with comprehensive support systems and the chance to earn the degree within three or four years.

Graduiertenschulen: Promovieren im Team© Monkey Business - Fotolia.comGraduiertenschulen, the German graduate schools, offer a structured programm to earn a PhD
Basically, there are two ways to earn a PhD in Germany: The traditional PhD and the PhD in a structured program at a graduate school (Graduiertenschule) or a research-training group (Graduiertenkolleg). The traditional PhD, as it has been practiced in Germany for centuries, is built around the close collaboration of PhD candidate and dissertation advisor. PhD candidates find a topic in coordination with the faculty of their choice and then do the research in archive or laboratory more or less alone. Usually, a teaching position helps secure the student's financial needs. Traditional PhDs of this kind take between four and six years. They generally require no coursework but plenty of discipline and individual initiative from the graduate students, who are responsible only to themselves and their advisors. Up until the 1980s, this model was the only way to gain a PhD in Germany and it will remain a permanent feature of academic training in the future.

However, structured programs have become more important ever since the German universities and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced their so-called Excellence Initiative (Exzellenzinitiative) in 2005. The goal of the ongoing initiative is to strengthen the quality of research in Germany and make the country more competitive internationally. An key strategy of the initiative has been the establishment of research teams, which cooperate across disciplinary boundaries and provide intensive, targeted training for the next generation of scholars. To meet that goal, many academic institutions set up structured PhD programs, for example as Graduiertenschulen, Graduiertenkollegs or as university-specific PhD programs. Today, 700 of these programs exist - and their number is rising.

What are Graduiertenschulen?

But what exactly are Graduiertenschulen? And what makes them unique? After all, there are big differences between the German system of higher education and those in other countries. In the United States, for example, graduate schools are a fully integrated part of every university and as such they are responsible for the entire post-bachelor training. In other words, pursuing a Master or a PhD is synonymous with going to graduate school.

The same is not true in Germany. For one, a master's degree is almost always a precondition to get accepted into one of the Graduiertenschulen, not least because their purpose is the training of PhD candidates. More importantly, however, the academic landscape in Germany is much more heterogeneous - and graduate schools exist in a parallel universe. While they are often directly tied to one or more universities, their function is to foster interdisciplinary exchange and to support the PhD students, financially and otherwise. Graduate schools thus complement the work of the departments, where the actual academic training happens. In some cases, German graduate schools are little more than umbrella organizations with the sole purpose of improving the research conditions for PhD candidates from all associated academic institutions. A PhD at a German Graduiertenschule is structured and targeted - with consequences on the time it takes to earn a PhD. The goal is to send off PhDs after three or four years of training - by comparison a traditional PhD on average takes at least a year or two longer. And in the United States, a PhD in the humanities may take as long as ten years.

Financial Support

Nearly all German graduate schools offer financial support to their PhD candidates, on average between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros a month. And they provide academic training services with a focus on transferable skills that will be useful in the daily routine of academia: How do I work scientifically? What are the best strategies to master the challenges of the PhD track most efficiently? How do I publish my research results in academic publications? The offerings are usually complemented with language classes and advanced technical training courses designed to meet the needs of the respective disciplines. These courses are sometimes non-obligatory though more and more graduate schools are instituting systems that force PhD candidates to undergo at least some extra training. For example, at some schools students collect "credit points" by attending informal meetings, presenting papers at conferences, participating in language classes, or publishing academic papers. At the Technical University Munich, every PhD candidate has to take a certain number of classes or seminars from the extensive qualification program offered by the TUM Graduate School.

Graduate Schools foster teamwork

Above all, German graduate schools are places of academic exchange: When choosing PhD candidates and faculty, the Graduiertenschulen try to create a good international and interdisciplinary atmosphere that allows for a productive cooperation within the research teams. In a survey conducted by academics almost two thirds of all participating graduate schools stated that at least 40 percent of their members had international backgrounds, 20 percent even claimed that number to be 60 percent or more. English has become the working language almost everywhere and additional services like helping new arrivals finding an apartment or getting a visa are specifically created with non-German scholars in mind. Every applicant should be aware of this trend and indicate their interest and experience in international and interdisciplinary work in the application materials.

Besides key areas like internationality and interdisciplinarity, the comprehensive support of their PhD students is an important goal. Graduate Schools are thus an interesting alternative to the traditional PhD, especially for those who have yet to find their bearings in academia. PhD candidates are never left alone during the research and writing process. Instead, they are integrated into teams and supported during their work. At the same time, research results are constantly presented internally or at academic conferences. In all, German Graduiertenschulen offer their members an entire range of advantages: A structured course of study with interdisciplinary and international exchange, qualified support, short duration to the PhD and financial support without the necessity to teach.

academics :: November 2013

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.

All graduate schools