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Graduate Schools: Teaming up for a Doctorate

By Sabine Olschner

Students from abroad will find themselves in particularly good hands at one of the approximately 40 German graduate schools with their structured doctoral programmes. These institutions support their doctoral candidates in numerous ways - professionally and personally.

The graduate schools at German universities were founded as part of the German Initiative for Excellence, with which the Federal Republic of Germany aims to promote top-flight university research. Each graduate school receives on average one million euros in public funds each year. Graduate schools are centres of exchange: they aim to ensure both that research teams are internationally mixed and that the groups of doctoral candidates are interdisciplinary.

Several faculties will often jointly research an overarching issue. One example is the Göttingen Graduate School of Neurosciences and Molecular Biosciences (GGNB), one of the largest graduate schools in Germany. Six faculties of the University of Göttingen, three Max Planck Institutes and the German Primate Centre conduct, for example, joint research in the fields of brain and behavioural research, biochemistry, biophysics, cell and developmental biology. The doctoral candidates don't just work individually within the research teams, they participate in research projects. "Our approximately 350 doctoral candidates - of whom up to 45 percent are from abroad - are integrated directly into the research groups", emphasises Dr. Steffen Burkhardt, scientific co-ordinator of the GGNB.

Interdisciplinary Graduate Schools

Dr. Martin Zierold, managing director of the Gießen Graduate Centre for Cultural Sciences (GGK), takes a similar view: "We treat our doctoral candidates as researchers and not as learners. That means they can, for example, also attend conferences or publish their research results." The GGK deliberately calls itself Graduate Centre and not Graduate School "because we operate in a less school-like manner than many other providers", explains Martin Zierold. For example, contrary to the usual procedure at many graduate schools, doctoral candidates in Gießen don't earn credit points. The GGK brings together social scientists, historians, teachers, musicologists, literary and linguistic scientists and other researchers from the wide field of civilisation studies, who carry out interdisciplinary research in eight research areas.

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Graduate Schools: Teaming up for a doctorate Graduate Schools: Teaming up for a doctorate Graduate Schools: Teaming up for a doctorate

Soft skills for scientists

One advantage of inter-faculty collaboration is the networking and the associated exchange of ideas among doctoral candidates and professors. "We already place importance in the application process on whether the candidates have sought to broaden their horizons during their studies and taken an interest in at least a second discipline", explains Dr. Yvonne Ritze, project co-ordinator for teaching in the Cluster of Excellence at the Stuttgart Graduate School of Simulation Technology (GS SimTech). The 37 German Clusters of Excellence are also state-sponsored research and training institutions that co-operate with extramural research institutions, universities of applied sciences and industry.

At GS SimTech, doctoral candidates - mainly from the natural and engineering sciences and the humanities - can also involve themselves in other, cross-disciplinary subjects alongside their own research areas. "We offer, for example, courses on soft skills such as time management or scientific writing", explains Yvonne Ritze. Other graduate schools have similar offerings. "After a year or a year and a half, our doctoral candidates additionally prepare a milestone presentation in which they present their projects to their colleagues." This too is a special feature of graduate schools: in contrast to a traditional PhD, the doctoral candidates are never left to themselves, but integrated into a team and supported - and on the other hand regularly required to present the results of their doctorate.

Faster doctorates

"Our focused and structured procedure supports our doctoral candidates in completing their doctorate after on average only three years", says Dr. Markus Lazanowski, one of two managing directors of the Darmstadt Graduate School of Computational Engineering (CE), describing another advantage of graduate schools. With a traditional doctorate, candidates usually take roughly two years longer to earn their PhD. In Darmstadt, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists come together. The Fast Track allows especially qualified students who are taking a Master's degree course in CE at the Technical University of Darmstadt to enter the graduate school as early as the second year of their Master's. Fast Track participants do not have to complete a Master's thesis, so they can use the time thus saved to start working on their doctoral thesis.

Graduate Schools: Teaming up for a Doctorate

Dr. Markus Lazanowski

Around 50 percent of CE doctoral candidates come from abroad, from Egypt through India to China. "The inter-cultural and inter-disciplinary exchange is very important to us", says Markus Lazanowski. As at most other graduate schools, doctoral candidates also receive financial support in the form of grants, so their living costs are covered. In addition, most graduate schools offer help with finding a flat, procuring a visa or for dealing with public authorities.

Application options for doctoral candidates

Candidates who are interested in a graduate school should first find out which key areas are best suited to the subject of their own doctoral thesis. Depending on location, various application procedures follow. "Interested students apply to us online for specific research projects", explains for example Dr. Sabine Bartosch, co-ordinator at the Berlin-Brandenburg School for Regenerative Therapies. Between 30 and 40 applicants from the natural sciences, medicine and the engineering sciences are invited to an assessment centre where they have to, for example, hold talks and demonstrate that they fit in with the team. "An open attitude towards the international flair of our institute and a willingness to learn new things - that's what we look for in our applicants", says Sabine Bartosch.

Advantage graduate school

The GGNB in Göttingen even offers interviews via video conferencing for foreign applicants who live far away. "All our programmes are on the Internet", co-ordinator Steffen Burkhardt explains the procedure. "You either apply online for a specific programme or directly to a professor or a department in which you are particularly interested." Especially for applicants from abroad who are worried about the German language, Burkhardt adds: "All our courses are held in English. So it's not absolutely necessary to speak German in order to gain a doctorate here. But we do offer our doctoral candidates German language courses for everyday situations."

Structured working, short doctoral study periods, interdisciplinary exchange, subject-related, financial assistance and personal support - graduate schools offer their attendees a whole range of advantages. And last but not least, doctorates at German universities enjoy an excellent reputation abroad. Those who would prefer to earn their doctorate on a team rather than in solitude will therefore find that a graduate school is the perfect place for them.

academics :: June 2009