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How to Finance a PhD

By Grit Thümmel

Doctoral degree courses are free of charge in Germany, but candidates still have to find ways to cover the cost of living during the doctorate. There are many possibilities, although they are not always easy to figure out - an overview.

Financing your PhD© Alex Slobodkin - iStockphoto.com
Students completing a traditional doctorate with a supervisor will often have to raise the necessary funds themselves. In this case, a teaching appointment in the form of academic collaboration at the university will often provide part of a doctoral candidate's income. Another option is financing via a scholarship. Important: the supervisor must already have accepted the student and the thesis project must be definite when applying. The supervisor can then put the doctoral candidate forward for a grant, for example from the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes), which pays its grantees approximately 1,000 euros a month for two or at most three years. Generally, doctoral candidates in Germany have the advantage that they do not have to pay tuition fees.

Germany's foundation landscape

Candidates can also apply for a scholarship themselves. Depending on the subject, there are numerous foundations in Germany that award individual grants. For example, the German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) sponsors young scientists (up to the age of 28) and their research in the field of environmental protection with 1,000 euros a month for three years. Church foundations such as the German Protestant church's Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst or the Catholic Bischöfliche Studienförderung (Cusanuswerk) support doctoral candidates who are particularly committed to social causes; both foundations however require applicants to be members of the respective denomination. Foundations associated with political parties offer young researchers grants for socio-political dissertation projects. However, funding periods vary significantly between three and 36 months, and age limits often restrict eligibility. A tip: Most grants can be supplemented with a number of allowances and subsidies, for example for families with children, for research expeditions or material expenses. Applicants from abroad should be aware that proof of German language skills (DSH or TestDaF) is required for many of the individual scholarships. The advantage of these foundation scholarships: in addition to financial support, many also offer extra-curricular support. Joint leisure activities and help with everyday issues can make it easier particularly for foreign students in Germany to acclimatise. An overview of the German funding organisations for PhD students can be found here: www.research-in-germany.de.

Working alongside a doctorate

In addition to scholarships or academic employment, doctoral candidates of course also have the option of financing their living costs with a side job. In Germany, this requires a residence title that permits the holder to work. Doctoral candidates from third countries that do not enjoy free movement of labour within the EU must apply for the appropriate visa from the German embassy or consulate responsible for their place of residence before entering the country. Students who want to earn a little extra money with a side job during their doctorate although they have a scholarship should do so only to a limited extent, otherwise they may find their grant is reduced.

Financing in structured programmes

For students taking a doctoral degree course or attending a graduate school, financing is a different matter. Candidates interested in one of the structured programmes should include an application for funding when applying for the graduate programme; if they are accepted to the programme, funding is then already secured.
The research training groups founded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) and the International Max Planck Research Schools, for example, support their young scientists for initially two years with grants of approximately 1,000 - 1,400 euros a month or by employing them as academic collaborators. This funding may be extended by a year if required. In addition, more and more internationally oriented doctoral programmes are being set up at individual universities in Germany; they are funded by the federal states and also support doctoral candidates with employment or grants. In Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia or Lower Saxony, for example, participants are provided with up to 1,400 euros a month in this way. Generally, doctoral programmes assign these scholarships and jobs themselves, i.e. doctoral candidates should always apply directly to the research project they are interested in.

DAAD sponsorship programmes

Since 2008, the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, DAAD) has been sponsoring doctoral candidates from abroad with its Bi-national PhD Network (PhD-Net) with the aim of promoting collaboration between German and foreign universities. The Bi-national PhD Network is the successor to the "International Postgraduate Programmes" (IPP) that were selected by DAAD together with the German Research Association. What makes the DAAD programmes special is their international orientation: foreign degrees are recognised without problems, and all accompanying events are offered in English. Most of the programmes within the Bi-national PhD Network have fixed application dates.

Doctoral candidates can fund themselves either by working in a further qualification position at the university or through the standard scholarship programmes offered by DAAD. The latter are awarded by DAAD to very highly qualified university graduates. In addition to previous academic achievements, the most important selection criterion is a convincing and well-planned research project that has been agreed with a supervisor. The funding period depends on the duration of the doctorate and usually covers three years. But: scholarships are initially only awarded for one year; whether they are extended depends on the success of the scholarship period. DAAD research grants generally require German language skills - as do individual grants outside a programme. DAAD then decides on a case-by-case basis whether a free German language course can be funded before the research grant begins. Exceptions are often made for natural or engineering scientists, or if the dissertation is to be written in English; a proven good knowledge of English may then be sufficient.

Specifically for young scientists from developing countries, DAAD also offers research grants in a "sandwich model". These grants are based on co-operation: DAAD funds projects that are supervised jointly by a German and a foreign professor. The thesis is written in the doctoral candidate's home country, but a research stay of one or two years with the supervising German professor is already agreed beforehand and financed by DAAD.

More funding databases

The "Research in Germany" protal provides you with a list of relevant funding databases fpr international PhD students and reserachers: funding databases.


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