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Structured Yet Vibrant Top-Flight Research

By Maike Steuer

The German research landscape enjoys an excellent reputation in the life sciences. Thanks to a large number of English-language, internationally oriented doctoral programmes, completing a doctorate in Germany is also very popular with graduates from other countries.

Structured Yet Vibrant Top-Flight Research© Fotolia V - Fotolia.com
The German research landscape enjoys an excellent reputation in the life sciences. Thanks to a large number of English-language, internationally oriented doctoral programmes, completing a doctorate in Germany is also very popular with graduates from other countries.

Gregor Mendel had something of a passion for peas. By breeding and crossing different kinds, in the mid-19th century he became the first person to derive the laws of inheritance, thereby laying the foundation for a field of research that over 150 years later is booming like no other in Germany.

Known as the "life sciences" in the Anglo-American region, German scientists also like to refer to them as bio sciences. They mean the same thing: the disciplines of biochemistry, bio informatics, biology, biomedicine, biophysics, biotechnology, genetic engineering, nutritional sciences, food technology, medicine, medical engineering, pharmacy, pharmacology, environmental management and environmental engineering.

A key area of research policy

The objects of study have long since shrunk from pea-sized to just a few nanometres - matter that is invisible to the naked eye but nonetheless has an enormous effect on highly diverse areas of life and is the subject of top-class research throughout Germany.

International graduates of the life sciences who are interested in completing their doctorate in Germany are offered excellent working conditions. Not only is the promotion of biotechnology a key area of the Federal Government's research policy; leading research institutions such as the German Research Foundation, the Max Planck Society, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, the Helmholtz Association or the Leibniz Association are also focusing on exploring genetic disorders and on health, environmental and nutrition research.

Structure has a long tradition

While in the humanities and the social sciences the individual doctorate under supervision of a thesis advisor is only slowly being replaced by structured programmes, it is in the nature of the biosciences to work in a structured manner. Working in a laboratory and in a team of researchers has always been the foundation of a doctorate in this field. What has changed however is the quality and the international orientation.

Although depending on the institution it may be referred to as a research training group, a graduate school, an international research school or simply a doctoral programme, the aim is always the same: to guide outstanding graduates to a doctorate in approximately three years in a structured fashion, where "structured" does not mean "school-like", but refers merely to the different conditions that await doctoral candidates in the life sciences. In addition to their actual research work, doctoral candidates are obliged to attend further training seminars, colloquia and workshops and acquire soft skills that are also important for an academic career.

Facilitated self-reliance

Right from the start of the doctoral programme, every doctoral candidate is considered a full member of the team and expected to work independently and autonomously. Nonetheless the programmes ensure intensive support from one or two professors per doctoral candidate in an excellently equipped research environment.

Nowadays the most promising way to become a part of all this is usually via the respective institution's central selection procedure, which filters the best applicants in several steps and matches them with projects. In addition to grade averages and discernible motivation, this "matching" is one of the main criteria in selecting suitable doctoral candidates.

Financial security for doctoral candidates is provided through grants that are either awarded directly by the responsible institute or for which applications can be made to external organisations. The "Funding Guide" published by the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) offers an overview of the existing funding options.

DAAD» :: June 2009


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