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The Systematic PhD - Structured Programmes in Germany

By Sabine Olschner

Structured doctoral programmes offer a fixed curriculum with individual support, defined duration and regular funding. The choices in Germany are numerous - an overview.

The systematic PhD© René Mansi - iStockphoto.com
Doctoral candidates who have chosen a structured doctoral programme have a clear advantage. They are supported in a wide range of ways for the entire duration of their doctorate - an additional benefit for doctoral candidates from abroad, as they receive assistance with everyday problems such as finding a flat or opening a bank account, in the form of organised joint leisure activities, and all the way to intensive support from their university. The advantage in Germany: professors tend to view doctoral candidates as colleagues and scientists rather than as students - and that has a positive effect both on their research work and on how they interact with each other.

Excellent conditions in structured programmes

Many courses are held in English. While doctoral candidates who find a supervisor through their own initiative are often lone warriors, structured programmes place great emphasis on teamwork and practical relevance: students often work on joint research projects, offering the opportunity to exchange opinions and experiences with other doctoral candidates and supervisors. In addition, the technical equipment is often outstanding compared to other countries, facilitating optimal working conditions. A doctoral candidate will usually be supported by several supervisors. In addition to subject-specific content, structured programmes also teach key competencies such as presentation techniques or scientific writing. And the programmes in Germany stand out not least because they lead to doctorates in a very short time: in general, candidates will gain their PhD in only three or four years. By comparison, in the USA a PhD takes five to eight years; in the UK the average is three to five years. This saves doctoral candidates in Germany time, trouble and most of all money. Funding in structured programmes is taken care of, doctoral candidates are always exempt from tuition fees, and the fees for the programmes are financed through grants - another locational advantage for Germany.

Ways to a doctorate

There are various ways of completing a structured doctoral programme in Germany:

DFG Research Training Groups»
Graduate Schools»
International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS)»
University-based Doctoral Degree Courses and Programmes»

Each programme has its peculiarities: the currently 283 national and 53 international DFG research training groups are temporary university institutions and open to all disciplines. The individual training groups are subject-focused: scientists who work on a certain subject collaborate with each other within a research project. Based on the example of the DFG research training groups, approximately 40 graduate schools have been founded in recent years which are permanently integrated into universities. They cover a broader range of subjects than the DFG research training groups.
The 49 International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS) conduct research in innovative areas such as molecular biology, neurosciences, computer sciences, demographics, plasma physics and polymer research. At the IMPRS, several events a year are an integral part of the doctoral programme; they include seminars and lectures as well as meetings where the doctoral candidates present the progress of their research. Doctoral candidates from abroad may take their doctoral exam either at a German university or at their home university.

In addition, universities offer doctoral degree courses for future doctoral candidates. These are structured similarly to a degree course: there is a timetable consisting of seminars, courses and discussion groups. During their doctoral degree course, the candidates earn credit points as per the Europe-wide standardised grading system "European Credit Transfer System" (ECTS) and receive individual support. Doctoral degree courses have the advantage that they enable candidates to complete their PhD alongside a career.

Multi-stage application procedures

Candidates interested in one of the programmes must go through an often multi-stage application procedure. First prerequisite for participation is generally a Diplom or Master's degree. "Fast Track" programmes allow especially qualified students to begin their doctorate directly following a Bachelor's degree. Application procedures vary from programme to programme. Applicants interested in a place in a DFG research training group must explain why this particular training group is interesting to them and which subject they want to research; decisive factors are subject-specific knowledge and a discernible motivation for the doctorate. Those who successfully pass the initial preselection are invited to a lecture where the subject is presented. Applicants for graduate schools can contact the respective university or department directly. Usually, grades and a description of the topic of the Bachelor or Master thesis are requested and references required. The selection is made through interviews. The application procedures for the International Max Planck Research Schools are described on the websites of the respective institutions, to which applications must be made directly in writing. Here too, interviews are conducted, either over the telephone or in some cases in person. General criteria for a successful application are previous study achievements, references and the applicant's interest in the scientific research.

Whatever programme you chose: allow sufficient time for the application phase, which may sometimes take several months. But the effort is definitely worthwhile, especially for doctoral candidates from abroad: both the scientific standard at German universities and German doctoral degrees are very highly regarded abroad. And those earning their doctorates on a structured programme will quickly feel at home in this foreign country.

academics :: June 2009


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