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The Traditional Doctorate

By Oliver Wasse

Doctorates following the traditional model still make up the majority of PhDs in Germany compared to structured programmes. For doctoral candidates from abroad, a traditional PhD requires a great deal of initiative, autonomy and tenacity.

The traditional doctorate© RapidEye - iStockphoto.com
On average, 25,000 doctoral candidates a year earn their PhD in Germany, putting the country in the lead across Europe. According to the German Council of Science and Humanities, 93 percent of them complete a traditional doctorate; the other seven percent choose structured programmes, but this trend is growing strongly, especially in the natural sciences and mathematics. There are two routes to a PhD in Germany: the traditional model and the structured programmes. In a traditional doctorate, the doctoral thesis is written with the support of a professor, known as the thesis supervisor. The doctoral candidates complete their degree individually at a faculty, usually on a subject they have chosen themselves. The aim of the doctorate is to draw up and publish the written doctoral thesis, also referred to as the dissertation. In many cases doctoral candidates hold positions as academic collaborators at the faculty while they work on their PhD - usually in order to finance the doctorate.

Initiative, independence and motivation

Compared to structured programmes, the traditional doctorate is criticised for taking longer and not being systematic. Both these factors often lead to motivational problems, especially as candidates find themselves largely on their own. The effort required of doctoral candidates from abroad is significantly higher for a traditional doctorate than within a structured programme. It starts with selecting a subject and applying, and continues throughout the entire course of the doctorate; funding must also be organised by the candidates themselves. That requires independence, tenacity and a significant helping of motivation.

Before applying

Candidates who nonetheless wish to apply for a traditional doctorate in Germany should first thoroughly research the general conditions and familiarise themselves with the system in Germany. The formalities in one's home country should also be looked into. Questions to be answered include, for example: Is a foreign-language dissertation permitted? What are the visa regulations for non-EU citizens? Do I require a work permit? Does the university in Germany offer courses for doctoral candidates? Is a German doctorate recognised in my home country and appreciated by employers? Each faculty at the university in Germany will have its own doctoral degree regulations that govern admission, support, procedures and exams. It may for example be necessary to provide proof of the equivalence of a degree or the courses taken. The doctoral degree regulations are often available on the Internet; most German universities can be reached at the domain www.uni-"place".de (e.g. www.uni-hamburg.de). The "Research in Germany" portal also provides you with an overview of the most important requirements and some practical advice to prepare your doctoral visit: www.research-in-germany.de


The search for a subject

In planning, candidates should allow themselves two to three months to find a suitable thesis subject; not only does it have to be scientifically relevant and innovative, it must also convince the supervisor, and most of all, be of particular interest to the doctoral candidate him/herself. Obvious ways of finding a subject include further expanding on the contents of a previous degree course or on topics from the candidate's working life, or developing an idea relating to the topics dealt with by a particular chair. An overview of dissertation subjects is available through the online search of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) www.forschungsportal.net»
. Once a subject has been found, the search for a suitable faculty usually begins. As long as the formalities required by the doctoral degree regulations present no obstacles, the thesis supervisor should play a significant role in this decision.

Finding good support

Finding a suitable thesis supervisor is a difficult task, but essential to the success of a doctorate. The supervisor accepts the subject, acts as an advisor, mentor, and in many cases boss, and additionally appraises the dissertation. It is important that the supervisor is an expert in the field of the chosen subject and that s/he has shown a good quality of support in the past. Publications indicate subject-specific competence; suitability as a supervisor and advisor is harder to gauge. It is worth doing some research here: how many successful doctorates has s/he supported in recent years? If possible, contact previous doctoral candidates s/he supervised. The existence of courses for doctoral candidates, so-called doctorate colloquia, at the respective chair is an indication of systematic and regular support. When making first contact with the professor, it is particularly important to be polite, and to convey one's especial motivation regarding the chosen subject. The professor should be addressed individually; standard e-mails to several recipients usually end up in the digital recycle bin. Decisive for the success of an application is that there is a subject-related relevance between the focus of the professor's work and the candidate's own research interest. Professors often take a few weeks to respond to an initial contact; following up is permissible after a maximum of four weeks.

A PhD, once it is finally earned, opens doors for one's career - be it within or outside academia. The German doctorate is recognised throughout the world; upon returning to one's home country, a PhD made in Germany will be helpful for the next career move. Research institutions' increasingly internationally oriented recruitment strategies and measures by the German Federal Government to strengthen Germany as a location for research are however also opening up longer-term perspectives for scientists from abroad.

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16. November 2016
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)