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University-Based Doctoral Degree Courses and Programmes

By Julia Becker

The clear organisational structure of a university-based doctoral degree course offers security and the option of already working in one's chosen career while completing a PhD. Those who prefer to complete their doctorate without set timetables and with secure funding are better placed in special doctorate programmes.

University-based doctoral degree courses© Markus Schieder - Fotolia.com
Students who enjoy the traditional form of studying at university will also feel at home on a university-based doctoral degree course. The structures familiar from previous studies continue there: doctoral candidates are assigned a - usually mandatory - timetable populated with seminars, courses and discussion groups. On many doctoral degree courses, participants are awarded credit points in accordance with European ETCS standards for each successfully completed course. In addition to writing a doctoral thesis, a certain number of these credit points must be earned in order to complete the doctorate.

Block courses rather than weekly lectures

In contrast to Bachelor and Master studies, the mandatory courses are usually block courses that are not held weekly, but instead concentrated on specified, consecutive days of the year. "We have six block courses in the first year, dropping to three block courses each in the second and third years", says Dr. Sigrid Matzick, co-ordinator of the "Public Health" doctoral degree course at the University of Bielefeld. In addition to attending classes, some doctoral degree courses require doctoral candidates to write qualifying papers and present these to an audience; this serves to connect the subject matter from the seminars to the topic of the candidate's own dissertation.

Career and PhD simultaneously? It works!

The length of structured doctoral degree courses varies, but on average they last three years, making this method of earning a doctorate very compact and time-saving compared to doctoral programmes abroad. A particular advantage of doctoral degree courses at universities is that it is also possible to complete a PhD while working. "Many of our doctoral candidates are already in the midst of their careers, and are additionally working towards a doctorate at our institute. They can do this because they are given a flexible timetable to which they can adapt their working hours", says Prof. Barbara Sponholz, academic advisor for the Geography doctoral degree course at the University of Würzburg.

University-based Doctoral Degree Courses and Programmes Prof. Barbara Sponholz, academic advisor for the Geography doctoral degree course at the University of Würzburg

Funding must be organised by the students themselves

This possibility of combining career and study is very helpful for candidates on doctoral degree courses, as they have to provide their own funding. A positive aspect however is that doctoral candidates are generally exempt from tuition fees and only have to pay the required contributions for administration, student travel cards and student services.
In addition to financing themselves by working, there is the option of applying for a doctoral scholarship or one of the research assistant roles offered by the institutes independently of doctoral degree courses.

Support for doctoral candidates

In addition to the clearly set-out curriculum, doctoral degree courses offer excellent support for candidates. Each doctoral candidate is assigned a tutor who serves as his or her contact person for any questions relating to the doctorate. In most cases, the advising professor will also be the PhD supervisor and an expert on the respective subject area. "In addition to this individual support, we also have a class speaker who functions as a mediator between scientists and professors should problems or questions arise", explains Dr. Matzick.

Internationalisation through increasing networking

Students coming to a German university from abroad receive professional help in all matters relating to their stay in Germany from the foreign students' office - the university contact point for students and doctoral candidates from abroad - and from the institutes themselves. "The international doctoral candidates are immediately integrated into our groups. Excursions intended to familiarise our foreign guests with their surroundings are also available", says Prof. Sponholz. Many doctoral degree courses are networked with graduate colleges, graduate schools and partner institutions abroad. This draws foreign students to the degree courses: "We try to organise regular exchanges with our partner institutions abroad, where foreign doctoral candidates come here and our doctoral candidates go abroad and conduct research there", says Prof. Sponholz, who is hoping that the increasing structuring of doctoral degree courses will also lead to greater internationalisation.

University-based Doctoral Degree Courses and Programmes Dr. Sigrid Matzick, co-ordinator of the doctoral degree course "Public Health" at the University of Bielefeld

German language skills desirable

As the language of instruction on many doctoral degree courses today is still mainly German, doctoral candidates from abroad should take a language course at the latest when they start their degree. "But we're currently in the midst of a change, because we are aiming to further internationalise our degree course. Part of that is an increased range of classes in English, especially also on doctoral degree courses", explains Prof. Sponholz from Würzburg. The situation at other universities is similar: "We often discuss whether we should offer more courses in English. I think the more international our doctoral candidates become, the faster English will be adopted as a teaching language", says Dr. Matzick from Bielefeld.

A successful application requires excellent grades

Anyone interested in taking a doctoral degree course should first try to gain an overview of the very wide range of courses on offer, and then find out about the specific eligibility requirements and individual application procedures on the websites of the intended universities and institutes. As a general rule however, applicants should have graduated from their Diplom, Magister or Master's degree course in the respective subject area with a grade of at least 2.0. "Anyone below this average will have a harder time being accepted for a doctorate. We try to attract the best scientists to our institute", explains Prof. Sponholz. At many universities, graduates who have only a Bachelor's degree or do not feel sufficiently competent in the subject or the language can complete appropriate preparatory courses before the actual doctoral degree course.

University-based Doctoral Degree Courses and Programmes Reader Dr. Annette Ladstätter-Weißenmayer, co-ordinator of the international post-graduate programme PIP at the University of Bremen

Doctoral programmes that are not doctoral degree courses

Doctoral programmes are often very similar to doctoral degree courses, but there are also a number of specific doctoral programmes that differ from PhDs in course form. These are offered in association with a project-related PhD position. In addition to working in the PhD position, the employed doctoral candidates then have the opportunity to take part in the structured doctoral programme. "We support a wide range of events and courses. In addition, we organise excursions to well-known research institutions. The decision as to which of the various options a doctoral candidate wishes to take advantage of lies with each individual", says reader Annette Ladstätter-Weißenmayer, co-ordinator of the international post-graduate programme PIP at the University of Bremen.
Although attending the course is voluntary, doctoral candidates are also challenged in these programmes, for example through regularly developing and holding seminars. "We support doctoral candidates in organising seminars in order to ensure that current research topics are discussed", says Ladstätter-Weißenmayer. In addition, discussion groups, expert discussions with colleagues and lectures by guest researchers are on the agenda almost every day.

Funding is secure in these doctoral degree courses

Much like a position as a research assistant at an institute, the PhD positions in these university-based doctoral programmes are financed via third-party funding. PhD positions provide doctoral candidates with a salary in accordance with the Public Sector Collective Agreement on Länder - usually amounting to a take-home pay of around 1000 euros.

academics :: June 2009