By Guest Author Prof. Dr. Holger Karl
There is a lot of information available online about how to do a PhD in the US, including answers to relevant questions like what PhD programs exist, which stipends can be obtained, and possible job prospects. However, there is a big educational market – ranging from undergraduate degrees to postgraduate research – outside of the US as well. One excellent example is Germany, which offers both fully funded PhD opportunities and other funding opportunities for postgraduate study and research.
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PhD Opportunities in Germany
The German university system is extensive, with a long tradition that stretches back over centuries and with vibrant, young universities specifically founded for a particular purpose. It has a rich mixture of very large universities and small, highly focused institutions. But since it comes from a slightly different academic tradition and works under different funding principles, the advice for applying to PhD opportunities in Germany is slightly different. There are a couple of significant differences relevant for a postgraduate career.
First, the vast majority of German universities are state-funded. The main consequence is that there are no tuition fees, except for some modest, administrative fees (usually well below 500 Euro a year).
On top of there being no tuition, there is an extensive support system for PhD students. There are three main sources for funding:
- You become a teaching assistant. Then, you are not really considered as a student, but rather as an employee of the university. Depending on the discipline, you can expect to earn between 1,000 to 2,200 Euro (~$1,100-$2,450 USD) per month, after taxes, benefits, health insurance, etc. While you do have to support classes, you can expect to invest the lion share of your time into your own research.
- You work on a research project. Then, you are explicitly employed to do research on a topic that is of interest to the sponsor. Funding for such projects comes from the local or federal government or from the European Union; direct funding from industry in collaborative projects is also very common, especially in the natural and engineering sciences. Typically, the individual research topic is closely related with the project. Payment is practically identical with the teaching assistant payment scheme.
- You obtain a fellowship or scholarship. Fellowships and scholarships for study do exist and have become more popular in the recent years. However, they are less common and not a considerable source of funding. The advantage of scholarships is that you are typically free to choose your research topic. The downside is that scholarship amounts can be lower, ranging from only about 600 to 1,500 Euro per month. Also, most scholarships are limited in time, often two or three years.
One important source of fellowships and scholarships explicitly for foreign students is the German academic exchange service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD). DAAD specializes in providing scholarships for students from outside of Germany, primarily as a means to foster cultural exchange. One opportunity for PhD funding is the DAAD Research Grant. DAAD is always a good starting point for information and opportunities on postgraduate funding.
As a consequence of these funding options, the German academic system tends to treat postgraduate fellowship and scholarship recipients not as students needing tutoring but much rather as someone with a complete education, embarking on an independent research career. For example, there is typically no obligation to attend classes or earn course credits – rather, you are expected to produce research results and to publish.
As a further consequence, PhD programs in Germany are typically less structured than those at US universities. The focus is on the student’s individual research contribution. For example, qualifying exams are practically unheard of in Germany. Organized PhD programs have only come into existence in the last couple of years, and they are mostly a marketing instrument to attract attention of the international workforce – such as yourself!
Finding a PhD position in Germany
When you are looking for a PhD position in Germany, it is highly advisable not just to concentrate on searching for “PhD programs.” In Germany, “program” is a misnomer – they typically do not exist at German universities, and that is neither a good nor bad sign since their relevance is much smaller here than compared to, say, PhD programs in the US university system.
Instead, you should look for concrete advertisements for PhD opportunities and positions in the discipline or research area that interests you. For example, at Paderborn University, we are seeking applicants for PhD positions on the topic of SFB-901 “On-the-Fly Computing” (computer science) and on anticipatory systems (computer networking). We are also open to accepting PhD students with their own ideas. These positions are funded like a job and can be done in English (note, with teaching obligations, you should either have or are willing and able to acquire quickly a decent working knowledge of German).
This system is another consequence of the high emphasis that is put on academic independence: you are expected to have your own original ideas, goals, and interests. Of course, your interests must match with the research interests of the PhD funder.
Competitiveness and academic diversity
The competitiveness of the German academic system is generally considered very high, even though German universities do not show up at top levels in the usual rankings. This is usually attributed to the fairly level playing field: the basic state funding for universities is pretty much comparable (salaries of professors, for example, are regulated by law), leading to an academic ecosystem with very small variation in quality. This is a stark difference to the big differences in the US where funding and even quality between universities can be vastly different.
That does not mean, however, that there is no competition. Quite the contrary – but the competition is mostly on the level of individual researchers and their groups, rather than on institutional level. Admittedly, these aspects have continued to grow in the last couple of years as well.
There is, in addition, a two-branch approach in the academic system. There are the typical universities and there are so-called Universities of Applied Sciences (“Fachhochschule”). You should be aware that doing a PhD at the latter is usually not possible (there are some arrangements for joint PhD programs between Fachhochschulen and Universities, but they are rare and special cases). These schools are much more focused on practical needs of the labor market (like US community colleges) rather than on a research-oriented education.
Language and culture
While English and German are very close cousins as languages, they are not mutually understandable. And admittedly, German does have a reputation of being a bit hard to learn. But that should not be an obstacle!
Most research groups are diverse; English is commonly spoken on campus. In some teaching assistantships, you do have to be able to teach in German, but that is usually not required for project funding or scholarships. Especially in the natural and engineering sciences, English is the lingua franca of the research world. In fact, in these disciplines, you can expect to find a fairly multi-national mix of people in the research groups – perhaps not quite at the level of the US, but certainly approaching it.
In the humanities, the working language can be dictated by the topic – if you work on German literature, it makes sense to know German. Of course, some German does help in everyday life, although university towns are pretty international places and you should not have any serious problems getting around.
Culturally, Germany is a typically western country, well integrated into the European Union. You will find the usual differences between bigger and smaller cities and the countryside, and you will find some regional differences and idiosyncrasies – like in any typical society. Some of the large cities – in particular, Berlin – have a well-earned reputation as a hip and happening place. If you are familiar with the US, you should have no problem fitting in.
Also similar to the US (and to most countries), there is some difference in the cost of living. Smaller university towns typically have lower cost of living; something around 500-600 Euro per month can be enough to cover living expenses (rent, food, public transport, etc.). In larger cities (like Berlin, Munich, Hamburg), rent is typically more expensive. There, you should usually plan for at least 1,000 Euro a month. Since academic quality does not depend on the place but on the individual research group, the choice is yours!
After you have completed your PhD and successfully defended your thesis, there is a host of employment opportunities in Germany. Staying in academia is usually very competitive (as in any good academic setting), but one potential step after a PhD is finding a so-called “junior professorship,” similar to an assistant professor in the US.
You can also leave academia and go for a job in industry. There, opportunities abound. Germany has perhaps the strongest economy in Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates; it is one of the world’s largest exporting nations. Especially in the natural and engineering sciences, in mathematics or computer science, skilled people are in extremely high demand.
There is of course always the option to return to your home country. Especially if you pursue an academic career there, very often long-lasting collaborations with your German research group and university can develop – these can be very durable ties.
So come to Germany!
In summary, it is fair to say that Germany does offer excellent opportunities for fully-funded PhDs and postgraduate work. Instead of tuition paid to the university, there is salary paid to the student. Instead of mandatory course work, you are expected to focus on your research. Instead of doing quizzes in a qualifying exam, you can broaden your network by working in a project with industry or international collaborators, often all over Europe. Combine that with the low cost of living especially in small towns, there is no reason not to give the German academic system a closer look!
- The largest German academic job market is academics.de. Mostly relevant for postdoc and tenured positions, but also some PhD positions are advertised there
- Studying in Germany, a website with useful articles on becoming eligible for a PhD positon
- Most universities have web pages with their PhD offerings in English
- The German academic exchange service – DAAD
Prof. Dr. Holger Karl is based at Paderborn University in Germany. His research interests center around architectures and protocols for mobile and wireless networking. If you are interested in learning about Prof. Dr. Karl’s PhD positions in computer science and networking, learn more here.
© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved.