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How to Study a PhD In Germany?

As in many countries, the aim of the PhD program in Germany is to work on and publish a written doctoral thesis/dissertation. PhD degree is awarded based on examination of the thesis, which must be published in journals specified by the universities, and by an oral examination of thesis presentation.

Let’s first understand the options you would have for a PhD in Germany.

What is University System in Germany?

There are mainly two types of higher education institutions in Germany:

  1. Universities (including Technische Universität, also called TU) are research-oriented institutions and offer a wide variety of subjects. Many of the universities also award PhD (usually called doctorate in Europe) degrees.
  2. Fachhochschulen (University of Applied Sciences, also called FH), are practice-oriented institutions and offer course mostly in engineering, business administration, social sciences and design. They do not award doctorates.

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded by both types of universities (Universities and Fachhochschulen) are legally equivalent. After completing Master’s from either of the institution, you can get admission to a PhD program at a University.

Unlike in the US, after an Undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree, you can directly get enrolled for a PhD program at a University in Germany. Most US universities only requires an Undergraduate degree for admission to PhD program but all of them will require you to take additional coursework.

Germany is also home to a number of prestigious research institutions, such as EMBL. These research institutions can’t award PhD degrees but they host a large number of PhD students for the major part of their doctorates. These students are jointly-supervised by a professor in a university (in Germany or abroad) from which the PhD will be awarded.

What are Types of PhDs in Germany?

Following are the two types of PhDs in Germany:

#1 The traditional approach with Individual Doctorate

Under traditional approach, you need to identify a supervisor at a German university who is willing to guide for your research.

You get lots of flexibility in terms of no compulsory attendance, deadlines and curriculum. As you would largely be working independently, you are expected to work hard and demonstrate more personal initiative and responsibility.

In addition to conducting research work at a university, you could also complete a project at a non-university research organization or at a German company in the industrial sector.

The average length of this kind of PhD is 3 to 5 years.

#2 Structured Programs with Doctorate in a Team of Researchers

Under structural program,

  • first, your research proposal have to fit within existing PhD programs, unlike Individual Doctorate, in which your PhD can be more freely structured to suit your research project.
  • second, you work as part of a group of doctoral students and all are guided by a group of supervisors. There are over 700 programs of this nature available in Germany, often with an international make-up, with English as the team language.

The average length of this kind of PhD is 3 years.

The majority of doctoral candidates still complete a traditional doctorate. However, in recent years, a large number of students are choosing structured program, especially in the natural sciences and mathematics.

Is PhD in Germany for Free?

Almost! There is no tuition fee for PhD program in Germany.

However, you will be asked to pay small administrative fee in the range of €50 – €250, which is to cover service costs such as student governance and services, public transport etc. In addition, you will also have to take health insurance.

So your main cost for a PhD in Germany is you living expenses.

An average student in Germany needs about €820 (US$921) per month to cover living expenses, including rent, food, clothing, transportation, working materials, recreation and other costs.

How to fund a PhD in Germany?

You have various ways to raise money including by teaching appointments, grants, scholarships and part-time jobs.

Under traditional approach of PhD, your supervisor may nominate you for a grant, for example from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation).

DAAD offers scholarships to international students for pursuing PhD. Please checkout their website for more details.

Depending on the subject, there are also numerous organizations in Germany that award individual grants. These include Federal states, foundations, religious organizations or foundations associated with political parties. Funding periods and eligibility criteria will vary but may include allowances for language course, families with children as well as research travel costs.

To get part-time work work, as an international student, please ensure that your residence permit allows you to take paid work. Also, you will be limited to working up to 190 full days or 240 half days per year before you must apply for a work permit.

Under structured program, you also need to include an application for funding in your PhD application. If you are accepted for a PhD, you can expect a monthly allowance of €1,000 – €1,400, which is sufficient to meet your living expenses.

What are the entry requirements?

Entry requirements will vary between universities and PhD programs. In general, you are expected to have a great higher education degree, which is equivalent to a German master’s degree along with a high GPA. Many of our successful students have a GPA of above 75%.

Each university is responsible for decisions on the admission of doctoral students and the accreditation of qualifications.

Some universities may ask for proof of English language proficiency, for example by requesting TOEFL or IELTS scores, while universities will ask for very good German language skills if your thesis is to be written in German.

How to apply for a PhD in Germany?

You need to apply to individual institution. Following are the general steps that you should follow:

#1 Find a supervisor or a structured program

Traditional PhD:  You will need to find a suitable professor who is willing to be your supervisor. You may be able to find a supervisor through contacts from your own university, or by searching for institutes and research centers or teams which relate to your area of interest. Here are some websites that you can use to find a suitable supervisor: DAAD, PhD Germany, Hochschulkompass.de and academics.de.

You should directly reach-out to potential supervisors in your area of research interest. You should send a brief and well-structured outline of your PhD proposal along with your academic background and CV. This process takes time and you should allow plenty of time before intended start date of your PhD.

Structured PhD: You should identify universities in your research area and contact them directly. Use the reference websites mentioned above to find appropriate universities. You would be required to complete the application procedure, as instructed on their websites and within the application deadline.

#2 Admission procedures

Once you have a letter of acceptance from your supervisor or a confirmation of admission for a structured program, you should apply for formal admissions.

These vary depending on the institution. At this stage, the relevant department or doctoral committee must confirm your eligibility as a doctoral candidate. This usually involves completing an application that includes a statement by your doctoral supervisor, certified copies of certificates and the university degree that entitles you to engage in doctoral study.

Your application may also include an English or German language test result, if applicable. The Student Office of your chosen university will review these documents and grant permission for you to commence doctoral studies.

#3 Enrollment

Next comes enrollment after a university accepts your application. Some universities may not require you to officially enroll at university. You an find about this requirement in the doctoral regulations of your university’s official website.

Enrolling secures you a better legal status as an international student. So try to get it done. You must also make sure your Master’s degree is recognized, obtain a residence permit and/or student visa, and ensure you have adequate finances for your stay.

Do I need to speak German?

You don’t need to be able to speak German for your PhD. For Individual PhD, your thesis can often be written in English, whereas for Structured PhD, you re allowed to complete your doctorate in English.

However, you will have much better academic experience, student life and access to projects, internships and part-time jobs if you can speak German language. It’s not difficult. Couple of hours every week for 4-6 months should get you speak a decent level of German language. So please make some effort and start learning German language.

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