Graduate studies in Germany vs. USA — Typical degree requirements

April 6, 2010

In this post, I’ll explain the typical degree requirements for graduate degrees in Germany (as usual, the focus in on the natural sciences, the area I’m most familiar with).

Diplom/Masters degree requirements — courses, thesis, exams
Be sure you understand exactly what courses you will be required to take, and whether these are offered in English. The professors may have some flexibility in deciding what requirements you have to meet based on your past record. There can be some surprises due to differences between the educational systems — for example, I was surprised to discover that my Diplom program’s graduate lab course took about 6 months of intensive work to complete (while not doing anything else). Also, find out whether there will be comprehensive exams — and whether these can be done in English. For the Diplom, students normally had to pass a set of four oral (NOT written) comprehensive exams — as far as I know this was true everywhere in Germany. This may have changed in some places with the introduction of the Bachelor/Masters system.

Also, find out whether you will be required to write a Diplom/Masters thesis. This by itself takes at least 6 months and possibly more than a year, depending on your department and how ambitious your project is — you have to do your own original research. Normally it is done after completing all course requirements (not in parallel). Comprehensive exams may take place either before or after writing the thesis, depending on the department. It is generally easier to deal with them before the thesis, if possible, while the course material is still fresh in your mind. Sometimes the thesis must be formally presented or defended, perhaps publicly.

In my case, I ended up taking classes (including the time-consuming lab class) for three semesters, then taking comprehensive exams on that coursework (I spent about three months just preparing for the exams —
many students spend 6 months or more), then spending about an additional year conducting research and writing my Diplom thesis. Altogether, it took me a bit more than 2.5 years to get the Diplom. In
hindsight, I could have been slightly faster had I understood the system a bit better at the beginning, but only by about 6 months.

Degree requirements for the PhD — courses, teaching, dissertation, defense
A quick summary of US graduate education for German readers is perhaps in order:
In the typical US graduate program, students enter with a Bachelors degree, and take 5-6 or more years to get a PhD. The first 1-2 years are usually spent taking classes, and culminate in a set of “comprehensive” or “candidacy” exams. After passing these exams, the student has the status of a “doctoral candidate”. At some universities (but not all), a Master’s degree is awarded at this stage. In many fields, the Master’s degree is not very valuable, since the Bachelors degree qualifies you for most non-academic jobs and the PhD is required for academic/research jobs.

By contrast, German PhD students, having already completed the Diplom, are usually not required to take courses. However, in some of the new “structured” graduate programs, there may be coursework requirements. Also, more and more graduate programs are offering optional “soft skills” workshops on topics such as scientific writing and presentation, career planning, and time management.

Many departments require doctoral candidates to do a certain amount of work as graders, lab assistants, and teaching assistants (leading exercises) as a degree requirement. This requirement may not be written down, so be sure to ask about this.

The main requirement to obtain the doctoral degree is the successful completion and defense of a doctoral dissertation. The dissertation was traditionally a scientific monograph, but it is becoming more common to write a “cumulative” dissertation — i.e. to collect several (usually 3 or more) papers you have published and preface them with an introductory chapter that ties them together. This has the great advantage of efficiency, since your published peer-reviewed work is ultimately what will be most important for your future career, should you stay in academia. Try to find out how long the dissertation usually is in your department and whether it can be written cumulatively. If you can get copies of recent dissertations from your department, they should give you a good idea of what is expected.

The defense of the dissertation may include only the student and the committee, or it may be public. Usually, questions are asked about the thesis as well as more general questions about the field in which you will obtain your degree. However, this can vary by department.

Graduate studies in Germany vs. USA — Education

April 1, 2010

University degrees
Matt’s questions:

Education: It seems as if the programs, other than LMU, require a master’s before getting your PhD. Is it difficult to get into the PhD program if you get your master’s at a particular uni (ie. I get my master’s at Tübingen will I get in to the PhD program at Tübingen automatically?)

I’ll write a bit more about degree requirements in the next post. In this post, I’ll try to give a very broad overview of how graduate education works in Germany.

The first thing to understand about German universities is the degree system, which until recently was somewhat different from all other degree systems in the world. Traditionally, the first university degree in Germany (in the natural sciences) was the Diplom, which could be obtained after 13 years of school and about 5-6 years of university studies (although many people took longer, but that is another story). Due to the so-called “Bologna process“, most departments have recently (within the past two years) switched to a Bachelor/Master system, in which the Bachelor can be obtained after about 3-4 years and the Master after an additional 1-2 years. The main intent of the reform is to establish comparable degree systems across Europe, however it is not clear that this goal has been met — in fact, so far the confusion about the reform and the inhomogeneities in its implementation seem to have made it more difficult than before to switch universities and countries. Apparently, in some programs only a limited number of applicants are being accepted to the Master’s program, and this is becoming the major bottleneck for further education. However, the new system is still in flux and it is difficult to say for sure how it will work once the dust has settled.

It is far more common for Germans to obtain a doctoral degree than Americans. In fact, university graduates are more likely to obtain a doctoral degree in Germany than in any other country in the world. The “Bundesbericht zur Förderung des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses” gives the number of PhDs per 1000 residents in the 25-34 age bracket for various countries: in Germany, it is 2.6, as compared with only 1.3 in the USA and an estimated 1.4 in all EU-27 countries (the full report — in German — can be accessed here; the table is here).

The doctoral degree carries a high status and is afforded a great deal of respect in Germany (in fact, titles and formal qualifications in general carry more weight in Germany than they do in the US). In many fields (chemistry is a good example), the Dr. rer. Nat. is practically required to obtain a job in Germany, even outside of academia. In the US, by contrast, the PhD is usually sought only by those who intend to pursue a career in academic research.

Some Germans switch Unis after the Diplom/Masters degree and obtain their PhD elsewhere, but it is actually very common to get your entire university education, including the PhD, at one university — this is in contrast to the U.S., where students are strongly encouraged to change schools after the Bachelors. I don’t think you can be accepted as a PhD student at your university “automatically”, however, the large fraction of students who do obtain PhDs in Germany is indicative of the fact that finding a PhD position *somewhere* is probably quite feasible. Usually, the only requirements to become a PhD student are 1) that you have a degree that qualifies you, i.e. a Master’s or Diplom degree and 2) that you find an advisor (or “supervisor”, the more commonly used translation in Germany) willing to sponsor you. You will get to know (at least superficially) the potential supervisors in your department during your Masters, which is perhaps why it seems to be easiest to find a PhD position in the same department. In some places, you have to apply to a “graduate school” that may have a competitive, possibly more transparent / objective admission procedure, but this is a very recent development.

Finally, also consider that it is possible to obtain a PhD “externally”, for instance by doing your thesis research in a commercial company, or in one of Germany’s many excellent public research institutions (e.g. Max Planck, Helmholtz or Leibniz institutes). In this case, it may be best to first contact that institute about opportunities; at some stage you will also need to find a university professor to sponsor you.


How hands-on are PI’s in Germany, it may vary among individuals, do they help you with your research or just let you fend for yourself?

Traditionally, PIs have left PhD students to fend for themselves, but this is changing rapidly and many PIs nowadays are very hands-on. It varies a lot by field and by individual. I recommend trying to speak with other graduate students when you visit to get a feeling for this.

DFG wants less but better papers

March 2, 2010

Recently, Prof. Dr.-ing. Matthias Kleiner, president of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG), gave a speach with the intention of changing the way we think about papers (PDF of the speach (German)). From July scientists who apply for money from the DFG must not name more than 5 publications in their application form. While this at first sight might appear to be just a minor change of the way the application has to be written, Prof. Kleiner and the DFG senate want to encourage scientists with this change to write less but better papers. They recognize that papers are the “gold standard” and a “currency” in the scientific community but also say that due to the increasing importance of various statistical factors (Hirsch-factor, Impact-factor, …) the pressure on scientists to publish highly cited papers is immense. This, so the DFG scientists, is bad for scientists and in some cases leads to scientists publishing false results just to have more papers published.

By adding these new rules for DFG applications, they want to break this trend and put more importance in high quality papers.

Graduate studies in Germany vs. USA — Overview and links

February 21, 2010

Many Germans would like to complete part of their university studies in the US. Fewer US-Americans study abroad, but when they do, Germany is the most popular non-English-speaking destination country. There is a long and rich history of academic exchange between the two countries.

But what are the relative merits of doing graduate studies at a German university vs. a US-American university in today’s world? How do the systems vary in terms of education and funding? Is one system “better” than the other overall? What hurdles might be encountered by Americans (or other foreigners) planning to study in Germany?

“Matt” asked some of these questions in a recent blog comment. Since the answers might be interesting to a broader audience, I’m turning my reply to him into a short series of new blog posts. I’ll also point to some other resources that might be of particular use to US citizens (but also other non-Germans) considering graduate studies in Germany. The focus will be towards the natural sciences, because that is the area I’m most familiar with (and that Matt is applying in).

What qualifies me to answer Matt’s questions? I’m a U.S. citizen currently working towards my PhD in Germany. I finished my Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in December 2005 in the US and enrolled as Diplom student in Atmospheric Physics at the University of Mainz in the Spring of 2006. I also spent a year in Germany at a high school before my BA and a year as an exchange student during my BA. As a result, I have a lot of personal experience as well as second-hand knowledge about being a student at various levels of the educational system in both Germany and the US.

In the next few blog entries, I will cover the following topics, as they apply to graduate studies [in the natural sciences] in Germany, particularly as compared with the US:

  • Education (coursework, degrees, requirements, exams)
  • Funding (amount of funding, stipends vs. contracts, living expenses)
  • Cultural and general observations (major differences in university culture and expectations)

Posts on the above topics will appear soon. For now, let me point you to some general resources on exchange opportunities and German culture that might be helpful:

  • The Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), or German Academic Exchange Service sponsors fellowships for foreigners studying in Germany and also provides an online database of scholarship opportunities. DAAD fellowships are highly regarded and may include dedicated funding for attending an intensive language course at the beginning of your stay in Germany.
  • The German-American Fulbright Commission sponsors German-American exchange fellowships for both students and scientists/scholars, which are highly regarded in the US. Their website has a nice collection of links to resources on Germany for Americans/foreigners. I highly recommend their primer on Germany for an overview with a lot of good cultural information and practical tips (although it is from 2001 and therefore slightly out of date).
  • The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation sponsors post-doctoral research fellowships and research awards for foreigners to work temporarily in German research institutions. They also have a nice collection of “practical hints” for foreign researchers coming to Germany.
  • A subjective comparison of Germany and the US that I find insightful can be found here. The author is Axel Boldt.

Although the main focus of these entries will be to explain German graduate-level education to Americans, here are some German-language resources on the US and university studies / doctoral studies in the US:

  • TransatlanTicker is a blog by Carsten Bösel about studying in the US.
  • From DAAD: Gebührenpflicht bei Promotion in den USA
  • The “” blog has a category that deals with the US academic system called “Amerikanische Verhältnisse“.
  • USA erklärt is a German-language blog that attempts to explain the USA to Germans in a humorous yet informative way, and to clear up common misunderstandings and misperceptions of the US by Germans — some of which are so common that they are generally held to be unquestionably factual and have even become “sprichwörtlich” (proverbial). It is written by Scot W. Stevenson, who I gather from the blog is a US citizen and long-time resident of Berlin.

Additional suggestions for this link list are welcome, please add them in the comments!

Do you trust me?

November 12, 2009

There are two fundamentally different ways of financing scientific research: You can either trust your researchers because you believe in their long-term commitment or you cannot trust your researchers and base your financing on their individual interests. At the Annual General Meeting of the Max Planck PhDnet in Jena (28-31 October 2009), the President of the Max Planck Society, Prof. Peter Gruss, explained the two systems that were defined by K. U. Mayer in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

Science communications

September 25, 2009

The following is a comment that has been written for the MaxPlanckJournal and is therefore in German. Please feel free to leave comments in English.

In der ersten Frage des Themenbereichs “Wissenschaftskommunikation” wurde der Kontakt zwischen den Wissen produzierenden Hochschulen und Forschungseinrichtungen und den Wissen vermittelnden Schulen hinterfragt. Bündnis 90/DIE GRÜNEN, DIE LINKE und die SPD möchten alle drei diesen Kanal stärken. Read the rest of this entry »

Science as Career

September 22, 2009

The following is a comment that has been written for the MaxPlanckJournal and is therefore in German. Please feel free to leave comments in English.

„Junger, hochqualifizierter Forscher, räumlich und zeitlich flexibel für interessante Stelle auf Zeit gesucht, soziale Absicherung nicht zwingend inbegriffen.“

So könnte eine Stellenanzeige aussehen, wenn man sich für Wissenschaft als Beruf entschieden hat. Read the rest of this entry »