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.