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.