Graduate studies in Germany vs. USA — Typical degree requirements

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.


4 Responses to Graduate studies in Germany vs. USA — Typical degree requirements

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks alot for writing all of this in response to my questions. I just got back from my interviews in Germany and have decided to the graduate school of systematic neuroscience in Munich. I am really excited I think that, for me, the biggest draw was a chance for cultural exchange and the opportunity to sustainably live abroad. Although I don’t feel as if I am sacrificing on the education front. Admittedly though, many of the professors I interviewed with were surprised I would want to study in German and not take my offer from Berkley. I’m happy with my decision. I now have to get all of the practical matter in order: bank account, health insurance, and an apartment. Any advice on these types of things? Did you ship all of your stuff over or did you only bring what you could fly with?


  2. Susannah says:

    Hi Matt, I’m glad this was helpful to you. Congratulations on your decision, and I hope you get a lot out of the experience!

    When I comes to practical issues, I’d recommend having a look at the links I mentioned in a previous post ( to get more information about this kind of thing. The primers by the Fulbright Association and the Humboldt Foundation are especially helpful.

    Personally, I didn’t ship very much here, except for some books (which you used to be able to ship at slightly lower “media” rates, I don’t know whether this is still possible). But airline baggage limits are getting tighter these days… someone recently told me about “excess baggage” companies, which looks like a good, affordable option (just google “excess baggage”).


  3. Juanda says:

    Hi Susannah,

    Could you explain the plus-minus of traditional and cummulative dissertation? I am a business doctoral student in Regensburg who started my study in winter semester 2011/2012, and my scholarship is limited until September 2014. At the moment I haven’t decided which sort of dissertation to choose. Thanks very much in advance.

    Best wishes,

    • Susannah says:

      Hi Juanda,

      I’d say that if you are able to publish enough in peer-reviewed journals during your PhD that your advisor and committee feel it is sufficient for a cumulative dissertation, that is the way to go. In my field, peer-reviewed publications are what really counts, especially if you plan to stay in a university or academic research setting, so you want to publish your work in peer-reviewed journals. Reformatting and rewriting a dissertation monograph into a series of shorter publications can be very time-consuming. Very few people will read your dissertation in monograph form. Many more are likely to read shorter, peer-reviewed publications.

      On the other hand, not everyone manages to publish enough during the planned time frame of the PhD, and in that case it can be quicker to just write up your results as a monograph than to go through the peer-review process. Also, if you are not planning on an academic career, there may not be much advantage to the cumulative dissertation.

      The conventions might be different in your field, though, so I think you’d do best to talk with your advisor and with other students in your program. Maybe you can report back what you find out. 🙂


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