Doing a PhD in Germany

So I have recently handed in my dissertation for final correction and thought it would be interesting to write about what I have so far learned from doing a PhD in Germany. I was given the opportunity to undertake a PhD, or Doctor of Engineering, after completing my Master’s thesis in process simulation (a Master’s degree is required before starting a PhD in Germany). The faculty where I completed my Master’s had just received a research grant in this area and they were looking for people with some experience. I had arrived in Germany from Australia two and half years prior to do a Master’s degree but I will focus on the PhD that came afterwards in this article.

I didn’t actually sign up to do a PhD at the beginning… I was given a temporary job as research assistant with the option to do a PhD. I was one of the few in this position, as I soon found out most people didn’t just work as a poorly paid research assistant unless they were going to get a doctor title at the end of it.

The faculty I worked at had a really international mix of people; we had Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Indian and Australian (me), but interestingly no American or British. It was really great but sometimes communication could be difficult! It is definitely possible to get a PhD in Germany with only English or even English as a second language, but I think it was almost a requirement to have a decent grasp of German for me. My group leader was German and group meetings often occurred in German. All the administrative work was also done in German and you could have a real hard time negotiating the bureaucracy if your German skills were poor.

I did a series of intensive German courses over a four month period before I began my Master’s in Germany and got a B1 certificate. I had friends that came to Germany and began work straight away, five years later they were still barely speaking above an A1 level of German and doing all their work in English. It is just too exhausting to work full-time in a job (or PhD) and then take German lessons in the evenings, you really need to give yourself a few months of just concentrating on learning the language without having other things to worry about. Obviously, you need a bit of money saved to be able to do this but it will make things so much easier in the long run if you allow yourself this time in the beginning. This gave me a good start but my German only got much better once I was using it on a daily basis, I often forced people to listen to my crappy German even if they wanted to speak English with me. I remember being very tired in my first year in Germany… Perhaps other people who already have experience with speaking different languages would find it easier but for me it was the first time I had to communicate in anything other than English.

There are a number of different ways to finance your PhD in Germany. In our group you would usually be given a project when you started, these research projects were most often financed by national funding agencies and involved multiple universities and industry partners. The project consists of work packages that need to be completed with periodic reports spread out over the project duration. These research projects usually run for about two and a half years. Most engineers can expect half pay during this time period (~1800€ per month), with mechanical and electrical engineers still sometimes getting fully paid positions. During this period you would also be expected to help with the teaching, so time management is very important. I knew of a few colleagues that were being paid through scholarship programs, this can reduce the amount of work required preparing reports and meeting project deadlines but the pay was usually quite a bit lower (~900€ per month). I know of other PhD candidates that work almost strictly on industry projects, these can be much shorter (~3 months) and have strict report deadlines for specific tasks (running simulation and analysis on a specific process for example). You can sometimes get paid more if you are working on these projects but you have next to no time to work on your PhD! I often felt the groups that worked solely on industry projects operated more as small and cheap engineering consultancies with severely underpaid workers. Whether you are working on industry or research funded projects, it is always best and recommended to tie your thesis work into the project themes.

My experience in Germany was that it is most common to have a small team of Master and Bachelor students working with you on your project. If you manage to find decent students this can really help with the work load and can make sure that project deadlines are met, otherwise it can become a lot of extra work with no real advantages. Speaking with researchers from other countries it seemed this was a distinguishing factor in doing a Doctor of Engineering in Germany. You are expected to become project manager of your research project with the Bachelor and Master students you take on becoming your willful and unpaid employees. Dividing up sections of the project workload into digestible portions for the students to consume and produce thesis works from becomes a key skill for completing your PhD. Unfortunately, this can result in a disconnect from the experimental results obtained when the doctoral candidate loses track of what their students are doing and is not properly managing their work. I have seen presentations from PhD candidates where they seemed to have only a rudimentary understanding of the software or measurement system used by their students. I do also know of PhD candidates that took on none or only one student over the course of their work, so it is possible to do it this way. However, I believe supervising Bachelor and Master students is an important part of PhD work in Germany and it is strongly encouraged if not required. Normally you could expect to supervise around three to five students over the course of your project, although I have heard of PhD candidates with over twenty student theses under their belts! This way of working really prepares you for a future career in industry, or if you decide for a professor track, where people management and communication skills are key.

During your PhD you are expected to attend conferences and write original research papers. The amount and frequency varies dramatically between faculties depending a lot on the professor in charge and your area of research. Generally you are expected to have two to five papers published in peer reviewed journals and to have presented at a minimum of one national and one international conference. It seems that writing research papers is one of the more difficult challenges for candidates, especially for those working on industry projects where results are not allowed to be published. Despite all this most engineering candidates can expect to have met all the requirements for handing in their final dissertation after about four to five years, depending on if lab/pilot-scale plants are required to be built for the project and how well the experimental phase runs. Candidates that are not required to do any lab work can sometimes be finished in as little as three years if they are focused and motivated. In the final years of the PhD the original project is normally finished and the candidate is working on one or two other projects, assisting new PhD candidates, writing new project proposals and undertaking more teaching work. This can become a big factor in how long it takes to hand in the final dissertation, with some candidates taking up to ten years to finish due to these other responsibilities piling up. We had a few people who got a job in industry once their project finished or actually started their PhD while working another job. In my time here I only remember ever seeing one of them finish and do their defense. It is a problem that once they start working in the ‘real’ world the PhD can lose much of its importance and relevance. I know of people who are still officially registered as ‘PhD candidates’ but have been working in industry for around ten years now, I don’t imagine the results of their ten year old research project is something at the forefront of their minds these days. My professor and the assistant professors here also strongly recommended finishing the final draft of your dissertation before taking on an external job. They have probably seen far too many strong candidates never finish as priorities change after being drawn to the siren song of better salary and working hours in industry.

My experience in Germany was very positive. I believe I learnt a lot of valuable skills here that I may not have gotten if I had done the PhD in my native Australia. I think it is a shame that more people from America, Britain and other native English speaking countries do not investigate doing a PhD in Germany. I can’t be sure if it is due to the language barrier or some sort of elitism that assumes German universities just aren’t as good. The best thing I was given during my PhD was freedom; the freedom to pursue the ideas that interested me with the required support to turn those ideas into reality. Combine that with the learning of a new language and culture, while making lots of new German and international friends along the way and I just can’t recommend it enough!