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Before beginning a Humanities PhD in Germany

6 tips for international and local students

The ABCs of beginning a PhD in Germany

Statistics say that the average time to complete a PhD in the Humanities in Germany is at least 5 years and I dare add that 6-7 years is nothing out of the ordinary. Among the many things that surprised me about doing a PhD in Germany is that in most cases, you are left to your own devices. You will not find so many structured PhD programmes and Graduate Career Centres that will take you through the ABCs of beginning a PhD.

So, what are some important things to consider before beginning a Humanities PhD in Germany? Here are a few tips for both international and local students:

1. Choose a research topic that you are passionate about

It's been five and a half years on my long PhD journey and I find that above all else, this is what keeps me going -- I am passionate about my research topic. Ask yourself whether the topic, field of research you are interested in is one that you can identify yourself with years after completing your PhD. Ask yourself: Is your desired research topic worth investing 5+ valuable years of your life?

2. A structured or a 'traditional' doctoral programme?

Germany prides itself in a long tradition of research-orientation in its institutions of higher learning. "The country of poets and thinkers" only opened its doors to Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the late 2000s. The 'traditional' research-oriented PhD is a reflection of Germany's research tradition. This traditional PhD track requires a high level of independence.

You do have a supervisor but in most cases, they are more of an adviser rather than a lecturer. Making your PhD time plan, organising meetings with your supervisor, preparing/attending for conferences etc. are all things that depend on your time management skills and private initiative. Some people work well under such conditions, but I have also heard of a few whose motivation crumbles due to lack of 'outside' pressure (extrinsic motivation). Or would you rather be part of a structured PhD programme whose framework, including a rigid time-plan. is already pre-set? This is something to ponder on especially if you are new to the German education system.

3. Find a 'good' supervisor

The question is how does one know if they have found a 'good' supervisor or not? I guess the most important thing to remember before starting your PhD is that having a competent, responsive and empathetic supervisor goes a long way in contributing to the success of your PhD journey. Bad supervision can ruin your research and even your sanity. It helps to talk to some of the (former) PhD candidates of your prospective supervisor to get some background information beforehand.

4. Funding

Generally speaking there are three basic ways of funding your PhD:

1. Getting a fully-funded scholarship. There are several databases on the DAAD website where with PhD scholarships for both international and local students. There are also 13 state-funded foundations that offer scholarships for 'gifted' local and international PhD students. All foundations have specific requirements that you must fulfil in order to have a chance of getting a scholarship.

2. Getting a paid PhD position (as Research Assistant) at your university or at your research institution Here you will be expected to split your time between teaching, other research-related work and working on your PhD. Your prospective supervisor normally knows if there are any open positions.

3. Getting admitted into a Graduiertenkolleg. Graduate schools were introduced in Germany in the 1990s. They are state-funded projects with a specific number of PhD admissions per cycle. Supervision is done by a team of professors and contains structured doctoral training units.

5. Have your postgraduate degree recognised

If you obtained your degree outside Germany, or at a German polytechnic, it is advisable to find out as early as possible if your degree will be recognised as an equivalent of a German Master's degree. Most universities in Germany only accept enrolment for prospective PhD students with a Master's degree. Consult with the international office or student's office at your prospective university. 

6. Inquire about application procedures

Application procedures differ if you have obtained your postgraduate degree abroad or from another university within Germany. It always helps to look at the website of your prospective university for the respective application deadlines and other procedures. In most cases, international PhD students can only obtain a visa after successful enrolment.

Mariam (Germany)

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