If You’re Considering Graduate School in Germany

A reader doing her graduate work in Germany sent me this information and asked me to share it on the website, for the benefit of others considering doing the same.  Apparently there are a lot of challenges.  Proceed at your own risk!  Thank you, reader, for taking the time to share.

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Your website has a wealth of useful and practical information – I used your grant-writing rubric to submit a proposal to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for a summer of research in Japan. I do wish that I had known, however, that DAAD only offers those scholarships to Germans doing their doctorates in Germany (and the other way around – as an American, you have to be enrolled in an American university at the doctoral level). What about Americans in Germany or Germans in the States? I have been struggling with this; DAAD is a great organization, but I am effectively blocked out of funding from them simply because I chose to pursue my degree in Germany (I had also previously applied for a grant to support me while I was writing the dissertation, and they basically said that I had already made it to Germany, so I was fine – though I spent my savings getting there and didn’t have any income whatsoever.)

There are some more hangups for doctoral students (Americans) wanting to earn their Ph.D. in Germany. I have a 20-hour-per-week teaching and research contract with the university. Visa restrictions dictate that I may only work 90 full or 180 half days per year in addition to having my contract, and if you take on a second job that pays more than 450EUR/month, you get stuck in a horrible tax bracket (number 6) that takes most of what you earn (you can get this back, but only via doing your taxes). The maximum hours you can work total between the university contract and a second job is 40 hours. It’s hard to gain any additional experience, and you’re not paid much – 1500EUR/month before taxes and insurance in Munich, where half or more of your salary goes to rent.

If you decide to quit the Ph.D. program, your visa expires immediately, so unless you have a good job lined up, it’s back to the States (I suspect some people take advantage of the tourist visa, travelling back to the States for a week or two and then being able to return to Germany for 90 days).

Additionally, Ph.D. candidates here are in a special category and have a unique status – they are neither officially students anymore, nor are they eligible for full-time employment. Most part-time employers are looking for students, so if you’re not enrolled as a student – which I’m not, though I am enrolled – you’re not eligible for the job. Internships function under the same principle. It is frustrating to have additional time with which I could be earning money and gaining experience.

If you would be so kind as to post this for any Americans thinking of heading to Germany, I would appreciate it. These are some things I wish I had known before I so impulsively left my cushy Ph.D. program in the States. I was at [East Coast R1] and was doing well, but wanted to live and work in Germany and had for a long time (I had been an exchange student there in high school). I don’t regret my decision to transfer to the University of Munich, but I hope others can make more informed decisions than I did.


Comments

If You’re Considering Graduate School in Germany — 22 Comments

  1. These are a lot of good things to point out. I’d add a couple – they’re things I’ve learned while doing research in Germany and speaking with many German academics, and were factors in my decision to do a PhD at home in the US after all (and are the reason why many German academics prefer to have their careers in the US).
    The German university system continues to be far more hierarchical than the one in the US. Doctoral candidates, when employed by the university, usually only work (research assistance, teaching, etc) for a particular professor, and that professor is also their academic supervisor. Among those I know, failing to finish the PhD has had a lot to do with the conflicts that can arise in this situation. A full professor has a small fiefdom of people directly responsible to him or her. There are undergraduate assistants and graduate students, all of whom can have a few different kinds of jobs with varying levels of responsibility/authority/pay. Then there are also post-docs in the natural sciences – who often work with one specific professor or group, no matter where they are, because research groups are how they do things. In the humanities in Germany, people with PhDs then work on their “habilitation” (the second book, which then allows you to apply for professorships). Some find it galling to be the assistant of a full professor after having already achieved the title “Dr”, and to have to pass further oral examinations in order to get the habilitation at all. Once you get a habilitation, you’re a PD (skipping long explanation here). PDs, until they get professorships, must teach WITHOUT PAY at the institution where they received the habil. No professorship this year? You can be an adjuct, traveling across the country every week in order to teach in two different places – one that pays you a bit, and the other that doesn’t pay at all. If a professorship doesn’t pan out and the commuting gets too rough (family life, anyone?), some poeple end up deciding to rescind the PD title in order to be free to get another kind of job entirely.
    The guest poster here may have a wonderful professor and dept, and I don’t want to say that the German system doesn’t work for anyone. But when I think of the institutional structures that can frustrate so many in the US, sometimes I remind myself that at least it isn’t feudal.

  2. The issue of citizenship-dependent grants and scholarship seems to extent beyond Germany and is something to keep in mind when thinking about going abroad. As a German doing my PhD in Canada, I face similar difficulties. The vast majority of federal funding opportunities are unavailable to me. Corporate and private grants also often are restricted to citizens as well. By the same token, I encountered a variety of scholarship and grant opportunities for Germans that are only available for doctoral students completing their degrees at a German university. International students therefore are caught in a no man’s land of grants and scholarships. In Canada and the United States the grant and scholarship landscape is much more mature than it is in Germany when it comes to in-house funding at universities. It would be interesting to learn if these regulations are found more often in Germany and Canada than elsewhere or if other countries have equally restrictive regulations for government funding.

  3. Not to pile on, but I’d like to point out that there are various grants and fellowships in the US that are only open to US citizens and those with a green card. And since a green-card can take between 1-several years to arrive, it’s not like the US isn’t protective of its own. If I may.

  4. Actually, some of this information seems inaccurate. I am NOT a German citizen and I received a DAAD fellowship to do research in the U.S. as a doctoral student in Germany (in 2006). You don’t have to be a German citizen to apply for a DAAD grant to do research abroad. I don’t know if things have changed between 2006 and now and whether I was able to secure funding because I am European, yet I don’t think so. Now, I was not able to apply for a Fullbright to do research in the U.S. precisely because I was not a German citizen.

    • Grant schemes have to be equally available to all EU citizens. So moving in between European countries is then ‘relatively’ easy for Europeans. However, many funding schemes are often only available to those with EU citizenship. So someone with EU citizenship will always be eligible for DAAD, but it can be restricted to those without EU citizenship. As a rule of thumb (with exceptions of course) I find that in the EU PhD fellowships are often restricted to EU citizenship, but postdoctoral fellowships are open to all citizenships (to improve brain gain). About Germany: yes, PhD students are paid relatively bad ( the rationale seems to be: doing a PhD is considered to be an investment in your career as in industry for many positions this is a big plus, so you should be willing to not be paid that good). In the Netherlands e.g. pay is significantly better, in Belgium even more so, and in Denmark enormously better, Southern Europe doesn’t pay that well generally, but then cost of living is also significantly lower.
      About the habilitation this is a specific German tradition (generally other European countries do not know this) that they are in fact abolishing in favour of tenure track assistant professorships (also to improve brain gain).

  5. In fact, as an Asian enrolled for a PhD program in Germany, after having done a Master’s from Canada, I found it to be the best time of my life. The funding was quite decent, didn’t make me rich, but was quite comfortable.

    After graduating, I was even eligible to apply for governmental funding for my post-doc. Citizenship is never an issue for funding agencies in Germany. Quite liberating considering the regulations in North America.

  6. I think the problems highlighted are ones you’ll find *whenever* you’re an international graduate student on a visa.
    I’ve been offered a place on an American PhD program and will have to apply for an F1 visa if I wish to come over. Low stipend, kicked out the country if I drop out the program, working restrictions, ineligible for all the prestigious US fellowships (unless I get a green card/marry an American during the course of my PhD!). Added to the worries about what will happen when I finish my PhD – the notoriously capricious immigration authorities may revoke a 2nd visa application (for work or postdoc) and force me to go back to the UK.
    By contrast, Germany’s system doesn’t sound any worse…

  7. This information is extremely relevant to me, because I am an American considering studying in a Ph.D program (social sciences) in Germany. I moved here permanently because of marriage but will keep my US citizenship.
    For those who are more knowledgeable about the graduate experience in Germany, what are the advantages (if any) to pursuing a Ph.D and academic career here? One advantage that I have observed is that the time to complete a Ph.D (3-4 years) is generally shorter than in the U.S., although I could be wrong.
    It also seems much more competitive to pursue a tenure track professorship here.

    • I am doing my graduate studies in Germany and am actually in the last few months of a PhD program in Economics. I am married to a German citizen, so none of these visa issues applied to me. I kept me US citizenship just as you will.

      I had a great experience and benefited from all of the same perks that my German colleagues did. I found it to be a great system and have been very pleased with the quality of my program.

      I am an “external” doctoral student, so I am not employed by the university. Our program can run between 3-5 years, depending on the student and the topic. It is true that the whole process is more about working for your advisor than for the university–only once your advisor takes you in as one of his/her potential students, then the university acceptance part comes along. It is more relevant whether or noth the advisor will take you on, so it is advisable to find a very good advisor who is willing to invest time in you–I have found this to be the key to success in the German graduate school system.

  8. From eslewhere in the EU I did a masters project in a german lab. Speaking to PhD students they seemed generally relatively well funded, but the habilitation is really offputting add to that that outside Germany and a handful of other countries it’s not worth very much and you know why few foreigners do it :)

  9. I’ve been following this blog for some months now and I find it very useful even though it focuses more on the US academic system and job market. This is the first time that a post speaks directly to my situation. I am a non-EU who came from Latin America to do a PhD in Germany. A year later, after unsuccessful applications in the US, UK and Latin America, I landed a 2-yr postdoc in Germany. I’ve been here 8 years when my original idea was to do my PhD and return to Latin America, however, the job market is tough there too. Many things said above are accurate and I too wish I had received more information on doing a PhD in Germany and the German academic system. It is extremely hierarchical and your academic career -especially if you seek to be a professor- depends literally on the relationship with your advisor, which in German is called Doktorvater or Doktormutter (that is, your academic “father” or “mother”) and his/her networks in the German academia. I know, for instance, that, though my advisor supported me throughout my PhD and postdoc, she does not support me to become a professor in Germany (i.e. habiliation, contacts, etc.). There is the attempt to change this hierarchical system through Junior Professorships, which is the equivalent of the Assistant Professor. But the habilitation is still preferred when hiring and of course you have be backed by your PhD advisor “father/mother”.

    As for research funds, my experience is that Germans and EU-citizens have more access than non-EU. There are many grants and fellowships in Germany that I don’t have access to because I’m not German or EU. They make an exception if you are a professor (i.e. Prof.Dr.), which I’m not. And of course there’s the issue of race and discrimination which no one in this country wants to talk about; there are hardly any migrant scholars with professorships, certainly not from minority groups (e.g. Turks).

    Another thing to consider for non-EU migrant scholars who are thinking in the possibility of staying abroad, especially in the EU region. Migration laws for high-skilled workers can make your life even harder if you’re not EU. I completed my postdoc in November 2012. Right now I’m on the job market, which we all know is tough. Last week, I received an ultimatum from the German migration office stating that if I don’t get a job by late April I must leave the country the following month. And by job, I must explain that I’m only entitled to work as a researcher, period (no waiting on tables, call centers, aupairing, eldery care). After 8 yrs here, I see that migration policies support “some” social mobility for international migrant scholars through these recent “brain gain” exchange programs (which Germany has called “Internationalisierung” or Internationalization Programs), yet only in the PhD and postdoc level. Beyond that, it is very hard to have an academic career in this country or in the EU being non- EU. (When I’ve inquired about posts in the UK, I’ve been told that as a non- EU citizen I’m not eligible to apply).

    With this ultimatum from the German migration officials, I am forced to make a decision, which is not so easy since this country has been my place of residence for nearly a decade without planning it that way. And though I know I’ll never have a professorship in a German university or a job in EU, I must admit that I’ve made the most of my academic training here (articles in peer-reviewed journals, a book, international experience, learning German, network with scholars in USA, EU, and Latin America). I have two options: fight to stay in Germany which means leaving the academe or return to my home country in a region/country that has a lot less resources for research. I’ve opted for the latter; returning to the homeland is hard when you’ve spent a lot of time out of it (20 yrs in my case). But when I reflect on it, I know it is the best decision when I think what’s best for my academic career long term.

    Hope this info helps for anyone considering coming to Germany.

    • What you say with regards to the UK is not correct. A university can hire non eu for assistant profs, or even postdocs and they often do. It depends on 3 things:
      -They need to be able to show that they could not find anybody from the eu that would be able to do the job. This also requires advertising for a certain length of time, and making a case why the other candidates were no good.
      - The uni having allocated sponsorship numbers, many, especially the good ones, get a quota
      - Them being willing to bother with all the hasttle. Some unis happily do that for the right postdoc candidates others only for eminent profs, it depends

  10. The postdoc level in the UK or in any part of the EU, poses no problem to non-EU citizens to apply. Indeed it is part of the “brain gain” programs. I myself have been shortlisted for postdoc programs in the UK and did a postdoc here in Germany. I am talking about those non-EU academics who -not being married to EU-citizens (which allows them to work in the EU)- want to stay and work in the EU for whatever reasons. Three years ago, when I attempted to apply for Lecturer posts in the UK, I was specifically told that I could send my application but as a non-EU citizen there was simply no chance that my application would be considered because of the tough migration laws and that they were not willing to go through the “hassle” of sponsoring a non-EU applicant as it might be turned down. Today some ads specifically write “We cannot sponsor non-EU applicants”.

    The EU is clearly closing while maintaining a contradictory discourse that it needs high-skilled migrants. And for some non-EU scholars I know who’ve been living more years than I have, these laws are very tough, making them feel vulnerable and helpless. For some of these people, going “back home” is not an option for personal and emotional reasons, as well as economic and political. I know this is not my case, I made a decision -which was forced and not easy to make- because I want to have an academic career and, after deep reflection, I realized that my home country is the place for my career despite being a very poor country with little infrastructure for research. But for those non-EU who chose to stay, these laws affect their health long term succumbing, in many cases, to depression and frustration, as they start losing perspective of their academic career eventually abandoning it, while fighting through all the means available in order to stay.

  11. Everything here is true.
    Don t come to Germany to do a doctorate. They just want you to go back at the end. I too come from a poor third world country. I am a doctoral student here, and I regret my decision everyday. Unless you are an EU citizen there is no way you can get a job. The German system says that you can stay on for 1.5 years to search for a job in your field. In reality it is just a way to make you spend your savings before you leave. You will not get a job in Germany or the EU as the restrictions are too tight. If you want to immigrate go to Canada, or go to a prestigious US university. Most foreigners who teach in Germany have an US graduate degree. They don t respect their own degrees.

  12. With regard to the concerns expressed by the OP, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (the University of Munich) has got to be the worst of the so-called Universities of Excellence in communicating exactly the types of problems you report via the terrible terrible awful International Office and even through the individual Faculties. I really think a lot of the confusion (I would go so far as to call it obfuscation) about funding resources, finding work and housing, etc. is generated by the ineptness of the International Office here, which has a dual goal of attracting very qualified international students while failing to inform them of the exigencies of the German PhD system. The promised funding for my research evaporated the moment I arrived. Like the OP I left a funded North American program because my research topic is in and about Germany.
    Also like the OP I spend a lot of time I could be working worrying about not working, and while I am happy enough with my advisor and with life in Munich, worrying all the time about funding is ultimately undermining my research and writing. I am thinking about returning home to work and simply publishing my dissertation research as a book.
    Other universities in Germany not wedded to the old-fashioned individual PhD such as the University of Würzburg, which has group programs funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung, and the new hybrid programs such as those at the University of Bielefeld and Humboldt Univeristy are different and have better-staffed and more transparent International Offices.
    I also agree that the EU is closing to non EU scholars, which particularly in terms of humanities scholarship is very unfortunate for all, and particularly for the monolithic and homogenous German system…
    Unless you are independently wealthy, look into other programs (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Toronto have excellent ones) that offer interdisciplinary study periods in German universities. Good luck to all.

  13. As other comments already suggested:
    The information about the DAAD is completely wrong. As all national funding agencies of every country I know, they fund
    a) foreigners who want to study in Germany
    b) Germans who want to study outside of Germany

    So it doesn’t make any sense for an American to ask a German funding agency to pay for studies in Japan.

  14. I’m a German citizen and recently graduated from a major university in the US with a PhD in history. I completed the program in 6 years, which is within the prescribed time. I have two points to contribute to this discussion:
    1. It seems to me that the German “PhD” is in no way comparable to the American PhD, at least in my discipline. From what I have learned over the past couple of years, the average German program takes 3 years, which are spent teaching your advisor’s unwanted courses and writing your dissertation. When I compare that to the 3 years of coursework I completed to become an expert in my field, PLUS the teaching and dissertation writing, I can’t help but think that the American degree is by far more valuable than the German PhD. Germans, and some of my American colleagues who are completing “PhD” degrees from European universities remotely by simply working on a dissertation, seem to not even be aware of the difference in quality. This brings me to my second point:
    2. When I went back to Germany to interview for jobs, I was told that my American PhD in American history was not sufficient enough to teach American history at their German institution. Uh, excuse me? I am a German native speaker, with a German passport and a German teaching degree (Staatsexamen) on top of my PhD, and they hired someone with a degree from a German university who has spent one semester at an American institution as a research fellow. And it wasn’t even a W-position but a meager A-14 job (so not a professorship but an assistant teaching position). I was deeply offended and disgusted by their arrogance and dismissal, and I’m not posting this because I’m vengeful but because I want to warn people like me who might think that my career plan was a good idea. Go to the US, get an awesome degree in American history, come back to Germany and teach? Not so much, apparently. Hierarchy, arrogance,stuffiness. No thanks. Buyers beware.

  15. Hi,

    I have just finished my master’s in Management from One of the grande ecoles of paris (I stayed in Paris for 3 years). I am thinking of doing a PHD (from France… from Germany) not sure. I am a NON EU citizen as most of the people in this thread.

    Would you recommend me to pursue PHD in EU? I am afraid that I have to go through same rules and regulations (regarding NON EU jobs prospect in EU) to find a job in EU as I went during my masters in Paris (language, Citizenship problem, 1st to hire EU and then to hire NON EU.. etc etc..)

  16. I know this post is a bit dated, but I happened upon it and thought I should clarify a few things. There are a lot of (scary) generalizations in this post and in a few of the comments. I am American doing a PhD in Humanities in Germany. I also have a part time job (60%) of a TVL-13 position. In Germany, University employees jobs are related to a pay scale that rises in relation to the number of years you have worked at universities. The pay is lower in the east than it is in the west. I already received my first raise. The pay is great, and I am in the east. Plus, the author of this post should have registered with the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigner’s Office) as an employee and not a student since it seems like a 50% contract. Then, he or she wouldn’t have the work restriction of 90 full or 180 half days. I also received a DAAD scholarship for field research without being German. It was in their requirements, but because it related to my project (and with the help of my supervisor’s phone call) I was granted the scholarship. If someone is looking for a PhD in Germany, the DFG funded research programs (Graduiertenkolleg) are excellent in terms of funding. As far as I know, they fund specific programs in a variety of disciplines. The main negative thing for foreigners here is that if we don’t finish in 3 years (if we are employees, only! students can keep registering) we have to leave anyway or just finish. Germans take an average of 4.5 years for humanities dissertations. That means that the quality will probably not be as high as they would expect considering we cannot take all that extra time for writing.

  17. Hi Meg,

    You seem to know a lot about the system.
    I am terrified that as a Third World Citizen with no prospects in a corrupt academic system back home I will not be able to get a post doc in the US or Canada with this degree. After that I would look for a tt position. Is this even remotely possible. I am so desperate I would do a second PhD just to immigrate!

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