Last Updated on July 8, 2021 by Omoyeni Adeniyi
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How to Get a PhD in Germany
A doctorate usually means that an individual is qualified to teach at a college level or to work in a specific field of work. There are two major types of doctoral degrees; a research-oriented degree, and a professional doctoral degree. Doctoral degrees are sometimes referred to as terminal degrees, which means that a final degree is available in a graduate school for students who wish it.
Germany is one of the most popular destinations for studying abroad, with around 3,600 international graduates completing their doctorate there every year. Read on to discover how to apply for a PhD in Germany…
Why study a PhD in Germany?
It’s not difficult to see why Germany is popular as a study destination. It enjoys a global reputation as a world leader for technology innovation and research, has a robust economy and an attractive quality of life, and a particularly renowned tradition in fields such as engineering and manufacturing.
Many of its universities enjoy a strong international reputation, with 46 ranked within the top 1000 in the world in the QS World University Rankings® 2020. Among these, the prestigious research university Technische Universität München is ranked first in the country and 55thin the world, shortly followed by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in 63rd place.
As well as offering a high standard of living, Germany welcomes international students with low costs of study and good funding opportunities. PhDs in Germany do not usually charge tuition fees (see below), and more than a quarter of doctoral candidates in Germany receive public funding.
What types of PhD are offered in Germany?
This is the traditional option and remains the most popular. In this type of PhD you will produce your thesis or dissertation under the supervision of a professor, but will mostly be working independently. The length of these PhDs varies, generally lasting three to five years. This option offers a great deal of flexibility, but also demands a high amount of personal initiative and responsibility. You are not limited to gaining your PhD by conducting research work at a university; you could also complete a project at a non-university research organization or at a German company in the industrial sector.
Structured PhD programs
You can also choose what is known as a structured PhD program. This involves a group of doctoral students being guided by a group of supervisors. There are around 600 programs of this nature available in Germany, often with an international make-up, with English as the language of instruction. These programs differ from individual doctorate programs as students’ research proposals have to fit in with existing PhD programs, whereas individual doctorates can be more freely structured to suit the individual research project. You will also need to attend lectures and seminars, and will normally have a mentor.
Which German universities offer PhDs?
Many universities in Germany offer PhDs. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) offers a database that you can use to search for the right PhD program for you.
How much does it cost to study a PhD in Germany?
Good news! Although tuition fees were reintroduced for non-EU students in the state of Baden-Württemberg in 2017, doctoral students are excluded from this, meaning that PhDs remain free for all students at all public universities in Germany, regardless of nationality, for up to the standard length of a PhD (three years). Beyond this, you may be required to pay fees.
However, as with all levels of study in Germany, PhD students are also required to make a semester contribution of between €150 to €200 (~US$175-230) for administration and other costs.
This means that your main expenses will be the general costs of living in Germany. If you apply for a student visa you will be asked to prove that you have access to a minimum of €10,236 (~US$11,266) per year.
This money will be used to cover living expenses, which include rent, food, clothing, transportation, working materials, recreation and other costs. Even more than this may be needed to live in a particularly expensive city such as Munich.
Is there any funding available?
Most doctoral students work on a paid research project or receive a scholarship. If you want to apply for a scholarship to help with your expenses, you may be able to find these through the official website of the university you wish to study at. You can also consult our list of scholarships to study in Germany, including PhD funding opportunities. Other good sources for finding scholarships include www.funding-guide.de and www.stipendienlotse.de (website in German).
You may also consider taking on a part-time job to supplement your funding, either within the university or beyond – but be aware of any possible restrictions. If you are a full-time EU or EEA student (excluding students from Bulgaria and Romania), there are no restrictions on where or when you can work. If you are a full-time student from outside of the EU you will be limited to working up to 120 full days or 240 half days per year before you must apply for a work permit. Upon gaining paid work in Germany you should contact the German employment office to learn about the legal conditions.
What are the entry requirements?
Entry requirements will vary between universities and PhD programs, but generally you will need to have a good higher education degree which is equivalent to a German master’s degree. Alternatively, extremely well-qualified international applicants with a bachelor’s degree may be admitted as doctoral students via a fast-track program, which will involve taking an entrance exam and perhaps attending an interview.
If you are studying your PhD in English and this is not your first language, you will need to prove your English language proficiency with an English language test such as IELTS or TOEFL. If you are studying or submitting your PhD in German, you may need to prove your proficiency in the language with a test such as the DSH or TestDaF.
How do I apply for a PhD in Germany?
There is no central admissions process or selection office for doctoral students in Germany, and the application process differs depending on whether you have chosen a traditional (individual) or structured PhD – for the latter, you will simply need to apply directly to your chosen university.
If applying for an individual PhD, you will first need to find a suitable professor who is willing to be your supervisor. You may be able to find a supervisor through contacts from your previous university, or by searching for institutes and research centers or teams which relate to your area of interest. The following online search platforms might help you find a suitable supervisor:
Once you have found a supervisor, the responsible department or doctoral committee must confirm your eligibility as a doctoral candidate. This usually involves completing an application which includes a statement from your doctoral supervisor, certified copies of certificates, proof of recognition of your qualifications from the Dean’s office, academic references and the university degree that enables you to participate in doctoral study. Your application may also include an English or German language test result, if applicable. The Student Office of your chosen university will review these documents and grant permission for you to commence doctoral studies.
The next step is to enroll at the university. To be eligible for enrolment, the university must first accept your application for admission to doctoral studies. However, not all departments require doctoral applicants to formally enroll. You can find any requirements relating to enrolment on the university’s official website.
You must also make sure your postgraduate degree is recognized, obtain a residence permit and/or student visa, and ensure you have adequate finances for your stay.
Do I need a student visa?
This will depend on your country of origin. Many students will find that they do not need a student visa, but do need a residence permit. You can read more about obtaining a German student visa here, or find an overview of the countries for which a student visa is or isn’t required on the Foreign Federal Office’s website.
Do I need to speak German?
No – however, we’d recommend learning at least basic German to help you get by in your host country, especially if you’d like to work during or after your studies. If you are studying an individual doctorate writing the doctoral thesis can often be written in English, while structured PhD programs frequently allow students to complete their doctorate in English.
For further information on studying a PhD in Germany, read the DAAD’s ‘FAQs – Doing a doctorate in Germany’ PDF.