A few things I learned about doing a PhD in Germany

Published on September 13, 2021

If you want to be recognized as a scientist, you need to do a PhD. While it is an incredibly fulfilling and transcending experience, working towards a PhD also is a long and tedious journey. There also are many misconceptions about it. If you are interested in research or considering doing a PhD, you may find this article helpful.

Small disclaimer: As I did most of my studies in Germany and in the field of Computer Science, what I am about to say may not apply well in other places or fields. However, I expect most points to be similar, with a few variations in how things are done. If you have had a different experience or opinion, please feel free to share in the comments!

Frankly, when I started my PhD, I did not know very well what I was about to do. I was also very unsure I could actually make it. Below is what I would say to my younger self considering whether to do a PhD or not.

  • What a PhD degree really is.

Simply put, a PhD is the highest academic degree one can get. Later on, there are further qualifications, like the habilitation or a professorship, but they are no degrees. A PhD says that you have made a significant contribution to advancing human knowledge in a specific field. Getting a PhD is like “getting your wings” as a scientist. It says that you are ready to make sacrifices and that you became an expert at learning. It says that you are an explorer: you enjoy challenges, you can find your way in uncharted territory, you can deal with loneliness, and finally, you know how to tell the world about the fantastic things you have discovered. If you decide to stay in academia, the work done in your PhD may follow you for a while. People (professors, funding agencies) will expect you to pursue related yet different research goals. Even if you do not stay in academia, people will still ask you frequently: “And so, what was your PhD about?”

  • The PhD degree often is underrated.

People often forget that a PhD is very different from other degrees. There are no teachers, no courses, no exams, no deadlines. You are responsible for setting your own deadlines and find a way to reach them – You are your own boss. I have seen people reacting differently about own-set deadlines at this stage, they either get overly stressed about it, or simply fail to meet them. The truth is that nothing bad happens when you miss a deadline, but nothing good either. You do not progress (which, in turn, is bad). You may have an advisor (sometimes two) and fellow PhD students, but they often are busy and cannot do much work for you; they may only advise you.

Depending on your level of abstraction, i.e., whether you have been focusing on theoretical or applied aspects, companies often try to see you as an inexperienced student, a nerd, sometimes worse: an academic snob. This may be a trick to give you a lower pay by letting you believe that you are not that valuable. The truth is that PhDs are scarce resources. You are not a student; you are a scholar. You have become a master at yourself and know how to conduct (international) projects involving various actors: industry partners, students, advisors, administrative staff. You can handle teaching, staffing, financial and legal aspects while being an expert in a competitive field. The work done during the PhD is a relevant experience for positions in the industry and may help to stand out from the crowd.

  • The PhD degree is a title.

The pride to be a doctor in Germany goes as far as writing the PhD title on your doorbell, on your ID, on your train ticket reservations, etc.… which I find crazy. This myth of the social status of doctors is very different from my country of origin, France, where almost no one cares. I do believe, however, that one should use the title whenever appropriate. After all, you have worked hard for it. The doctor title is a prerequisite for a career in academia, and it may also open doors later in top-management positions in the industry. In any case, becoming a doctor requires much more than the desire to earn more money in the future – such motivation will not be enough.

  • Doing a PhD in Europe or the US?

In Europe, PhD and Master’s degrees usually are separated, and a Master’s degree is a pre-requisite for getting a PhD student position. On the other hand, one does not usually have to pass any PhD qualification exams, as typically done in the US. Thus, there is no distinction between “PhD candidates” and “PhD students”. You are evaluated mainly based on your thesis and your defense and (indirectly) the quality of the venues you may have published in. Since Master’s and PhD programs are often bundled together in the US, the typical duration to complete the degree is 5-6 years, while in Europe, it is 3-4 years. In the US, when you “only” have a Master’s degree, people tend to think that you are a “PhD dropout” (i.e., you did not complete the PhD). In Europe, it is the norm not to pursue a PhD after the Master. On the other hand, we often think that the Bachelor (usually a three-year curriculum) is a relatively short academic education.

  • Doing a PhD in Germany.

I must say that I have been fortunate with my own PhD experience. I did my PhD in Computer Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (known as “KIT”) – a top university in Germany. Germany has a long-standing academic reputation, and PhD degrees are very well recognized in German society.

In my field, there are two types of PhD titles, the Dr. rer. nat. (Doktor der Naturwissenschaften – Doctor of Natural Sciences), and the Dr.-Ing. (Doktor der Ingenieurwissenschaften – Doctor of Engineering). While the latter is sometimes considered more applied than the former, they both have the same value. Academia tend to prefer Dr. rer. nat. while industry tend to prefer Dr.-Ing. I am personally a Dr.-Ing., but I have met numerous Dr. rer. nat. doing much more applied work than me. I find the Dr.-Ing. appropriate in my case because I do see Computer Science as an engineering discipline. Traditionally, one tends to inherit the same title as their advisor. In principle, the doctoral committee (composed of your advisor and further examiners) decides which title you get.

In Germany, the conditions to do a PhD are excellent. As a PhD student, you get a salary based on a civil servant pay scale (TVL-E13, you may look it up here), which is more than enough to cover your living expenses. In my case, this was only about 15-20% less than the salary I would have got by starting in the german industry right after graduation as a software engineer.

Your status is regulated with a formal employment contract at the university that lets you save for your future retirement, with vacations days (30 per year!), working time (40 hours per week), and unemployment benefits once the contract expires. You are not a student anymore. However, doing a PhD often takes much more than 40 hours per week, so do not count too much on that!

Depending on your field, you might not get a 100% position, but those are very common in Computer Science. In comparison, one does not get such good conditions in France or many other countries. In France, the only way to get similar conditions (that I am aware of) is to do your PhD in the industry, which often comes with additional duties besides the actual PhD work.

  • Doing a PhD at the university or in the industry?

Traditionally, PhDs are done at the university. You are integrated into a chair and expected to engage in teaching activities (taking care of exercises, correcting exams, giving lectures sometimes). Depending on the level of involvement in teaching, the PhD may last up to 6 years, but that depends very much on your advisor and your progress in your research. I did my PhD at the university within a little more than three years.

There are also ways to do a PhD in the industry. In France, this is best known as a CIFRE thesis. It can be a way to earn more money while doing your thesis (but that is not always the case). In Germany, major companies tend to offer a few PhD student positions. They are special contracts in which you are expected to work on a research topic deemed critical to the company, while you typically also work on other projects (often 50/50). A PhD in the industry typically is more applied and is often challenging due to the additional tasks, and they often are strictly limited to 3 years.

  • How to find a PhD student position.

This is, in my opinion, the most challenging part. Except for a few specific PhD programs and fellowships, PhD student positions are not advertised online. It is easy to understand why: The professors and postdocs of the group have to handle the recruitment process themself, among many other tasks. They are likely to get hundreds of applications to deal with by advertising the position, which lowers their available time for research and teaching. Thus, if the position is ever published, it will be on the website of the corresponding group, and it is often hard to find (on purpose).

Positions are typically given to outstanding students, i.e., they had excellent grades or did impressive work in their bachelor/master thesis. In that case, they may get directly contacted by a potential advisor (that was my case). If you are actively looking for a position, you may ask a professor who knows you if they have an open position or recommend you to another professor (but that only works if they know each other somehow). If you are actively looking, you must already have an idea about your PhD thesis project, i.e., known some of your research interests. Read recent papers of the professor(s) you want to work with and make a few meaningful proposals for future work. This way, you may catch their attention. Be proactive!

In my opinion, a great thesis is the best indicator for an advisor (and for the student!) that one can conduct a good PhD project. In my field, the expectations from student theses are similar to those from a PhD student for a short period of time, so one can see the student thesis as a trial period for a PhD. Often, the Master’s thesis serves as a basis for your first PhD paper. Since you have done it before your time as a PhD student, it may even give you a head start! Keep in mind that professors/postdocs are almost always looking for talented students; the thesis is your opportunity to show your potential. If you are applying for an advertised position, you must prepare a strong application, as the competition is fierce.

  • How to fund a PhD student position.

The funding of your position usually comes either from: (1) the group’s university allowance for teaching, (2) some large grant like a graduate school or a so-called research training group, or (3) an individual fellowship for which you would have to apply personally upfront. In my case, most of my funding came from my participation in a research training group on energy data (so, (2)), and indirectly from being a member in the Software Campus program (which is like (3) + some industry collaboration).

Depending on the funding type, the overall experience tends to be slightly different. (1) involves more teaching. (2) involves participating in interdisciplinary research or large projects. (3) tends to give you more freedom and often comes with networking opportunities with other fellows. Typical funding schemes tend to vary widely from one field to another.

  • Two PhD models: the monograph vs the cumulative dissertation

There are two PhD models in European universities: (I) the monograph and (II) the cumulative dissertation. In (I), you work hard for several years and publish one large piece of original research, the doctoral thesis. This is the traditional way of getting a PhD, but it is now somewhat outdated. In (II), you also work hard for several years, but the final dissertation is more or less the concatenation of several units that you have published over those years.

I believe that (II) is a natural response to the ever-evolving pace of research. If you were to publish five years of research all at once, the chances are high that similar studies have been published meanwhile, making your contribution already outdated. Especially in my field (Data Science), the state of the art tends to change every few months. Another reason is that (II) makes it easier for your doctoral committee to evaluate the quality of the work: If you published in top conferences, then your work must be of top quality, right? Sadly, that is not always the case, but the quality of the venues is often used as a proxy for evaluating the quality of your work.

In my case, I did the cumulative model (II), but I also had to bundle the individual contributions together as a monograph (the doctoral thesis, so actually (I)). In that case, the individual contributions must relate to each other to some extent because you need to tell a bigger story. You must plan strategically.

  • Two PhD starts: the defined topic vs. the open topic.

There are two main ways to start a PhD: (A) you get a position where the task(s) to fulfill are known to some extent and have been worked out for you, or at least some of the research questions have already been identified by a senior researcher. The second way, (B), lets you start without any clear goal, except getting a PhD by contributing a subfield (e.g., Data Mining) of your discipline (e.g., Computer Science). Both ways (A) and (B) have their pros and cons.

(A) – the well-defined topic – has the following features:

  • You are likely to address a topic that fits nicely in a larger scheme or project.
  • Thus, there will possibly be more synergy with other members of the research group.
  • The topic is likely not too small, not too big, so the scope is adequate for a PhD student.
  • Initially, this was not your idea, so it might be harder to fully embody it, live it, and defend it.
  • Your advisor(s) might have specific expectations on addressing the topic, limiting your creativity.
  • At the start, it is unlikely that you have expertise in the topic, so you are facing a steep learning curve.
  • You may end up feeling like a cog in the wheel of someone else’s academic career.

On the other hand, the open topic (B) is as follows:

  • You have total freedom to explore whatever YOU want.
  • You may get a head start by focussing on an area where you already have some knowledge.
  • No one can tell you what to do; you are expected to master this topic on your own.
  • You obtain more distant supervision. You must develop a high tolerance for uncertainty.
  • Consequently, you are likely to feel lonely or isolated – and to have motivation problems.
  • Aim too small, and people may not be very impressed. Aim too high, and you will not finish.
  • You are more prone to imposter syndrome and burnouts.

Of course, everything is not black or white; you may get something in-between (parts of the research are clear, but you must solve new questions on the way). In my case, I was dealing with a type (B): a very open (or I would say, even undefined) topic. Which type you get changes your approach and your experience as well. I think that type (B) is more common in Germany and university, while type (A) is typical in France and the industry.

  • The duration of a PhD degree.

I was in a group where students are expected to graduate within three years. In Germany, it is common to take up to 6 years (sometimes even more). The main reason is that you often get additional teaching duties besides your PhD. Depending on your teaching workload, you may not have much time for research. If you are good at teaching (and if you enjoy it), your advisor might want to keep you around for a few more years as well by postponing your graduation. You may not receive money from the federal government for your PhD for more than six years by law. If you have third-party funding, this does not apply. This is the same for the time as Postdoc.

After three years I was not done because I needed almost a year to define my topic (a typical type (B) start problem). I finished my PhD in 3.5 years, and I was fortunate to get a contract extension to complete the thesis without experiencing the stress of being unemployed. It is more common in many places outside of Germany to only have three years and nothing more (even if you are not done).

  • Is it possible to fail one’s PhD degree?

Not really. What happens is that time may run out, and you did not manage to produce enough evidence to defend your thesis convincingly. Except for a few sporadic cases, one does not fail in the PhD defense. Your advisor will stop you from defending your thesis if they feel that you did not contribute enough to submit your thesis. Some students finish their thesis under unemployment or as a side activity besides a new job when time runs out (this is very difficult, try to avoid this). Some students lose motivation and never finish. Some students find out early as that they actually do not want to do a PhD, and that is ok.

Although the perspective of not bringing a PhD to completion, i.e., failing, might sound like a bitter outcome, one must also realize that it is just normal. After all, it is just very hard, and one needs some luck. If the sacrifices required to get a PhD exceed what one is ready to make, it is ok to walk away and move on with life. In the end, not finishing a PhD only is a failure if you see it as such. Also, even as a PhD dropout, job prospects usually are excellent in the industry.

  • Concluding remarks

So in case you are in the process of thinking about whether to do a PhD or not, I hope that you find the information here helpful. In my opinion, it is a very personal choice. I can nonetheless highly recommend it – This is a unique opportunity to learn about your field, the process of science, and yourself. Do you have a different opinion? Does it work differently in your field / geographic area? I would be curious to hear about it! Next up, I will try to compile a set of specific pieces of advice for people deciding to go for it.