Students in practical training in chemistry

With its roughly 28,000 graduate students completing a doctorate every year Germany produces by far the most doctorates in Europe.

It’s always the perfect time to do your research in Germany!

How do I obtain a PhD in Germany?

In Germany, studying for a doctorate primarily means working intensely on a specific subject or research project for a long period of time. The length of time a doctorate takes also varies. Three to five years are typical.

Two ways to do your PhD

If you decide to do a doctorate, you can choose between different forms of study. Depending on your discipline, research area, personal circumstances and formal qualifications, there are two different paths:

  1. Individual doctorate
    The individual doctorate is based on independent research carried out alone under the supervision of one professor. This is the traditional path followed by over three quarters of all doctoral students in Germany. More
  2. Structured PhD programmes
    These programmes offer a form of study similar to that found in English-speaking countries. Here, a team of supervisors guide their doctoral candidates. More

How do I find an individual doctorate?

The “traditional” or “individual” path to a PhD remains the most common in Germany.  An individual doctorate involves a thesis or dissertation that is produced under the supervision of one professor (please see “How do I find a PhD Supervisor?” below).

This form of PhD study offers a great deal of flexibility, but also demands a high degree of personal initiative and responsibility. A professor supervises a PhD student, who works on his subject in consultation with the professor, but largely independently.

How long a traditional individual doctorate takes depends on your own time schedule – or on the duration of your work contract. Three to five years are typical.

Find a PhD place

Depending on the subject area of your thesis, your research can be conducted alone or together with other researchers. Doctoral candidates are also free to choose where they would like to conduct research:

Doctoral candidates can choose where they would like to conduct their research:

  • at a university
  • at a non-university research organisation or
  • in a German company

How do I find a structured PhD programme?

Structured PhD programmes in Germany are frequently very similar to the PhD programmes in English-speaking countries, in which a team of supervisors look after a group of doctoral students. As a rule, it is possible to complete a doctorate in three to five years.

Find your PhD programme

There is no central database of all structured PhD programmes in Germany. You can usually find these programmes directly through the respective universities, graduate schools or non-university research institutions. The DAAD database is also a good place to look. Here you will find a large number of PhD programmes that are specially aimed at international doctoral students.

PhDGermany is a database for doctoral positions and research opportunities in Germany. It can help you to find the right PhD opening or supervisor for your doctoral thesis. More

International doctoral programme database

Are you interested in an international doctoral programme in Germany? This German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) database presents a selection of over 250 international doctoral programmes in Germany. The database can be searched according to different criteria. More

Doctoral programmes at universities

Many universities offer structured doctoral programmes, which they publicise on their websites. The Student Advisory Service or Graduate Centre at the respective university will also provide help here. You can find the relevant addresses using the Higher Education Compass provided by the German Rectors’ Conference. More

Can I do a PhD outside a university?

Yes! In Germany the research landscape comprises three organisational types where you can conduct your PhD:

  1. PhD at a university: The “typical” PhD student in Germany works – usually part-time – as a research associate at his or her university. Although research is usually part of the job description, most of the associate’s own doctoral research usually has to be carried out outside working hours. How closely teaching, research and/or administrative duties are actually tied into the doctoral student’s own research depends very much on the individual situation.
  2. PhD at a non-university research institute: Non-university research establishments – such as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Helmholtz Association, Leibniz Association and Max Planck Society – offer an excellent research environment to conduct your research. These institutions do not have the right to award doctorates themselves, but collaborate with universities for that purpose. They offer PhD students scholarships and/or (usually fixed-term) contracts of employment – or a combination of the two. However, support is also possible in the form of regular research posts, which are especially typical of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Max Planck Society.
  3. PhD in industry: Graduates who decide to work in industry and study for a doctorate part-time – often with funding and support from their employer – also need a university professor to supervise their research. In some cases, the employer already collaborates with a university or research institute and will help the PhD student find the right person.People who have PhD research posts within a company usually have part-time temporary contracts and work in a research project where they conduct their doctoral research under the supervision of a professor. When a university and an industrial company collaborate in specially established institutes, doctoral researchers usually work on their projects with their professor and a supervisor from the company.

How do I find a PhD Supervisor?

In Germany there is no central admissions or selection office for doctoral students. Therefore, your first step is to find a suitable professor who is willing to be your supervisor.

One way to find a supervisor is to look for a university institute that matches your area of research. The following online search engines might help you find a suitable supervisor:

    GERiT is a website containing information on approximately 25,000 research institutions in Germany. GERiT allows the user to search easily by location or subject. It provides all the information needed to choose an institution at which to research, study or do a doctorate.
    PhDGermany publishes PhD openings in Germany that specifically target international applicants. Accordingly, in most cases the working language is English. Fluent knowledge of German is only required for certain special positions. PhDGermany helps you find the right PhD opening or supervisor for your doctoral thesis and assists you with the online application process.
    This database provides up-to-date information from universities about doctoral opportunities in Germany. The search engine enables you to carry out targeted searches on the basis of departments, admission requirements and form of doctoral thesis.

Alternatively your contacts with your professors or previous university could help direct you to a suitable department or potential supervisor in Germany.

It is also helpful to attend academic conferences in your own subject area. There you will be able to exchange information and make contacts ­– and perhaps even find a future PhD supervisor.

How do I Apply to a Potential Supervisor?

Once you have decided on a potential supervisor, you have to apply directly to the professor in question. Here are some useful tips that may help you succeed in your application:

  • Invest a lot of time and effort in your search for the right supervisor.
  • Demonstrate your interest: show that you know the potential supervisor’s research field and you know what to expect.
  • Give details of your own experience in this research field.
  • Give explicit reasons why you would like this professor to supervise your thesis.
  • Make your motives clear. It is important to show where your interest lies in your very first contact.
  • Choose the subject of your thesis in a way that fits in with the academic orientation of your supervisor.
  • Show that you are well informed: you know the requirements for a doctorate in Germany.
  • In your covering letter you should be brief and precise.

In your application, you should provide information regarding your prior academic achievement, the topic of your master’s thesis and the subject area in which you wish to specialise. Your application should also include a well thought-out proposal for your doctoral thesis.

How do I write my research proposal?

What you need to bear in mind when submitting your research proposal:

  • Be precise: say exactly why you are writing and what your research project is.
  • Give precise details of what your research involves – and what it doesn’t involve.
  • Explain what you want to discover in your research, what problem you would like to solve.
  • Focus on your research topic and do not get lost in sideshows.
  • Develop a coherent and convincing argument in favour of your research project.
  • Don’t get tied up in minor details.
  • Don’t forget to mention the most important works in your research area.
  • Make sure your grammar and spelling are correct.

We advise you to also download the Booklet “Proposal Writing for International Research Projects“.