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How to Study a PhD in Germany (Step-by-Step Guide 2023)

Written by Michael Nz. on June 16, 2022

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Germany is one of the most popular study abroad destinations, with around 3,600 international graduates completing their Ph.D. there each year. Read on to find out how to apply for a Ph.D. in Germany.

Why study for a doctorate in Germany?

Germany is a power in many aspects, ranging from economics, sports, and even studies.

It enjoys a global reputation as a world leader in technological 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 in the top 1,000 in the world in the  2020 QS World University Rankings®. Among these, the prestigious research university Technische Universität München ranks first in the country and 55th in the world, followed shortly by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in 63rd place.

In addition to offering a high standard of living, Germany welcomes international students with low study costs and good financing opportunities.

Doctorates in Germany generally do not charge tuition fees, and more than a quarter of doctoral candidates in Germany receive public funding.

In addition, Germany is home to more than 500 higher education institutions. Not all of them award doctorates, but those that do are recognized for producing highly trained researchers.

Types of German universities

The German higher education system is made up of the following:

  • Research universities (Universität) carry out original academic research on various topics.
  • Technical Universities (Technische Universität) specialize in science, technology, and engineering research. However, they have recently started to offer qualifications in some other subjects.
  • Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen) focus on professional and vocational subjects such as Engineering, Business, and Social Sciences. They do not award doctorates.
  • The research institutes carry out major research projects (including doctoral work) in collaboration with universities, businesses, and industry. Most operate within larger networks, such as the Max Planck Society.
  • The faculties of art, film, and music focus on practical and performance-related work and do not award doctorates.
  • Other research networks also exist to bring together the experience of different universities and research institutes for specific research projects and doctoral training. For example, the three Max Planck Schools (separate from the Max Planck Society) focus on Cognition, Matter for Life, and  Photonics.

What types of Ph.D. are offered in Germany? 

individual doctorate

This is the traditional option and remains the most popular. In this type of doctorate, you will produce your thesis or dissertation under the supervision of a professor, but you will mostly work independently.

The duration of these doctorates varies, generally lasting from three to five years. This option offers great flexibility, but also requires a great deal of initiative and personal responsibility.

You are not limited to earning your Ph.D. by doing research at a university; You can also complete a project at a non-university research organization or at a German company in the industrial sector.

Structured doctoral programs

You can also choose what is known as a structured doctoral program. This involves a group of doctoral students 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 doctoral programs in that student research proposals have to dovetail with existing doctoral programs, whereas individual doctorates can be more loosely structured to suit the individual research project.

You will also need to attend conferences and seminars, and you will usually have a mentor.

Which German universities offer doctorates?

Many universities in Germany offer doctorates. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) offers a database that you can use to search for the right doctoral program for you.

How much does it cost to study for a Ph.D. 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, which means that doctorates remain free for all students in all universities. public universities in Germany, regardless of nationality, up to the standard duration of a doctorate (three years). Beyond this, you may have to pay fees.

However, as with all levels of study in Germany, Ph.D. students are also required to take a semester contribution of between €150 and €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 required 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, including rent, food, clothing, transportation, work supplies, recreation, and other costs. Even more, than this may be necessary to live in a particularly expensive city like Munich.

Is there any financing available?

Most doctoral students work on a paid research project or receive a scholarship.

If you want to apply for a scholarship to help you with your expenses, you can find them through the official website of the university you want to study at. T

You can also check out our list of scholarships to study in Germany, including Ph.D. funding opportunities.

You may also consider taking a part-time job to supplement your funding, either within a college or beyond, but be aware of potential 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 the EU, you will be limited to working up to 120 full days or 240 half days per year before applying for a work permit.

When getting a paid job in Germany, you should contact the German employment office to find out the legal conditions.

What are the entry requirements?

Entry requirements will vary between universities and doctoral programs, but you will generally need to have a good higher education degree that 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 through an accelerated program, which will involve taking an entrance exam and perhaps attending an interview.

If you are studying for your Ph.D. in English and this is not your native language, you will need to prove your English language proficiency with an English test such as IELTS or TOEFL.

If you are studying or presenting your doctorate in German, you may need to prove your command of the language with an exam such as the DSH or  TestDaF.

How do I apply for a Ph.D. in Germany? 

There is no central admission 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 doctorate; for the latter, you will simply need to apply directly to your chosen university.

If you are applying for an individual doctorate, you will first need to find a suitable professor who is willing to be your supervisor.

You can find a supervisor through contacts from your previous university, or by searching for institutes and research centers or teams related to your area of ​​interest. The following online search platforms can 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 that 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 allows you to participate in doctoral study.

Your request 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 you permission to begin doctoral studies.

The next step is to enroll in college. To be eligible for enrollment, 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 the requirements related to enrollment on the official website of the university.

You also need to make sure your postgraduate degree is recognized, obtain a residence permit and/or student visa and make sure 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 find an overview of the countries for which a student visa is or is not required on the website of the Federal Foreign Office.

Do I need to speak German?

No, however, we recommend that you learn at least basic German to help you survive in your host country, especially if you want to work during or after your studies.

If you are studying for an individual doctorate, the doctoral thesis can often be written in English, while structured doctoral programs frequently allow students to complete their doctorate in English.

Germany is one of the most economically stable countries and represents an excellent opportunity for those wishing to study for a doctorate.

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