The path to a PhD or professorship | Study in Germany | DW | 13.09.2010
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Study in Germany

The path to a PhD or professorship

A strong academic record is the prerequisite, but doctoral students in Germany have options. They can join a support network known as a graduate college or write a dissertation under the supervision of a single advisor.

A woman holds some cell cultures in a laboratory at the University of Jena

Universities seek to encourage young scholars with junior professorships

Earning a doctorate (known in German as "Promotion") requires that students have already completed their university studies with strong grades. Admittance to doctoral programs is usually decided by a committee. Foreign students should find out well in advance whether their credentials are recognized by German universities.

Medical students are an exception to this system, though. They typically complete the written portion of their doctorates (the dissertation) and the oral examination (the Rigorosum) during their studies.

Two paths to a PhD

In most cases, it takes several years to complete a doctorate. During that time, a professor will serve as the student's advisor and oversee everything from selecting a dissertation topic to competing research and the doctoral examination.

A woman holds some cell cultures in a laboratory at the University of Jena

Universities seek to encourage young scholars with junior professorships

However, these days, more and more students are seeking to enroll in a so-called "Graduiertenkolleg" or graduate college. They offer an alternative to the system of having a single faculty advisor and are often a faster means of earning a doctorate.

Graduate colleges are working groups that often focus on fairly broad topics within a discipline. Doctoral students at these colleges can then complete their dissertations in a group including 10 to 15 professors and up to 30 other students. Graduate colleges may offer students scholarships to fund their studies by teaching or doing research on the side.

Becoming a professor

For those interested in becoming professors, there's a requirement beyond the doctorate. Students complete what's called a "Habilitation," the highest university credential students can earn in Germany. The "Habilitation" is, however, not an academic degree. Instead, it is used to determine whether the candidate is suited to advising doctoral students in the future, partly by requiring the largely independent completion of an extensive research project.

In order to give young scholars with outstanding doctoral degrees the chance to get integrated into universities, positions for junior professors exist in many faculties. There, those with PhDs who have not yet completed a "Habilitation" can conduct independent research and teach at a university. Junior professors typically receive three- to four-year contracts, during which time they can qualify themselves for a tenured chair in the faculty.

Author: Claudia Unseld, Gaby Reucher (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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