Which are university requirements as a foreign applicant for my German PhD studies?

Starting your doctoral studies in Germany is the best way to add value to your career and persona. No doubts that by choosing Germany, you decide on a superior career and prosperous future, knowing the status of  Germany – distinguished as one of the world’s leading research lands. The paramount learning and research atmosphere provided through the support and strong dedication of the qualified staff of universities, non-university research institutions and industry, united with the advanced study and research infrastructure pulsated through diverse thrilling research projects are the attests making Germany much desirable place for many internationals seeking to pursue their dream doctorate.

The country is distinguished also for the significance given to the research training or practical education, enabled through the encouraged cooperation of academia with research institutes and industry.

Another attracting feature of Germany as a hosting education country is his large focus on international students, especially in doctoral level – a fact supported by the figures showing that one in seven doctoral students in Germany is of a foreign nationality. This is supported also by the fact that many doctoral programmes in Germany are taught in English. The list of advantages that Germany has as a country increases by the fact that there are no study tuition fees applied. Another attracting element about being a doctoral candidate in Germany is a great career prospect during and after completing studies, being aware about the great linkage between the academia and industry.

When we think in terms of university application requirements of doctoral studies, we must never ignore the reality that this sometimes can be a dreadful process requiring time, energy, overflowing documents and over. But yet, the article will be explaining all the steps of your successful application, giving the best of reliable information and sources.

Answering your possible questions about what are the requirements of an alien to get enrolled in doctoral studies in Germany we will give the best of how and when for your easiness and successful enrollment.

The university requirements

In spite of your interest to pursue doctoral studies in Germany, there are several pre-conditions you are required to meet for becoming an eligible doctoral applicant. On the other hand, if properly meeting such conditions and entering doctoral studies – upon the completion of such studies, you get awarded with a PhD Degree that is internationally recognized.

An important initial pace to a successful application for university admission, or for applying to benefit from different funding opportunities – is proving you have found a German professor (supervisor, mentor) who is ready to supervise your research and thesis work during studies. Hundreds are the higher the education institutions and research institutes where you might address your inquiry for becoming a doctoral student. Despite the universal criteria applied to individuals in quest of entering doctoral studies, each university has the autonomy to also have university-specific regulations in this regard. Even that these regulations somewhat are not very different across universities; they might typically differ as regards of study and dissertation language.

Applying to university, typically is a step that is done once you have chosen your study programme and found a supervisor  of your doctoral studies.

University requirements are slightly similar, thus a generalized list of requirements or conditions will be introduced below. If these requirements are met properly, you will be invited to attend the interview – a time for you to influence the university decision on awarding you as a doctoral candidate.

Curriculum Vitae

Curriculum Vita is a document presenting in short – one or two pages, all your educational and work history. This document must be concise, précised with dates, names of the institutions, titles awarded with and other specific details on your past educational activity and work experience (if any), supported with proofing certificates and other documents. Europass is the most common form of CV accepted by universities.

Search for instructions and template about Europass CV here.

Doctoral thesis outline

Your doctoral dissertation is amongst main significant document of your university application and your studies. When applying to the university you need to make sure properly present the outline of what your dissertation or doctoral thesis will cover.

For that reason, the university will require from you to submit an outline of such a thesis, briefly explaining your research work. The questions that this document must cover: Your intensions of research and study, explaining the scope and research questions; Your proposed methodology of research and study; The reason why you chose the topic, clarifying the impact that study; The timeline set for completion of research actions and of the whole dissertation paper.

See a sample form of doctoral thesis outline here.

Credits Equivalency

Generally speaking, you and everyone inquiring to enter higher education studies – i.e. the doctoral studies in Germany, involve holding University Entrance Qualification as a proof of the equivalence of your earlier education in relationship to the German education system. The acknowledged degree for entering doctoral studies in Germany is a Master’s Degree – taken by completing at least eight semesters of your Master studies. Master’s Degree is a second level higher education qualification and the same time is the key mandatory requirement to enter doctoral studies there. In addition, once receiving a Master’s Degree, you can choose to either move in a professional career in Germany or start your next academic qualification, which are Doctoral Degree studies. Along with Master’s Degree, in some cases, a three-year Bachelor’s Degree is taken into consideration also appropriate for entering doctoral studies in Germany.

As a foreigner who has not finished Master studies in a German university, you need to make sure if your education qualifies you as an eligible doctoral studies applicant. Hence, you will be called to follow the recognition procedure, which goes in accordance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention. Recognition process should start by searching for your education equivalence to German education grades in the resourceful official database “Anabin”. In Anabin you are about to encounter if your education – based on the country where you have been awarded with the degree, is recognized in Germany and if you need to undergo special examinations for making your education recognized. Another online source to search for the diploma equivalence is DAAD’s online database.

The university also is the address for concluding if Master Diploma credits of yours are recognized or equivalent to German qualification. For this, you have to send the chosen university International Office, all the needed certificates such as diploma, credits, transcripts and certificates. Afterwards, the International Office – once checking your documents will inform if your education is recognized and if you need to undergo any special examination for making your education recognized.

Then again, being a foreigner who holds a Master’s Degree from a German university in Germany, or a German University abroad, your diploma will be automatically recognized same as those of German citizens.

German and English proficiency

Typically, German language is not a must for entering doctoral studies in Germany. In particular, structured forms of studies give the opportunity for candidates to finish their doctorate and their dissertation in the English language. There are some universities, however, that require knowledge of the German language.

German language proficiency

If you will need to prove your German language proficiency, a requirement that can be set by the university amongst other requirements for applying in doctoral studies, you must hold a certificate proving you have successfully finished one of the following examinations:

English Language proficiency

If your selected university for doctoral studies offers a study program and dissertation that is in English, then, likewise you will need to prove possessing the necessary English proficiency for entering such studies. The accepted forms to prove such proficiency are holding a certificate with needed scores of one of the follow:

GRE or GMAT

Some universities might also require from the doctoral applicants to prove passing the GRE or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) with specific scores.

Motivation Letter

Motivation letter is a personal document of yours, stating which are your main accomplishments and future objectives, career plans and motives why you come to choose applying for the specific doctoral programme, and how your further studies can relate to your past education. Motivation letter must not exceed 500 characters.

Recommendation Letter

Professors or faculty of your earlier education must provide you with at least two letters of recommendations, as a proof of your potential to enroll in specific doctoral studies.

Towards a successful university application

As brought in our article series “How do I become an eligible foreign PhD Candidate in Germany?”, the individual doctorate is a study form where you have a lot more independence as regards of choosing the topic of your doctoral thesis as well as a lot more freedom as regards of the schedule of doctoral activities.

Deciding on your preferred study field – the first pace

The first thing you do when deciding to do doctoral studies in Germany, is finding your preferred study field and your supervisor or team supervisors for your doctoral research and thesis.  This is not a very hard thing to do, since you have different online databases which might help you in that regard. Despite the fact that there is no single doctoral programmes database for Germany, yet the best channels to search for your preferred program are Research Explorer and PhD Germany where different opening calls for doctoral applicants are available. Anyhow, you can also use other forms of search such as Google, Facebook and students’ platforms.

Due  the large volume of doctoral studies offers from universities and institutes in Germany, we suggest you to narrow your choices by selecting a program that suitably answers your questions such as: Does this programme fit my so-far qualification? Is this my dream doctorate? Can I be able to meet all the programme requirements? Can I meet the deadlines of application?  Will I have language proficiency needed? Will I be able to find a supervisor  for my doctoral dissertation? Answering such questions to yourself is the best way to early enough understand which are  the likelihoods of yours to enter doctoral studies and to complete them rewardingly.

Choosing the study form – the second pace

As already understood, there are different paths to gain a PhD or Doctoral Degree in Germany, and at this stage you have to choose amongst independent form or traditional form for pursuing your doctoral studies.

Individual doctorate

The individual doctorate is a form where you as a doctoral candidate have all the independence ever wanted. You are free to choose a thesis topic as well as finding supervisor of your thesis work. Also named “Master-Apprentice-Model”- the individual doctorate enables independence of you as regards of schedule your doctoral research time and activities. This is the most common form of doctoral studies in Germany, allowing candidates to get involved in a job in the university as “research associate” – typically, or industry meantime.

As pointed out, taking the individual form of studies, also known as “traditional form” you have to take care yourself on finding your thesis topic and planning/running research activity supervisor (Doktorvater/Doktormutter). Letter of Acceptance confirming your supervisor has accepted to mentor your studies will be needed at the time you apply for university admission and/or enrollment.

To find the right supervisor is not an easy task, but assuredly, if you concentrate your energy, will and time to do the needed research and contact, the award after it is totally worth it. Your searching should start at the university or non-university research institutions, research centers where you can find many supervisors who are entitled to award doctorates. Use the same databases as for searching doctoral programmes to search for and find contacts of potential supervisors (professor or researcher) of your doctoral studies. Also, an additional resource in this regard can be The Higher Education Compass of the German Rector’s Conference.

The minute you choose a supervisor/s and find their contacts, the common way to initiate contact via the email. The communication must be very structured, topic-focused and formal. Moreover, since many potential doctoral candidates lack communicating properly, we suggest you take care on the following matters:

  • Compose an email that it has all the elements and attention of a formal writing with no grammatical errors,
  • Before writing the email, consider identifying past-work of your supervisor and refer to one of them that relates most to your chosen topic of your thesis,
  • Make sure your email is personalized; sending the same inviting email to many professors it is not the right way to go,
  • Create a very powerful and informative email subject,
  • Avoid using jargons when addressing your email, i.e. instead of Hi or Hello use Dear and as an alternative of Professor’s First name use Mr. /Ms. /Professor and Last name. Also generic letters, such as Dear Sir/Madam have less possibility to be considered, rather than personalized emails,
  • The first paragraph of your email must explain the reason for contacting in specific, stating the area of your research,
  • Explain in one or two paragraphs how you are planning to develop your research and ask for a professor’s alternative opinion,
  • Attach your CV in which your education, skills, talents and work experience are exposed.

As soon as you find a doctoral study supervisor and got his/her approval in a written form, you must also assure the admission as a doctoral candidate by the respective department and/or examiners’s board.

If awarded as a doctoral candidate you also gain the opportunity to require employment within the university as a “research associate”- a part time job typically related to the teaching, research, administrative tasks.

Structural doctorate

If you choose a structural form for your doctoral studies you are about to choose a programme with a fixed structure. This involves: research groups, graduate schools and international doctoral programmes.

Research training groups are comprehensive university doctoral programmes enabling several doctoral candidates to work on their dissertation. These groups are mentored by a team of supervisors – comprised of several scientists.

On the other hand, graduate schools are educational doctoral institutions inside universities which have programmes taught in English language.

This form of studies involves a more modernized form of studies, with a fixed and structured doctoral programme obliging doctoral candidates to attend lectures, seminars and interim assessment (credit points). Candidates pursue their research projects supervised by a team and by a strong support from the so-called “thesis committee”- or the academic staff. The structured form of study within its progamme also includes development of soft-skill and other academic and research techniques and methodologies. It is common in this study form – for the candidates having the opportunity to pursue their research project, also in industry or other non-university research institution. Supervisors or mentors of this study form, are also there to support candidates in different bureaucratic issues.

The way to go with structural programme application is understanding that few are the stages for applying documents’ submission. Initially – you will need to submit a Curriculum Vitae, Certified Copy/ies of your Diploma, Research Thesis Outline, and a Motivtion Letter. Secondly – upon the university request you will need to submit a more detailed explanation of the research project involving schedule of the research project, references from professors of the faculty, copies of certificates, dissertation project and occasionally proof of English proficiency, as well as health insurance. Thirdly – upon the review of such documents provided by you, the admission committee, upon the successful result invites you for an interview, the time when you can influence the decision of the committee, so a good preparation is needed in advance.

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