How to do a PhD in Germany 

How to do a PhD in Germany 

by Leona Quigley

Updated November 7, 2022

Germany enjoys a distinguished international reputation for the quality of its higher-level education system. It’s for this reason that so many graduate students choose to pursue their doctoral studies in Germany, roughly 29,000 each year! That’s more than any other EU member state. Of the countries with the most PhD graduates in the world, Germany ranks third after the USA and China. It is also completely possible to do a PhD in Germany without speaking fluent German, though it does offer a great opportunity to learn

Here’s a quick guide to what you need to know about pursuing your doctoral studies in Germany, including finding PhD programs and funding your studies.

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Types of PhD programs in Germany

As Germany is a part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), its educational qualifications follow the three-cycle format common in the region. Nevertheless, it has a distinctive approach to doctoral education and offers two different paths towards a PhD:

Individual doctorate

This is the traditional path to a doctorate in Germany and remains the most popular with doctoral students. To achieve an individual doctorate, you will pursue your own individual research, working towards a dissertation under the guidance of a doctoral adviser (Betreuer*in). This pathway provides a high degree of flexibility but also requires you to be able to take initiative and remain motivated without the same level of support offered by a structured program. You can pursue your doctorate through a state university, a private university, a University of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule), a non-university research institute, such as the prestigious Max Planck Institute, or through industry sponsorship.

Structured doctoral programs

A structured doctoral program is similar to the model of doctoral education typical in the United States, though this model of study is not common in Germany. The PhD candidate will attend lectures, courses and seminars, and will work under the guidance of a team of supervisors. These programs are structured to provide candidates with required courses on hard and soft research skills as they progress through a fixed curriculum. They write their theses on a relevant topic within a team setting. Structured doctorates tend to have an international orientation, with English as the main working language. 

How long does it take to get a PhD in Germany?

An individual doctorate generally takes about 4 years, whereas it normally takes only 3 years to complete a structured doctoral program. The academic year comprises two semesters: Wintersemester, running from October to the end of March with holidays at Christmas and Easter; and Sommersemester, running from April to the beginning of Wintersemester, with a holiday from July to September. The exact dates will vary slightly by institution and year.

Finding your PhD in Germany

If you want to pursue an individual doctorate, the first step you need to take is to search for a university that offers a program in your chosen field and someone who is willing to supervise your work. A good place to start your search is the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), in order to find the right place. PhDGermany has a selection of programs specifically targeted at international students: and you can find funded doctoral programs at the German Research Foundation (DFG – Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). You can search the Higher Education Compass website to find out which university would be a good fit for your research proposal On this site, you’ll find links to faculties, potential research supervisors as well as other information. If you want to check the CHE university rankings it is best to search in your subject area.

There’s no central database of all the structured PhD programs in Germany but you can usually find them directly through universities, graduate schools or non-university research institutions. The DAAD database is also a good place to look. Here you will find many PhD programs that are specifically aimed at international doctoral students.

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Funding your PhD in Germany

Most universities in Germany do not charge tuition fees for PhD students, even if they’re international. You will, however, need to pay a “semester contribution” (Semesterbeitrag), which ranges between €100 and €400 per semester which is a contribution towards administrative costs and student services (Studentenwerk).

In addition to this, you’ll have to consider living costs, which vary based on where you’re studying and the type of accommodation you choose. As many of Germany’s major universities are located at the heart of its major cities, rent prices alone can be a significant burden on doctoral students. 

A variety of funding options are available to international PhD students:

  • Graduate assistantships (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter*in) and fellowships from your university or government, 
  • Programs funded by the German government for international students and 
  • Programs funded by industry, business or independent research hubs such as the Max Planck Institute
  • Scholarships from the university or institute that offers you a place – make sure to investigate
  • Scholarships from the DAAD or industry or from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Community)
  • Scholarships from one of the 13 institutes that promote gifted students, including Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, Hans Böckler Foundation, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Friedrich Ebert Foundation or Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung.

What are the language requirements for doing a PhD in Germany?

The language requirements for your PhD program will vary depending on the institution. Most structured PhD programs in Germany are taught in English. If that isn’t your first language, you’ll be required to complete an English language proficiency test or submit other proof of adequate language ability. As an individual PhD student, however, you may be required to write your thesis in German, though this also depends on the institution. If German is required you will need to submit proof of your German language proficiency. Two main tests are available for this purpose: the Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang (DSH, meaning “German language examination for university entrance”) and the Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache, or TestDaF (Test German as a Foreign Language).

One step closer to your Diplom

You are now one step closer to finding the PhD program of your dreams in Germany. So get ready to adapt to the German culture and language. Doing your doctorate in Germany is a wonderful way to further your academic ambitions and discover the distinctive German lifestyle and the many beautiful and historical sights the country offers.

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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

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