The European-Style PhD

In this weeks continuing series of “When I Grow Up” I’m covering a topic for which I have no direct experience (this is going to become an ongoing theme). The good news is that I have friends who do have experience (Hooray!) and they will be stepping in to add their voices/experiences.

This week I asked my colleague, Eckie Stolle, to answer a few questions about the differs I see between the American and the European systems. Similar to how every American PhD program is a little different, every labs program is slightly different. But this is some insight to the major differences.

How did you apply for your PhD? Does it matter what University you get your PhD at? Is the department important?

At the time I was doing my BS project I thought about possibilities. I was quite interested to continue with it as my PhD project, but there was no specific funding for it. So I had the choice between getting my own funding, for example through a scholarship, or by applying to one of the PhD positions regularly advertised. In Germany, state funded scholarships exist, but require the student to have achieved quite good grade. A drawback of them is, that they do not pay very well and they do not include significant funding for the project. In addition, receiving a scholarship means not paying numerous income related taxes. Even if this sounds great, it means that nothing is paid into the social system for you, nothing for retirement and nothing for unemployment. In contrast to the scholarship, the PhD position as a proper employment, so your tax deductions help you later for your retirement and to have financial support if you do not find a job immediately after your position finishes. In my opinion this is the far better option. These positions are usually advertised publically and for a specific project which has been funded already. Normally a PhD student in such a position is paid half time and the idea is that you work on the project and at the same time have the possibility to do your PhD. To get such a PhD position you obviously need to apply for it and beat the competition. Thus, it helps if you know already what your interests are, which direction you will want to go into, whether the supervisor or department/Uni in question are well suited for this and so forth. There are many student which take up a such a post, just because it suits fine at the time, or its local, thus there is no need to move etc. This should be not a reason to start a 3 or more years investment of your time. To know whether the respective University or department is a good place is difficult. While some universities have a good reputation, this seems to play a smaller role in Germany, than elsewhere. Maybe the factor that some universities receive special excellence funding could be helpful for a PhD project, but that’s hard to predict beforehand.

What’s the application process like? How many other people applied to your position?

It is like a regular job. You send your application for the advertised position, you get invited for an interview and then have to get lucky. I don’t know the number of applicants or interviewees anymore. Other projects in our lab, received a few dozen applications and typically 3-6 applicants are invited for an interview.

Did you start your PhD at the beginning of the school year? Is this normal?

No, the start of the PhD project is entirely dependent on the term of employment and the specific project. Except for specific reasons, they could start all year round.

How much input did you have in your PhD project?

The main frame and aims did not change much, maybe only the technical or analytical approaches as well as certain additions I created to add value to the results.

My PhD project started out as a funded project in which certain aims had to be achieved. While this leaves not extremely much flexibility to develop your own project and follow own ideas, I found it to be quite valuable. First, having a specific aim can get you started really fast. As a fresh PhD student I was quite naïve anyways and did not have enough knowledge on the specific topic to think about own new ideas. With a project where the frame is set, there is still plenty of room to develop strategies to achieve the aims and get more along the way. I felt relatively free to develop technical approaches and specific aspects of the project. The more I got into it, the more ideas came up and I was able to explore them in parallel. This often came at a very low additional financial investment as there were many synergistic effects. In the end I got two publications from this part of my PhD alone. And based on my acquired knowledge I developed new ideas of which one became another, completely knew project.

Did you teach during your PhD? Is that more or less than most European PhD students?

In Germany lecturing is supposed to be limited to postdoctoral positions and above. In some cases a PhD student would maybe give a single guest lecture on a specific topic. But seminars and practical courses as well as supervision of bachelor or masters student projects are part of the duties of a PhD student. Most PhD positions are third-party (e.g the German Science Foundation) funded to conduct a specific scientific project, thus teaching activities are limited. I think this is different to some other European countries where PhD position are regularly much more involved. There are some cases where a German PhD position is funded full-time rather than half time when a higher teaching load is expected.

How often did you meet with your advisor? How often did you meet with your committee?

For a typical PhD project there is no (or at least there was no) committee, only the PhD supervisor, called doctor father/mother. During my time, we had a general lab meeting on Monday and an area-specific lab meeting on Wednesday morning, both of which were lab-chat style and very informal. Here we discussed briefly progress, problems, results and future directions. Every couple of month, I think it was a ca. 6 month interval, I gave a seminar presentation about my project. Other than that, I occasionally met with my supervisor to discuss specific parts/issues of the project, but it most often were little updates/results requiring small changes in the approach or additional materials to be ordered. I think this was good balance between supervision/control and freedom to organize/develop the project. Also, the time sitting in meetings was not getting out of hands.