The German Ph.D. System Explained in One Post
In Germany, today (2010), primary and secondary education take 12 school years and when finished successfully, allow you to enter college. College provides three main degrees you can achieve, a Bachelor, a Master, and a Ph.D. At the University of Erlangen, the Bachelor degree typically takes three years and the Master degree takes an additional two years. You can achieve them only one after another, and they replace what used to be the German “Diplom.”
The Ph.D. title is also called the doctor title and upon successful completion, you’ll be allowed to carry the prefix “Dr.” in front of your name (rather than a trailing “Ph.D.”) If you see a “Dr.” in front of a name it does not imply a medical degree but could be a degree of any science. My faculty, the technical faculty of the University of Erlangen provides a traditional “Dr. Ing.” which is a doctor of engineering.
Typically, there is no coursework to be performed as part of your Ph.D. studies. (This may change in the future, though.) All there is to do is to perform research that delivers non-trivial (“significant”) scientific progress, write it up as your dissertation, and get it past your reviewers. This research is guided rather than independent research, and your guide is your advisor (and primary reviewer).
To be allowed into the Ph.D. program, you need to have the equivalent of a European Master’s degree. If your degree was awarded by an accredited European university you are home free. If you have only a Bachelor degree, you will likely have to get a Master degree first before you can enter the Ph.D. program. In any case, the university reserves the right to review your actual studies (transcript) and see whether it matches the equivalence requirement.
Thus, getting a (European) Master degree is equivalent to passing your qualifying exams in the Ph.D. program of an accredited U.S. university. You are ABD, “all but dissertation”.
However, the notion of “Ph.D. program” is somewhat different between Germany and the U.S. First, there is no tuition. Then, you need to find funding. The two most common ways are to get a job at the University or being self-sponsored, for example, by working in an industrial research lab while working on your dissertation. There are additional options, for example, there are plenty of grants to be had. Some of these come with strings attached and may require regular participation in seminars or the like. In general, there are plenty of roads to a German Dr. title.
Getting a job at the university is similar to getting a TA or RA position at a U.S. university. However, it is paid much better, and it is officially an employment relationship with the University. Your manager is a particular professor, the one who brought in the funding that pays your salary. I start out with a one-year contract and work closely with the Ph.D. student at this time to see how things are going. After that, two or three-year contracts can be used.
This then is the final and maybe most important difference to the U.S. system: There is no competitive departmental selection process. If you fulfill the formal criteria, you will get admitted to the “Ph.D. program”, which is nothing more than being awarded the “Ph.D. student” status. For funding, you apply for a University job at a particular professorship. The hiring decision for a job is made by the professor holding the particular professorship. With your research work progressing, you will eventually register as a Ph.D. student, submit a thesis and apply for promotion then.
I hope this clarifies some of the questions one might have on what it means to become a Ph.D. student in Germany.
Updated: 2010-11-10, with credits to Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schröder-Preikschat.
Updated: 2011-11-10 (funny coincidence) to reflect recent changes.