Through the Dahlem Research School (DRS), which was founded in 2006, structured doctoral degree programs have been successfully established at Freie Universität. The DRS has since provided support for numerous researchers who have applied to set up new doctoral programs and project initiatives. Most affiliate programs of the DRS are networked with strong regional partners or international institutions.
Since 2006, the number of structured doctoral programs, which are united under the umbrella of the DRS, has increased from two to a total of 23 in 2012. These 23 programs span all academic disciplines and in turn consist of more than 44 sub-programs and projects. Accordingly, in recent years the number of doctoral students in these programs has risen dramatically – from 20 in 2006 to more than 1,200 in 2012. Thus, in the development of the DRS, there has been a manifest and steady increase in the number of those who profit from the Excellence Initiative: currently 25 percent of all doctoral students at Freie Universität make use of the services offered by the DRS – and the numbers are steadily rising.
Since 2007, the discipline-specific curriculum of the doctoral candidates has been complemented by the "Transferable Skills Program" of the DRS, which offers overarching qualifications – either through courses in "Academic Performance" or training in project management skills. Through these forms of professionalization, Freie Universität is among the first universities in Germany to ensure that doctoral candidates are comprehensively prepared for a career within and outside academia. The "Transferable Skills Program," which since its inception has been continually updated and expanded, is in high demand among junior researchers. The DRS has also developed numerous other offerings tailored to the needs of young researchers: for example, a mentoring program, "Orientation Weeks" for international doctoral students, and event formats such as "Career Talks," as well as information materials for master's students, doctoral students, and postdocs.
Given the rapid and continued growth in the number of doctoral candidates in the DRS, quality assurance is particularly important. The measures put in place to ensure quality are centred on the key players in the structured doctoral programs: the student, the program, and its position within the DRS and in relation to the services offered.
One especially encouraging development is the increase in the numbers of fwomen doctoral students: in absolute terms, the number of doctoral degrees gained by women rose by 44 percent between 2005 and 2011, while the percentage of women who gained doctoral degrees increased during the same period from 46 to 55 percent. The proportion of women doctoral graduates at Freie Universität Berlin is thus about 15 percent higher than the average Germany-wide (not including medicine). The proportion of foreign doctoral candidates at Freie Universität has also risen, from 17 percent in 2006 to 28.5 percent in 2011. The structured doctoral programs under the aegis of the DRS are even more international: in 2011, 34 percent of these students were from abroad.
It is also becoming apparent that the structured doctorate is a faster and surer path to success than a doctorate pursued on an individual basis. Thus, the dropout rate in the DRS affiliate programs is only about 7 per cent. As the experience with the first doctoral cohorts shows, the speed of completion is quite high: in 2011, 78 students in affiliate programs successfully completed their doctorates. Compared with the number of doctoral students admitted in 2008, this means that almost 80% completed their dissertation in three years.
The DRS not only offers students excellent opportunities in doctoral studies, it was also quick to turn its attention to junior researchers in the postdoctoral phase. In 2011, Freie Universität became the first German university to successfully apply for COFUND fellowships for postdocs in the framework of the Marie Curie Program. Twenty outstanding junior researchers from abroad thus have the opportunity to conduct research in one of the seven Berlin Excellence Projects where Freie Universität is either in charge of the project or is a partner.
Because the COFUND fellowships are advertised internationally with support from the university’s international liaison offices, this DRS project also contributes to the international visibility of Berlin as a research location. Building on its experience with doctoral candidates, the DRS has developed an offer of support specifically aimed at postdocs, and which will be expanded in the second program phase.