A Doctorate or PhD means an extra period of studies after graduation. As a result of these studies, the doctoral thesis (“Dissertation”) is the first contribution to science for which you are fully responsible of your own. It is seen as a proof of your enhanced scientific capabilities [and opens up the way to your further career, either in academia or outside of it.], documented by the publication of the written thesis (“Publikationspflicht”, obligation to publish) within a determined period of time.
The final exam includes an oral part, the so-called viva (“Disputation”), where you are expected to defend your thesis and the results of your research against the arguments of a committee (“Promotionskommission”) and the faculty.
Knowing that a PhD takes at least three to four years to complete and taking into account that this means four years of social and financial uncertainty and sometimes even the voluntary abandonment of other promising opportunities, this is a question worth considering in some depth. You should discuss it with your family, with your friends, with professors you know. Here, at Freie Universität, there is also professional advice available from the “Studienberatung”. You should at least be able to answer the following essential questions to yourself in a satisfying way:
How much time can I realistically invest, and do I want to invest it?
The most important requirement for the admittance to a PhD at German universities in general is your university diploma, which has to be officially acknowledged as an equivalent to those German diplomas that are accepted as prerequisites to enter the PhD phase. German diplomas paving the way to the PhD track are Magister (old), Master (new), the “Staatsexamen” of education or the department of law, the “Diplom” as for German engineers. The regulations for the PhD, issued by each department of Freie Universität, all set up precise rules for admission.
If you want to check whether your diploma will be regarded as such an equivalent, you may consult the web portal "Anabin" maintained by the German Rectors’ Conference. The database of “Anabin” is quite comprehensive, and you will most probably find the desired information in it.
It is, however, nearly equally important that your field of studies matches the field your dissertation topic belongs to. While it is unlikely that a PhD candidate, coming from biochemistry, decides to do a PhD in law, it is not so easy to say why it should be impossible to write a dissertation thesis on French literature with a background in Classics. During the last years this matter has been made even more complicate by the institution of interdisciplinary MA-programs that do not facilitate the decision whom to turn to when you want to enroll for a PhD at another university. In cases of doubt you should contact the examination office or your desired academic advisor(s).
It is the topic of your dissertation thesis which determines its complexity and thus the time necessary to complete. But even if you have been carefully and, with the help of your academic advisors, you managed to keep your work in a reasonable frame, you should calculate rather four than three years for your PhD. Why? After you have officially submitted your written thesis to the department via the examination office, both of your main supervisors will be asked to hand in a written report on your work and they are given some time to finalize their evaluations. Your dissertation committee (Prüfungskommission) has to be assembled. And before your viva can take place it is mandatory that the written thesis be laid open to the faculty at least for two weeks. Taking into account the writing time of your reviewers’ reports, adding to it the difficulty to find a convenient date for the viva with a committee that comprises at least four professors, it is not unlikely that a couple of months goes by between the date of submission and the day of your viva. You should add these months to your calculation of your costs of living.
Unfortunately, there is no central office in Germany to apply for a stipend. Even more so, German universities in general do not have central funds from which to grant stipends and PhD fellowships. However, there are many foundations and other organizations (so-called “Begabtenförderwerke”) in Germany which endow such grants.
Alternatively, you may apply to one of the numerous Junior Research Groups and Graduate Schools, which, funded mostly by the German Research Foundation (DFG), grant stipends for at least the core period of your dissertation. But, of course, success is uncertain, since the number of applicants and the number of stipends available is far from being equal.
In both cases, the “Begabtenförderwerk” and the Junior Research Group, deadlines for application have to be met. In case of success, your allowance will start with the beginning of either winter or summer term, in some cases – if you have been accepted by one of the Graduate Schools or Junior Research Groups – only once a year, generally in winter. You should consider these conditions for your financial plan.
Another way to meet your living expenses, of course, is to apply for a position as “Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter / Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin” at a research institute or to a third party funded research project. These positions frequently are designed to allow for further (academic) qualification and explicitly reserve a portion of your contractual working time for your dissertation. It is, nevertheless, not always easy to find a comfortable balance between your duties on the job and the time you need for your own research. Do not hesitate to raise this issue with your academic advisor if you feel overloaded with work and look for a suitable solution which saves your dissertation.
Many disciplines, among them the humanities and the social sciences, do not prescribe dissertation topics but leave instead the choice to you. Your academic advisors in most cases will hesitate to press you in one direction or the other. You should be well aware of the fact that you will have to deal with the chosen issue a couple of years, and that you need a lot of energy (and joy) to master it. Make sure that your scientific background and knowledge are solid enough to cope with arising difficulties: to learn a new language in order to read relevant texts or to acquire new methodological skills from the very beginning takes time and is laborious. Most likely, it postpones the completion of your work considerably. Along with it comes stress, and your financial risk is heightened enormously if the end of your working contract or grant approaches far earlier than you can hope to submit your thesis.
Do not ignore these considerations and do not think them minor to your research questions. On the contrary, try to bring up these issues in discussions with your academic advisors as soon as possible. Scientific ambition is prerequisite, hardly less important however is to keep your work feasible.
If not enrolled in a PhD program (see below), the first thing you will have to do is to look for a professor who agrees to supervise your dissertation. “Doktorvater” or “Doktormutter”, as these supervisors are called in Germany, are extremely important for the success of your PhD. They are, often for many years, your main – and sometimes only – advisors with regard to your research and your scientific career, they are, moreover, your main examiners when it comes to the evaluation of your written work and your final exam, the viva.
Usually, there is no doubt on the topic of the dissertation planned and the relevant discipline. The better you know already which direction to follow in science and what to write about, the easier it will be for you to find an academic advisor who seems to be competent in your field and to contact him or her. Difficulties might arise, however, if the discipline you studied does not exist at Freie Universität, or if, as just said above, you were graduated from a Master program that was truly interdisciplinary and does not fit the classification of disciplines at FU Berlin. The only way to proceed in these cases is to go through the lists of departments, the institutes or disciplines subsumed, and, finally, persons. The examination offices of the respective departments are unfortunately not able to advice and help you with scientific questions. To easy this tedious work a bit for you, we compiled a step-by-step manual “how to find a supervisor” which can be found here:
If you are interested in doing a PhD at Freie Universität Berlin, in principle you may choose between two options: the so-called “Individualpromotion” (individual doctorate) and the structured PhD phase in a doctoral degree program.