Parallel to the individual doctorate, which in Germany is still the most common pathway to the PhD, the last twenty years have witnessed a constant increase of doctoral programs offering a structured PhD track.
Doctoral degree programs differ from individual doctorates in both, the formal frame of the PhD studies and the social as well as scientific integration of the PhD candidates into the community.
Formally speaking, pursuing a doctorate in a program means first to look for a program that meets one’s own research interests and apply for admission. Depending on the special needs and resources of the program, depending on whether the program grants stipends or does not, the admission process might be more or less competitive.
The selection of a program and the admission to it in most cases require concentration on a certain research agenda. The scientific focus of the program, of course, also determines the curriculum which is offered to you and is designed to support your research. As a student in one of these programs, you therefore not only attend to the colloquia of your supervisor, but you can profit from a sometimes broad range of different courses which have been carefully selected to meet the needs of the doctoral students.
Apart from the selection process and the curriculum there is a third formal feature that is characteristic of doctoral programs: the way supervision is being organized. Whereas in individual doctorates you work in close contact with your supervisor, programs offer team supervision. At least two, in most cases three academic advisors share supervision of your thesis. A formal contract, signed by you, your advisors and the director of the school, defines certain standards and establishes mutual expectations and obligations. These so-called “Betreuungsvereinbarungen” do not aim at formalizing your PhD phase but try to improve supervision by strengthening the commitment.
Beyond formal characteristics and peculiarities, pursuing a doctorate in a program differs considerably from an individual doctorate. Induced by the thematic focus of the program, doctoral candidates almost always form a group that shares common research interests, facilitates exchange and motivates common activities. Further impulses for community building come from the courses attended by all PhD students of the program and from talks and workshops which give ample opportunity for discussions and presentations of one’s own work and ideas. Obstacles or even impasses you may encounter during your work are far more easily removed by discussing it with your fellow students. Since there is a coordinator for the program, you will have someone to address if you have problems or questions regarding not your thesis but administrative difficulties for example with your planned stay abroad or the written confirmation of income you desperately need for your landlord.
Most doctoral programs of Freie Universität are assembled under the roof of Dahlem Research School. As hinted above, the DRS does not have students of its own. Instead, the DRS offers advice and certain services to the doctoral students of its member programs. The “professional development program” of the DRS consists mainly of training in skills which are essential not only in academic contexts but also in non-academic surroundings, and in a mentoring program and other measures to enhance career opportunities of young researchers. Of major importance is assistance to students coming from abroad. International young researchers want to pursue their doctorates at Freie Universität and want to live and to do their research here, will find on the DRS “welcome site” comprehensive information both on everyday life in Berlin and organizational questions concerning the PhD studies. The “orientation weeks”, organized by the DRS yearly in September, address new doctoral students of the member programs. The “orientation week” helps to cope with bureaucratic requirements within and outside FU as well as a guided tour through Berlin.