Subtle Differences: Experiencing Doctoral Research in Germany

Scholars from around the world who have an interest in combining PhD studies with an international experience are finding that Germany can be an ideal academic destination―as long as they make some small-but-significant adjustments.

There are a couple of different pathways to a doctorate in Germany: the traditional route, in which a student works on an independent project under an advisor's supervision, or, increasingly, programs that are more structured, offering centralized support and soft skills training―closer in style to the United States. American Chris Popeney knows both systems well, having spent time on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paving the way for a post-doc
Although Popeney earned his doctorate in the U.S., he spent six months in Germany while a chemistry PhD student as part of a research collaboration between the University of California, Irvine, and the Free University of Berlin. Upon graduation, he was invited back to Germany to do post-doctoral work in organic chemistry in a group led by Dr. Rainer Haag, who had supervised his work as a doctoral student. Popeney now works with and supervises PhD students from around the world who are pursuing a doctorate via the traditional German route.

“I’ve found the environment in Germany more relaxed than in the U.S. in almost every respect: from coworkers and advisors all the way up to grants and fellowships,” Popeney explained. While in the U.S. students sometimes lose sight of maintaining a sustainable work-life balance, in Germany researchers place greater value on their personal time – yet still manage to get their work done.

In addition to slightly more laid-back environment Popeney found , he noticed other subtle differences between the academic environments in Germany compared with what he was used to. “Funding for science research by the government seems to be larger than in the U.S., relatively speaking, because of the more social system,” he said. Other special characteristics of PhD training in Germany that he has observed include a more relaxed mindset, a more hierarchical academic system, and more of a collaborative group mentality. The U.S. system, on the other hand, allowed him to be more independent and self-sufficient.

Despite these variations, Popeney explained that there isn’t anything drastic an American student needs to do to prepare for the academic environment in Germany. “All of my major adjustments were made with daily life outside the lab: new language, different culture, new daily routine, cold weather, public transport, etc.,” he explained.

Career prospects with a bi-national research background
Popeney sometimes feels that his time in Germany is taking him out of the academia network in the U.S., potentially making it more difficult for him to ultimately find a position in his home country. “It is a concern,” he said. “I plan to apply for positions both here in Germany and back in the U.S. within the next few months, so I will see just how different the prospects are. I’m prepared to remain in Germany, because finding work here may be easier at the moment due to the economy.”

Popeney offers one last bit of advice to students who are about to undertake PhD studies in Germany: enjoy yourself.

Although Germany has a unique higher education structure and academic atmosphere that may be different from what some students are used to, “newly arrived students,” says Popeney, “will probably find adapting to academic life the easiest transition to make.”

To learn more about earning a doctorate in Germany and to search for current position openings, visit the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) website.