Can you do a PhD in anything

Doctorate - requirements, duration & career

Table of Contents

Prologue to the doctorate

Did you already during your master thesis Have you leaked your blood when it comes to research, or has your supervisor approached you to ask if you could consider doing a doctorate? Now you are faced with the decision: do you want to do a doctorate? You may also be wondering 'how does it even work', where the money comes from (and the motivation) and what skills you should bring with you if you want to do a doctorate.

The following article is intended to shed light on and answer these questions in order to make your decision for (or against?) The doctorate easier. Here you will find information about the doctorate and its rules and requirements, whether it is worth doing a doctorate, how you can finance the doctorate and how the German system differs from others.

Also: Take the aptitude test and find out whether you have everything you need for the doctorate!

frequently asked Questions

After completing your Master’s degree you have the opportunity to do a doctorate. This is nothing more than obtaining a doctorate through a specific doctoral procedure, which consists of a written doctoral performance in the form of a doctoral thesis.

With a doctorate, you acquire the highest academic degree in Germany.

In contrast to promotion, which designates the acquisition of the highest academic degree, the habilitation is the highest possible university examination. It is checked whether the subject can be fully represented in research and teaching. This means that it is checked whether you have a teaching qualification in a scientific subject.

The most important information at a glance

Definition of doctorateAwarded the akad. Degree doctor
The doctorate includes the following aspects:
• Completion of a written dissertation (PhD thesis)
• Do your own research based on completed research projects
Requirements for a doctorate• Corresponding exam grade (varies greatly)
• Application to the university
• Corresponding academic achievements and skills in the written and oral area, mastery of academic work
• possibly a short synopsis
For more information, see the respective doctoral regulations
Duration of the doctorateAverage duration of the doctorate: 4-5 years
Average age: 30 years
Costs and financing of the doctorateDifferent financing options:
z. B. Position at the university or at research institutions, scholarships, part-time doctorate, loans, reserves, miscellaneous.
See below for more information.

Good to know:

  • The word 'doctor' found its origin at the University of Bologna in the 12th century. Century.
  • The doctorate as the highest degree and the ability to conduct one's own research was 'born' in Germany (yes, we invented it ...)
  • In Anglo-American countries, the term PhD is used instead of DPhil, both terms stand for 'Doctor of Philosophy' (cf. Marshall & Green 2007: 3).
  • In the course of the Bologna process and the associated internationalization of the doctoral procedure, there is currently heated discussion about introducing the PhD (all general term for all subject areas) in Germany in order to create a uniform doctoral degree (cf. von Heyden 2004: 66-67 ; Figura, Jahn & Burkhardt 2004: 68-69).

Doctorate: definition

First of all, to the basic question: What is a doctorate or what kind of work do you have to achieve if you want to do a doctorate, that is, if you are aiming for a (non-honorary) doctorate? For this purpose, a written dissertation must be provided that differs from final theses: on the one hand, in terms of the scope (the length of the doctoral thesis is around 200-300 pages) and the quality, i.e. for the doctoral thesis own research must be carried out and the thesis must be a completed research project (the research results can also be of a theoretical nature) (cf. Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 103).

Of course, such a thesis does not even write very quickly in a few months: "The average duration of the doctorate is between four and five years, the average age of the graduates at the completion of the doctorate is around 30" (cf. Messing & Huber 2007: 11).

Even if the supervisor and the examination committee ultimately decides whether to get a doctorate, that's how you write it dissertation not only for the supervisor, but for a 'scientific community', after all, the new results should be received and in turn contribute to generating new knowledge and new research (cf. Messing & Huber 2007: 41).

Note: Publishability is often stated as a feature of a doctoral thesis, be it as a revised book or in the presentation of the new research results in various individual articles (cf. Wellington et al. 2005: 14).

Requirement for a doctorate

The doctorate regulations stipulate which rules apply to the doctorate, i.e. which services must be provided and also other bureaucratic subtleties that must be observed if you want to do a doctorate.

Important: You should look at the doctoral regulations at an early stage in order to know what, how (and when something) is expected if you want to do a doctorate. If something remains unclear here, one should speak to employees of the dean's office to clarify open questions.

You should also find out what is necessary to be accepted as a doctoral student and which formalities are involved (e.g. proof of at least two foreign languages ​​or the Latinum, see Preißner & Engel 2001: 93). For example, in addition to an application, I also had a short one Expose when I wanted to do my PhD.

The doctoral regulations contain information on the following points (the general conditions for the doctorate can, however, differ from university to university, there are almost 1000 different doctoral regulations in Germany and it is important to always check the most current regulations!) (See Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 34-36):

  • Which doctorate you can acquire and which requirements you have to meet for the doctorate
  • Exam grade that is required to be able to do a doctorate: varies greatly and is between 2.0 and 4.0 (but only in exceptional cases)
  • PhD conditions
  • Scientific achievements that are to be provided: written and oral achievements, mastery of scientific work, scientific knowledge increase, i.e. the dissertation should bring new knowledge that did not exist before
  • Regulations for submitting the dissertation, e.g. design of the cover sheet, police clearance certificate, etc.
  • The oral examination (Rigorosum or disputation)
  • Regulations for the publication of the dissertation

Aptitude test: do you have what it takes to do a doctorate?

Before you take care of financing and the like and plan long-term, it is important to find out why you can imagine doing a doctorate, what motivation you bring with you and what you hope for (and what not) from a doctorate. Of course, it helps to grapple with the advantages and disadvantages of doing a doctorate.

Is the idea of ​​doing a doctorate ripening in your head and do you want to know whether you can fully support it? Schneider & Molitor provide the following 4 checklists (these were also used in the 2004 THESIS study) to put your willingness to do a doctorate to the test:

(Stock et al. 2006: 8, table 1)

Personal advantages & disadvantages of the doctorate

(Stock et al. 2006: 9, table 2)

Personal reasons for the dissertation

(Stock et al. 2006: 11, table 4)

Differentiated decision for the doctorate

(Stock et al. 2006: 17, table 6)

Here you can also compare your results on the personal advantages and disadvantages of the doctorate as well as the personal reasons with those of the THESIS survey:

Personal advantages & disadvantages

(Stock et al. 2006: 10, table 3)

Reasons for a doctorate

(Stock et al. 2006: 12, table 5)

Messing & Huber sums up the qualities you should bring with you for a doctorate: “Curiosity, perseverance, the ability to work without a carrot and stick, a lot of pleasure in reading and, if possible, in writing, courage to give presentations and serenity while doing Bearing criticism ”and one has to be aware that one deals very long and intensively with a topic which at some point“ will become second nature ”(2007: 3).

Here it becomes very clear what is important, namely a lot of ambition and own will to get through the doctorate, despite all odds.

Tip: In fact, the interest in the topic is decisive, because ideally, working on the doctorate can / should feel like a (paid) hobby: It doesn't feel like work, you forget the time and can forget your daily worries and needs and switch off (cf. Marshall & Green 2007: 69-70).
That probably sounds too good and too true to be, and there will always be phases of hard work, but the doctorate also accompanies you to a certain extent in your 'free time' anyway. If something is to be really good, then something must also be enjoyable; the doctorate should by no means be a constant torture.

Nünning & Sommer cite motivation as the most important factor in the decision to pursue a doctorate, and differentiate here between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: The THESIS doctoral survey showed that the 3 most important motivations for a doctorate are a) Pleasure in scientific work (87.1 %), b) interest in the topic (85.2%) and c) enthusiasm for methods and theories of the subject (71.7%) (cf. 2007: 56).

Here you will find an overview of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations for the doctorate (adapted from Nünning & Sommer 2007: 56)

Important: Purely extrinsic motives are often insufficient as the sole motor to bring the dissertation to a successful conclusion. Under no circumstances should you be persuaded to start a doctorate, or just do a doctorate because you think that is expected of you, the family is pressure etc. A doctorate is much more than just an extension of the student's life, and this decision by Taking it seriously from the start saves you having to stop later.

Gunzenhäuser & Haas advise against doing a doctorate or see greater obstacles for the doctorate if ...

... you expect a phase of upheaval in the near future,
... your time planning is already at its maximum,
... those around you (friends, family) are skeptical of the idea,
... you are very unsure whether you really want that,
... you are afraid of change and stressful situations,
... you tend to react to stress with illnesses (cf. 2015: 17).

What are your answers? Do the personal advantages outweigh the disadvantages, are you aware of the conditions and are you still enthusiastic about your doctorate? Then let's go! The next steps that follow now relate to the search for a topic and supervisor (if you haven't already done both), and of course the question of financing. But first carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a doctorate!

Research & Teaching
More than 40 percent are considering breaking off
"Survey on the satisfaction of doctoral candidates"

Read now

Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Paths to a doctorate
"The two ways to get a doctorate"

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Advantages & disadvantages of the doctorate

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the doctorate? Here is an overview:

Benefits of a doctorateDisadvantages of a doctorate
- Making a new contribution to science, pursuing one's own scientific interests (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 3)

- The title enhances society (see Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 133)

- Prerequisites for a university career fulfilled, now you can do your habilitation in order to aim for a professorship (cf. Brenner 2001: 123)

- Further development of one's own personality through the doctorate: extreme stamina and crisis security were demonstrated, which can be encouraging for mastering further projects (cf. Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 133)

- The analytical skills, research and project experience acquired in the course of the doctorate are valued by the employer and also assessed as evidence of the ability to work independently (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 4)
- Danger of being rejected because doctorates are sometimes seen as overqualified, impractical and very demanding (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 4)

- A doctorate is not advantageous in every subject or can even be disruptive, e.g. it is standard for chemists, a figurehead for a law firm, but does not automatically lead to professional success in the humanities (cf.Mass & Huber 2007: 5)

- higher starting age for the job (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 4)

- questionable status gain: doctoral candidates are sometimes paid low (e.g. as a lecturer), have simple or changing jobs to finance the doctorate and live modestly during the doctorate (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 4)

Doctorate: is it worth doing a doctorate?

The decision to do a doctorate is in a certain sense also a cost-benefit analysis, i.e. what professional goals have you set yourself and is a doctorate necessary or rather a hindrance? Of course, the question also arises whether the doctorate is financially worthwhile. Brenner says: "The doctorate can be useful, but it doesn't have to [sic!]" (2001: 124). Therefore, one should not just do a doctorate in the blue, but be aware of what the future with a doctorate can look like - and how not.

Important: A doctorate prepares primarily for a scientific career, but not so much for a specific professional activity. In general, a doctorate is more useful if you want to work in areas related to research. Anyone striving for a career outside of science must keep in mind that the time invested in a doctorate is used by others (the competition) to gain work experience.

As far as financially speaking, the title is no guarantee of becoming a high-income earner: “Whether the title will ultimately bring more money to the account is perhaps the wrong question. Whether the research work enriches you - and also science - is more decisive ”(Messing & Huber 2007: 5-6).

Doctorate: Costs & Financing

The doctorate and the love of money - the question of financing is not an easy one but has to be clarified before starting. Everyone who has a doctorate or is in the middle of doing a doctorate also knows that you are not swimming in money during the doctorate - you have to be aware of that. But the financing must be regulated so that you can devote yourself to your doctorate and not have to constantly be burdened with financial worries if you want to do a proper doctorate.

In the 2004 thesis study the most common forms of funding for a doctorate were analyzed. Stock et al. give an overview of how the doctorate can be financed and which form of financing is the most common. The position at the university or in a research institution emerged as the front runner in this study (2006: 47):

Here is an overview of the various funding options for a doctorate:

About the type of funding for the doctorateTo note
Doctorate at the universityThe 'luxury version': research assistant
- Support for professors in teaching and administration
- Employment relationships regulated by the University Act (fixed-term employment contracts of up to 6 years possible)
- Half of the working time for research, the other half for administration (e.g. also giving seminars)
- In addition to the positions financed by the university, there are also third-party funds or project positions: Here you work on a project for an external partner and do your doctorate 'on the side'
(see Messing & Huber 2007: 13-15)
- Contracts are usually only concluded for 2 to 3 years (no guarantee of actually being employed for 6 years), and as a doctoral student you only get half positions or less than that
- You also work on your doctorate in your 'free time', the paid time for half the job often does not cover work on the doctorate (on the other hand, the doctorate is something that you do for yourself and therefore really have to want )
- For project positions: the project does not have to have anything to do with the doctoral topic, the positions often expire earlier than the scientific staff, and it may be necessary to switch to another project in order to complete the doctorate
- Advantage: you gain experience in all areas of university operations, you also do something for your retirement and you have all the advantages of a public employee
(see Messing & Huber 2007: 13-15)
Doctorate at non-university research institutionsDoctorate at institutions that are not part of the university but carry out research, e.g .:
- Fraunhofer Society (FhG)
- Helmholtz Association of German Research Institutions
- Max Planck Society and Leibniz Association (WGL) (see Einhäupl 2004: 13)
- Only universities are entitled to award doctorates, therefore a doctorate at a non-university institution is also linked to the formal regulations of the university
- Additional work that is not relevant for a doctorate may arise here, such as contract research, customer service, participation in trade fairs, organization of conferences (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 51)
Doctorate with scholarship- The decision on the award of the scholarships is either based only on the applicant's performance or on performance in connection with social, political or church engagement (applications can therefore be made to performance-oriented funding institutions, party-related or church foundations (cf. Neuhaus-Koch 2001: 41 )
- Scholarship at a graduate college to do a doctorate as part of a research project under the guidance of scientists (cf. Preißner & Engel 2001: 42)
- Self-application necessary, you should inform yourself in advance about the funding options and funding duration and research on the websites of the foundations in order to be able to write a good application, or whether you also have the right profile for the respective foundation (see Preißner & Engel 2001: 66)
- Usually two-year postgraduate scholarships (often extendable by a third year), foreign scholarships for research (e.g. the DAAD awards foreign scholarships), support for individual work steps, full or partial funding (cf. Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 77-80)
- Funding through a scholarship looks good on the résumé (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 59)
- Working out the project application for the scholarship application takes a lot of time and effort and can take up to a year (in addition to the cover letter, curriculum vitae and copies of certificates, there is also an synopsis of the research project and one or two reviews) (cf. Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 80)
- 2 to 3 years of funding with a scholarship are a very short period of time to write a dissertation, possibly the final phase without financial support (cf. Preißner & Engel 2001: 65)
- Pro / contra scholarship should be weighed carefully: you do not acquire any professional experience during the doctorate with scholarship (cf. Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 45)
- Scholarships are hard to come by, a lot of competition (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 59)
- Funding rates are often quite low, you should find out about opportunities for additional income, in some cases the spouse's income is included so that not much is left of the scholarship and the health insurance has to be paid with the money and you do not contribute to the pension during the scholarship period (see Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 77)
External doctorate- Do a doctorate in addition to your main occupation, clarify in advance with the employer whether the project can be supported (e.g. by taking time off, reducing working hours, accepting the employer, etc.) (cf. Messing & Huber 2007: 17)
- Clarify whether the project is also possible without a direct university connection (e.g. for my doctorate I need a laboratory or other resources such as computers and printer usage that go hand in hand with a position at the university) (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 52-53)
- Doing a doctorate 'on the side' can be difficult and requires a lot of discipline and strength
- not always possible to convert a topic from professional practice into a dissertation (cf. Messing & Huber 2007: 17-18)
- The duration of the doctorate can be considerably extended and the risk of dropping out is high (cf. Stock et al. 2006: 55)
Other (own savings, support from relatives, credit)For example, you can take out a loan, or family members offer support in the form of a personal loan (see Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 44)During the doctorate you cannot earn the same amount of money as you could otherwise and it will take a few years: Check whether you have enough savings, or what conditions the loan is tied to and why you decide against the other financing options

Tip: Here you can download a list with an overview of foundations and co. That award grants (from Nünning & Sommer 2007). You can also find information on scholarship programs at:, to foundations:, or information on doctoral funding in general at: (see Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 78).

A project position can also be of great advantage if the data can be used for the dissertation. I have a PhD position at aProject work which is directly related to my dissertation. In this way, you work more closely with the supervisor or have more structure in the data collection because part of the organization is predetermined.

'Made in Germany' vs. 'The American way'

Since the Bologna Process was introduced, a number of things have changed in this country due to the modularization of the study programs, and an internationalization of the doctoral program is also being considered.

But what are the differences between the traditionally German model of doctoral studies in Germany and doing a doctorate in the United States in so-called 'Graduate Schools', a model that is also becoming more and more popular in Germany and is being partially adopted? Here you will find a comparison of the two countries, which will also help you to better understand the doctoral process itself (cf. Nünning & Sommer 2007: 42-52).

Doctorate in GermanyPhD in the USA
Care modelTraditionally in the sense of the 'master-student model', supervision by individual professors ('doctoral supervisor' or 'doctoral mother')
→ Doctorate mostly depends on the reputation of the doctoral supervisor
'Doctoral Studies', by several professors (supervision committee), faculties, graduate schools
→ Doctorate largely depends on the reputation of the university at which you are doing your doctorate
Application and selection processInformal: During the examination phase, students are proposed by professors for doctorates or they are selected as research assistants (BUT: due to recent developments in doctoral training, the selection procedure for admission to German graduate schools is formalized and adapted to the American system)Formal: multi-stage application process (required documents = course schedules & grades, number of points achieved in the entrance test, letters of recommendation from professors, motivational essay, work sample e.g. seminar paper, curriculum vitae, TOEFL test for non-native speakers)
Status of the doctoral candidateResearch assistant at professorships or projects, scholarship holder or external (doctorate in addition to main occupation)Ph.D Student (enrolled as a PhD student)
Organization and content of the trainingDissertation phase only: choice of topic, writing of a synopsis (acceptance or rejection), research and writing phase lasting several years; Completion = submission of the dissertation and then the defense in front of the review panelMaster's and doctoral studies closely linked (graduate studies), PhD-accompanying training program in addition to the dissertation: course phase (pre-dissertation phase, seminars are taken here) & dissertation phase (about 3 years to write the dissertation)
Average duration of doctorate4.2 yearsApprox. 8 years (since the master’s level is included here)
financingNo doctoral fees as such (possibly one-off fee when submitting the dissertation), application for doctoral scholarships for gifted students / foundations possible, or application for half a position at the university as a research assistant or as an employee for a project positionFees for doctoral studies (tuition rates), which vary widely (e.g. Harvard $ 30,000 annually in the first two years), to cover costs, applying for scholarships or positions as teaching assistant or research assistant
Career planningAfter graduation: Application for assistant professor, the next higher salary levels are W2 and W3 professorships; You stay at the same university where you did your doctorate for your habilitation (this is a second major examination and is necessary in order to apply for W2 and W3 professorships)After graduation: Application (at another university, you have to switch to another university after completing your doctorate) on a assistant professorship With tenure track (tenure = for life), chance after 6 years tenure to get and to associate professor to be appointed (professors who are internationally known can become full professor to be appointed)
No habilitation!
Relationship to the supervisorStrong hierarchical thinking, formal salutation (Siezen, Prof + last name), the roles of scientist and private person are usually strictly separated from each otherLess hierarchical thinking, first-name basis (one speaks by first name), private relationship with the supervisor, e.g. joint excursions, visits to restaurants
Average age at the end of the doctorateAbout 33 yearsAbout 33 years
Goal of the doctorateTo be qualified for both university and non-university professionsTo qualify for a scientific career (therefore the reputation of the university is very important, the more prestigious the better the job opportunities on the scientific job market)
Publication of the dissertationThe doctorate may only be used after publication, the dissertation is often only published in a slightly revised form after the defense (but: online publication is now also possible)Publication is NOT a prerequisite for being allowed to use the doctorate! The dissertation is seen as a manuscript (revision through to printing can take between 5 and 7 years), no vanity publishing! (Scientific literature also has to sell in the USA)
Note: In the USA, there is the 'pre-dissertation phase' mainly because there is the possibility of doing a doctorate in a subject other than the bachelor's or master's degree (therefore it is necessary here to take courses again that deal with the topic / specialist discipline have to do with the doctorate).
In Germany, on the other hand, the dissertation phase refers to a doctorate that is not unrelated to the subject, but ideally ties in with the course itself or the topic of the master’s thesis, since you could already show a certain level of expertise and largely already have the necessary background knowledge.

Last but not least: Tips & tricks for a doctorate

Inquire about whether there is a PhD seminar / colloquium at your university (or found a group yourself to exchange ideas with other doctoral students. Here you can find out about topics, theory / methodology, goals, Time management speaking while doing a doctorate and much more (cf. Messing & Huber 2007: 167-171) - it always helps to exchange ideas with others who are in the same boat! You can also present your research project for a doctorate here and receive feedback.

  • Basic knowledge in statistics is very often asked. Even if you have the data for your PhD thesis do not evaluate yourself and get a statistician to help, you have to understand the basics (cf. Preißner & Engel 2001: 202). Inquire whether workshops are offered at the university or deal with the basics of statistics at an early stage during your doctorate (which I can confirm from my own experience: the SPSS course has more than paid off so far).
  • Search and find the supervisor Your doctorate is in a certain sense reciprocal: the future doctoral supervisor should find the chosen topic interesting and it should fit his / her research. After all, he / she has to spend the next few years with you (and vice versa, of course!). For example, you can inquire about the supervisor of previous doctoral students (cf. Gunzenhäuser & Haas 2015: 29)
  • Networks is very important during your doctorate, but also for your later working life! An essential part of scientific work is scientific exchange, that's why we are Conference visits with your own lectures very helpful, not only to get more practice in lecturing, but also to see what else is going on in the research community (cf.Nünning & Sommer 2007: 196 ff.)


  • In order to be able to obtain a doctorate, one must have an approx. 200-300 page dissertation Write based on your own research and bring new scientific knowledge - the doctoral degree lasts 4 to 5 years, at the end of the doctorate you are on average around 30 years old.
  • The doctoral regulations of the respective universities determine the requirements for a doctorate and also which achievements have to be achieved within the framework of the doctorate.
  • A doctorate is no guarantee that you will earn big money and it is basically most useful if you want to work in the scientific field. On the job market, it is mainly the soft skills that doctoral students have acquired during their doctorate that are advantageous.
  • For a successful doctorate and the necessary stamina, intrinsic motivation, such as interest in the topic, is particularly important.