Decisions, Deadlines and the DAAD: Your Cheat Sheet for Applying to a PhD Programme

(Photographer: Apoorva Nagendra)

Deciding to get a doctorate degree is one thing. Applying for it and attaining an acceptance is something else entirely. Please note that the steps that I have suggested in this article should be taken as a guideline since each university will have a different procedure. Everything that has been suggested is based on my own experience or that of other doctoral students.

There are two ways to apply for a PhD in Germany depending on whether you are already enrolled at that particular university or not. I am a strong believer in delayed gratification, so let me tell you about the slightly tougher route first.

Before I begin describing the process, I would like to mention that I have made a few assumptions here. I am assuming that:

a) you have a good idea about the country you want to study in;

b) you have a good idea about which field interests you the most;

c) you are already enrolled in a master’s degree in the field you want to pursue your doctoral studies in;

d) you don’t know how to finance yourself for the three to five years of study ahead;

e) and that you hold a CEFR A2 or above German language certificate (or you are in the process of acquiring it).

Scenario 1: You have started, are in the middle of or have completed your master’s degree abroad, and you want to do your doctoral studies at a university in Germany.

If you are pursuing your master’s at an overseas university, and you want to apply for a doctoral position at a university in Germany, these are the things that need to be done.

  1. Find out if your current university’s degree is recognised in Germany. You can do so by emailing the admissions office or contacting the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
  2. Visit the DAAD’s website and find out which universities in Germany offer doctoral studies in the field you want to study. Draw up a shortlist of ten or so to ensure a streamlined search.
  3. Visit these university’s websites and search for PhD assistance teams or help desks. Usually, universities have dedicated PhD assistance teams who will answer almost all questions you might have regarding your application.
  4. Get the email addresses of the departments you wish to apply to (for example: the Department of High Frequency & Photonics or the Department of Digital Communication etc.). It is always a good idea to email the secretaries of the departments and enquire if there are any positions open for doctoral candidates and ask them how to apply.
  5. Contact the admissions team and enquire about the procedure to apply for doctoral posts at that university. Do this for all the places you’ve shortlisted.
  6. If there are positions available, you may be asked to send a set of documents (such as transcripts, a cover letter or a letter of motivation etc.) to the university via email or post – and in some cases – both.

Once this has been done, please give the department three to four weeks to go through the data you have sent for their perusal.

If the university finds that…

a) they have a spot available to take you on as a doctoral student;

b) your credentials are good, and your fields of current and future study are aligned;

c) someone is available to supervise you for the duration of your course;

d) and that your finances are sorted out for three to five years of doctoral studies,

…then they may invite you to an interview – either in person or via video conference – to establish that you are a suitable candidate. Once you have passed the interview, the department and the university’s admission team will get in touch with you to complete the admission.

Scenario 2: You are a student enrolled at a German university, and you want to get your doctorate from the same university or from a different university in Germany.

If you hold a master’s degree or you are still a student at a German university, then the procedure to apply for doctoral studies is a little easier. If you want to continue your doctoral studies at the same university or a different one in Germany, then you can try doing the following:

  1. Talk to your professor(s) about your interest in pursuing a PhD after your master’s degree. They will surely be very happy and will guide you from there. They might suggest that you do a few projects, your research project and your master’s thesis in the same field that you want to continue your research in. So, you will already have a year or so worth of research in the bag, and that’s before even starting your PhD!
  2. Email the university where you want to continue with your studies, and find out if they are taking in students for doctoral studies. Or better yet, if you have friends at that university, ask them to enquire with the department personally on your behalf.
  3. Either way, after contacting the department, proceed with an official email making your request, and don’t forget to attach necessary documents like your transcripts, project reports, cover letter and a personal letter to the department expressing your interest.
  4. I suggest that you start this procedure a year before you finish your master’s degree. I know that it is sometimes difficult to determine when you will finish your studies, but planning ahead is always a better option than waiting to have your certificate in hand before applying. If you are applying to the same university, you have the advantage of applying beforehand as the department can track your performance, and your supervisors can call you for an interview anytime.
  5. If it is a different university, you can follow the same steps outlined in Scenario 1. The advantage will be that you are already resident in Germany and have a student visa, and your university degree will be recognised.

Even in this case, please give the department plenty of time to go through your file. If you have a lot of modules to complete, then I would advise you to complete the compulsory modules before applying.

Now, coming to the funding part of the application: it is advisable that you apply for a DAAD scholarship one year before you intend to start your research.   After awarding you the scholarship, the DAAD takes a year to start the funding. Suffice to say, the competition for DAAD funding is fierce. However, the best part is that the DAAD provides a full scholarship – meaning they will fund you for three full years and will extend the funding by one more year (if the extension claim is valid).

I would also encourage you to look into different funding options, for a PhD is a full-time course which requires constant work and dedication.

For more information please feel free to contact us.


Apoorva Nagendra

(Study programme Electrical Engineering and Information Technology)

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