PhD education in Denmark and Germany - Which way should we go?
Author: Julian Geiger, PhD student, Department of Science and Environment, Roskilde University, Denmark. firstname.lastname@example.org
PhD education contains many different activities: research, teaching, mentoring, course work, conferences. The weighting of these activities in the PhD study depends on the country in which the PhD degree is obtained. Although Denmark and Germany share a border, there are marked differences in the education of PhD students.
Looking at the world of fiction, people with doctorates are often ascribed to actions shaping global events. It is amazing how many superheroes or supervillains have obtained advanced degrees: Dr. No, Dr. Strange, Dr. Banner, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and many more.
In real life, these characters would have to spent an extensive period of their life on a particular and narrow subject for achieving their titles. During their education, they would perform research, extend the current knowledge in their field, develop new approaches, train relevant skills and, possibly, pass on their knowledge to peers and students. The listed items are by no means exhaustive for describing typical activities of a PhD student. Yet, how a particular PhD education is composed and which activities are included in the study program – this is different from country to country.
PhD made in Denmark
In Denmark, the number of students who earned a PhD degree was doubled during the last decade. In 2015, about 2000 degrees were awarded by the eight Danish universities . Since 1993, the duration of a Danish PhD has been set to three years (six semesters). Compared to other European countries, this is a rather short period of education and, consequently, the structure is straight forward. An exemplary PhD plan in science consists of three semesters of research, one semester of teaching, one semester of courses, and one semester for thesis writing.
For course activities, courses and conferences corresponding to 30 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) points are to be collected during the PhD. Which courses and conferences are accountable usually depend on the local rules of the PhD school. Similarly, teaching duties are handled depending on the current demand of the faculty.
In the final semester, the obtained results are written down in a cumulative thesis. Typically three or more manuscripts are accumulated and an introduction and discussion is added. After a public defense and the approval of the academic council, the PhD title is officially awarded.
Figure 1: Nyhavn harborside in Copenhagen. In analogy with the Danish PhD education the row of houses along the harbor is straight and uniform. Although the color of the houses is different there is only limited opportunity for individual routes along the harbor. Photo: Julian Geiger.
PhD made in Germany
In the neighboring Germany, the educational landscape is much more diverse. Local rules and regulations change with the geographical location of the universities. Around 70 universities produce 25,000- 30,000 PhDs each year  – more than any other country in Europe.
Due to a long tradition in scientific education, the “classical” approach of mentoring of students is still highly prominent. These so called “individual doctorates” account for three out of four German PhD’s . For an individual doctorate, thesis and research work is conducted under the supervision of only one professor. Such an approach offers a high degree of flexibility. But the freedom comes at the price of personal responsibility and good self management since the PhD is basically build from scratch. Depending on the personal plan, the thesis can be finished after 4-6 years.
The strong orientation towards international students has also given rise to structured PhD programs in Germany. In order to be accepted in such a program, the PhD project needs to fit in the respective scope. The course of the PhD education often covers methodological training, course training and soft skills. For students, supervision and feedback of their work are often shared by several peers rather than handled by an individual professor. Compared to the “classical” approach, a PhD from a structured education is finished in shorter time, usually around 3-4 years.
For finishing a PhD, there are two main ways to write the final thesis. Again local rules apply for particular universities and institutes. A thesis in form of a traditional monograph describes all the performed work in length and covers theory, methods, results, and discussion. Alternatively, a cumulative thesis can be crafted. This approach is similar to the Danish thesis where the work is broken down into smaller manuscripts covering independent parts of the project.
Figure 2: View from Dreifürstenstein in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Dreifürstenstein is a distinctive 850 meter high peak on the North-Western side of the Schwabian Alps, which falls steeply on three sides. In analogy with the German PhD education there are several ways to choose for the downward climb. Some routes are rougher than others, and you should be aware that you do not get lost. Photo: Julian Geiger.
Employment as PhD student
The circumstances of work and employment for PhD students differ in several aspects between Denmark and Germany. Danish PhDs are commonly hired on a full position basis and enjoy the benefits that go along with it including a 37 hour-week, vacation days and the possibility for maternity leave. In return, the main funding of the PhD student must be secured before the candidate actually starts. This can make it tough for international students to access the Danish PhD system. Even though there are a lot of local funding opportunities, they are difficult to access outside of Denmark and for non-Danish speaking applicants.
In Germany, PhD students in natural science are significantly cheaper to hire. Although the monthly salary is not too bad, the typical PhD student is hired on a 50-65% basis although expected to work full hours. A benefit from this questionable practice is, that it is easier to finance PhD students and to create more positions. For PhD’s, there are a lot of funding programs for which they can apply. Depending on the particular PhD program, it is also possible to do a PhD while working full time in a normal job.
Focus on research in Germany
The German PhD education is clearly centered around research activities. A flexible duration and open content of the project make it possible to carry out long-time experiments and to get insight into a lot of different techniques. Per se there is no requirement to publish during the PhD education, although publications might certainly serve as boost for later career steps. A publication strategy pursued by a lot of German labs is to aim for a lower number of publications in journals with higher impact factor.
Focus on broad skills and networking in Denmark
In Denmark the opposite strategy is pursued. Since publishable manuscripts are required for the thesis work, most Danish labs aim for a higher number of publications in journals with lower impact factor. The approach has surely benefits for the student. It gives insight into how to structure and build articles and hands-on experience in scientific publishing.
In general, the Danish PhD is more oriented towards skill and competence. The short duration makes it hard to perform long-time experiments. On the other hand it teaches how to work with limited resources and deadlines. Both experiences are highly valued in industrial contexts. The mandatory courses also offer the chance to pick courses strategically for further careers and to expand the personal network.
Which way should we go?
Comparing Danish and German PhD educations showed that each system has specific strengths and flaws. However, which way should we go in the future?
The answer to this question depends on many factors, including society, economy and many more. A key point for answering the question might lay in another question that should be answered first: What should the ideal PhD be like?
Characteristics of Danish and German PhD education
In Germany, the PhD education aims to provide personnel for future research. Consequently, education is centered around research and to enhance research skills. But this way of education is in vain, if there are insufficient positions. Why educate brilliant researchers if they are not able to pursue the academic track due to budget cuts?
Almost 80% of Danish PhD candidates enter a non-academic career at a sooner or later point in their career. The Danish way of educating students accepts this fact and acts on it by including not only research, but also other skills, like teaching, practical courses, an networking opportunities in the PhD education. In this way, Danish PhD’s are not completely unprepared for the non-academic track. However, there are still things worth improving, such as expanding course offers with more relevance to economy, patent law, GDP, etc.
When it comes to make a personal decision whether to enter the PhD education in Denmark or Germany, there are additional factors to take into account. The most important one is the personal interest. And no matter whether you come from Germany to do a PhD in Denmark or vice versa, there is always the benefit of having spent a period abroad, getting to know a different culture and the opportunity to expand your international experience.
More information on the PhD education in Denmark and Germany can be found on the internet, e.g. http://studyindenmark.dk (Denmark) or https://www.research-in-germany.org/en.html (Germany).
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