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Individual doctoral studies

The most common path to obtain a doctorate or PhD in Germany is by individual doctoral studies. Here, doctoral candidates are expected to contact a suitable professor (called “Doktorvater” or “Doktormutter”) for the supervision of their dissertation project. 

Advantages of this form of doctoral studies include a relatively unrestricted selection of your dissertation topic and flexibility within intermediate goals and the overall time frame. This applies particularly to doctoral candidates with external scholarships or external employment. The conditions also depend on your field of study, supervisor and funding.

Traditionally, the supervising professor is primary contact person for all academic questions and concerns during individual doctoral studies. However, thesis advisory committees (a team of two or three supervisors or mentors) are becoming increasingly common.

Designing your doctoral studies

Since there is no structured program or intermediate exams to attend, individual doctoral studies require a high level of self-discipline and the ability to re-motivate oneself throughout the project.  In order to be tied into a network for scientific exchange, you should take personal initiative in establishing contact with other researchers and doctoral candidates. Doctoral candidate colloquia (“Forschungskolloquium” or “Doktorandenkolloquium”) as well as research lectures and seminars at your institution or department are fundamental elements in individual doctoral studies, complementing the individual contact with your supervisor. In these colloquia, you have the chance to present and discuss your project, gain experience in scientific disputes and get insight into other current projects.

In addition to the valuable academic and work-related exchange, you will also get to know other young researchers and extend your personal network. Moreover, professors often see such colloquia as an opportunity to recruit Postdoc researchers. Thus it is very important to participate on a regular basis and ask thoughtful questions. If your institute does not offer a doctoral candidate colloquium, you should ask your supervisor about general research colloquia und symposia. Discussing your project with Postdocs and senior researchers is very educational and affords many benefits.

In order to be kept informed about relevant conferences and events, you should also ask to be included in the respective mailing lists of your department and subscribe to newsletters of associations in your field. 

Application and admission to individual doctoral studies

At the University of Cologne, there exists no standard application procedure for individual doctoral studies. Our tips for a successful application for a structured program may be helpful for individual doctoral candidates, too. Even if you are not required to submit a project proposal or letter of motivation (statement of purpose) for your admission, detailing your project, approach and motivation in this way will likely prove to be extremely helpful. You might need a letter of motivation and/or project proposal in your search for a supervisor, and certainly for grant applications.

Although there is no standardized application process for individual doctoral studies, you still need to follow certain administrative steps. First, you should contact an eligible professor as your potential thesis supervisor. Meet her or him to discuss the topic of your doctoral thesis, timeline and possible ways of funding. If she or he agrees to supervise your thesis, you will receive a letter of support and (if applicable) sign a supervision agreement. This has to be submitted with your application for admission at the Dean’s Office or at the International Office.

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