Thematically broader, larger scale and more high profile

An interview with Vice President Ferdi Schüth on the Max Planck Schools

Around 4,500 doctoral students conduct research at the MPG each year. They focus on traditional individual doctorates or are enrolled at one of the more than 60 International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS) with their structured framework. The funding concept is being expanded with the introduction of Max Planck Schools as larger entities. Vice President Ferdi Schüth is driving the planning process forward.

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Ferdi Schüth, Vice President of the Max Planck Society and Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim a. d. Ruhr.
Ferdi Schüth, Vice President of the Max Planck Society and Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim a. d. Ruhr.

Mr Schüth, how do the new graduate schools differ from the IMPRS model?

The main difference is that they are national networks distributed across locations in which we are seeking to bring together the best minds in Germany. The cooperating networks – made up of Max Planck Institutes, universities and other non-university institutions as required – will be larger scale and higher profile. There are also plans to set up a central admissions unit. The only criterion that counts is scientific excellence.

Who will organize the school and where?

That depends on the school in question. As we want to experiment we have put an upstream exploration phase in place. Initially, researchers will run these schools but they will be spread across Germany. A school will therefore need a Coordination Office. This could be accommodated at a centrally located MPI or set up elsewhere because it’s an open system. That’s also reflected in the name – “Max Planck Schools – a joint initiative between German universities and the German research organizations.”

Where are the students based?

I envisage students initially undertaking periods of block lectures, depending upon the school. The decision to take a doctorate is made after the bachelor degree in many of the natural sciences. To give the young people a sense of belonging to a group and to establish a common basis in light of their different backgrounds, a three-month residence at a central location would be ideal. That could be Harnack House or a university location where several researchers involved in the school work. Another option could be the Max Planck Institute for Physics building in Munich which is being vacated in a few years’ time. It is ultimately just a question of providing adequate lecturing facilities and accommodation.

And what happens then?

The doctoral students could undertake two or three placements with participating research groups and gain a more in-depth insight into their work. It would be the equivalent of a research internship on a master’s degree programme. That could perhaps be followed by another block phase before the future doctoral students decide – depending on their experience with the various supervisors – where to take their doctorate. Let's not forget that this is just one possible model – the jurists may set things up in an entirely different way. You’d have to adapt to the cultures of the disciplines and the expectations of the potential students.

 

Why should doctoral students opt for one of the new schools?

It ultimately depends on how great their interest in a particular research field is and how willing they are to come into contact with people from other locations in external block periods. IMPRS are much more specialized than the new schools are intended to be. Make no mistake, the schools will apply a more rigorous selection procedure than the IMPRS. The perceived quality of Harvard, Imperial, Berkeley and Oxford depends largely on how difficult it is to get through the selection process.

How will the partners share the costs?

At the Max Planck Society, we’ve earmarked funding for the pilot phase to help pay for the coordinators, travel costs and distance-learning equipment and perhaps also a few dedicated lecturers or bachelor scholarships. We also believe that school initiatives can build on IMPRS and use their local resources. The budgets of the MPIs include funding for doctoral students in any case. Applications must be made to the Federal Ministry for Education and Research in the case of fellows at universities. Every fellow and their faculty would receive funds to enable cooperation on an equal footing. The other non-university institutions must – like the Max Planck Society – meet these costs from their budgets.

Have the IMPRS expressed concerns over their attractiveness?

In the initial phase, the IMPRS were uncertain as to whether they would now be phased out or whether no new ones would be set up. That’s certainly not the plan. There are essentially three options for the IMPRS. Option 1: They cease to exist because they are integrated into a school and form the basis of a new local structure which must continue to provide for doctoral students. Option 2: They continue to exist under their name but belong to a school so that this incorporates all IMPRS with a common admissions unit and lecturing programme. Option 3: The IMPRS and schools coexist which would usually occur if there is little thematic overlap.

What do you think of the idea put forward by a university president who suggested using the name of Albert Einstein for the schools as a “neutral” figure?

We can’t afford to spend ten years on establishing something new. Everyone concedes – even if through gritted teeth – that the most well-known name in the German science system is Max Plank which is a byword for top-quality basic research. Failing to take advantage of such a brand name would be negligent.

And what about the timeframe?

The selection meeting has already taken place and the decision has been made. The three Max Planck Schools to be funded in the five-year pilot phase will be announced at the start of September. The whole thing is being developed bottom up from the research – it is not being stipulated as a programme. I’m delighted that the schools will develop their own momentum.

 The interview was conducted by Susanne Beer

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