Scholarships are also a sign of quality

What is a doctoral thesis all about?

April 20, 2011

“Obtaining a doctoral degree is a confirmation of the intellect”, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once wrote, capturing the essence of a PhD: a doctoral thesis is something you spend years working on, deeply immersed in “your” subject, which requires you to muster a great deal of motivation and develop a lot of intellectual creativity; it also teaches you the fundamentals of scientific working. A PhD is rightly considered the most authentic of all academic qualifications. As you embark on a PhD, you are still anything but a “proper” scientist; it’s during the process itself that you become a “proper” scientist. In this sense, a PhD is “an apprenticeship in the lab”, and as such it is usually not paid like a “proper” job – and this is, by and large, the practice at all research institutions and universities.

There is no denying that only some doctoral students enjoy the benefit of a contract to fund their studies and others do their doctoral degree on a scholarship. The pressure of internationalisation has changed the PhD system in Germany in many respects in recent years. For instance, the number of students from other countries doing their PhD in Germany has doubled over the past ten years. Of the 5,300 doctoral students at Max Planck Institutes, half are from abroad. Scholarships are nothing unusual for the foreign PhD students – even at the elite institutions of the US and UK, such as Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford, young scientists generally do not do their PhD while in receipt of a full-time salary; they do it on a scholarship or a grant, with which they have to pay their tuition fees too (there are no tuition fees in Germany). The scholarships and grants made available under PhD programs are awarded in a strict selection process.

And the same is true for the 4,000 doctoral students each year in Germany who receive a scholarship from one of the twelve organisations for the promotion of young talent. What these organisations look for are not only “bright minds” who have performed exceptionally well at school and university, they also look for social engagement. Less than 20 per cent of applicants make it into the sponsorship programs. They are each rightly proud of their scholarship, given that it singles them out as highly-motivated, qualified and socially involved in areas outside their own field of study. In this respect, the accusation that the world of PhD funding is a “two-tier society” is simply off the mark – Germany’s entire system of sponsorship for the intellectually gifted is based on scholarships!

Of the 3,300 doctoral students at the Max Planck Society who are in receipt of a scholarship, 2,200 of them receive a Max Planck scholarship and the remaining third receive their scholarships from one of the organisations for the promotion of young talent, or from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, DAAD, the EU (Marie Curie Fellowship), etc. The scholarship allowances differ only marginally: they are all between 1,000 and 1,365 euros plus benefits. In other words, scholarships are the instruments of choice in scientific funding – not only nationally, but also internationally; doing away with them would be absolutely absurd and would damage the whole system of young scientist sponsorship.

The PhDnet, which represents the interests of doctoral students in the Max Planck Society, has in recent years predominantly campaigned for doctoral students at the Max Planck Institutes to receive similar levels of net income regardless of financing model. In negotiations with its funding providers, the Max Planck Society has therefore campaigned to increase its scholarship rates by being allowed to add health insurance benefits, an attractive child allowance and additional financial contributions for families. That we managed to achieve these improvements is also regarded as a success by our scholarship holders.

Many of our foreign doctoral students consider a scholarship from the Max Planck Society a special distinction that enables them to work on their dissertation freely and independently in an internationally stimulating research environment. Our young scientists come to us from 100 different countries around the globe, attracted by the renown of the Max Planck Society and the outstanding working conditions they find in our Institutes. They have the opportunity to complete a crucial stage of their career in a creative world in which the interdisciplinary and intercultural views and mindsets of bright minds really have an effect.

And that brings us back to the very essence of PhDs: the intensive support of young scientists is above all intellectual and not financial in nature. More than ten years ago, the Max Planck Society, in cooperation with the universities, got a successful model of internationally-oriented graduate education off the ground in Germany in the form of the International Max Planck Research Schools: in addition to the Max Planck Institutes and the German partner universities, foreign universities and research institutions also contribute to the study programs. The doctoral students value the very good support they receive, as well as the training in soft skills. After all – and this is something we must recognise – only some of them will stay in academia. That’s no bad thing: the most successful form of knowledge transfer is the training of outstandingly qualified young people who can go on to play leading roles not just in science, but in business and society too.

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