What makes you go to graduate school?

What is it actually like ... to do a doctorate in a graduate school?

Today's post is from our guest authorJohanna Spangenberg.Johanna has been doing her doctorate at the MIMESIS International Doctoral College at LMU Munich and the Bavarian Elite Network since April 2017. In her dissertation, she examines the intermedia further thinking of Stéphane Mallarmé's poetics in the writings and compositions of Pierre Boulez and, in a second step, would like to work out the consequences for new music and 20th century philosophy resulting from this 'transformation of ways of thinking' .

The traditional path of a humanities doctorate in Germany, in which the "academic supervisor is also a mentor, examiner and superior according to the master-apprentice relationship, stands in stark contrast to structured and in some cases standardized training models in other countries". [1] This quote comes from a conference proceedings published in 2006 on the subject Doing a PhD in Europe, which places a clear focus on the advantages that the German doctorate system could hope for from structuring in the course of the Bologna Process. And in fact, twelve years later, it is noticeable that the opportunity to complete a humanities doctorate in the fixed and ideally well-financed framework of a graduate college is becoming less and less rare, even at German universities. According to the above-mentioned conference proceedings, a graduate college is understood to be “an institution supported by the amalgamation of a number of university professors” that aims to “supervise doctoral candidates, give them a study program and create meaningful working conditions”. [2] Christine Stedtnitz has already dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of a college and professorship doctorate in the first guest post for this blog.

It is of course clear that not all Research Training Groups are the same. In Munich alone, where I am doing my doctorate, there are now 16 programs that offer a structured doctorate in the humanities and cultural sciences and that work partly through employee positions, partly through scholarships or purely non-material support. Some are kept open in terms of content, others are structured around an overarching theme that the doctoral projects each have to deal with in their own way. They can also differ in whether there is an interdisciplinary orientation or whether only individual disciplines are addressed. What they have in common, however, is the promise to provide the framework for a particularly quick and efficient doctorate. For example, the Graduate School Language and Literature Munich their offer as a "research-oriented and systematically structured teaching program that fundamentally improves the quality of literary doctorates while at the same time shortening the doctoral period". The humanities doctorate, which is even more associated with freedom, self-determination and simply time than the course, now seems to have changed into something that can be optimized. The authors argue from the perspective that a doctorate must be future-oriented and emphasize in the course how important it is to network, to sharpen one's academic profile (experience in teaching, give lectures, publish articles, etc.) and before Above all, to finish the dissertation within three years. All of this certainly goes hand in hand with the stringent requirements for a (scientific) career, but it always has the strange aftertaste that even as a doctoral student you are still stuck in a school-based system full of strict guidelines, schedules and compulsory courses.

I myself have been a doctoral student in an interdisciplinary graduate school for almost exactly one year and will report a little about my experiences below. Since I am currently very comfortable with this type of doctorate, my contribution is not structured as a discussion that enumerates the advantages and disadvantages and relates them to one another, but reports on the requirements I am confronted with and the possibilities that I have the program offers.


Getting paid for your own doctorate is of course very attractive and since graduate colleges can still only offer a comparatively small number of doctoral students space for their work compared to individual or chair doctorates, the places are usually in great demand. For this reason, the requirements that are placed on the applicants are rather extensive. In addition to the usual documents, I had to submit a work plan and schedule, two external reports and a so-called work sample (in my case a chapter from my master’s thesis). Most important, however, was an approximately ten-page synopsis in which I had to describe my planned doctoral topic, explain which research gaps I intended to fill and why my project could offer an interesting contribution to the questions that make up the content-related guideline of the college. At first glance, this procedure had a deterrent and irritating effect on me - how can you credibly assure that you already know all the necessary work steps for the next few years and can optimally integrate them into your schedule. I submitted my documents with a very tense feeling because I couldn't shake the thought that I had made myself vulnerable. Although I had spoken several times with the supervisor of my master’s thesis about the conception of the doctoral project, the idea that I would now - unlike during my studies - be judged mainly by strangers who, in case of doubt, would only be rejected on the basis of my application could give to the project was still very strange. In the meantime (after the positive outcome) I have noticed how helpful this process was. Not only was I forced to think early on about the benefits and disadvantages of the offers and requirements placed on me, but I also had to define a specific topic at a very early stage and could not stay in the approximate for too long - what otherwise might have happened.

Study program

Starting a new job is always nerve-wracking. And in fact, in my perception, the graduate school is more like a job than a course of study, even if it is designed as such and de facto of course is one. Most likely, this concerns getting used to the working environment of a shared office, which is usually not known from your studies. We started as a group of eight and although we had a little start-up help from the doctoral students who have been doing their doctorate for a long time in the college and from our coordination office, we were relatively quickly on our own. Specifically, this meant, for example, organizing the division of our desks, getting missing furniture from the university depot, distributing the meeting responsibilities for the first seminar and getting to know us at all. Since it was clear from the start that we would spend an enormous amount of time together (office, seminars, evening events ...) and that we would all be in the same boat anyway, it was relatively easy to get used to each other. In the meantime I have made friends among my colleagues and enjoy lunch and coffee breaks together. Of course, there are always differences of opinion and a tense atmosphere in the office, especially when certain tasks have to be completed under time pressure.

We are not financed through scholarships, but have received all employee positions at the university, which are initially limited to four semesters, but can be extended by a further two. For this purpose, a corresponding application must be granted, for which we must submit a chapter of the work as well as an outline and an updated work and time schedule. On the one hand, I believe that it is particularly good for me to start writing early and not just read and brood for too long, on the other hand, the college provides a certain way of working and time management that you have to find your way around. The same applies to the study program of the first two semesters, which was very dense and reading-intensive and was supposed to free us from the illusion (and also freed us) that three years is a long time and that we can take our time to start work . Each semester we had a compulsory basic seminar, which was led by two professors from different disciplines and was intended to familiarize us with the history of theory and the interdisciplinary points of contact of the overarching topic. Undoubtedly, two seminars with extensive reading, an additional workshop that should inform us about the structures, possibilities and obligations of the college and all the smaller tasks that constantly - and sometimes unplanned - arise, a lot of time. Time that is actually intended for writing the doctorate. And of course it is easier to quickly get lost in things that come up at short notice and can be processed comparatively quickly (reading for the seminar) than to deal with those that you have in the back of your mind over a long period of time and which are often more difficult (Write an outline for the doctorate). The first two semesters of the college in particular seemed to me to be a bit foreign-determined in places, as sometimes the feeling arose that I could not delve into my own reading for the dissertation project without distraction. So we are paid to a certain extent for doing a doctorate, but a certain amount of shared responsibility is also required in the college. In my experience, however, your own ideas only develop particularly well with a certain distance and the right input - whether all or none of the texts dealt with in the seminar can really be related to your own project may not be as important as that Suggestions that could be gained through joint discussion. On the whole, despite the requirements, we have a lot of freedom. For example, we are not obliged to take on courses, even if this certainly differs from college to college. However, we can offer seminars if we would like to have this experience and there is also the possibility of going abroad for a few months for research purposes or doing an internship in one of the cultural partner institutions.

Additional tasks

Even if the compulsory seminars are omitted in the third and fourth semesters, there is still a large parallel project in addition to many other small obligations. We have to attend some masterclasses, sometimes design them ourselves and also set up our own large conference. During my studies I only got to know at most the rudiments of self-organized work with pressure to produce results, which also closely matches the impression of a 'job'. Making organizational and content-related decisions together when planning events can be challenging. However, it is very interesting and instructive to experience different ways of thinking and working and alternative approaches to solving problems - and also very different characters - and to find them satisfactorily for everyone. Ideally, something like this welds together and lets you learn a lot about yourself in addition to a certain degree of teamwork. The conference organization is a prime example of this. We get a budget and the support of our coordinator, who herself did her doctorate in the college and can therefore help with her own experience, but subject, structure, the Call for papers, the selection of speakers, etc. are our responsibility. On the one hand, organizing a conference means an immense amount of work, on the other hand it is an important experience, not only if you want to stay at the university after completing your doctorate. So I still don't see the whole thing as a distraction from my own work, but see it as an offer from the college to us to get to know forms of exchange in science in a relatively protected setting. It is precisely here that it becomes clear that we are not only doing our doctorate with a single person or at a chair, but in a college, as part of a whole. Even if the doctoral supervisor is of course still primarily responsible for supervising the doctorate, it is possible at any time to contact the other professors with questions and problems and not only when applying for your own conference on their contacts and the degree of awareness of the college to benefit. For me, that is the most important advantage of a structured doctorate. You get to know how university events are organized and you can rehearse things like moderating a guest lecture or speaking about your own work in a large colloquium that is basically benevolent. Once you have proven yourself with the application, a lot is made easier for you - not only have you received confirmation that your own topic is considered exciting and linked. But there is also a broad network of supervisors that you can fall back on and your colleagues as a daily reminder that you don't have to face difficulties alone, but are surrounded by people who know exactly how you feel and are never averse to a coffee are.


[1] Werner Fiedler and Eike Hebecker: "Structured PhD in Europe", in: dies .: Doing a PhD in Europe. Structures, status and perspectives in the Bologna process, Opladen: Budrich 2006, pp. 11–18, here p. 14.

[2] Carsten Dose: "Position of the Science Council on the Reform of Doctoral Education", in: Doing a PhD in Europe. Structures, status and perspectives in the Bologna process, ed. v. Werner Fiedler and Eike Hebecker, Opladen: Budrich 2006, pp. 19–24, here p. 20.

Author GastautorinPosted on Categories How's it actually ...? Tags guest post