Finding a PhD in Germany (or Europe)

It is frustratingly annoying to find a PhD position and even though there is plenty of information about this on the web but given that I get asked this question every month, I thought it is important to share my perspective on it too. So, if you think you need some guidance about finding a PhD position in Germany or Europe in general (not the US, the process is very different there), this post may be helpful.

Let me begin by a disclaimer: All the information given in this post is based on personal experience and not on a research of any kind so use it at your own risk. Having thrown the disclaimer out of the path let’s get started.

I’ll arrange this post in the question-answer format because that might be easier to follow.

Where does one begin?

You have to ask yourself if you are interested in what you are doing now. If yes, find the professors in your field and make a list and not mental one – a real excel spreadsheet with the name of the professor, university, his/her main research field, the university he/she is affiliated to, and his/her email address.

If you do not like what you are doing, you still need to do this but then your list of professors will be longer because it will include almost everyone in which you feel you might be interested.

Do NOT send them an email yet. Wait! Patience pays. As of now, continue to read.

How to write an email contacting the professor?

Before writing an email you have to understand two things:

  1. There are at least thousands of students worldwide trying to contact the exact same professor and if your email does not stand out among them, he/she is not going to read it.
  2. All of those students have access to the Internet, so if you are trying to copy an email from the web, remember others are trying to do that too.

Your email is guaranteed to be marked as spam if:

  1. you copy it from the web or
  2. write one email for all the professors you want to contact by changing name and a few words here and there. Professors are not stupid.

So this was what not to do. Here are to dos:

  1. Research the professor well before even starting to write an email. Visit his/her web page. Seriously do it. And read their web page till the end. Sometimes, they may have a code which you might have to use in your subject line otherwise, the email will be marked as spam immediately. All professors don’t do it but you have to be watchful of those who do.
  2. Even if there is no code on their web page there is plenty of other information you need like their current research interest and their latest papers. Read at least one of their papers. I cannot emphasize enough how much you need to do this. You may not understand everything that has been written in the paper unless you are a freaking genius, in which case you won’t be reading this post anyway. But as you read the paper, answer two questions – what is that he/she has done and what is that he/she wants to do in future. And if you are really good, also ask yourself – is there something which you can do to make this work better. The last question is very hard to answer so don’t spend too much time on this.

Now you have all the information you need to contact him/her. In the first paragraph explain who you are and why you are contacting him/her. Something along these lines maybe:

I am an M. Tech. student at XYZ (name of the institute) with a major in XXX (name of your branch). I will be graduating by this July with a CPI of xx (write your cpi) on a 10 point scale.

I am planning to attend graduate school in Electrical Engineering with a focus on nanotechnology or Semiconductor Physics. My undergraduate project was about theoretical modeling of tunneling current in high-k based MOS devices. Currently, I am working on the development of a new multiferroic material for high-speed sensor design and ab-intio calculation of its properties.

Although you may not want to begin by mentioning your CPI if it is not above 8. Leave it for your CV then. You may want to just mention your institute and branch. A little bit of oversimplification and a bit of exaggeration of the scope of your topic is fine but do not lie about anything you write. It will be verified at some point of time.

Now is the time to prove that you are interested in his work. Remember, never say that you are interested in his work instead you prove it by writing about the things he has done recently. By doing so, you have demonstrated two things:

  1. You read and understand scientific papers.
  2. You appreciate and understand his work and are interested in doing what he/she wants to do.

Now the second half of the email is going to be so topic-specific that I’ll not give any example of it. Feel free to post your draft in the comments below and I will help if I can in improving it. But the best corrections can be done only by yourself by reading and re-reading it.

Now that your email is ready. Do three more things before pressing the send button:

  1. Show your email to a close friend, teacher or senior to correct it even if you think they are not as good as you. Do not underestimate the power of the second pair of eyes. Of course, you don’t want to get embarrassed but nobody judges you for your errors and it is better to be embarrassed than rejected. Ensure that there are no grammatical or spelling errors. It doesn’t give a good impression
  2. Did you write the subject of the email well? It should be something simple like PhD Application. Include the code, if it was written on professors web page or advertisement.
  3. Attaching your CV is optional but I would recommend doing it. There is a serious difference of opinion in the community about this issue but I think sending CV (not resume) in the first email is important. Consider this: If the professor is impressed with your email, he/she will open your attachment and has a chance to know you better. If not impressed, what is that you have lost?

Read your email again and now you can send that press button.

Every time you send an email you can mark it on your the spreadsheet so that you don’t send them an email again. Keep updating the status of communication in the spreadsheet. Even after all this due diligence, you will not get a response from all professors but your chances of getting a response will increase significantly.

Do you need to appear for GRE and TOEFL?

If you don’t know about these exams are, please find out on the web and yes, I would recommend preparing for these exams and then taking it. From my experience, it has changed the way I read, write and speak English.

But in case you don’t want to, for whatever reasons, it is not compulsory.

How much stipend will you get and will it be enough to survive in Europe?

There is no unique answer to how much money you will get but it will always be more than enough for your survival and some saving. Usually, you get somewhere between 1000 to 1500 euros in Germany and you need to speed about 800 euros for a decent and I mean decent, not extravagant lifestyle.

If PhD is the last option you can think of in life, you need to think of something else because doing a PhD requires a lot of patience and perseverance. And if the application process seems frustrating to you, wait till you start doing the actual work. But remember nothing which is good for you is pleasurable. Gym, exercising, learning how to play guitar or asking your crush out on a date – all of these are hard processes but pays well in the end.

Feel free to ask any other questions you have.

All the best!

Useful links

  1. TU9 – The best universities in Germany
  2. Max Planck Society – The best research institutes in Germany:
  3. Scholarship
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