1. It isn't essential to speak German
Many universities in Germany now offer courses in English in order to encourage international applicants. When it comes to doing a PhD, the thesis can often be written in either English or German. And now there are even whole grad schools which specialise in international programs, and which operate entirely in English. Obviously, you'll still need basic German skills for going about your everyday life, but it's more common than you imagine for academic programs to be in English.
2. First, find a supervisor
The first task when you are considering doing a PhD is to find a supervisor in your field with whom you can do your research. Don't underestimate the importance of having a supervisor who you get along with personally! Talk to as many people in your field as possible to get a feeling of which departments and researchers might be a good match for you.
3. Consider whether you'd prefer individual doctoral study or joining a grad school
One major decision to make when considering a PhD in Germany is whether you will study alone with the support of a supervisor, or whether you will join a structured graduate school. Both options are common in Germany. Studying individually gives you more flexibility to set your own work milestones, but joining a grad school will give you more structure and support.
4. You apply directly to the university or department to do a PhD
Once you have found a supervisor, you will have to apply to your university or department to join as a PhD student. This typically involves providing information about your previous degrees, filling out an application, and getting a letter of support from your supervisor.
5. Get your academic credentials checked
When applying for a PhD, you will need to provide copies of your previous degree certificates and transcripts. These will need to be translated into the German grade system (from the British-style “2:1” to the German-style “1.3”, for example). Your university's international office may be able to do this for you, or you may have to pay for this to be done privately.
6. Find a way to finance your PhD
7. Non-EU citizens will need a visa and residence permit
If you are from outside the EU, the EEA, or Switzerland, then you are likely to need a visa in order to do a PhD in Germany. A tourist visa is not sufficient, as this cannot be converted into a long-term residence visa. In order to get a visa, you'll need to contact the German embassy in your home country and fill out an application before you come to Germany.
8. Housing is relatively cheap but can be hard to get
Germany is relatively affordable in terms of housing, thanks to governmental rent control. However, in a popular city like Berlin, housing is snapped up very quickly. So you should be ready to move fast when you find a place that you like, or if you have the money to spare, you can pay an agent to find an appropriate house for you and deal with the application process. Alternatively, you can move into a shared house (a “WG”) with other students or young people, which is a good short-term option when you first arrive.
9. You have to register where you live in Germany
Once you arrive in Germany and have found a place to live, you will need to register by going to your local Bürgeramt and filling in a form there. The registration is used for identification when paying taxes or dealing with the police, for example. When you move house, you must fill out another form to make sure that your registration is up to date.
10. Meet other students and make new friends
Don't underestimate the importance of social support in getting you through your PhD! Do take some time to set up a fun social life for yourself in addition to your work. Grad schools make it much easier to meet fellow students, but there are also lots of other ways to make new friends.
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