PhD reform requires cultural understanding

Despite different forms of organisation and development, doctoral education in Germany and the United States share a goal of socialising students into an academic discipline, and training them to advance knowledge through research conducted in the analytic form of that discipline and to master its specific concepts and language.

In short, they teach students to acquire the characteristics of a particular 'academic tribe' - to simplify a complex process analysed by Tony Becher and Paul Trowler in their 2001 book Academic Tribes and Territories.

In both countries there are similar problems: a long time to degree completion, high opportunity costs in deferred income and family, an attrition rate of possibly 50%, a poor academic job market and difficulty in finding other kinds of employment.

The doctorate in Germany

In Germany a doctoral degree usually confers status, the training distantly reflects 19th century concepts such as self-realisation - Bildung - the association of research and teaching and stimulation to a professional 'calling'.

Now, however, this has been superseded by concerns about the quality of PhDs, particularly in international comparisons, the defamation of the doctorate by recent plagiarism cases, the unwieldiness of the way in which doctoral students are trained, and the pressure to import US ideas of the research university.

With the idea of addressing some of these problems, the German Research Foundation, or DFG, introduced the Graduiertenkolleg - elite graduate institutes within universities, mostly in natural science - in 1990. This was not sufficient to address all the issues.

Therefore in 2005 the German government launched the Excellence Initiative through the DFG and the German Science Council. The call for proposals required applicants to fundamentally rethink how doctoral training is organised, so that Germany could reclaim its pre-eminence in research and research training.

The goal was to create several 'excellent' universities on the US research university model and to create a differentiated German university system. Entire universities as well as university divisions applied in all fields. Eighty-five institutions received awards, and nine were entire universities.

The difference in structure between both the old German doctoral system and Excellence awardees, as well as between Excellence awardees and much of the US doctoral training system, is enormous.

Every aspect of doctoral training has been scrutinised to decrease the time to degree by ensuring students understand expectations, participate in many kinds of professional training and academic support programmes, are supervised by a group of faculty - not just a single thesis director - and acquire the skills necessary for the student's chosen profession after the PhD.

Doctoral degree time is under four years and employment of Excellence graduates is very high. Since the applications were created by graduate faculty, and they themselves designed the programmes, they are committed to it.

Some of the innovations that have emerged lend themselves to being applied to other doctoral training systems both within Germany and in other countries.


While the innovations created under the Excellence Initiative have fostered dynamic intellectual centres and outstanding research, in themselves they are not enough to build a permanent research-intensive university such as Harvard or Berkeley.

The initiative itself raises numerous concerns within Germany.

A hallmark of the university system was that all universities were more or less of equal quality. The Excellence Initiative creates elite institutions that are very expensive, resource intensive and only 10% of German doctoral students participate in them.

Moreover, the funding for them will end in 2017. They have created different classes of faculty and students within the same university at a time when overall university funding has been declining with rising faculty-to-student ratios, out of date facilities, and cutbacks in classes and whole departments.

Sadly the Excellence Initiative reflects a kind of mania with tinkering with German higher education by shaping it based on external models.

This raises questions about why more thought was not given to modifying German institutions rather than supplanting them. It also generates controversy all over Germany itself about what is being done.

Cultural background

A major obstacle to transferring ideas among countries about doctoral education and higher education generally, is that a higher education system reflects the unique cultural values and heritage of the country where it is found.

In Germany and the United States there is substantial confusion about what the one system owes the other. The conditions that gave rise to the US research university simply do not prevail in Germany.

At the same time, many of the ideas put into practice in Excellence centres reflect pragmatic solutions to some of doctoral training's problems and could be adapted to US graduate departments.

In-depth orientation to both a particular graduate programme and its discipline would mitigate a degree of US graduate students' uncertainty and make the process they are entering more transparent.

Other ideas are useful: having an active committee in which the power of the thesis director is shared with one or two others reduces student vulnerability; having a contract between the student and the committee in which the expectations and responsibilities of each are explicit adds to transparency; recognition that doctoral students aspire to a variety of professions and providing the training to make them attractive candidates for employment; and active and conscious mentoring with training for PhD supervisors.

These ideas lend themselves to being applied in another environments because they are straightforward and do not change the essential character of US doctoral programmes.

Neither the German nor the US systems have perfect solutions to broadly mitigate problems with doctoral education. But despite the huge differences in how the systems are conceptualised, they share similar issues.

The Excellence Initiative should be acknowledged for valuable innovations of potentially broad application.

* Anne J MacLachlan is a senior researcher in the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States.