How is Columbia's math graduate program

PhD in the USA: The university invests in me here

Almost exactly a year ago I decided not to do my doctorate in Germany. Instead, I have agreed to participate in a doctoral program in the USA. It wasn't difficult for me to turn my back on German universities.

Of course, I was drawn to the wide world and the reputation of the American university appealed to me. It was also important to be able to work with leading scientists in my field around the world during my doctorate. Ultimately, however, I made my decision because the American doctoral system is superior to the German in many aspects. And that applies not only to private US universities, but also to state universities.

First of all, I would have to apply directly to a professor for a doctoral position in Germany, often even for a narrowly defined research project. As a result, I am completely dependent on this one professor: because he pays my salary, he ultimately also determines how I research and which methods I use, how much I teach and what preparatory work I have to do for him. Such things can be agreed in advance, but often enough the professor does not stick to these agreements. That's why I've often been advised to get on well with a professor so that he will later protect me and support me in my further career.

Doing a doctorate in Germany often takes place in hierarchical structures, and scientific careers are difficult to plan. Clubbing is not uncommon at universities. In the USA, on the other hand, you apply for doctoral programs without having to decide on a particular professor. Instead, I can see in advance which professors are associated with the program and whether they are suitable as PhD supervisors or mothers.

In addition, the program has a fixed structure: Before it starts, I know exactly what I'm getting myself into, which courses I have to take in the first year and which other obligations I have to face. Financially, I am less dependent on a single person. My salary is paid through the program for the first few years and only afterwards through the work supervisor.

Germany has now reacted and in many subjects graduate schools (graduate schools), which are based on the Anglo-Saxon doctoral model. Undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but the graduate schools do not solve all German problems.

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In Germany, for example, three years are provided for a doctorate, and accordingly scholarships are paid for a maximum of three years. In the USA, on the other hand, the standard time for a doctorate is five years. Of course, it is advantageous to complete a doctorate quickly in order to advance academically. In most subjects, however, it is difficult to complete a well-rounded, publication-ready project in three years. I myself know of several doctoral students who had to continue working after three years without financial support and without official doctoral status.

German graduate schools not only set a shorter research period than American ones. As a rule, they also do without the first year in the USA, which is devoted to planning the dissertation project and building relationships at the faculty. For example, you complete several internships (rotations) in self-selected working groups and can thus approach a group for a few weeks without obligation or simply learn a certain scientific method. This also creates a competitive situation among professors. You have to take care of the students so as not to end up without PhD students.

My professors respect me as a scientist. I am doing my doctorate on an equal footing with them. I choose my topic myself, I am paid generously and equipped with first class equipment. I have the feeling that the university is investing in me instead of seeing myself as a cost factor or as cheap labor that you can fob off with half a job, as is common in Germany.

All of this makes it much easier to achieve top performance. German universities still have some catching up to do.

Felix Baier studied biology and philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and then obtained a master's degree from Columbia University in New York. He is currently doing his PhD in molecular biology in a PhD program at Harvard University.