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Impact on doctoral training

The Excellence Initiative has changed doctoral training and the framework for doctoral training at German universities quite substantially. In the graduate school funding line several successful applications aimed at changes in the doctoral training regime for the university as a whole. The main objective was to harmonise procedures and raise the overall quality of doctoral programmes. Other graduate schools focus on selecting candidates that show potential to stimulate research in the participating departments and research groups.

The right to confer doctoral degrees usually lies with the university departments. This has created a situation in which universities have a number of doctoral study statutes, and the university management is not in a position to set common quality standards. This can pose problems, for example, for doctoral students with trans-departmental research topics, so that more than one doctoral study statute applies. Further, doctoral students have historically been quite dependent on their supervisors and receive little additional support from central university services. Most doctoral students at German universities contribute directly to their supervisors’ research by carrying out a specific project or being assigned to a project team. Supervisors often chose their doctoral students without any formal application and selection procedure, which limited getting the best-qualified candidates for doctoral training. Furthermore, there were few checks and balances to ensure that supervisors supported the research independence of their doctoral students and post-docs in order to help develop their full scientific potential.

Many university managements were well aware of the shortcomings of past doctoral training. Since the 1990s efforts were made to modernise doctoral studies through the introduction of structured doctoral programmes such as the DFG RTG scheme. However, most of these initiatives remained firmly within traditional departmental structures. This changed with the Excellence Initiative. The funding concept for graduate schools specifically asks for implementation of the planned activities in at least one broad branch of science, which usually includes several university departments. This implies transdepartmental co-ordination and adaptation of doctoral training principles and procedures.

Some universities had developed plans for a trans-departmental or even universitywide graduate school before the start of the Excellence Initiative. Some of these early initiatives failed, however, as departments were reluctant to support the idea of a centralised statute for doctoral studies. They wanted to maintain their authority and their autonomy to set their own standards without what they considered undue interference by the university management.

The large sums of money held out by the graduate school scheme allowed universities to present the departments with more appealing incentives for their underlying objectives. The link between doctoral training structures and services and an innovative transdepartmental research programme proved attractive to many departments. In the process of preparing and implementing their graduate school concepts some universities clustered departmental competences and defined new trans-departmental priority research areas. As a positive side effect of these activities, the level of collaboration between departments increased substantially. At the same time it became possible to introduce common standards and central support services for doctoral training in participating departments while responsibility for scientific training and academic supervision remained vested in the departments.

Usually the graduate schools standardised the application and selection procedure for candidates on a competitive basis. There is a clear emphasis on selecting the most qualified applicants. Some graduate schools look particularly for candidates that come with innovative, self-defined doctoral projects that fit in the overall research profile of the participating departments. A grant scheme is also part of the graduate schools as are specific support measures for post-docs.

Many universities with graduate schools have also started to harmonise their doctoral study statutes. Many of the new statutes include a requirement for structured doctoral training and at least two academic supervisors from different areas of research. Some graduate schools introduced fast-track schemes that allow qualified bachelor graduates to enter the doctoral programme directly.

Among the services offered to doctoral students are generic skills training and doctoral pre-training courses such as how to write a good research proposal or how to become a good reviewer. Besides the focus on research, some models also aim to provide experience in teaching. Other concepts include mentoring and career support services after completion of the doctoral programme. The doctoral students usually receive the support they need and want. There are hardly any fixed curricula that force doctoral students into courses they do not want. However, graduate schools do set minimal requirements for participation in doctoral programmes. In one case the minimum requirements are that the doctoral students shall have submitted at least one scientific article, attended one international conference and participated in one summer school.

A considerable number of universities have set up graduate study centres that serve the university as a whole. These centres serve as umbrellas for the graduate schools and other settings of structured doctoral training at the universities with a view to establishing and maintaining overall quality standards for doctoral studies. In clusters of excellence and institutional strategies as well, a considerable share of funding can be earmarked for the training and career development of early-stage researchers.

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