I regularly receive mails asking if I might have an open PhD student or Postdoc position to offer. These mails come from all over the world, and of course it cannot be expected that everybody knows how such positions can be funded in the various countries in the world. To contribute to some better understanding how this works in Germany, I’d like to describe my perspective. This might be different for other disciplines than computer science and can also differ between different universities or even groups.
In contrast to some other countries, PhD students are typically not admitted by a centralized committee and then assigned a supervisor. In contrast, the supervisor is typically the person who selects the PhD student and hires them. There is commonly also not one deadline per year when people apply for grad school. This follows from how PhD students are funded in Germany. There are generally two different ways get money for PhD research work:
- Money from the University
- No money from the University
In the first case, you receive money from the University, you are typically hired as a researcher. Technically, this does not mean that you are hired to do your PhD! It means that you are hired for a job. In the ideal (and typical) situation, your job overlaps to nearly 100% with the work that you need to do for your PhD. But that also depends on where the money comes from.
If your funding comes directly from the University (more concretely, money that a professor or another form of group lead (principle investigator, PI) got from the University to fund their research) the PI is pretty free to decide what the work is about. Often, the PI will give you a lot of freedom, but sometimes they might also micro-manage a PhD student. It really depends on the situation. Make sure that you and your potential supervisor have a similiar opinion on how things work. The university might also require that you need to teach a bit. Sometimes, you also need to do some administrative work. These things should be clarified with the PI and you have some interest to understand what the opinion of the PI is how much time you will have to do research. Most people I know who work as PIs are interested to ensure that you can nearly focus 100% on research, but it’s good to clarify that.
If the money comes from some funding agency, you are paid to do research in a project. If it’s a DFG project (“Sachbeihilfe”), you are supposed to nearly do research only. The DFG does allow that you do some teaching, but that’s actually limited by them to ensure that you focus on the research. DFG money is typically a very good funding source, because there is not too much overhead in reporting. The money could also come from EU or BMBF (or some foundations) and the situations depend on the concrete project. Often, there is more interaction with other project partners involved than in DFG project, but that also really depends on the concrete project.
Depending on the discipline, it is sometimes common to give 50%, 65%, or 75% project position to PhD students. The argument is sometimes, that a PhD thesis is not project work, and if the project work takes 100% of a persons time, there would not be enough time to work on the PhD. This situation is one reason for the outcry by German researchers who complain about problematic working environments (see an article about #ichbinhanna) This is something that a PI can barely change, despite the fact that ideally the research in the project is actually the content of the PhD work. In computer sciences, it is common to get a 100% position for PhD students.
If you are funded by the University, from a project or directly with money from the PI/institution, the PI will likely publish a job post on mailing lists, the university’s career page, or in social media. It might make sense to ask a PI with whom you would like to work with where they publish their calls, and if they expect to publish something soon. It probably does not make sense to ask “do you currently have an open position” – it’s typically just not very likely that this is the case.
In the second case mentioned above, you are not funded by the university. That possibility exists because technically doing the PhD and working as a researcher at a University are two different things. You could work at a company and enroll at the University as a student to work on the PhD, you could receive some scholarship from some source (e.g., DAAD), or you even work at some other university as a project member or researcher. In such cases, it makes sense that you just contact a potential supervisor at some university. You could tell them that you work on X and that this fits well to their work. You could ask them if they would be willing to guide them in the PhD process. Depending on the situation of the PI, they might have the capacity to do that or not. But please, write this mail especially for this person – don’t send the same mail to many people without making clear that you really selected this person carefully. Sometimes I receive such mails with the wrong name in the opening - that’s annoying and not likely to be answered.
As a postdoc, the situation is mostly the same: You can work funded by the University directly, by a project or by a scholarship. In addition, you could write your own project proposal to fund yourself. If that’s something that you want to do, you could contact a person you would like to work with. They would probably know how to fund people and guide you in the process of applying for money for a position. However, note that this process takes time. Preparing a grant proposal easily takes half a year, followed by at least half a year until you receive a decision. If that’s something that you want to do, talk to people very, very early.
I am not a full professor, so I am the wrong person to ask ;-). I found, however, this page quite nice, which explains the situation in Bavaria, but I think that’s not very different in other states in Germany (despite that some people will now make the joke that Bavaria is indeed very different from the rest of Germany).
To understand the academic ranks in Germany, this Wikipedia page might be helpful.