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The Grad Abroad: Doing Your Ph.D. in Germany

There is no tuition; there is very good bread.

October 6, 2019
 
 

Riley Linebaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Follow her @rileysline.

In 2016, I moved to Giessen, Germany to start a Ph.D. in history. Giessen is a small university town in Hessen, a 40-minute train ride away from Frankfurt, the closest big city. Though originally from the great (lakes) state of Michigan, I moved away from the U.S. several years before coming to Giessen and picked up a German beau along the way. Though love may have been my initial reason for an otherwise unthinkable move, I have encountered many more since, the most compelling of which I’d like to share with you.

This list is informed by my own experiences, and for every reason described here there are dozens of counterpoints. I write remembering my former self who, internet illiterate and amid the confusion of choosing how to live life, looked to Google to solve problems such as: “Should I move to Germany to do my Ph.D.?” No oracle, Google failed to provide me with any conclusive answer. Fair enough. At any rate, here’s a few considerations for those with a similar question.

There are no tuition fees in Germany. This is relevant to anyone considering any course of study, not only at the Ph.D. level. After years of amassing debt on top of debt, the absence of tuition is among the largest appeals to study in Germany. Of course, other countries offer tuition-free enrollment, but to a U.S. American, the availability of English-language instruction is fairly unique to German universities, especially at the graduate level. When I applied for my program, I simultaneously applied for a scholarship, which is now my primary source of income. In addition to scholarships, which are awarded by the German government, foundations or research institutes, many students finance their studies by working part-time as a research assistant or by working within university administration. Though the amounts awarded by either scholarship or part-time work might appear low through U.S. American eyes, they are appropriate for the cost of living in a land where rent, beer and bread are humanely priced.

Universities offer a (somewhat) easy path to residence. If you’re interested in moving to Germany, doing so at the start of a degree program offers a clearer track if you don’t have access to residency status otherwise. If you’re able to secure a scholarship or paid position, you are not obliged to prove maintenance funds/savings to justify your move, which was a relief for my broke ass. Now that I’m here, I’m eligible for a job-seekers visa after completing my Ph.D. in case I’m interested in looking for further employment in the country. None of these processes are easy per se, but after experiencing the hostile academic border regime of the U.K. even as a highly privileged U.S. passport holder, the German system is bearable. Considering that many academics lose the ability to freely choose the place where they live in the post-Ph.D. hustle, the moment of starting a doctoral program is still a time when you can exert control over such a life-altering decision.

Physical relocation produces new mental geographies. As a student of the humanities, following the discursive shifts after my move to Germany has both opened my mind as a scholar and enforced new appreciation of my homegrown knowledge. For example, my studies in the U.S. previously neglected the work and legacies of the Frankfurt School, and it has been useful to think in an environment that deals critically, not condescendingly, with Marx-inspired social theorists and practitioners. My topic deals with [post]colonial histories related to Kenya and Great Britain, making Germany an unlikely but surprisingly advantageous research home. I am closer in proximity to both the U.K. and Kenya, which makes last-minute visits to the British National Archives possible and not so environmentally devastating.

However, the greatest advantage I have as a foreigner doing research about other foreign lands is that I have the constant mind-set, and sometimes the embarrassment of a novice. David Sedaris has written extensively (and hilariously) about how infantilizing it can be as a grown-up learning a new language, barely capable of basic expression. Ignorance not just of language but the fundamental aspects of German life (in which of the dozen bins should this recyclable item be disposed!) positions me as a beginner. Humility, not to be confused with the impostor syndrome, is a welcomed condition in an environment which tends to reward self-identified exceptionalism.

Castles, Beer and Bread -- or -- Techno, Club-Mate and Döner Kebab. Among the reasons I will likely forfeit a long-term academic career is my commitment to free time, and there are many pleasurable -- and affordable -- ways to freely pass time in Germany. There are those which we already know about, thanks to certain stereotypes: the dreamy castles, the perfected beers, the best bread in the world (fact). My favored delicacies, however, include carbonated Mate soda, the vast world of electronic music and Turkish fast food, preferably enjoyed in succession. The struggle to establish a functional work-life balance persists in Germany, but I would argue to a lesser extent than as experienced by my U.S. American colleagues. This is partly due to broader structural and cultural differences on how labor laws are enforced, the expectations of the role work plays in life and partly due to the lack of course work in a German Ph.D. program (doctoral students must have completed a master’s, which stands in for the work of the first one to two years of a U.S. doctoral program).

I could, and might still, just as easily write about reasons not to consider doing a Ph.D. in Germany. If you’re seriously considering moving abroad for any reason, Ph.D. or otherwise, you’re surely already aware of some of the difficulties you might face. There might not be an easy answer regarding where to move to begin your Ph.D., but there’s no wrong answer, either.

Have you pursued an international academic career? What has your experience been like?

[Opening screenshot by author; GIF from GIPHY shared using their community guidelines]

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