S harpening the Profile of DFG's Graduiertenkollegs

Since their arrival on Germany's educational landscape in 1990, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) supported Graduiertenkollegs ( research training groups) have proved to be a successful model for promoting excellence in science. In fact, other German research organizations and universities (the International Max Planck Research Schools, for example) have adopted this model in developing their own innovative mechanisms to promote the careers of junior scientists.

Clearly, Graduiertenkollegs have had an impact: About 10% of all German Ph.D. students are now enrolled in 1 of the 277 current Graduiertenkollegs, with DFG * pumping about ?72 million into them in 2002.

But, despite its evident success, DFG announced last week that it is planning a major overhaul of the Graduiertenkollegs programme. Taking effect with the next application deadline of 1 April 2003, the changes aim to further sharpen the Graduiertenkollegs' profile by bolstering their innovative character, tightening their focus on research subjects and scientific excellence, and promoting deeper international co-operation.

"The DFG wants to readjust the Graduiertenkolleg programme, because it needs to meet the changing demands for Ph.D.-trained scientists," says DFG's coordinator of the Graduiertenkolleg programme, Robert Paul Königs, referring to the fact that Ph.D. training has become even more important in regard to Germany's new junior professorships.

But the importance of a Ph.D. for a future academic career is only one of the factors driving change in the Graduiertenkolleg programme. Königs says that because a number of other programmes have adopted many of the innovations introduced by the Graduiertenkollegs, the overhaul is necessary to continue to "attract outstanding Ph.D. candidates to a research career." Additionally, DFG is alarmed by the shortage of Ph.D. students in a number of disciplines, especially engineering and the natural sciences.

The anticipated changes are to improve the experiences of Ph.D. students going through the Graduiertenkollegs. In the future, DFG will require a tighter scientific, but nevertheless still innovative, focus for each individual Graduiertenkolleg. This might be achieved, for example, by reducing the number of senior scientists who participate ( see box).

DFG also intends to reinforce the internationalisation of the Graduiertenkollegs programme. According to DFG's press release, "international visibility and cooperation should be trademarks for each individual Kolleg." Currently, DFG classifies 26 of the Graduiertenkollegs as being international, meaning they not only involve German partners but also universities in France, the Netherlands, or other countries. DFG is planning to increase this number.

Graduiertenkollegs that meet these new regulations will win big financially. But, in addition to higher budgets for materials and equipment, DFG's revamped programme will also fund 1-semester sabbatical leaves for professors who wish to intensify their involvement in a Graduiertenkolleg.

Other DFG Actions

On a different matter, DFG will lobby the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion to introduce greater flexibility into Ph.D. stipends. Currently, monthly Ph.D. stipends in Graduiertenkollegs start at ?921 plus a family allowance. Compared to industry salaries, this is not competitive. And it is increasingly less competitive with other Ph.D. student support schemes, both in Germany and internationally. By offering higher stipends--particularly in fields such as the natural sciences and engineering, which tend to lose many students to industry or other nonresearch jobs--DFG hopes to encourage more students to enter the Graduiertenkollegs and to stay in science.

In addition, DFG also intends to introduce more flexibility for the hosting universities. Under the current regulations, Graduiertenkollegs can be funded only for an initial 3-year period, with extensions of up to a total of 9 years possible upon positive evaluation after the first phase. From April 2003 on, this initial phase will be extended to 4 1/2 years. By moving the evaluation ahead by 1 1/2 years, DFG is adding heft to assessment in the area of doctoral education, simply because it will begin only after a number of students have already graduated from the programme. This change accommodates a request that many of the Graduiertenkollegs have been making for years. And it will benefit future Ph.D. students by placing additional emphasis on the actual evaluation they receive.

The new regulations will also change the focus of DFG's application review. In particular, DFG's granting committee will take a closer look at the general environment in which the potential Graduiertenkolleg would be embedded--not only the research activities but also the mentoring and counselling services that would be available to students. And DFG will evaluate institutional infrastructure and special support schemes offered by a university for Ph.D. candidates and visiting scientists from other countries. Moreover, the proposal's general support by the host university will be necessary in order to get an application approved.

Although DFG is anticipating positive reactions from the universities, the revamp is waiting for its final blessing: Next week, the German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat)'--its opinion is highly regarded as a seal of scientific excellence--will officially comment on the new Graduiertenkolleg regulations.

DFG is a sponsor of Next Wave Germany.

Graduiertenkollegs = Graduate Schools?

Not quite. Germany's academic world is structured differently than the so-called Anglo-Saxon educational system is. There's no distinction between undergraduate and graduate schools, as there is elsewhere. And although bachelor's and master's degrees have recently been (re-)introduced to Germany, a different system still prevails. Whereas students holding a bachelor's degree in Anglo-Saxon countries can pursue either a master's or a Ph.D. in graduate school, German students need to complete a "Diplom" or a "Magister" degree (both the equivalent of a master's) before they can begin work on their Ph.D. theses. Another significant difference is that the standards required of Ph.D. students in Germany vary greatly, both in terms of the admission requirements and the breadth and depth of the thesis project.

Graduiertenkollegs: A Definition

To provide support for excellent junior scientists early on in their careers, DFG established funds to support the so-called Graduiertenkollegs (Research Training Groups) back in 1990. The main objectives of the Graduiertenkolleg are to provide both a vibrant research programme and a supportive environment in which young scientists can complete their Ph.D. theses. A typical Graduiertenkolleg has 15 to 25 Ph.D. students mentored by 8 to 12 faculty members of one or several universities.

Faculty members submitting Graduiertenkollegs proposals to DFG must define their research subjects (Graduiertenkollegs are open to all fields of research, but interdisciplinary approaches are encouraged) and the support structures available to Ph.D. candidates. Universities must endorse and submit the proposals to DFG. Through a competitive central peer-review process, the proposals are evaluated and the best are selected. The reviewing committees make their decisions based on the criteria of scientific excellence, the suitability of the study programmes, and the available infrastructure in each case.

Further information is available here (HTML in German)and here (PDF in English).

 

Graduiertenkollegs: Benefiting Ph.D. Students

If funding for a Graduiertenkolleg is approved by DFG, it will provide financial support for Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowships, research materials, visiting scientists, travel expenses, and programme co-ordination. Typical Ph.D. fellowships in a Graduiertenkolleg last 3 years (2 years initially, plus a 1-year extension).

Besides working on their Ph.D. projects, students in Graduiertenkollegs receive additional training to improve their scientific methods, encourage their mobility, and provide transferable skills.

The Graduiertenkollegs' structure benefits all sides. As a recent survey shows, graduates from Graduiertenkollegs are better trained than average Ph.D. graduates are, and Graduiertenkollegs help strengthen the research profiles of the universities that host them.

Students interested in joining a Graduiertenkolleg apply directly to that Graduiertenkolleg. Upon acceptance, they can expect a monthly stipend of at least ?921. (See DFG Web site for further information about funding and for a list, updated monthly, of all Graduiertenkollegs.