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Requirements for a PhD at TU9 Universities and the importance of the supervisor



The basic educational qualification for being accepted as a doctoral candidate is a very good master’s degree awarded by an internationally recognised university or equivalent degreeawarding institution. The doctoral candidate is expected to have completed his or her master’s thesis. In some countries, the degree awarded is not called a master’s, but a diploma or Magister (in German) – this is not of great importance as long as it is the highest degree below the PhD in the respective country.


First of all, your degree must be formally recognized by the responsible bodies of the university. In addition, when applying for a Doctoral position, you need to have a written confirmation by a TU9 University professor that he or she is willing to supervise your PhD project. Before you start looking for a supervisor, however, you should find out whether or not your degree can be in principle considered a valid qualification for entry into a PhD programme. Thus we recommend that you get in touch with the International Office of the university and make an informal inquiry to clarify this question. Please enclose your curriculum vitae and copies of your degree certificates and specify the name of your home university and, if you are still a student, the type of degree you are completing. Then, the staff of the International Office can tell you (and your prospective supervisor) whether or not your degree is in principle sufficient.


The importance of the supervisor

The most important requirement of your application for a doctorate is the "Confirmation of Supervision" by a professor of the respective university, i.e. a formal statement that he or she agrees on acting as your supervisor. Your application will only be successful if you have found a supervisor. Thus, the first major task of every prospective doctoral candidate is the search for a suitable supervisor. While your first supervisor needs to be a member of the university where you'd like to conduct your research project, it is possible to name co-supervisors from other universities.



How to find a supervisor?

Every dissertation has to be supervised by a professor of the TU9 University, where you want to write you dissertation; co-supervisors may be professors from other universities. As outlined above, you must be able to name a supervisor early on in the application process. Thus the first major task for every potential PhD candidate is to find a supervisor („Doktor-Vater“ or „Doktor-Mutter“) for his or her research project.

For graduates of the University, it is much more easy to find a supervisor than for candidates from other universities or even other countries – the students from TU9 Universities had the opportunity to get to know their professors in seminars, and in turn, the professors or their assistants were able to get to know the candidate and his or her academic capability, e.g. through term papers or his or her master‘s thesis. Nevertheless, potential candidates from abroad do stand a chance to be accepted as doctoral candidates. In order to be accepted, however, a certain degree of initiative, self-confidence, and skilled self-presentation on the part of the candidate is required. A letter of recommendation by a  member of staff of your university to a (possibly acquainted) TU9 professor would also be very helpful. As an alternative, you could approach and talk to an TU9 professor on a conference. 


How are you to proceed in your search for a supervisor from within your home country?

Here are a few tips:


1st Step: Get some general information.

First, it is useful to collect and review general information on the university. The fact that you are reading the present article shows that you are well on your way. In general, the web pages of the TU9 Universities provide a host of useful information.


2nd Step: Identify a person who is suitable to act as your supervisor and advisor.

You can try to find support for your search for a supervisor e.g. by writing to the faculty in question and asking for assistance. If you do so, you should be very precise with regard to your subject of specialisation and desired research area. If you just state that you want to do a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, for example, this is too imprecise for a contact person to be able to forward your request to a suitable professor or university department.


It is much more expedient and promising, however, to write to a university professor of your choice whom you have carefully selected by closely examining his or her research focuses. The research areas and activities of the university’s chairs and departments are usually described in detail on their web pages, which makes it quite easy for you to identify a university professor who might be suitable to act as your supervisor. Most conveniently, you should start out with the web page providing an overview of the university’s faculties; as you will see, the faculties can be further subdivided into various sections. Here, you can click on the faculty or department in question, and you will be directed to a list of further sub-units such as institutes, chairs, as well as teaching and research areas. Now you can browse through the descriptions of the research activities of those chairs, sections and institutes which you think are best suited to your research interests. Frequently, you will encounter quite explicit information on open PhD positions or proposals on topics for PhD theses. In this way you can find out about the chairs and departments which are concerned with research fields in which you (possibly) have already gained some experience and in which you intend to work in the future.


Usually, due to your education and interests, only one faculty will be of interest to you. If your interests lie at the intersection of subject areas or if you intend to pursue interdisciplinary research work, however, it is possible that you have to take a closer look at several faculties and departments. In the Job database of the university, you find information on paid PhD positions. If you look for a PhD position here, it is still important that you do further research on the chair or department which offers positions of interest to you.

A further way to find a suitable supervisor for your PhD thesis would be to take a closer look at the author profiles in the technical literature of your field of specialisation. If you encounter a research report on a topic which is of especial interest to you, you should gather information on the university or research group the author is affiliated with. In this way, you can find out which university professors might be the most suitable and promising for your intended research project, and it is these professors you
should get in touch with.


3rd Step: Writing a Letter or Email to your Professor of Choice.

If you have found a professor whom you consider well-suited to supervising your thesis, you must contact him or her. But what sort of information has to be included in your email? Most importantly, your letter should demonstrate that you have thoroughly acquainted yourself with the research topics pursued at his or her institute. Think about your situation and your goal: it is your aim to get accepted as a doctoral candidate at a department of your choice. Thus you have to persuade your prospective supervisor
that it is advantageous for him or her to have you in his or her research team. Whether or not the department offers paid PhD positions, your situation is fully analogous to that of an applicant for a job position. First, you have to provide personal data and information on your education – keep it short but informative. Your course of studies and your research focuses should be delineated in detail, and your academic record should be included as well. Of especial interest are information on your research projects and, most importantly, your master’s thesis. Please also provide the most important certificates; if requested, you can add further documents at a later time. Please see to it that you choose adequate file formats for your data, as your email should not get too bulky; emails of several MB in size are quite often considered a nuisance. A good thing to add, of course, are letters of recommendation by your teachers. Internships and job positions should be mentioned as well.


Apart from detailing your educational background and qualification, you should explain your professional aims and research interests. Give a short explanation about why you want to embark upon a PhD project, and specify your reasons for choosing the department or institute in question. If you already have envisaged a topic for your PhD thesis, you should explain it in a few words. If you are still unclear about it, you may ask for a topic, but still you need to demonstrate that you have a clear knowledge of and strong interest in the institute’s research focuses.


Apart from these subject-specific, academic concerns, you need to address issues such as how you intend to finance your living during your PhD project, and whether you have the necessary linguistic skills. If you were able to get hold of a scholarship, say so and also specify a few details such as its value and duration. If you intend to apply or are in the process of applying for a scholarship, you should mention this as well. In this case, the prospective supervisor may agree to accept you on the condition that you will be granted the scholarship. If you aim at securing a paid PhD position or another sort of employment, you should ask whether the institute in question offers job positions for its PhD candidates. As already mentioned above, at least in the fields of engineering and the natural sciences, a large number of PhD candidates are employed by the university. Sometimes, candidates with scholarships may stand a better chance to find a supervisor, but in general, the financial aspect is just one factor among many. Concerning your language skills, you should provide information on your knowledge of German and English; if you are able to speak other languages, say so. If you have any certificates which prove your language capabilities, you should enclose them as well. Further, you should ask about which languages are accepted for the PhD thesis. Frequently, candidates are required to take language classes before they can begin their PhD project.


The reply to your request

Most usually, you will receive a reply to your request quite soon. Sometimes, especially in the holiday season or around Christmas and Easter, you may have to wait a couple of weeks before you receive a reply. Please understand that it is not necessarily the professor who writes to you in reply; often, it is one of his or her employees, such as a workgroup leader, an assistant or a secretary who is responsible for replying to requests such as yours. The reply may be positive or negative, but you also may be asked to submit further documents or provide some more specific information. In case of a negative reply: Please consider that some professors receive several hundred applications and requests per year, and that due to limited capacities, a very strict selection process is being undertaken. Therefore, in case of a negative reply, you should not be disheartened but keep on trying to find another supervisor. On the other hand, it is always useful to stay alert and critically re-examine one’s own position, especially if negative replies keep coming in.

A positive reply can come in so many forms which cannot be discussed in more detail. Please see to it that all open questions are resolved in the reply or in subsequent correspondence. The following matters should be clarified early on in the process: You should have a confirmation that your PhD project is accepted (possibly on certain conditions), the PhD topic should be roughly agreed upon, an agreement concerning finances should have been reached, linguistic requirements and the language of the dissertation should be clarified, and an agreement should have been made regarding potential co-supervisors.


An Alternative: Conducting a limited research study as a first step

If the prospective PhD candidate and his or her supervisor are not acquainted with each other, there remains a quite considerable risk that both parties have mistaken assumptions about each other, which might lead to communicative or inter-personal problems later on. These sort of problems can be prevented by agreeing on an initial, limited cooperation: the prospective supervisor offers the candidate a research project which is limited in scope for the candidate to work on – a project which can be considered a sort of internship at the department. While working on this small-scale project, both parties get to know each other and are then in a better position to agree on whether or not to proceed with a full-fledged PhD project. For the duration of this small-scale research project, the candidate is usually employed as a research assistant on an hourly basis. If the doctoral project does not materialise in the wake of this limited collaborative project, the candidate nevertheless has gained valuable experience during a short-term study period abroad.