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I'm currently applying for a Ph.D in Germany. Next week I'm sitting down with my potential Ph.D advisor to have a talk about the program.

Currently I'm collecting questions about things like

  • teaching duties included?
  • working hours
  • what's the salary?
  • vacation?
  • budget for conferences?

I think I'm missing some important stuff.

My real question is: What should I ask my potential Ph.D advisor in advance, before actually signing a contract / starting?

(The question What questions should one ask to the former/current students of a professor before deciding whether to do PhD under him/her? is related, but I feel it doesn't fit my situation)

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How will paper authorship be handled? (Who is listed as an author, what order will the names appear in) –  mhwombat Jun 9 at 12:09
What courses are you required to pass? –  Alexandros Jun 9 at 12:22
Is your question specifically about administrative points? I would think a good portion of the first discussion with your prospective advisor should be on scientific aspects (e.g., what's her/his ambitions about your potential contribution to the field). Bombing your prospective advisor of questions about holidays etc. will not necessarily be at your advantage. –  Jigg Jun 9 at 13:31
@Jigg I strongly disagree. Administrative matters need to be discussed before the contract is signed. –  xLeitix Jun 9 at 14:54
Release clause!! I cannot stress enough.. Release clause!!! But it would have to be in the correct light -- you don't plan on abandoning ship but if you were to due to extenuating circs, then how is that handled? I have seen grad students sign contracts and then eventually suffer due to no release clause. Of course, most contracts are "at will" but you don't want to be unsure if you are signing a CONTRACT. –  drN Jun 9 at 18:20

3 Answers 3

I would add:

  • What the average time-to-PhD is, and how many percent roughly drop out (although this is a question that is much better asked to other PhD students, as you may easily hear somewhat "tuned" numbers here)
  • Paper authorship policy (via mhwombat's comment) - however, note that theory and practice may diverge quite strongly in this topic. This is again something better asked the colleagues.
  • Grant / project duties - if you are e.g., paid by an FP7 or H2020 project, your project work may cost you much more time than teaching duties
  • Administrative duties
  • How free you will be in choosing whom to collaborate with, and what topics to collaborate on
  • Whether you will be required to work on other projects on the side (e.g., consulting work, paid research, etc.)
  • Whether you will be expected to help with writing grant proposals (time sink number one if yes)
  • Whether there is a culture for working from home
  • What office / lab space you will get, how many other students you share it with
  • Whether it will be possible for you to do an internship, e.g., over the summer.

There may be more. I will extend the list once I remember more important things.

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Senior PhD students should be involved in grant writing. I would see this as a positive not a negative. In fact, no responsibility to help with grant writing would be a big negative for me. I don't think a student should be required to do the bulk of the work, but students who have seen the process before are much better prepared to work on grants after they graduate. –  Bill Barth Jun 9 at 16:58
@BillBarth Fair enough. It is still something to clarify. –  xLeitix Jun 9 at 17:43
Agreed, and +1. –  Bill Barth Jun 9 at 18:36

In addition to xLeitix's list, here are a few more considerations:

  • With whom in the group will you be directly interacting?
  • How often can you expect to be able to meet with the institute leader, as well as your direct supervisor?
  • What are the expectations for you to be able to graduate (paper output, etc.)

To directly answer two of your questions:

  • Vacation time is regulated by German law. You should expect to be able to take between 5 and 6 weeks of vacation per year, with the amount of time escalating with age. This should be in addition to the official holidays. How your advisor expects you to take the time, however, may be a suitable subject for discussion.

  • Salary depends on your funding source and field. If you are funded as a standard Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter (academic employee), then your salary and benefits are calculated according to Group E13 of the TV-L scheme. Your salary will be some percentage of this—typically 50% or 100%, depending on field. Presuming you have not been employed full-time for at least a year somewhere prior to beginning your position, you will probably start at TV-L 13/1. (Note, however, that this determination is largely made by the HR staff at the university; a professor can recommend a higher starting position with a valid reason.)

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There was a recent-ish court case (*Bundesarbeitsgericht Aktenzeichen: 9 AZR 529/10) that declared the practice of awarding more vacation time purely on an age basis "discriminatory". Last I checked, the practical meaning wasn't decided from a legal perspective, but the obvious solution would be give everybody the full 6 weeks. –  Livius Jun 9 at 22:25
Also, the question of contractual vacation time versus actually finding time to take it is a serious issue. If you can demonstrate that you were unable to take your full vacation, then the university is required to financially compensate you for that time, but that's a big if and a big mess in terms of paperwork. –  Livius Jun 9 at 22:27

If you are interviewing for a Ph.D. position in Germany, the supervisor will probably already know what you will be working on, since he will have gotten a grant on some particular topic, and you will be the warm body to actually do the work. So, in addition to everything else already mentioned:

  • What is the specific project that will pay your salary? Can the supervisor send you a copy of the successful grant proposal? Read that proposal carefully, especially concerning any timetables and financial information.

  • How much leeway will you have in actually implementing the grant proposal?

  • Presumably, the grant proposal builds on previous work by the supervisor's working group. Can you talk to current Ph.D. students working on the topic? What are the specific challenges in this topic? Would it be possible to get any additional information, like manuscripts? Will you have to take over existing stuff, like experiments that are already running, or legacy code (which pretty much nobody wants)?

The goal would be to get a feeling for the topic you will be working on for the next couple of years. Will this be something you can get sufficiently excited about?

And of course there are additional questions. In no particular order:

  • What kind of supporting infrastructure is in place? Is there a full-time sysadmin, or will you keep your IT running by yourself? Is there a statistician to help you with data analysis? Somebody technical to keep the apparatuses running? Someone to feed the lab rats? Or will all this be your responsibility?

  • If you are interested in this kind of thing: is there a possibility for you to work in a different lab for a few months, perhaps abroad? This kind of thing can be enormously valuable for your network.

@aeismail already mentioned asking how often you will meet with your supervisor, and I think this is one of the most important questions. If your supervisor tells you that he meets with each and every Ph.D. student once a week for half an hour, great. If you only meet once a semester when you give a seminar talk... not so great.

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+1 for supporting infrastructure. There's a reason why getting your doctorate at the one of the MPIs takes less time than at a normal university. While doing all the support work is valuable experience, it also has a profound effect on workload. –  Livius Jun 9 at 22:29

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