Related to my questions:

  1. How much knowledge is expected of a PhD applicant as compared to a postdoc or a research assistant?

  2. For the average pure math US PhD program, what are essential topics after basics topics of complex analysis, abstract algebra and topology?

The question from quora Why would a professor want a Ph.D student instead of a research staff? What are the advantages and disadvantages? is answered mostly by US or US-style professors. I would like to know the European or European-style take on this.

My ultimate goal is to understand Country A (see here or here) which seems European-style. You can go on about how academia varies and how I won't gain much understanding, but please answer the question also.


2 Answers 2


Well, I'm a German professor in CS - my answer is biased by those facts. Some might be generalized, though. Some answers are based on German employment rules in the public sector and those will most likely be specific to Germany.

Usually, contracts in the public sector are either permanent (hooray!) or temporary positions. We have a law stating (simplified version) that you are not allowed to be employed more than 12 years in temporary contracts (if you want to know more look for the "Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz" - we love those words!)

Another rule is, that for "permanent tasks" you should have a permanent position whilst for temporary / project-style jobs you can hire people in temporary positions.

To make things even more complicated: A university / department usually has both types of positions and can distribute them among researchers and central administration.

If the university does not have enough positions available, you have to acquire third party funding. This is by definition project related and therefore temporary.

This brings me to the following:

  • In general, I would love to have research staff - but resources are limited and usually you don't have too many available.
  • If I acquire third party funding, it is just available during the project duration - in good cases this is long enough for a PhD candidate to finish a PhD thesis (in the field of the project).
  • If the project ends without the PhD candidate being finished, I usually try to apply for a follow-up project which helps funding the candidate. Since I want successful PhDs afterwards, this is a top priority - and induces some stress on professors.
  • Yes, I could hire someone without intention to do a PhD or even a postdoc, but at least in CS industry is paying that much better, that the possible PhD is the only chance to motivate highly skilled people for this salary (which is ok, but less than in industry).
  • This brings me to the last point: Motivation! A PhD candidate is not only interested in the project but in his/her PhD as well. So they are usually quite motivated and it is more fun to work with motivated people.

Things are a bit different if you are in a graduate program, but most of what I wrote above still applies.

To add a few words on the comment of Monika:

  • At least in Germany you cannot fire a PhD student at any time since you are usually having a labour contract.
  • I agree that there might be strong tensions when a permanent position becomes available and it is open who might get it. But permanent positions in research are quite rare nowadays in Germany so it does not happen that often.

Added after OPs remark:

In fact the situation for postdocs is or less the same: Usually you don't have the funding to support a postdoc for a longer period of time. With this, it is questionable why a postdoc would like to work in such an environment. Doing a habilitation / postdoc-phase and preparing for a full professorship could be a very good motivation as well. The tasks for a postdoc are usually different from the ones for PhD candidates: As postdoc, you want to demonstrate that you are capable of running a group - which involves writing grants, guiding PhD candidates, involvement in teaching, etc. Depending on your field it allows you to do original independent research for the first time (e.g. in medicine in Germany). So if you are looking for such a person in your group, a postdoc is great, but usually most funding schemes are more hands on and so it is difficult to get funding for a postdoc, unless you are having very large funding schemes.

  • OBu thank you, but I think my question was somehow wrong. I meant to ask why get PhD students instead of seeking those who already have PhDs? This is in hopes to address the issue of motivation in the fourth bullet point.
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 9:02
  • 1
    I added a paragraph on postdocs... Thanks for the clarification!
    – OBu
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 10:40
  • Ah, so your part of the answer on postdocs is like Alexey B.'s answer except you give the reason why the source of funding may allow? My guess for that was legal obligations. As it turns out, it's to do with the size of the fund?
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 10:51
  • 1
    Problem 1 is the 12 year period for postdocs unless you can offer a permanent position, the other is the grant size. So the legal argument is still valid (and can be a major problem, e.g. when you've been in academia until you are close to 50 and you have to look for a job in industry then).
    – OBu
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 11:08
  • So the rationale for the legal obligation that the funding will go to PhD students is to avoid those kinds of 40-year olds?
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 11:09

Because a particular source of funding may allow to only get a phd student.

  • Oh you mean some source will give funding for only PhD students therefore professors can afford and want to get research staff, but they are legally bound by the contract of the funding not to do so? Why exactly would a source do that? Is the source from government or something who hopes to produce more PhDs? I guess that would explain that Country A PhD Fellowship Scheme.
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 9:03
  • @JackBauer In a way. There are grants and funding schemes that are specifically meant for PhD students. Sometimes, it is the prof or department who "have" the money, but they don't get full control of the money and can only use it to pay stipend and tuition fees (if any) for a student of their choice. And sometimes it is the student who "has" the money, in which case it does not even remotely belong to the prof.
    – Alexey B.
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 15:55

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