I am a master’s student (physics) in the US, and I am applying to this PhD position in Germany. This is what the application website says:

Please apply online and provide a cover letter next to a CV in English, as well as your work certificates in one single pdf-file.

I just want to make sure what “work certificate” means. Is that just transcript/enrollment certificate from my master’s and bachelor’s university?

  • 2
    could it mean "work" as in paid employment? Why not ask them?
    – Solar Mike
    Mar 1, 2020 at 8:00
  • 1
    They need letters of reference to be able to recognize relevant work experience when they calculate your salary according to the TVL tables.
    – user9482
    Mar 2, 2020 at 8:51
  • @Roland: Yes, but that will be after the job offer, not for the application.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 2, 2020 at 9:22
  • 1
    @Wrzlprmft Our administration asks for them for the application and that's their main use (if the applicant is international).
    – user9482
    Mar 2, 2020 at 10:12
  • 1
    The weird translation makes a bit more sense when you think of the Ph.D. as what it is - paid employment as a junior researcher. So, certificates of previous relevant work.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 2, 2020 at 12:41

4 Answers 4


German here.

I guess that's just a questionable translation of the standard German phrase Arbeitszeugnis (pl.: "-se"), Arbeit=work and Zeugnis=certificate, diploma.

In business, Arbeitszeugnisse would mean a collection of diplomae, plus (relevant) testimonials from your former employers, or qualification certificates.

In your case, it'll probably a small collection, maybe just the diploma. That's absolutely fine at this point of your career. But if you already happen to have some experience as a lab/teaching assistant, or have worked in a related industry branch during non-term, providing some evidence might be a bonus.

  • 12
    Nitpicking: certificates such as diplomas, PhD certificate etc. are not Arbeitszeugnisse (they are Prüfungszeugnisse, literally translated "exam certificates"). Mar 1, 2020 at 16:23
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX Yes, but aren't those often included in the Arbeitszeugnis? As in, the latter being abused as an umbrella term for both?
    – Mast
    Mar 2, 2020 at 7:43
  • 3
    @Mast: never heard of that - if, to me the umbrella term is "Zeugnisse" or even "alle Zeugnisse". We may get more insight at de.sx, though. Mar 2, 2020 at 8:24

As @jvb said, "work certificate" is the somewhat unlucky attempt to translate the German Arbeitszeugnis.

The closest to Arbeitszeugnisse you probably have are letters of recommendation. So, I'd hand in the letters of recommendation and explain in the cover letter that in the US instead of Arbeitszeugnisse, letters of recommendation are used.

If you get the type of recommendation that is not handed to you but rather sent directly to the university where you apply, put that into the cover letter including of whom they are to expect such letters (maybe email with them how to deal with this situation – it may be that they nevertheless want you to provide that letters of recommendation and you can then show this request to your recommending professor).

I'd expect an academic employer looking into hiring a fresh Master from the US to know that you won't have any Arbeitszeugnisse. A German applicant with fresh master’s applying for a PhD position will often not have any meaningful Arbeitszeugnisse either: most of them haven’t worked relevant jobs (and even if you have the right to get one, a student typically won’t ask for an Arbeitszeugnis at the pub where they had a student’s waiter job, unless that’s relevant for their field of study) – at this stage, the academic certificates and possibly your master thesis are more important.

Arbeitszeugnisse become more important once you have professional experience: when your PhD is 10 years old, the Arbeitszeugnis will tell a prospective employer whether you settled down or are still strongly looking into.

There are differences between US letters of recommendation and the German Arbeitszeugnis, you can read more on The Workplace

  • In Germany every employee has the right to get an Arbeitszeugnis whenever they leave an employer (you can also apply for intermediate ones).
  • The Arbeitszeugnis has to be true but also positive and there are tons of law suits about them. This has lead to standard phrases with somewhat hidden meaning.
  • The Arbeitszeugnis certifies at the very least that you worked for that employer from $startdate till $enddate, and what your job was. You can use it as proof of professional experience.
  • Usually it also certifies particularly important work techniques that you used, and gives a “grading” at how good you were at your job and in a variety of job-related social skills.
  • I gather that US letters of recommendation are sent to the prospective institution without the candidate ever seeing them. The German Arbeitszeugnis (or also letters of recommendation as English language replacement for Arbeitszeugnis) is always handed to the [former] employee, and the employee is expected to check whether they think it is correct and possibly ask for changes.

    (I recently got one and the procedure was: PI: “Here’s the draft, please have a look whether you’d like to have any changes.” → some changes → PI: I’ve sent it to $big_boss for signature.” → some weeks later received snail-mail on fancy paper with big signatures.)

  • I'm not sure, if I would classify "work certificate" as an unlucky attempt of translation. If the purpose of the text were attracting students specifically from the US, they should have asked for letters of recommendation. Applicants from elsewhere, let's say Macedonia, Cameroun or China, might have no trouble with understanding "work certificate" - or consider both "work certificate" and "letter of recommendation" bizarre. The university wants documents that resemble a German "Arbeitszeugnis". Mar 2, 2020 at 19:47

As already mentioned, work certificate is a blunt translation of Arbeitszeugnis (reference letter). It is a standard thing to require for regular employments in Germany. The quoted sentence looks as if some bureaucrat bluntly translated the boilerplate of a regular German job ad into English and lacked the experience to adapt it to an international audience.

What is important for you is that German applications usually come with the pertinent certificates, references, etc. for every major item on your CV. This will usually be your bachelor’s and master’s transcripts and diplomas (if already available). This may imply letters of recommendation, if not mentioned otherwise in the job ad; however before you waste time on this, I would just ask them. If you spent any extended time of your life doing something other than studying and you already have a certificate for this, you might as well include it, but I wouldn’t worry about organising anything before you got an offer (see below). For example, my applications never included my poster award or the certificate for the year I spent in compulsory military/social service.

If you adhere to the above, I consider it very unlikely that your application will be dismissed for failing to include some certificate. Your application will probably go straight to the professor or somebody else who can reasonably handle international applicants. They will not dismiss your application for such a reason, but tell you if they want anything else. Of course, there are exceptions, but in that case you probably do not want the position anyway.

In general, the main place for certificates is later in the hiring process, when you got offered the position and the administration will prepare your actual contract. They will then usually tell you specifically what certificates they need, amongst others to calculate your salary.

  • 1
    Good answer! I would suggest to omit the "bureaucrat" in the third sentence - could have been the PI, the head of lab or anybody else who did this. I am as unhappy as you are with a lot of bureaucracy, but assuming that "a bureaucrat" (which I read as "somebody working in general administration") did this, is not justified and doing so does not add anything valuable to the answer.
    – Dirk
    Mar 2, 2020 at 12:08
  • @Dirk: Sure, it could have been anybody, but it likely was administration. Hence: “looks as if” and not “was”.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 2, 2020 at 12:19

In Germany you should get an Arbeitszeugnis or letter of recommendation at the end of every employment you had. These are what they ask for here.

The Arbeitszeugnis would include some basic employment details proving you actually worked where you said did and can even include a short job description. It would also include an evaluation written in a coded language that your future potential employers can decode (not a joke!). This part is most like a letter of recommendation.

In case you have never been employment, you wouldn't have one of these.

  • The sentence about the language used in an Arbeitszeugnis is a bit misleading – it sounds almost as if it was a secret that is shared only among the initiates of the cult of employers. The truth is much more prosaic: the text form of the Arbeitszeugnis has been the topics of numerous court decisions, which are all accessible to the public. In effect, these decisions have caused the Arbeitszeugnis to be a highly regulated genre with many formulaic expressions with clearly defined meanings. It is true though that if you don't know these definitions, you may misread the intended meaning.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 3, 2020 at 15:30
  • 1
    I don't normally read court decisions, but hey, I am sure they are accessible somewhere :)
    – M3RS
    Mar 3, 2020 at 15:42

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