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My question is about this apparently well-received answer on Quora:

Q: Which PhD programs in Germany would you recommend?

A: NONE...The German Ph.D. system is feudal and archaic. At the top is the professor, who, unlike his Anglo Saxon counterparts, can take as many Ph.D. students as he wants. 20 to 30 is very common. They are used to do the grunt work. If you are a foreign student, the professor will do nothing to help you stay on, network, or find a job in Germany....

In Germany, [it is very difficult to find an academic job]. In practice, unless your Professor pushes you, and he will only push a bunch of favorites who are German, you won't get a job. Why do you think there are so few foreign faculty in German universities? And surprise! Those who are there have PhDs from the Ivy League...If you take a PhD and then try to move to industry, you need to have a job that requires a PhD, and...it will be an immigration officer who decides that....

Is this really the case? I have known few non-German people with German PhDs and none of them mentioned these issues. I especially find it unlikely that anyone can have 20–30 PhD students worth of grunt work in fields like mathematics. Many of the other issues also seem to be present in other countries. On the other hand, there is also this article, which largely agrees.

To narrow the question, let's ask specifically about foreign graduate students in mathematics who seek academic careers.

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    Since the OP has the goal of staying in academia after PhD, I wonder if anyone can supply some statistics on how many graduating PhD students in mathematics stay in academia (say for 2/5/10 years after graduation), for students who get their PhD in Germany compared to those from UK and US. Based on personal experience my guess is that Germany has significantly lower rates, but it would be good to see evidence. – Lazzaro Campeotti Mar 4 at 10:14
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    Also "foreign national" seems like an unhelpfully broad category here, in particular when discussing employment law. The quoted text appears to be written from a US perspective, but presumably the claims about employment law do not apply to EU nationals. – Lazzaro Campeotti Mar 4 at 10:24
  • It's unclear whether the "20 to 30" PhD students refers to students a professor will supervise over their entire career or at the same time. Of course, this makes a lot of difference. – Stephan Kolassa Mar 4 at 10:55
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Mar 5 at 19:57
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    Is started a meta discussion on reopening this question. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 at 10:40
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The German Ph.D. system is feudal and archaic.

Sounds like an opinion. Let's check all points to form an own opinion.

At the top is the professor, who, unlike his Anglo Saxon counterparts, can take as many Ph.D. students as he wants.

True. But it's more like "as many PhD students as he can pay".

20 to 30 is very common.

No. More than 6 is rare in math, more than 10 is extremely rare. About 1 to 4 is more common.

They are used to do the grunt work. If you are a foreign student, the professor will do nothing to help you stay on, network, or find a job in Germany.

This can be true for any professor in any country as well. I do not see any evidence why German professors are worse than others in this respect on average.

Of course, they are happy to see you leave for your own country to do technology transfer!

I have no idea where this conclusion comes from. In Germany the companies often struggle to get good applications and there is no reason for anybody to be happy when a well qualified PhD graduate leaves the country to work somewhere else (except to be happy for that person...).

In Germany, unlike in most other countries, a PhD qualifies you only to teach as a docent.

No. A PhD qualifies for a bunch of jobs depending on the discipline. What is probably meant is jobs in academia. See below.

To become a professor you need another degree a Habilitation. After that, you need to be called to the chair.

Not anymore. There are more ways to become a professor. There are junior professorships (vaguely similar to assistant professorships), you can become a junior group leader at Max-Planck institute or a bunch of other research institutes, get your own funded research group (DFG and BMBF are just two agencies with funding in this direction) and of course being a productive postdoc (with or without doing a Habilitation) is possible.

If you cannot find a job in the 12 years after your PhD you are barred from applying to academic jobs.

No. What is true is that there is a law that says that you can only work on limited time contracts for six years after PhD. But this excludes contracts based on grant money and I've seen more exceptions to this (e.g. for junior professors). Even if you leave university, there is the possibility to return to academia (depending on the discipline) and a professorship at a Fachhochschule even requires work experience in industry.

In practice, unless your Professor pushes you, and he will only push a bunch of favorites who are German, you won t get a job.

This is an overgeneralization.

Why do you think there are so few foreign faculty in German universities.

There are not a lot foreign professors in Germany. Probably the required teaching in German plays a role? Other than that, foreign applicants are treated equally.

And surprise! Those who are there have PhDs from the Ivy League.

No.

If you are a Masters then look for a job in industry. If you take a PhD and then try to move to industry you need to have a job that requires a PhD and in practice it will be an immigration officer who decides that.

Immigration officers play a role, but I don't know of any PhD graduate who could not get a job that was offered to them because of immigration policy. As noted in the comments, there are simplified rules as of March 2020 which I don't know yet (link in the comments).

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    Yeah the last part actually just got changed this month (immigration law got changed on the first of March 2020). – Olorun Mar 4 at 14:02
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    Found one – Tejas Kale Mar 4 at 16:00
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    Could you make it clearer if your answer is about math students or students in Germany in general? FWIW, I have seen a lot.of unpaid phd students (in the social sciences, not in STEM) in Germany. – user111388 Mar 4 at 17:02
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    I think you need to clarify more about 6 years in academic positions after PhD. The actual situation as I understand it (I am not a layer!): you have 6 years for your PhD. Then you have 6 more years. The unused years from before your PhD add up. This 6 year limitation is concerned with middle-tier postdoc positions that are not permanent (i.e., almost all of them). If you have a grant-funded position, you are exempt. If you manage to get a permanent position, you are exempt. If you have a (permanent) industry position, exempt. If you get a professorship, you are exempt. – Oleg Lobachev Mar 4 at 19:29
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    As for the last part: It's worth pointing out that immigration officers (in fact immigration law) does not apply to EU foreigners at all: They are treated equally to Germans. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 5 at 0:05
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Summary

The quote mostly reflects individual experiences. In general surveys on satisfaction with supervision and employment of international PhD (and other) students, Germany only scores slightly worse than the international average.

Individual Experiences

The quote in question is a great example for one of the reasons why we do not allow shopping questions on this site (quoting myself):

No single person can compare the alternatives in life-changing career decisions (such as choosing a field), because everybody only has one life. At best you could statistically evaluate the experiences of people who made a similar decision a decade ago. However, during such a long period of time there will likely be changes that invalidate the comparison.

Specifically, the quoted text mixes some clearly individual experiences (“If you are a foreign student, the professor will do nothing to help you […].”) with ones that could be based on general facts (“20 to 30 [PhD students per professor] is very common.”). This suggests that the author of the quoted text is just stating their experience as general, while lacking any true means of comparison. And since you can go through the experience of doing your (first¹) PhD only once in your life, no single person can.

In general, doing a PhD is a highly individual experience. The impact of the individual professor or workgroup is much higher than that of the country or even university (in particular in countries like Germany, where there are no such big quality differences between universities). Therefore, I suggest to focus on assessing your supervisor when deciding for a PhD.

Predictions

On top, all statistics and experiences you find now are inevitably outdated since they at best apply to people who were in the same situation as you three years ago, but usually it’s rather five to ten years ago. This particularly applies to pursuing an academic career in Germany after your PhD, it’s hard to predict how the academic job market will look in three to fifteen years, which is the relevant time span for you. For example, the mentioned twelve-year time limit on fixed-term academic jobs will only apply to you in twelve years². There are good chances that the law is changed until then.

Statistics

I am using the following sources:

Mind that none of these resources contains relevant data specific to mathematics. However, the quote in the question suggests that the alleged problems are a consequence of the German system, culture, etc. Hence they should affect the general statistics. Conversely, while it is conceivable that mathematics is the big bad outlier here, I see no indications for this and nobody has suggested so so far.

At the top is the professor, who […], can take as many Ph.D. students as he wants. 20 to 30 is very common.

According to BuWiN (Abb. B47 on page 150), the average number of PhD students per professor in mathematics and physical sciences is 6 (at a given time, not over the entire career). Mind that this number is not limited to mathematics, where the average number of PhD students is lower. Other groups of fields have similar values, with the main outliers being engineering at 11 and veterinary medicine at 9³. The study also states (p.149) that only 1100 professors (of 46700, Tab. B8) in all fields have 21 or more PhD students.

If you are a foreign student, the professor will do nothing to help you stay on, network, or find a job in Germany. […] he will only push a bunch of favorites who are German

ISB 2018 (p. 37) asked all students (not only PhDs) “How well has your experience prepared you for your career goals?” (final year only). For Germany, 10% answered “not well”, 26% answered “moderately well”, 41% “well”, and 22% “very well”, whereas the international averages are 8%, 25%, 42% and 25%.

Also, in ISB 2018 (p. 37) 71% of all students (not only PhDs) were “satisfied that their course will help them to get a good job”, 71% were “satisfied with making good contacts for the future”, and 62% were “satisfied with the career advice from academic staff”, whereas the international averages were 72%, 73%, and 60%.

If you take a PhD and then try to move to industry you need to have a job that requires a PhD and in practice it will be an immigration officer who decides that

ISB 2016 (p. 52) included the question “What would make you leave your host country after graduation?”. For Germany, “Work permit restrictions” ranked at 28% (vs. 25% in the international average), “Visa restrictions” at 35% (vs. 27%), and “Employers are not interested in foreign candidates” at 36% (vs. 35%). Note that this data is not specific to PhD students.

Other Satisfaction Scores

In ISB 2016 (Figures 6 and 11), there is data comparing the satisfaction of “postgraduate students” with the international average for certain items:

  • “managing research”: 85.9% (Germany) vs. 89.6% (all)
  • “topic selection”: 81.0% vs. 86.7%
  • “opportunities to research”: 65.1% vs. 71.5%
  • “graduate school”: 93.1% vs 94.2%

ISB 2016 (p. 10) also reports: “Of the 1,835 international PhD students who answered this question, 40% stated they would actively encourage others to apply to a German higher education institution.”

ISB 2018 (p. 40) asked “How likely is it that you would recommend this institution to family or a friend?”, grouping the results into three groups (detractors, passives, and promoters). Germany scored 25%/42%/32%, while the international average was (20%/42%/38%).

In Sozialerhebung (Fig. 6.15, p. 71), 56% of international PhD students answered “yes, absolutely” and 28% answered “yes” as to whether they would recommend Germany as a place to study. These scores considerably (measured for all students) considerably improved between 2006 and 2016 (Fig. 6.14, p. 70).

To give some comparison, BuWiN (Tab. B29, p.151) cites two studies (from 2011) of satisfaction of all (not only international) doctoral students in Germany, according to which 55%–65% are satisfied with their supervision and 15%–19% are dissatisfied.

Further Remarks

In case you think I am just bitter, here is another link that discusses this

If You’re Considering Graduate School in Germany

This link is mostly about part-time employment in addition to your PhD, which is not very common in Germany, as your PhD position should give you sufficient money (though, admittedly, this is about Munich, which is notoriously expensive). Also, taxes in Germany are much higher than in the US because of the social security system (health, pension, etc.); in the US, you would have to pay all these things from your salary (or not have them).

If you cannot find a job in the 12 years after your PhD you are barred from applying to academic jobs.

This is not completely true, as it does not apply to several funding programmes for junior professorships and similar. It should be noted that it is generally considered an asset (or even a condition) for such programmes to have international experience – for which your experience probably already counts, while people who did their PhD in Germany usually do a postdoc abroad to fulfil exactly this.


¹ Doing a second PhD is inevitably a completely different experience since you already know how academia works, etc.
² Technically, it can affect you somewhat earlier, as it also prevents you from entering fixed-term employments that exceed the time limit.
³ This is not about PhDs, but VMDs (doctors of veterinary medicine), which have considerably different requirements in Germany.

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    Students in the US do not have to pay FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare) from their salary, which would normally be deducted as taxes if students weren't specifically exempted. – gormadoc Mar 4 at 15:53
  • @gormadoc: My point is that German taxes (and similar deductions, to be precise) are much higher since, e.g., the healthcare system covers much more than the US one. – Wrzlprmft Mar 4 at 17:53
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    @Wrzlprmft Looking at the pages of a few mathematicians and considering some discussions here, it seems to me that having 6 PhD students at a time would be very rare for a mathematician. Also in engineering, in my experience, unless you are a very large group having 11 PhD students at a time seems rare. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 4 at 18:03
  • @MassimoOrtolano: it seems to me that having 6 PhD students at a time would be very rare for a mathematician – That may be, but this is averaged over all of mathematics and the physical sciences, so it also includes computer science, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. – Wrzlprmft Mar 4 at 18:06
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    @YemonChoi: Indeed, but I failed to find specific statistics for this. That being said, the quote in the question is not specific to mathematics, but suggests that the problems are consequence of the German system, culture, etc. Hence the consequences should be seen in general statistics. Conversely, while it is conceivable that mathematics is the big bad outlier here, I see no indications for this so far and nobody has suggested so. – Wrzlprmft Mar 5 at 8:06
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NONE. Don t do this mistake. The German Ph.D. system is feudal and archaic. At the top is the professor, who, unlike his Anglo Saxon counterparts, can take as many Ph.D. students as he wants. 20 to 30 is very common. They are used to do the grunt work. If you are a foreign student, the professor will do nothing to help you stay on, network, or find a job in Germany. Of course, they are happy to see you leave for your own country to do technology transfer!

There clearly exist some poorly managed research groups in Germany, but also some remarkably well-managed ones. The onus is on the applicant to make the necessary research. Relevant questions are: How many PhD students does the professor currently have? How many PhD students has the professor recently graduated? In the case of a big group, is there a sufficient number of post-docs that may support the professor with the hands-on aspects of supervision? (None of these questions is specific for Germany.)

If you cannot find a job in the 12 years after your PhD you are barred from applying to academic jobs

Effectively true, as far as academic jobs in Germany are concerned. If your goal is to find a permanent academic job, you either need to become a rock star or be prepared to change countries after your PhD. If you're open to the latter option, a PhD from a German university might, if anything, have a mildly positive impact on your chances, due to a better-than-average reputation.

There are so many other elements to this rotten system. DON T EVER DO A PhD in GERMANY ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A FOREIGN STUDENT. YOU WILL REGRET IT

Clearly, the author is generalizing their own, negative experiences to an unfair extent. I say that as a co-supervisor of two foreign PhD students in Germany who will complete their PhD this year.

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    I support this answer. The original quote is clearly opinionated and removed from any reality in its generalization. While there may well be problems (as there are in any country), there are many professors who care about their academic offspring and do everything to help them in their career. I am a product of one such group. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 3 at 20:14
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    @WolfgangBangerth While I agree that the original quote is opinionated, I think the point made in the quote, i.e., international students are at a unique disadvantage amplified by the German system, should not be so easily dismissed. I'm somewhat disappointed with the current available (2) answers, which either only speak of PhD experience in Germany in general or is too much based on individual bad experiences that may not be generalizable. – Drecate Mar 4 at 5:10
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    From my experience as a student in a very math-heavy course on an university in Vienna (Basically Germany), and plenty of contacts to people trying or finishing their PhD there: The quote feels accurate. I'm not arguing that the quote is not biased (it is, of course), but reading it I was surprised that the writer implies it is different somewhere else. – Robert Tausig Mar 4 at 16:57
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    @RobertTausig "Vienna (Basically Germany)" The Viennese might want to have a word with you. – lighthouse keeper Mar 4 at 17:06
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    @lighthousekeeper: I am Viennese, so it's fine (And more seriously: The systems are nearly identical). That should also tell you, that being a foreign student has nothing to do with it; natives suffer just as well when doing a PhD. – Robert Tausig Mar 4 at 17:12
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I came across this question and I feel obliged to address it. I personally experienced everything that the original quote says. And when I say "everything" - I mean it. This quote pretty much summarizes my entire PhD experience. Similarly to an original poster, I do NOT recommend doing your Ph.D in Germany, if you have any other options. Let me address it point by point:

  1. I had no mentor-ship, no support, no input from my "supervisor".
  2. The group was very large and not well managed.
  3. German students were treated differently than foreigners. There were more tolerance toward them, a blind eye was turned to their behavior.
  4. Zero networking opportunities, zero consideration or support for an alternative careers for graduate students.
  5. Customarily bad reference letters (or no references at all) for foreigners, esp. those that didn't speak good English.
  6. Unrestrained power of German PI.
  7. Absolute inability to recognize own mistakes. I was under impression that my PI is a genuinely kind person, simply overly busy or maybe unaware that he hurts people's careers. But when all postdocs and PhD students [repeatedly] complained about multiple issues and all complaines were given no consideration...in your face!!!
  8. Again, a lot of subtle discrimination: Germans are treated better than foreigners, women are treated differently than men.
  9. It is considered as a Kindness to tell a foreign scholar / grad.student that he better look for a career elsewhere, because he doesn't look/sound German.
  10. Industry - the original poster said it all; there is a complicated immigration rules which pretty much ban any hiring of non-EU people.
  11. Generally, across the globe you are far better off with a PhD from UK, USA, Canada. It is much easier to switch to alternative careers with degrees from those countries. USA PhDs and English are in demand everywhere, no one cares about German PhD.
  12. Worst of all: you have ZERO chances of doing you due diligence. You have no way to understand who your PI is until you are in and it's too late. No one will ever warn you or disclose anything negative. Many places do not have "alumni" pages, so you have no way to contact former group members.

A couple of points more:

  1. German academia (faculty) is 90% white and 80% German. There are no Visible minorities and no diversity. Can be proven by simply opening a web-site of any German University or research Institute. Where is diversity? Are these international PhD programs simply supplying cheap labor?
  2. Germany is the richest country in EU. Several centuries of academic "freedom" tradition and university history; developed research infrastructure, big universities, major corporations headquartered in Germany, multiple academic societies and research institutes (like Max Plank and Fraunhofer). Why with all these enormous resources the survey shows only average or below average PhD student experiences in Germany? Why with all these unparalleled resources PhD students cannot have the best experiences possible ?
  3. Why there are only Germans who "whitewashing" German academia here? Why there are no "international students" with wonderful experiences, who launched their successful careers by doing PhD in Germany? O would really love to hear from them? Any comments from them? This Question has more than 3K views now. Is it a big enough sample size? Where are comments from happy and fulfilled foreigners (Grad students/postdocs) residing in Germany???
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    @user136555: While I do not want to deny that you had a bad experience and do not want to say that the German system is flawless, your answer suffers from the same problem as the quote in the question: You are mixing clearly individual experiences (e.g., bad reference letters) with some that could be generalisable to the German academic system (power imbalance). If you want to be heard, it would help if you focus on generalisable aspects and explain why they are generalisable. – Wrzlprmft Mar 4 at 7:48
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Leaving the above comment as a summary of the discussion. – cag51 Mar 5 at 17:59
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    I am happy and surprised that a criticial answer has a nonnegative score on this site. Well done! – user111388 Mar 5 at 22:12
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    regarding your final point (why are there no international students with good experiences?), I was just in the process of writing one. Unfortunately the question was closed before I finished it. For what it's worth, 9 years after moving to Germany to do a PhD, I'm extremely happy with the decision and my career since finishing the PhD. Professors with 20-30 PhD students who won't help you network if you aren't German is something I've never heard of, let alone experienced. That said, I did my PhD at a dedicated research facility. Universities may well be very different. – Chris H Mar 6 at 8:53
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    as a German who went to study in Asia, I'm signing all of this what @user136555 wrote – SSimon Apr 29 at 15:05
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As already better answers regarding statistics have been proposed I will comment on the "preference towards Germans" issue that has been mentioned both by the main post and subsequent answers.

I am a foreign in Germany and finished a MSc from an international MSc/PhD program and have contact with many foreign PhD students and the number one problem that I see and that is behind this "there are not a lot of international academics, they are all German because they prefer Germans" is that foreign students come to Germany and expect it be an English speaking country! If you do not speak German you will feel left out, period.

In Germany, people speak German, German is spoken in the workplace, and if you expect to be an academic in Germany, it can also be that you have to write grants in German.

A big bunch if not the majority of the international PhD students that I know have lived up to 5 years in Germany without learning the language beside the basics for buying things in the supermarket and have surrounded themselves with English speaking people.

What results of it? They leave Germany at the end of the PhD and go the US or back to their home countries of course.

The foreign professors that I know, can speak German ( and btw they are not all white, like a previous answer was suggesting).

Conclusion: If you expect to find a job after completing the PhD in Germany, learn German fluently.

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    +1: "it can also be that you have to write grants in German [...] learn German fluently.". In addition to that, by learning German, one can apply for German citizenship after holding the EU Blue Card for 21 months. – onurcanbektas May 6 at 14:14
  • Three of the four master courses I took this semester were announced in English, one of the English courses were switched to German after the first lecture when the lecturer noticed that no one in the audience didn't speak German. The second English lecture had one English speaking student and stayed in English, until the Shutdown happened and the classroom was inverted (i.e. lectures became supplementary). People started asking questions in German which I did not even realize that this was happening until the lecturer asked whether there was anyone not speaking English... – Felix B. May 6 at 17:36
  • ... Not sure whether the English student never joined or left due to that. I think asking the questions in German was somewhat disrespectful from the other students, and the lecturer could have handled it a bit better as well, but I also understand that a lot of people are not as fluent in English as I might be. So I am not sure what to think of it. But this could certainly create barriers for exchange students. The last English lecture announced was held by a Chinese lecturer and had to stay in English due to that. – Felix B. May 6 at 17:39
  • In general there is an effort to increase the number of English lectures (additional funding for junior professors with the requirement for English lectures). But often it can look like the above, where the lecture is announced in English but held in German. In general people will accommodate anyone not speaking German though and one person is usually enough to switch to English at least in academia. Not sure how work afterwards would look like. Additionally personal relationships probably suffer to some degree. Which is always a disadvantage – Felix B. May 6 at 17:42

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