I have been working under the supervision of a Professor at a german University for a couple of years on a research project that could be published soon with me as a first author.

However I am not enrolled in any PhD program. Is it possible to get a PhD if I were to write a PhD thesis based on the work I have done so far without having to enroll on a program.

It seems now like a waste of time to enroll into a PhD program and have to do an additional 3 or so years.

  • 8
    PhD is more than just publishing papers; a lot of undergrads co-author papers by the time they finish their B.Sc, but does that mean we should give them a PhD degree also?
    – Our
    May 6, 2020 at 10:10
  • I think it is definitely different to co-author a paper than to be first author. Also, the undergraduate student has not been working full time for several years as the project leader ( under the supervision of the Professor that is)
    – LenaMi
    May 6, 2020 at 10:17
  • 14
    Talk to the professor, but you should also study the Promotionsordnung of that university. Some universities require you to be enrolled, some just require the dreaded "Credits" from course work, some have no such requirements. Also, there might be procedural requirements. I remember that I had to "register" my thesis topic at least a year before submitting the thesis.
    – user9482
    May 6, 2020 at 11:55
  • 6
    This makes me quite curious about your situation. How did you end up working on a multi-year research project with a professor without enrolling in a PhD program. Were you employed by the professor in some other capacity or were you volunteering? It seems like a really strange situation. And neither you nor the professor brought up finding you a PhD position at all?
    – Kvothe
    May 7, 2020 at 11:03
  • 1
    @Kvothe I know it is a weird situation. I did my master thesis in this lab, however I did not want to commit to the PhD because I wanted to go back to being a practicing physician. For that I need to have my medical title recognized in Germany ( a long process). I was employed then by the professor to continue with the project I was working on in the meantime...this "meantime" turned out to be already 2 years and a half and counting...
    – LenaMi
    May 12, 2020 at 10:54

8 Answers 8


Your best bet is to talk to the professor that is supervising you. Course work is less of an issue in Germany, so you might be able to speed up the process considerably if the professor is willing to accept your research as a basis for the thesis. Whether or not that project is suitable as a basis for a PhD thesis depends on the research that happened and your exact role in it. Maybe your work can count as an entire thesis, maybe it can count as an entire thesis if you do some extra work on, maybe it can count as a chapter, and you need two or three other projects to complete it, maybe it is just not suitable. We don't know, but your supervisor can tell you.


There are three different things you need to figure out independently:

  • Does the 'Prüfungsordnung" (rules of examination) of the university/departement allow this? There will be a few paragraphs what the requirement are to receive a 'Doktor' degree (German Universities usually cannot issue PhD, might be nitpicking, but some ppl here are very serious about it). SOmetimes the only requirement is to have been immatriculated for 1 semester.
  • Assuming this is allowed, is your Professor willing to accept such a thesis?
  • There is a bit of a catch 22 also: A Doktorarbeit has to be novel. If you published in a journal, it might not be considered novel anymore. Some departements allow cumulative thesis (stapeling your 3-4 papers together, and writing an introduction). A lot of departments dont allow this

Expect your thesis to be under more scrutiny, and remember during defense the board of examineers is allowed to ask any question on the science subject you want to get your degree in. The question might be more probing if you are 'external' (because they dont know your level of competency). Be prepared for question you last heard (apart from you defense preparation) last time as an undergrad (or master student).

While this might sound discuraging, it is not meant to. Go for it! (but you must address each of these points)

  • Could you please expand a little bit on the "German Universities usually cannot issue PhD" vs "Doktor"? I thought that it is just a translation (Doktor in German, Docteur in French, ... vs PhD in English (they also have "doctorate")) EDIT: I had a look at the Wikipedia pages (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorate#Germany, fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorat#Allemagne but they not really shed a light)
    – WoJ
    May 7, 2020 at 11:04
  • @WoJ Generally a PhD also contains coursework (thats why a masters is not a prerequisit in the US), a Dr (in Germany usually doesnt contain coursework, thats why usually a Masters degree is mandatory). Its like legal terms which cannot be translated because the concept ist different. (But PhD is the closest analog to German Dr, probably the best would be to say PhD is like Dr+Master). Until a few years back people from the US doing research in Germany called themselfs Dr, this (as I heard) lead to court cases, since the translation was illegal. (Now there are exceptions which allow this)
    – lalala
    May 7, 2020 at 11:35
  • 1
    @SamT yes. I meant US. From what you write UK PhD is founded on the same priciples as German Dr.
    – lalala
    May 7, 2020 at 14:47
  • 3
    I'd be very much astonished if any Promotionsordnung would consider a publication by the candidate as contrary to novelty (unless the publication is about the Master thesis, but then the Master thesis anyways cannot be used as part of a PhD thesis). May 7, 2020 at 17:48
  • 1
    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX here the worst I could find: weihenstephan.de/fileadmin/pdf/dokumente/MerkblattAblauf.pdf section 4. Which basically says 'pre-(thesis)submission publications are not destroying novelty (which is essential for the thesis) if immediately after publication notification to the examineers office is filed with mentioning of the current doctoral examination procedure). To me this means, if you dont report it on time it will kill the phd.
    – lalala
    May 7, 2020 at 20:13
  1. Talk to your professor.

  2. I got my PhD (technically Dr. rer. nat.) at the University of Hamburg and only officially enrolled about a year before I defended my thesis, even though I actually started working on my research about 3 years before that at a Max Planck Institute.

  3. Your mileage will vary. Talk to your professor.


I would imagine it depends quite heavily on the department. In Denmark at the Department for Social Sciences, you may submit a Phd-thesis without being enrolled in a Phd programme. But I would imagine the barrier being quite high, so you should probably be able to show quite an excellent academic performance through your thesis.



It depends on the university (or even the department). You need to read the exact regulations ('Promotionsordnung', etc.)

In most German universities, enrollment is optional. (I would even say, it is not very common.) You rather just submit a thesis; sometimes there is a requirement to indicate your intention to submit a thesis some months in advance. In any case, you need to name a supervising professor.

Whether or not your university/department requires additional publications or exams is very different. Often, the requirements to submit a thesis are (intentionally) left underspecified, which means that it's up to your supervisor to decide whether or not your past research is enough to make a thesis. If your supervisor thinks that 3 more years of research were appropriate, then it's their proper judgement that that time is not 'wasted.'

  • 1
    I'm not really sure if it's adequate to say that obligatory enrollment is optional and not very common. Practically every Promotionsordnung that I've seen so far requires candidates to be enrolled at the time they open the formal degree process (usually by handing in their thesis and the associated paperwork). The minimum number of semesters may vary (one or two semesters seem to be frequent), but I'm not aware of any PO that doesn't require that candidates are also students. Of course, this may differ between disciplines, but I'd be honestly surprised if what you write is generally true.
    – Schmuddi
    May 7, 2020 at 10:00
  • The relevant paragraph of the Promotionsordnung where I graduated (an earlier version was in place for me) reads "Doktorandinnen oder Doktoranden, die nicht bereits aufgrund eines Beschäftigungsverhältnisses oder der Immatrikulation in einem Studiengang Mitglieder der Freien Universität Berlin sind, müssen sich an der Freien Universität Berlin sind, müssen sich an der Freien Universität Berlin als Studierende zur Promotion einschreiben." This explains why I remember it as optional (I was employed). Still, I think that it's essentially a formality.
    – Carsten S
    May 7, 2020 at 16:25
  • 2
    @Schmuddi: e.g. the Promotionsordnung maths/natural sciences at TU Dresden (tu-dresden.de/mn/postgraduales/promotion/promotionsordnung) explicitly says that a doctorate thesis may even be done without supervision (true, as exception, but it's explicitly possible). I eventually handed in my thesis that I started at TU Dresden at FSU Jena, there I had to formally enroll as PhD candidate (enrolling as student was not necessary but would have been possible) before handing in my thesis. I did that a few weeks before handing in the thesis. (of course, theprocedure may have changed meanwhile) May 7, 2020 at 18:18
  • 1
    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX: Indeed, what I wrote above turns out to be too broad. The picture is apparently more varied than I thought, so it really depends on the Promotionsordnung that will apply to the candidate.
    – Schmuddi
    May 8, 2020 at 5:34
  • @Schmuddi In Ba-Wü, it´s (or was) a law that you can´t be a regular student if you have a 50% or larger position. Some of my former colleagues convinced the administration to make their 1/2 position 49% for that reason. ;-)
    – Karl
    May 8, 2020 at 18:30

I would be very surprised if a university allowed you to get a PhD without being enrolled in a program. When universities give out degrees without enrollment, it is generally in the form of things like "honorary doctorates" which are frequently given to commencement speakers and very different from a real PhD. That said, prior work can greatly expedite the process, particularly if you are working with the same advisor. For example, there was a medical doctor who had been doing research with my graduate department who enrolled in our PhD program. He was able to get his PhD by basically continuing the work he had been doing with our department for another two years. He also took a few classes and of course did the milestones such as qualifiers and orals, but it was significantly expedited compared to the 5-7 years which is typical for that department.

However, I would question your motivation for taking this route to a diploma. In my experience people who have done research with PhD labs who do not have PhDs fall into one of two categories 1) people who are still developing 2) people who have gained expertise through another route.

People in category 1) are the most common. These are individuals who have gained some research experience by working in academia. However, in most cases, while they may have the same number of publications as might be expected of a graduate student,the process of getting those publications is very different. They have generally been given a project that is better defined and with a clear path forward. A PhD student on the other hand would have had a higher level of expectation define their own project and a will likely have to try more avenues before finding one that works out. If this is the case for you, then your experience will certainly help you out, but it is not sufficient to receive a PhD. In fact, many PhD departments (such as my own) consider this type of research and publication record a prerequisite for enrolling in the PhD program.

The people in category 2 are more unusual. These individuals really are thought leaders in their fields who have made a significant impact in those fields. Despite not having a PhD, they are sought out as collaborators and are frequently asked to give talks in their area of expertise. This is the category I would put the medical doctor I previously described in. In general, these people don't really need PhDs as the recognition of expertise that it conveys has already been granted to them by the members of that academic community. While I certainly could understand the desire for the title, it is unlikely their career will be significantly impacted by holding it. If this is the case for you, you should have no trouble finding an institution who will jump at the opportunity to collaborate with you in exchange for an expedited PhD process.

  • 1
    Are you actually answering from a background in Germany? I'm chemist who did both undergrad studies and doctorate in Germany and at the chemistry departments where I know the procedure, no whatsoever enrollment was necessary until the thesis was handed in. You may look at the formal sign up for the exam proceedings as some kind of enrollment, though. In some departments, enrollment may be preferrable since part of the oral exam (the rigorosum) can be replaced by grades from grad study coursework, but that's purely a choice the student makes. May 7, 2020 at 17:55
  • "PhD programs" like in the anglo-saxon (US actually) world do not (or rarely, and very newly) exist in Germany. You start working on your doctorate after your diploma/masters, and the lecture program outside of you actual own scientific work is an extra. Doctoral candidates are expected to already be fully educated scientists. Of course reality varies strongly. ;)
    – Karl
    May 8, 2020 at 17:28

Until a few years ago, "PhD programs" were unknown in Germany, and I am not aware that any large number of faculty boards in Germany have abolished the classic Individualpromotion. Actually all these novel (or often not so novel) "programs" I know are just a recommended addon, on which nobody formally forces you.

You can apply to be accepted as Doktorand by your Fakultät (or "Fachbereich", the department, not the university) on one day, and submit your thesis on the next. Maybe the board will find it a bit weird to vote on both on the same meeting. ;)


I would be surprised if submitting a thesis based on a single paper were enough.

In North America, the cover page of the thesis usually indicates that the work is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree. The other requirements are usually courses; it’s not so uncommon to have talented undergraduate publish as a first author, but this does not grant them a PhD.

It is regrettable that you should think it a waste of time to enrol in a PhD program. Learning is best done through contact with a mentor, and through discussion with others. Publishing is overly focused to provide the fully enriching perspective achieved through the patient training that is recognized by the degree.

  • 2
    I'm afraid that your answer doesn't really apply to well to the German academic environment that the OP is involved in. While it's true that most (if not all) German universities will require that PhD candidates are enrolled as students, typically this doesn't mean that there will be any large number of obligatory courses. In most departments that I'm aware of, the thesis and the defense are practically the only requirements for the degree, and the only things that will be recorded on any official certificate.
    – Schmuddi
    May 7, 2020 at 9:48
  • 1
    @Schmuddi I am not aware of any university that requires enrollment as a student in Germany. Firstly because the university traditionally has nothing to say in the process of awarding a doctorate, but only your faculty board.
    – Karl
    May 7, 2020 at 23:14
  • 3
    @Karl: I thought I could easily prove my point by quoting from several Promotionsordnungen, but interestingly, it turns out that the picture is much more heterogeneous than I thought. My sample of four pseudo-randomly chosen departments has two departments requiring enrollment (History at Uni Hamburg, Mathematics at Uni Köln) and two that don't (Medicine at Uni Erlangen, Sociology at Uni Marburg). The takeaway from this is probably that any good answer to the OP will suggest carefully reading the Promotionsordnung.
    – Schmuddi
    May 8, 2020 at 5:25

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