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I am planning on applying to a PhD in engineering in Germany (either by contacting a group, which I will prioritize, or through a normal application at the graduate school).

The problem I currently face is finding good referees (by good, I mean respectable h-indices, for example). For those acquainted with German academia: How much weight is put on the recommendation letters and, more importantly, the referrers when reviewing an application for a PhD position (more, or less, than in the US)?

For instance, if you had to rank these factors:

  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • Publications/internships
  • Statement of purpose

Where would the letters of recommendation be positioned?

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    The quality of a reference letter for a PhD application is determined by the writer's ability to describe your (potential) strengths as a researcher, not by flawed metrics such as their h-index. An excellent, positive reference from a relatively unknown professor will help your application much more than a mediocre reference from the biggest name in your field. – astronat Aug 19 '20 at 22:20
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    @astronat German professors get swamped with (international) applications from graduates of not-so-well-known universities, all with excellent references from unknown people, which ultimately are not reliable because they may have very low standards. A reference from Mr or Mrs Bigshot himself/herself would make an application stand out. These bigshots often have high standards, so a not-to-great reference letter may still get you invited for an interview. So while within the US, your comment may be correct, for the "coming to Germany" situation, I don't think it is. – DCTLib Aug 19 '20 at 22:32
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    Note that “a normal application at the graduate school” will get you into a master’s programme (with the PhD being a potential follow-up), while applying to a group usually requires that you already have a master’s degree (or equivalent). There probably are exceptions, but this is the norm. So, you usually do not get to choose between those two options (graduate school or group). – Wrzlprmft Aug 20 '20 at 5:11
  • Rank according to which criteria? Likelihood to sink your application if you forget to submit it? The thing that is most likely to make a difference of it stands out? Ranking is completely ill defined here! – user2705196 Aug 20 '20 at 13:17
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    Also, what actionable outcome are you envisioning after you get such a 'ranking'? Obviously you should put your best foot forward in each of those. There (typically) aren't any inherent trade-offs between these categories... – user2705196 Aug 20 '20 at 13:19
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You mention two different ways of applying: to a grad school and to (the head of) a group.

These ways of “getting in” are very different. Group leaders can, if they have the funds, normally hire whomever they want (if the formal qualification is given), and there is no standard process. For grad schools, there will typically be some committee that may have their own evaluation process.

A few points can be stated, though:

  1. Letters of recommendation are a very recent occurrence in German academia. Some more senior professors may value them very little. If the group head is non-German, they are more likely to value them.

  2. Transcripts are typically very important. The reason is that many PhD regulations require a more-than-average master’s degree. Hence, bad transcripts can be a show-stopper. But also they are often the best available information for how good an applicant is.

  3. When applying directly to a group, you should have some courses on your transcript that are relatively close to the area in which the group is working on. You are expected to come with the knowledge needed to start researching right away, so this is important. Better have good grades in them.

  4. If you have proper publications already, they help tremendously with your application. So they are, in a sense, most important. There is normally no expectation that an applicant has published research already. Note that papers in predatory journals have a good chance to count negatively, though.

  5. If you apply to a group, it is more important to state why your interests align with those of the group. Be very concrete here, and do your homework. Groups with a lot of third-party funded projects will need PhD students to work on these projects, so if your statement of purpose being too concrete while not aligning with any of the projects would not be ideal.

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    I would add that if you apply via group leader it is very helpful if you have a recommendation letter from someone the group leader knows through joint research or at least meeting at conferences. Knowing the letter writer will count for much more than a good publication record if the group leader first has to google who the person who wrote this letter is. – quarague Aug 20 '20 at 7:06
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It is hard to rank them, apart from the last one. The first three have definitely higher priority. Within those three, I think individual preferences will make the difference between institutions.

However I can say this. Compared to USA, standardized tests (GRE general, GRE subject, TOEFL, IETLS, etc.) are much less important when applying in Germany. In my experience, exams like GRE are not asked for or have very little importance. For language exams such as TOEFL, they will usually state a minimum and that will be the actual minimum (unlike in US) and they seem to be understood as sufficiency and not very effective on the preference. Also, unlike in the USA, none of my applications in Europe asked me to send them an official result (which costs around 20$ each) even after I accepted their offer.

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