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Currently I am in the last semester of my Master studies in computer science in Germany. I am further contemplating about the possibility of applying for PhD position somewhere in Germany, Switzerland, (and maybe Austria). There are other candidate countries as well, but these are the main ones.

In a year or so I should be done with this studies. I wonder what is the PhD application process for Germany and Switzerland. Are there scholarships offered? Is there a need for scholarship at all, or do you get paid as an researched directly from the institution where you get the PhD position?

question added after edit:

Is there a need to search and find for a supervisor (or professor), and explain him the idea for the research that you are planning to work on... or do you get the position and work on the topics which are treated in that research group. my question is both for Swiss and DE?

Can someone with similar experience tell me how these things work?

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I can speak for Austria (place where I did my PhD) and Switzerland (current place of employment), but my answer should be applicable for Germany as well.

I wonder what is the Phd application process for Germany and Switzerland. Are there scholarships offered? Is there a need for scholarship at all, or do you get paid as an researched directly from the institution where you get the Phd postion?

Both models exist, but the far more common one is that you are just employed as a researcher while doing your PhD. This has advantages and disadvantages. Typically these positions are financially rather attractive (at least as far as PhD student salaries go), currently at about 2400 EUR 14 times a year in Austria for full-time employment, a bit more in Germany, significantly more (around 5000 CHF 12 times a year) in Switzerland. All of these salaries allow you to conveniently live (no need for a diet of Ramen noodles) in the respective places. On the other hand, as a researcher you are not "just" working on your thesis. In addition, teaching has to be handled, support in administrative matters will be part of your job, and you will need to work on matters of your research project that you find neither interesting nor advance your thesis work in any way.

The application process is generally as for any other job - find out what jobs are offered, contact the person per mail, send in CV, (usually) do an interview via Skype, wait for an offer. The hardest part is probably finding out what research groups currently have job openings. Positions are generally not announced very widely (if at all). However, just because you cannot find an ad for an open position with a specific professor does not necessarily mean that he does not have a position available. Both places that I worked at had open positions almost at all times for a really qualified student. What really helps here are connections - do you know somebody who is already an "insider" in academic circles, maybe a PhD student or postdoc? If so, ask him to put you in contact with some faculty.

If not, look for universities that you might consider joining, find out from their web page what faculty there handles your topic, and send them a short mail. Keep it crisp - both of my professors so far have been insanely busy, and any mail from an unknown person with more than one short paragraph will never be read carefully. Just tell who you are, what your current university is, and that you would like to talk about the possibility of doing a PhD. Give them a week to answer and then send a quick and friendly reminder (my current prof is the dean of the faculty, and given the size of his inbox mails sometimes do get lost - that does not mean that he is necessarily not interested). Maybe, the professor will put you in contact with one of this postdocs or PhD students to "chat" via Skype or in person (if possible) - consider this the technical interview, because afterwards the prof will ask the person that you talked to whether they think that you have the technical skills that are required for the selected field. What you should not do is send an overly long formal application - most professors get many of those from rather dubios applicants from the far east, hence formal blind applications are generally discarded unread. Don't be one of those.

is there a need to search and find for a supervisor (or professor), and explain him the idea for the research that you are planning to work on... or do you get the position and work on the topics which are treated in that research group. my question is both for Swiss and DE?

You are generally not expected to "come" with your own topic. Your broad overall theme will be defined by whatever project / position pays your salary, and on top of that you are expected to define your concrete research project together with a postdoc and/or the professor some time into your PhD (say, about a year after starting). What you should know is roughly what interests you research-wise and contact only professors that really do this research. This sounds like a given, but I work in services and software engineering, and I have lost track of many applicants interested in robotics, AI, formal methods, etc. I have already discarded. Don't be one of those, either.

  • I'd post the net income after taxes, not the gross income. I strongly suspect a PhD student in Switzerland takes home 60K per year! – aeismail Feb 8 '14 at 9:07
  • I just had a chat with a friend starting phd in switzerland (in the italian canton). he said there is a minimal wage for phd student which is 1500 CHF. don't know if this applies only to that canton or to the whole country – Kristof Tak Feb 8 '14 at 13:28
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    @aeismail Net incomes tend to be misleading, because they depend on marital status, whether you have kids, where you live, how you go to work, and a million other small to medium factors. 60.000 CHF / year is considered a very low pay in Switzerland, and you do in fact not pay much taxes for that. You have to consider that you also pay 1500+ CHF for a single apartment in Zurich. Standard starting pay with a masters degree is around 100.000 CHF / year. – xLeitix Feb 8 '14 at 20:35
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    60,000 CHF is apparently comparable to the pay of a PhD student in Germany. However, taxes, retirement, and health insurance eat up about 40-50 percent of a German PhD student's income. So I think knowing the range of net incomes is much more useful than just quoting the gross. – aeismail Feb 8 '14 at 22:05
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    German salaries are generally according to the TV-L scale, level 13. So there's no real "wiggle room" in what you get paid—as compared to the absolutely enormous variance in Switzerland (why is there a 30K difference?), – aeismail Feb 10 '14 at 22:04
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A good place to look for open positions in academia in CH is the ETH-gethired website. In Switzerland, you will usually be hired by the university or research institute and receive a salary (about 3.6 to 4.5k CHF/month). In exchange you typically have to do TA work (assisting with practical sessions in courses, correcting assignments, etc.) and sometimes technical tasks (taking care of lab equipment). In some universities (like the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, ETH and EPFL) and for some programs, a formal application to a competitive graduate school is also required.

In some cases, you can get funded directly by the Swiss National Science Fund which leads typically to a lower pay but less or no teaching tasks. But it is seldom the grad student's task to secure funding.

Scout the lab websites for positions not listed in my link, and don't be afraid to apply spontaneously as well, if a place sounds particularly interesting to you.

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    Don't be misled by the Swiss salary. It's good pay for a PhD, but taxes and living costs are pretty high. – Moriarty Feb 7 '14 at 21:25
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    @Moriarty I agree for living costs, especially rent, but taxes are low, in fact I hardly paid any (hey it's Switzerland). – Cape Code Feb 7 '14 at 21:42
  • Ah, right. I somehow managed to confuse Switzerland with Sweden (which does have high taxes). – Moriarty Feb 7 '14 at 21:55
  • @jigg can you refer to the question that I asked to above as a comment to aeismail answer – Kristof Tak Feb 7 '14 at 22:35
  • (Income) taxes totally depend on the location, taxes in Zurich might be low (no idea to be honest) but other places (Geneva…) not so much. Overall, it's roughly in the European average, special cases (forfait fiscal/Pauschalbesteuerung) notwithstanding. VAT is however very low but that's moot since before-tax prices are already high. – Relaxed Feb 8 '14 at 8:51
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In general, doctoral studies in both Germany and Switzerland are paid research employees. In Germany, for instance, Doktoranden (doctoral students) are formally called Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter ["scientific (or academic) workers"]. They are paid as government employees according to a fixed scale, and have a contract outlining their duties.

Now, for these programs, you apply as if you were applying to a job outside of academia, except you send a CV in place of a résumé. The hiring is done directly by the group of the professor who has the open position.

There are some exceptions, primarily related to American-style doctoral programs. For these, your application is in a style similar to that of a graduate school in the US (form, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, etc.). These are typically fellowship-based positions that carry a stipend. They usually also have a reduction in teaching and supervisory duties.

In any case, however, you should never have to pay (or get an outside scholarship) to do doctoral studies in a scientific field in Germany or Switzerland.

  • is there a need to search and find for a supervisor (or professor), and explain him the idea for the research that you are planning to work on... or do you get the position and work on the topics which are treated in that research group. my question is both for Swiss and DE? – Kristof Tak Feb 7 '14 at 22:33
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    A funded "Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter" position is usually attached to an existing project or grant. The same is not true for fellowships. There you can either present your own idea, or work on one offered by a professor. However, the project in any case should be aligned with the goals of the program to which you're applying. – aeismail Feb 7 '14 at 22:47
  • Thank you! My question is rather related to the fact that I do not have a certain idea that in which subfield of a given field I would like to do my Phd on. It is pretty variable at the moment. One extra question, does the topic of Master Thesis affect the chances of getting accepted in a Phd programme, if the topics are not much related, or if they are very related. Is there a plus? – Kristof Tak Feb 7 '14 at 22:57
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    I'd argue that it's a function of the faculty member in question. Some are just looking for talented people with experience in the general field; others are looking for people with as much experience as possible. It can also depend on the needs of the specific project, particularly if there are significant deadlines and milestones to be met in a short time frame. But having experience in the particular area is never a bad thing, as far as I can tell. – aeismail Feb 7 '14 at 23:01
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    @non-numeric_argument: My point is that you should not need an outside scholarship to do PhD studies. That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't apply for them. The caveat is that if the only way somebody is willing to take you on is if you can fund your own studies, then you're potentially entering a very tenuous situation, and should give serious thought if that's what you want to do. – aeismail Feb 10 '14 at 11:02
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In an ideal world, you would have already an interest in a particular research topic that you'd like to learn more about. I think that's the first crucial step before you do anything else.

Assuming that you have selected your research area, you can look for researchers/professors that are defining the frontiers in that area and live in DE or CH. Once you shortlisted the names, which could take some time since you might need to visit each lab's website to find out more about its research, you should apply for all positions that you find interesting. Try to arrange interviews with the professors or group leaders and try to get an idea how your PhD life under his/her supervision would look like. Of course, it may be quite hard to extrapolate from a single interview but it is better than pure email conversation. Don't forget: PhD is kinda like a marriage with your supervisor. You need to get along with him/her really well.

By doing the interviews, you can narrow down possible destinations for your PhD. I would then look for other issues: salary, city, culture etc.

I know the salaries in Zurich and in DE since I lived and worked in both places as PhD student. In Zurich, the salaries are well above the average PhD salaries. With 60% employment (e.g., biology PhDs or some first year CS PhDs) you get ca. 3'000 CHF after taxes. For a 100% employment your salary becomes ca. 4'500 CHF after taxes, which is around triple the money you can make as a PhD in DE. Of course, the city is more expensive but you end up having more money in your back account compared to a PhD in DE.

However, as I said above, your PhD topic and your supervisor's personality are much more important than your income. You should never forget about that.

  • I completely agree with what you say. I would prefer working with a demanding but understanding supervisor for less money, rather than working for a supervisor who is grumpy and robotic. Very Nice point from you! – Kristof Tak Feb 11 '14 at 11:47
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In Switzerland, the application is quite straightforward: you have to contact the research group that you are interested to work with. There is no national selection or competition. PhD in Switzerland are usually better paid than in Germany but the salary may vary from nothing or CHF 2000 up to CHF 7000 per month. I mean, in Switzerland working conditions are very liberal and depends more on the competition with the market. Typically computer scientists or engineers will get more than archaeologists or biologists. More resources like open positions and careers tips are available at myScience.ch a national website dedicated to researchers and engineers

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I can speak for Germany universities and, with a good approximation, for Max Planck Institutes: Usually, you can apply for a Ph.D. position whenever you want (typically, with a CV) but you will be hired if and only if your favorite supervisor has by chance some unallocated funds. Unlike in other countries (say, France or Italy) there are no regular rounds of openings that allow a large number of graduate students, funded by the University or Institute as a whole, to simultaneously begin their doctoral studies.

There are essentially two exceptions:

1) You apply to a graduate schools, mostly funded by the DFG (German Research Council): Again, you can only be admitted if there are some unallocated funds, but it is often the School that accepts your application, and you might be able to switch from one supervisor to another one once you're in.

2) You receive a grant from a third party, typically a foundation: there are many, mostly linked to political parties or religious institutions (and in that case you will have to prove that you are close to the political/social/religious vision of that specific foundation) or to companies. Once you bring your own funds and sometimes a small overhead, it is likely that most professors will be willing to supervise your studies.

In any case, you will be usually hired as a wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (in bureaucratic language, the corresponding code is TV-L E13), whose net wage will oscillate between 1.600€ and 2.200€/month. CAUTION! In many fields (e.g. in mine: Maths) it is very usual (and sometimes even required by the DFG) that graduate students are hired only on a part time basis, you may see opening for something like "TV-L E13 (66%)". Even if you have a part-time position, very strict rules determine whether you can have a side job.

(In most German universities you may enrol as a Ph.D. student: this will cost you little money (~120€/term) but will get you some benefits - cheaper meals in the university restaurant, cheaper bus/metro tickets and so on.)

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