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I have come across this iGRAD-Plant PhD program for early career scientists in plant biology, which is a joint effort of the Heinrich Heine University, Research Center Jülich and the Graduate Program in Genetics at Michigan State University (USA). It is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), as International Research Training Groups 2466 Network, exchange, and training program to understand plant resource allocation (NEXTplant). The DFG is entirely state-funded.

It differs from the usual German graduate school program, as far as I know it, in multiple ways:

  1. As an early career scientist program, it allows bachelor graduates to be admitted to a PhD program.
  2. It comprises of a 1-year qualification period followed by a 3-year doctoral research period. During both phases obtaining a M.Sc. is possible.
  3. It denies students holding a master’s degree from entering this program.

Point 1 is unusual for the EU, but usual for the US. Gaining a M.Sc. during your PhD studies is also not uncommon in the US. However, even in the US programs, I have never seen any admission bans on master degree holders.

Stackexchange questions here and here suggest that having a master's degree might devalue your potential as a budding researcher. Earning multiple PhDs is also not commonplace in Europe, with most PhD programs excluding any PhD holders.

In this program aimed at young researchers with greater potential, the opportunity to start a PhD program as a bachelor graduate is already quite uncommon in Germany.

  1. Why would this PhD training program explicitly exclude master degree holders from applying?
  2. Would this be considered discriminatory against master degree holders?
  3. Is this kind of early career scientists PhD program commonplace somewhere else in the world?
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    As for your question 2: Of course it discriminates against master degree holders, by definition. But master degree holders are not a protected group in any jurisdiction in the world, so it is perfectly legal to discriminate against them.
    – TonyK
    Mar 16 at 19:37
  • The "1-year qualification period" in point 2 may be intended as a substitute for what would be done in a masters program, so it would be inappropriate for students who have already gone through such a program. Mar 16 at 23:26
  • 800 euros per month during the qualification year is not that bad, to be a student, but then the position paid at 50%-65% is a terrible offer. That would explain why they do not want Master's degree holders: they would run away to a better paid position in very short time.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 17 at 17:03

2 Answers 2

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A reason to exclude Master's degree holders is if the international graduate school is planned to only accept those with a Bachelor's degree as highest academic degree.

The money for this graduate schools comes from the DFG, which has a set of rules regarding what can be applied for. This document lists what can be applied for in the scope of the module "Research Training Group". Point 1.4 are "Qualifying Fellowships" that are limited to one year and intended to be used for those with a Bachelor's degree already (which, somewhat surprisingly, is only written in the German version of the document).

So in their grant/training group proposal, this module has been applied for and it got funded by the DFG. Now, money for these qualifying fellowships cannot be used for other purposes, such as financing those that have a Master's already, without the DFG agreeing to change of fund usage.

However, for everything that is applied for, there needs to be a compelling (scientific) reason for why the DFG should fund this. If they now fund a substantial number of doctoral candidates/students that already have a Master's degree, the original reason written in the grant application can easily be questioned later. This is not great when trying to get grants in the future (such as for a second funding phase of a graduate school).

Of course, they could just return some money for the DFG for unused qualifying scholarships. But if they planned the graduate school in cohorts with joint activities, the members of the training group then do not do their work in a synchronized way - some students will still be in their qualification phase, while others already started their three-year core research phase. This may interfere with the scientific concept of the graduate training group.

Finally, returning money to the DFG means that some overhead funds also need to be returned, so from the point of view of the university, they are then wasted (but the taxpayer certainly doesn't mind).

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  • I am quite certain that the taxpayer won't get that money back...
    – silvado
    Jun 7 at 7:58
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This is a general answer from a US person but it attempts to give perspective on such things and some of the thinking behind them, though not from a specific German perspective.

The normal doctoral program in Germany requires a masters at entry. The aren't open to those with with only a bachelors. This turns it around.

But the general principle here is if the funding comes from a governmental agency, then they probably want it well spent and not wasted. The structure of the program likely includes those things that other students would learn within a masters and the resources for that would be wasted on those who already have those skills and that knowledge.

It may be that the program is highly structured without a lot of options, so it is open only to those who are most likely to benefit from it.

In the US, most doctoral students enter with only a bachelors. Those with a masters aren't closed out, but follow a different path and the path isn't highly structured in general. Take some advanced courses, pass qualifying exams, write a dissertation. A masters student on entry may be ready for the exams so their path is shorter from that point. But this wouldn't be possible in a highly structured program. Your point 2 suggests that there is a lot of structure.

For those with a masters in Germany, the normal path to a doctorate is still open. They just choose this as an alternative and don't want to dilute it. I suspect that it is an experiment to see how students in such a program will turn out compared to the normal path. So, the system in general, isn't discriminatory.

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  • I disagree with In the US, most doctoral students enter with only a bachelors. This is field specific. For example, natural resource programs such as the Fisheries Program at the University of Washington usually expect an MS degree to get into PhD programs. Mar 16 at 20:54
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    @RichardErickson, I stand by the statement. Not every such program is like that, but the majority are. Most are able to earn a masters along the way. Some places all you need to do is ask, others you write a small "thesis". I'd guess the program you point to is relatively small, compared to, say, math or cs. A bigger deal in Washington than some other states, of course.
    – Buffy
    Mar 16 at 20:58
  • Your notion is very possible. But might it also be possible that ultimate MS candidates, i.e. those who are doing a 2 year MS as an end product and not as a prelude to a PhD given satisfactory performance, may have a lower entry GPA from their primary degree than ultimate PhD candidates? In other words they seek more academically able candidates for these studentships. (I do not suggest that they will prove better researchers.)
    – Trunk
    Mar 16 at 23:13

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