I have been searching and applying for funded PhD positions in Europe specially in Germany for a long time to no avail. I think, what pushes my applications back the most is the lack of proven prior research experience and also academic references. Each time I spend a good time researching the position and reading relevant publications and meticulously preparing my application.

A brief background on me: got a course-based master's degree in CS (3 years ago) with a fairly good GPA (not top of the class, from a competitive university in my home country), familiar with major theoretical subjects (e.g approximation, CG, randomization etc.), 30 years old and +3 years work experience in industry.

I had no master's thesis but instead took more courses than a research-based program. Despite being confident that I can manage a research job well, still couldn't convince a single professor to choose me over other candidates. I love algorithms and their analysis and I want to grow my knowledge deeper and contribute with my best hard work. But it seems to me that high motivation and a good background and potentials is not worthy and maybe a hard proof of prior research is necessary. Although I had few research activities, but they were no close to a full research which ends up with publications.

I quit a software development job in Germany only for the purpose of finding a PhD position. I find pure development soul sucking and short of the challenges like in CS and too mundane. I know at this point of life it's late (if not too late) to think of these stuff but you should know things are not normal in my country and I had a difficult life during my education, otherwise for sure I could have had a more appealing CV.

Here is the question. Could it be more than a lack of research experience? maybe my age and not looking fresh compared to recent graduates? could it be my works in industry? For some reasons I feel there is something that depicts me not DESERVING the positions or tagging me as a tech enthusiast with little respect for theory.

I read other similar answers but they didn't quite match. This has become very frustrating and thinking of going back to basic coding jobs would be like throwing away all I strove for. There might be folks reading this with similar experience or those involved with candidate selection. Any help will be very much appreciated.

  • 1
    Is your main problem getting a PhD or a funded PhD position? The latter is indeed more complicated.
    – John
    Mar 3, 2016 at 21:58
  • @John a funded PhD. Actually in Germany some positions are like jobs with a decent salary.
    – Parham
    Mar 4, 2016 at 12:05

3 Answers 3


References Do you have academic references? You did not mention this. The fact that you have not done research beforehand is detrimental, but it is not the be all and end all. You need references, from researchers known in the field you want to work in. Your experience in industry can be beneficial, but my feeling is that you want to do theoretical work then your prior experience will not help you.

Research You probably do not have any papers. This is not a problem for all areas, but for algorithmics I suspect it will be. For example, you will need to demonstrate your analytical skills. You can, however, write a paper for a workshop. I would suggest try getting in contact with any academics you know in the area you are interested in and ask if they have any non-paid internships. You will need guidance for writing your first paper and it might be the extra thing you need on your CV. Many places want a sample of your writing/research.

Also, have a look outside of Germany. In particular: Sweden, The Netherlands - and - the UK (because I have seen the entry requirements are a bit lower here).

  • 2
    Thanks for taking time to write this. I managed to get a full position as PhD student in Denmark by building a research relationship with a researcher. Not having references was actually the biggest problem. I graduated with a quality master's degree and took many courses in theoretical subjects in my country but with a big down side: it was a course based program therefore no thesis was allowed and consequently no strong reference. Anyway, I was very much wrong limiting my options to Germany as it wasted my time let alone the frustration.
    – Parham
    Mar 6, 2017 at 22:02

I have been in your situation, my first instinct tells me that you need to look into some developing jobs that pays and are challenging. So here are my couple of points:

How Well Is Your Personal Life?: I did obtained PhD in Computer Science and worked both as a lecturer and developer; and let me tell you that the "soul sucking" thing, needs to be deal with as a personal life solution and not professional. I did seen both academics and developers to be out of touch in personal wellness, and lived a very dark and sad life; that is nothing to do with what they are doing professionally.

Age/Industry Isn't the Issue: While I was doing my PhD, a friend of mine who was 70 years old, built 2 software companies and sold them all, retired; and start doing PhD because feels like it. So, neither age or industry isn't a problem.

What sort of developer? Ok, this might look funny but actually it is important to know what sort of software developer job you are doing? Were you dealing with old legacy software that you needed to maintained so it made you frustrated; or you were doing Web front-end stuff, which is a combination of taste and coding and not too much "science". If you are into logic related stuff, have you ever tried back-end development jobs? This is something you need to think about.

Challenges As a Developer: You mentioned the developing jobs is not challenging. I was shocked! There are so many challenges today in industry, that people are trying to figure out. Look into cluster/distributed computing, containers, operating systems, wearable technologies and all their overall networking paradigms, and so on. You can also try to get some jobs which are challenging; so you could feel to void you are feeling, instead of spending the next year betting on being a lecturer. This brings me to the next point.

Lectureships: You might think, well I study couple of years as a PhD student and then Boom! I'm a lecturer in Germany or Europe. This is not true. Right now the trend in Europe is close to madness, to become a lecturer you should do some serious research, or coming from a huge research-based company (e.g., Google, etc.). Moreover, compare to industry, the payment is not very well; and the hours you have to put up with students, meetings, etc. are too much.

  • Despite being a backend developer I still couldn't enjoy it as a life long path. But as you pointed out I think there are other dev jobs closer to my taste. What I will heed from your advice is, when I get back to development, to avoid the dark and sad path, I'll try to see a the job as only a job not something to necessarily enjoy and be happy with and will deal with its problems as life problems. It's real life and sometimes we have to accept whatever it offers and forget about ideals and dreams. Thank you very much for your answer.
    – Parham
    Mar 4, 2016 at 12:38
  • @MahmoudA. Yes, good. I'm glad I could help a little bit.
    – o-0
    Mar 4, 2016 at 16:55

The reality is that you can speculate all day long, but without evidence one way or the other, you are unlikely to elucidate what sank your applications. This is because you have never been in a situation where you had to evaluate applications yourself, so you lack the experience of what those who evaluate applications look for. Since we do not know your application, we can also not tell for sure.

There is nothing you can do about this by yourself without outside help. The only way you can find out about the factors that spoke against you is if you talk to someone who makes these decisions, and show them your application. One possibility would be to see if one of those who you applied with is willing to talk to you.

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