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Background

I'm an American who will be starting a pure math PhD at a relatively prestigious US public university later this month (I realize that it might seem pointless ask a question about a program I haven't yet begun; however, I think that my question is basically independent of these concerns.)

Moving to Europe is one of my goals in life (just to clarify, it has been since before 2016), and while applying to grad schools I seriously contemplated studying in Germany. However, friends and former professors, as well as professors from my current PhD program, with whom I spoke while visiting, advised me that it would likely be much easier to find a research job if I completed a PhD from an American university. Based on this advice, I accepted the offer from my current program.

It seems to me now, however, that this advice is likely false—while I have heard that German academia is considered to be quite closed to outsiders, it seems that there are quite a few mathematicians with PhDs from German universities who have acquired desirable research positions outside of Germany, and my impression is that a PhD from a well-regarded German university is quite competitive on the international and the European job market. Moreover, it seems questionable to me that a PhD from a moderately/relatively prestigious American university would give one an edge in the academic job market outside the US (perhaps I'm wrong, here, though).

Given this situation, I am considering applying to a Master's program at a certain German university which is quite strong in my area of interest, and which also seems to have some connections with my current program (in terms of research collaboration), with the intention of completing a PhD at the same university afterward. In terms of personal preference, I would (based on prior experience) much prefer to be residing in Germany, so continuing on at my current program doesn't seem appealing if it's not likely to be more advantageous in terms of finding a job in Europe after finishing my PhD.

Questions

  • Is it likely that leaving my PhD program for a Master's in Germany after a year would damage my career prospects?
  • In this or a similar set of circumstances, is it possible to leave one's PhD program without burning bridges completely?
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    Have you ever visited Germany before? It might be a good idea to go on holiday there (to the town/ city where your preferred university is) to get an idea of what it's like, before committing to live there for ~2 years. – astronat Aug 12 '17 at 6:45
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    you are ready to make a life-changing decision based on what you heard? To leave a prestigious US PhD program for a German MSc? One thing is certain though: if you are committed to be in Germany, for whatever reasons, one way or another, then yes, it might make sense to abandon your program and start from scratch everything. A warning though: even a mildly prestigious PhD from an American university is considered highly reputable in maths in Europe (except maybe in Paris/France which has an unbelievably rich tradition in maths) – PsySp Aug 12 '17 at 10:47
  • @astronat I have visited Germany for about a month, though I haven't yet been to the city where the university is—I've heard it's relatively affordable for students, though, which is a nice thought. Another factor is that the location of my current program is, well, decidedly unappealing, so that the prospect of sending five years there seems rather bleak, in a way. – user78395 Aug 12 '17 at 16:50
  • @PsySp Part of the appeal of the university to which I am contemplating transferring is that (as far as I can tell) the research group in my area of interest seems to be quite well-regarded internationally—that, roughly, was my reasoning. Thank you for the warning; I will certainly take that into consideration. – user78395 Aug 12 '17 at 17:08
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At least in Europe PhD students quit/ change their plans reasonably often, so it is something professors are used to to some extent. If you explain it, I doubt there would be serious ill feelings. However, it probably hurts your chances for positions in that department in the near future/mid-term.

At least in Europe, PhDs from nations with respected education systems are largely looked at as similar by many employers with a bonus for it being from internationally known universities (sometimes even if the particular subject is not the university's strength). A PhD from a known US university would certainly give you options for coming to Germany later (depending on your language skills at large multinational companies that operate in English or smaller companies that may work predominantly in German). In case out matters to you: German mathematics departments have a reputation as quite theoretical, even for more applied flavours of mathematics (e.g. statistics). Many course will be solely in German, so check that, if it matters for you.

  • "In case out matters to you: German mathematics departments have a reputation as quite theoretical, even for more applied flavours of mathematics (e.g. statistics)." Actually, this seems appealing to me, given my interests. And the language concerns would likely not be a problem. I am wondering whether leaving my current department might give me a bad reputation within my field, or damage my chances for positions in other departments as well, though. – user78395 Aug 12 '17 at 18:55
  • As I said, my impression is that most people see leaving a PhD (particularly a research-based one that would take many years) in one place as one of those things that happens, but of course it is hard to be certain about how people would take it. I don't know how well-linked up your field is, but I am not sure a professor at another university would even notice a PhD student quitting somewhere else. Perhaps someone might infer something negative when they see it in your CV(e.g. "X does not seem to finish things"). However, how unhappy are you? Is finishing the PhD and then moving an option? – Björn Aug 13 '17 at 5:23
  • Yes, finishing my PhD and then moving would certainly be possible—my concern with that option is that the location of my current program is, well, rather dreary, so that the prospect of staying there really doesn't seem appealing, unless it would be significantly more advantageous with regard to my long-term goals. But thank you—I think I will try to resolve the question by weighing the placement records and relative levels of prestige of my current department and the department to which I am considering moving vis-à-vis exactly how much I would prefer to be somewhere else. – user78395 Aug 13 '17 at 17:46
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    @PynchonRiemannRoch "my concern with that option is that the location of my current program is, well, rather dreary, so that the prospect of staying there really doesn't seem appealing, unless it would be significantly more advantageous with regard to my long-term goals" > I don't know where you're currently based, but if you think where you currently are is dreary compared to Germany, be aware that many "famous" German universities are in small towns full of only students and pensioners... and nearly all students leave on Friday afternoon to go back to their parents' for the weekend. – errantlinguist Aug 17 '17 at 17:43
  • Yes, true that might be a surprise for people from education systems, where university students are concentrated on a campus with dormatories etc., which tends to lead to a more active social life. Since a lot of German universities are not regarded as all that different at the Bachelor/Master level, many students choose to stay close to home and those that move to a new town often have to find private accomodation (with one common model being a flat, in which each student has a single room and the kitchen & bathroom are communal). – Björn Aug 17 '17 at 18:24
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  • Is it likely that leaving my PhD program for a Master's in Germany after a year would damage my career prospects?

Yes: A Master's degree in Germany is considered by many people (and pretty much everyone over 50 or so) to be baseline education: In other words, it's the bare minimum you can have and expect to get a job in a relevant field. Yes, the times, they are a-changin', especially in e.g. software development, but "only" having a Bachelor's is still something of an anomaly: The Bologna Process has changed the structure of German university education but has not (yet) changed German culture and expectations.

Therefore, you'd be going from a culture with relatively lower educational expectations (the US, where a Master's degree hold a lot of weight and a PhD even more so) to a country with higher expectations and you're going down one educational level.

Likewise, it's possible that a well-known PhD program will be acknowledged in Germany in relevant field(s), but there are fewer German universities that are so amazingly well-known that they're acknowledged in the US. After all, the US is about the size of all of Europe, so it makes a bit of sense that the US is more insular than Germany is.

  • In this or a similar set of circumstances, is it possible to leave one's PhD program without burning bridges completely?

It isn't exactly the same as leaving to get a Master's somewhere else, but it is possible that you could work on building a relationship and rapport with groups in Germany which do work similar to what you do and then ask them if you could spend some time there as a visiting researcher. This way you'd not burn bridges at your current department while still allowing you to experience how it is to live and do research in Germany. Also, you'd end up with a PhD in the end rather than just a Master's, which would make it much easier to move to Germany after the program should you wish to do so.

  • " A Master's degree in Germany is considered by many people (and pretty much everyone over 50 or so) to be baseline education: In other words, it's the bare minimum you can have and expect to get a job in a relevant field. " I do not believe that this is the case for pure math masters which aim to prepare you for an upcoming PhD. On top of that, from what I've heard, some universities have very tense programmes, for example learning derivatives on a Banach space in year 1 and measure theory and topology in the 2nd year of undergrad. – Marko Karbevski Aug 12 '17 at 13:47
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    @errantlinguist Regarding your response to my first question: My apologies, I thought it was implicit in my post that I was considering completing a Master's and then a PhD in Germany—I will update the original post to make this more explicit. I've actually considered the option of attempting to spend time as a visiting researcher at the German university which I have in mind rather than leaving my current program—however, my concern is that it might be more practically advantageous for me to simply earn a degree from said university, in order to build more local connections. – user78395 Aug 12 '17 at 17:21
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    The OP title is even "Is it professionally viable to leave an American math PhD program for a Master's in Germany?"; I don't know how more misleading this question can be. Also, please note that a "Master's program in Germany" has absolutely no formal connection to a "PhD program in Germany": it's possible that if your professors like you and they have money that they may offer you a PhD position afterwards but this is in no way guaranteed and you will have to formally apply for admission to the PhD program. – errantlinguist Aug 12 '17 at 19:37
  • Looking back at my question, I do agree that my intention was less clearly expressed than I had thought. Depending on the details of the situation (the relative levels of prestige of the two universities, their placement records, the likelihood of finding a desirable PhD position if I left my current program for a Master's program, etc.), I may decide to follow your advice and earn a degree at my current university while attempting to secure a "visiting scholar" position at the German university which I have been considering. Thanks for your advice. – user78395 Aug 13 '17 at 18:23

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