Andreas Zeller

Andreas Zeller (high resolution photo)

Andreas Zeller is faculty at the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security and professor for Software Engineering at Saarland University, both in Saarbrücken, Germany. His research on automated debugging, mining software archives, specification mining, and security testing has proven highly influential. Zeller is an ACM Fellow and holds an ACM SIGSOFT Outstanding Research Award.

Mail:  zeller@cispa.saarland
Phone:  +49 681 302-70971
Twitter:  @AndreasZeller

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1 July 2020

What's it like to be a PhD student in Germany

by Andreas Zeller

This post originally appeared on Twitter on July 1. The text is unchanged; I have added subtitles and links for your convenience.

What’s it like to be a PhD student in Germany? You can get paid, and well. You can afford a car, an apartment, and provide for a family. You may work with great advisors at great institutions. And the food… well, the food. Read on!

Salary

As a PhD student in Germany in computer science and engineering, you typically are an employee of your university or research institution - and thus get paid! A typical 100% contract at the “E13” level starts with ~4,000 EUR/month and increases over time.

Does this sound like a decent salary? Yes! But keep in mind that this is before taxes, pension funds, and mandatory health and unemployment insurance. This leaves you with ~2/3 of this salary in your pocket.

But you get something for the 1/3 you pay. Germany has universal health insurance, and one of the best health systems, too; see its handling of COVID-19. If you are sick, if you lose your job - you are covered. Your family is included, too.

How far does your net salary get you? In the middle of Munich, you may have to pay 50% of your salary for a tiny apartment. But in my city (Saarbrücken), my PhD students could afford to rent a two-story house (walking distance) with a garden, and provide for spouse and kids.

Also, you get paid for 12 months/year, and get about six weeks of paid holidays. Many of my students enjoy Summer internships at Google, Facebook, and the like; but money-wise, there’s no need for that. You get your own office, typically shared with 1-2 colleagues.

For your salary, you’re expected to do scientific work (duh!), resulting in your PhD thesis. At a university, you’ll help with teaching (tutoring students, help with exercises and exams). Work at research institutions like Max Planck or Helmholtz involves less to no teaching.

Language

Language! At many departments, German is the day-to-day language, so you may want to learn some. Luckily, German and English are close siblings, so getting from English to “Deutsch” is well feasible. “Brot” means “Bread”. “Haus” means “House”. “Doktor” is “Doctor”. See?

The need to speak German is much less at the higher end of universities and research institutions. Max Planck Institutes commonly have English as their working language. In my place (CISPA), English is the default language for everything.

In some departments, English is also the norm in teaching. In Saarland computer science, all MSc and most BSc courses come in English. This makes it easy for you to teach and get in touch with students (who again come from across the world).

In university cities, you’ll always find someone who speaks sufficient English. In German schools, English is the dominating second language; and as Germany is in the center of Europe, Germans are used to foreign languages.

Working Conditions

German universities generally offer good working conditions, with much smaller differences (and arguably, a higher mean) than, say, in the US. The top research institutions (Max Planck and Helmholtz) easily compete with the best universities in the world.

Differences between advisors, however, can be huge. Your PhD advisor also is your boss, which gives her or him lots of responsibility. Check out her or his performance as an academic and as a mentor; these make all the difference.

Some departments and institutions (mine :-) take responsibility as a whole to get you towards your PhD. You are PhD student of a school (say, the Saarbrücken Graduate School of Computer Science), not of a single professor; and the school takes care of you.

Also - no tuition fees! Yes, studying in Germany is essentially free for most programs. Your job thus is safe independent of whether students enroll or not (hey, COVID-19!). Also, students do not feel entitled to some grade simply because they pay your salary.

Research Funding

Research funding. Simply put, you are in paradise. Universities typically grant professors permanent funding for PhD students and PostDocs. In computer science and engineering, this is typically one to four 100% positions, plus equipment, travel, etc.

At top research institutions, this permanent funding can be even higher. Every day I enter my office, I have to remind myself of how lucky I am.

On top of this permanent funding, your advisor can apply for additional positions - and actually get them. At DFG, about 30% of grant proposals get funded - typically 1-2 PhD positions for 2-3 years, travel, etc. Do good research and meet great people!

But beware! All of the above applies to engineering and computer science, where salaries are competitive and money flows easily. In other fields, the situation as a PhD student is more dire, and you may have to live from a smaller contract or stipend. Is this fair? No.

Food, Weather, and Friends

Food! German beer, bread, and sausage are among the best in the world. Since not everyone can live on these all year long, there’s Chinese, Indian, French, Italian, Thai, Japanese restaurants galore. Essentially, you can find all food flavors. Even English.

Weather-wise, most of Germany is in a temperate zone, with four seasons, all relatively mild (although summer tends to get hotter and hotter). There’s cold rain in November and December; make these your “productive” months. For your first visit, come in May, June, or September.

Things to discover: The loony rites of German carnival. High speed on the Autobahn. Five colors for bins for five kinds of trash. The words “Zug” and “Schlag”, which can be prefixed with anything. Germans standing in front of a red pedestrian light, with no car in sight.

All these will be things to remember, and make your PhD worthwhile. Best of all, you’ll be with others, jointly studying Germany, and studying in Germany. And if Germany is the place where you find a friend, it’ll be for life. Just like your PhD :-)

See the Twitter thread for comments and reactions.

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