Successfully obtaining a doctoral degree requires independent research which generates new academic conclusions. Doctoral candidates have to demonstrate that they meet the doctoral requirements by writing a comprehensive academic thesis – the dissertation – followed by a final oral exam, either in the form of a viva voce (“Rigorosum”) or disputation/thesis defense. As an alternative to the traditional dissertation, many disciplines offer a cumulative doctorate: Instead of a monograph, the doctoral candidates submit different papers for publication in journals which should be as renowned as possible. These publications form one overall performance and are evaluated as such.

Admission to a doctoral program usually requires a university degree. In exceptional cases, especially gifted students may already be admitted to their doctoral studies after having completed their bachelor studies (fast track). Special provisions apply to applicants holding a university of applied sciences degree and those having passed the first State Examination for Teaching at Primary and General Secondary Schools (“Hauptschule”) and Special Schools or Secondary Schools (“Realschule”). The exact admission requirements are set out in the respective doctoral degree regulations of the faculties.

There are different methods of passing through this qualification phase. In Germany, the most common model is the individual doctorate where doctoral candidates work on a research question of their own choice under the supervision of a university teacher. Planning and managing the doctoral phase, attending supplementing training and educational courses as well as funding are the doctoral candidate’s own responsibilities. The duration of the doctoral phase may vary by reason of different framework conditions – such as the nature of funding (employment at the university, external employment or scholarship).

Through systematic supervision, structured doctoral programs such as research training groups and graduate schools or doctoral studies programs often enable their students to a faster completion of their doctorate than those pursuing an individual doctorate. Structured doctoral programs, first and foremost the Research Training Groups funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and other institutions (Max Planck Research Schools, Hans Böckler Foundation), have become an integral part of Germany’s academic landscape. Their goal is to reduce the duration of the doctoral qualification phase, systematically promote and support qualified young researchers and enable them to acquire additional key competences.

Binational doctoral degree assessment procedures, so called Cotutelle de Thèse procedures, can be carried out in the course of an individual doctorate as well as a structured doctoral program. In addition to the supervision at the doctoral candidate’s home university, this procedure also includes the participation of a supervisor from a foreign university as well as research visits there to work on the thesis. The respective terms of the agreement are determined by individual cooperation contracts between both universities. The dissertation is usually written in one of the two national languages and supplemented by a summary in the other language, respectively.