Consider Motivation and Current Situation

Why Do I Want to Do a Doctorate and Under What Conditions?

Thinking about your motivation and present situation is an important first step towards preparing for a doctorate. This will be the basis for many other decisions you will have to make – e.g. which university would you like to go to, who you would like to supervise your doctorate, which type of funding is appropriate for you – all these are dependent on the objectives you are pursuing through a doctorate.


Why do a doctorate?

Whether you choose to write on the topic of your earlier dissertation (e.g. master’s) or on another area of research that is relevant and important to you – by choosing to take on a doctoral thesis you may have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the topic, to concentrate on aspects that particularly interest you and will develop expertise in the field. And who knows, you may even end up contributing to the solution of a pressing research or social problem.

If you are motivated by a particular topic, the following questions may be useful to you:

  • Who would be the best supervisor and which the best university/college for me?
    Are there any structured programmes or collaborative research projects that could be relevant to my research field?
  • Is there funding available that is specific to my topic area?
  • In which subject-related (possibly also interdisciplinary) context is the topic located? In which field would I like to/can I do a doctorate?
  • Do I have the necessary formal requirements to do a doctorate in this subject/field? What sort of methodological skills do I need, which am I lacking, and how can I acquire them?
  • What does the topic mean to me?

Did you find research fascinating during your earlier studies? Does a career in research or academia appeal to you? If so, a doctorate is the right choice for you. With the exception of genuine doctoral positions, a large proportion of academic/research jobs at universities and non-university research institutions require a doctorate. A doctorate is also a welcome and often required qualification in research management, as well as for management positions in non-university institutions such as museums, educational institutions, etc.

The doctorate allows you to increase your academic qualifications and via a thesis and final oral examination shows that you are capable of sustained and independent academic work. However, it is worth remembering that even an excellent doctorate is no automatic guarantee of an academic career.

Currently, there are only a few permanent positions in research and teaching below the professorship level at universities in German-speaking countries. Accordingly, the path to a professorship is likely to be a long, often uncertain and sometimes insecure one, which at the same time demands a high level of commitment, flexibility and mobility. Whether or not there is any real prospect of a professorship in the end remains unpredictable depending as it does on developments in your field as well as university policy agendas. At the present time there are attempts being made in Germany to bring greater certainty into post-doctoral career paths through such means as tenure-track professorships. Traditional career paths continue in parallel via habilitation or an equivalent postdoctoral qualification.

Possessing a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences, however, will qualify you for a wide variety of careers both within and beyond academia. So, it can be worthwhile to begin looking at the various options during your studies and, if and when opportunities such as professional experience, internships, stays abroad, self-employment etc. should arise, to give them a try.

Further information and advice

In business, administration, politics, charitable foundations, the media, cultural institutions, archives and museums – in Germany it is very common to meet people with doctoral degrees outside of academia as well, especially in middle and upper management positions.

Despite this however there are no easy answers to the question of whether a doctorate is also worthwhile for people in non-university careers. That depends very much on the field, career goals, the industry in question and other personal circumstances. The conditions in medicine – where the title “doctor” is still very often associated with the professional goal of a medical doctor – or in the natural sciences – where a doctorate is often a necessary qualification criterion for a career in industry – cannot be transferred in any simplified way to the humanities and social sciences. In most cases, other qualifications and experience are required along with the thesis in order to make a successful switch to the non-university job market after the doctorate.

A part-time doctorate has the advantage of allowing you to gain valuable work experience during the doctorate. On the other hand, this can mean having less time available to work on your thesis. In this case, learning to manage your time efficiently is crucial as it is important to avoid spending all your free time, weekends and holidays with the doctoral project.

Help with mental health issues is available at the Psychotherapeutische Beratungstelle (Mental Health Services), where individual counselling, short-term psychotherapy and a range of courses on various topics (including procrastination) as well as online advice on writing is to be found Online-Beratung bei Schreibproblemen (in German only)

Some of the degree programmes in the humanities and social sciences lead towards a relatively clearly defined career goal, such as lawyer, teacher or psychologist. Most however are not so clearly defined and the variety and diversity of possible career paths they open up can be rather overwhelming. Job openings for graduates that are specifically targeted at particular subject areas are a rarity in many humanities subjects as well as some social sciences subjects. So why not stay on at the university for the time being, take your existing research interest further, acquire additional qualifications through a doctorate and maximise your chances of a successful entry to the job market?

If these are questions you are asking yourself, then it may make sense to seek appropriate advice, e.g. from the Career Service at JGU. You can discuss your motivation, weigh up the possible benefits of a doctorate for your career advancement, or think about some alternatives you may not have even considered.

Taking on a doctorate simply because of a lack of concrete alternatives is usually not a good idea.

It is very common for professors or other lecturers to approach advanced students on their own initiative to ask whether they are interested in doing a doctorate, perhaps even offering them a doctoral position if, for example, they have performed well in a course or final assignment, or if they have proven themselves as a student assistant or research assistant. A good relationship and mutual respect between a doctoral candidate and their supervisor are essential elements for a successful doctorate.

But even if you receive such an offer, you should not automatically or rashly reject other options. It is important to give thorough consideration to your motivation for doing a doctorate, to think about your expectations and any other important factors. Once  you have made a decision in favour of a doctorate, you should also think about where you can best realise your project and find the best supervisor(s).

That may well be at another university/college/school (possibly even abroad) or another supervisor. So, it's worth finding out about other opportunities in your field as well as in related disciplines and asking questions such as:

  • Which institutes and supervisors are relevant to your dissertation topic and the method(s) you want to use?
  • Does the supervisor you are considering have strong professional connections in the research community?
  • How does the topic you want to deal with fit into current academic debates?


What reasons might you have for deciding not to do a doctorate?

Almost all doctoral students will experience problems in the course of writing their dissertations: the topic may have to be modified, funding difficulties arise, life circumstances change, people begin to ask awkward questions about the time you are taking…so it makes sense to tackle possible stumbling blocks from the outset, to weigh up the pros and cons before coming to a final decision for or against taking up a doctorate.

There is little reliable data available on the average time taken to do a doctorate in Germany, or on the percentage of doctorates that, once started, are actually completed. In the case of structured doctoral programmes there is usually an expected duration of three years, but the actual length of time in the humanities and social sciences can be longer. A realistic time schedule is important.

Doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences are often highly motivated when they begin work on their thesis/project and strongly identify with the objectives of academic research and with their own topic. But they also have a tendency to be over ambitious when defining their research question. During the doctorate they discover that their topic is taking much more time and effort than they had expected. The research topic has to be narrowed down, the corpus reduced, and at the end of the dissertation the realisation dawns that they have fallen well short of addressing all the questions they had set themselves.

Such experiences shouldn’t be seen as failure, but rather as part of academic socialisation and of the doctoral qualification process. It is normal practice in the natural and life sciences for doctoral students to work together in research groups on what appear, from the outside, to be relatively small subproblems, and by doing so to achieve scientific progress together. In some humanities and social sciences, however, the image of the lonely scholar at a desk in an ivory tower still prevails. Yet there are many opportunities for you – before and alongside the publication of your dissertation – to make an impact on the academic community and also on society. Research Communication and research mediation as well as the transfer of research results into practice are now regarded as the "third mission" of universities and research institutions. Perhaps your topic is connected to your work experience or to some voluntary work you are doing? Or maybe you would like to present your results on social media or in a blog? Shorter academic articles can often generate more attention than a bulky thesis. Attending and actively participating in conferences, meetings, congresses or young researchers' meetings can also enable you to focus on and better convey the relevance of your topic.

The question of relative degrees of uncertainty is a central one in reaching any decision for or against a doctorate. The amount of insecurity you are prepared to face to do a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences has to be considered alongside the importance you attach to other priorities in your life – personal priorities and values need to be weighed up against academic ambitions. Getting some guidance and advice tailored to your individual needs can help you to identify and order your priorities.