Considering a PhD in Germany

In my decision to pursue higher education abroad, I considered several potential desitinations. Top on my list were English-speaking countries in the following order: USA, Canada, UK and Australia. The US fascinated me, Canada is next to the US :), the UK’s education system is familiar, and Australia would have been fun based on my knowledge from watching Neighbours, Home and Away, etc (an Australian duly informed me recently that those TV programmes were wildly unpopular in Australia, and are not representative of life in Australia–to my dismay). I made tens of applications to universities in these four countries (OK, maybe just one or two for each), and was either accepted without funding, or rejected flat out. This after the rigors of preparing and taking the GRE. I still remember words like canterkerous, augurous, and panegyric, and struggle not to use them in normal conversation.

Anyway, after multiple rejection letters and unfunded opportunities, I slowly begun to consider the possibility of studying in non-English-speaking Europe. My ranking system looked like this: Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and possibly Norway and Finland as a last resort. I toyed with this idea for months until a few friends nudged me towards giving Germany serious consideration. Why? “Since they do not speak English, and are not known for their wildly hospitable nature, you’ll focus on the PhD, do it in record time, and get the hell out of there!” This made sense at the time since, compared to the US and UK, there was a greater incentive to finish graduate school faster. In addition, PhD programmes in Germany are normally 3 years long. This is a short time when you consider the 5-year American PhDs and the 4-year MPhil-DPhil format in the UK. Also, the hospitality of English-speaking communities and the ease of integrating into such communities makes for comfortable living for a Kenyan. Thus the carrot/stick motivation to quickly finish grad school diminish somewhat. But the friendly comment that got me hooked went as follows: “Germany has a well established research tradition, and good work-ethic. Look at most of the world renowned scientists and intellectuals. Where are they from? Look at theory in almost any field. Who are the seminal authors? If you go to Germany, you will benefit from a strong intellectual culture, and develop the ideal research mindset.” Quite compelling.

This conversation prompted me to reconsider why I wanted to do a PhD. The usual reasons featured strongly in my list: a title (Dr. so and so, hmm? Doesn’t that command respect right off the bat?), the opportunities that came with the title e.g. some autonomy in academic activity, better access to research grants, better administrative posts dealing with less grunt-work, higher pay, and the ability to negotiate pay, better access to consulting projects, etc. In addition, I always felt a strong need to improve my analytical skills. There’s a certain level of reasoning and problem-solving ability that comes with higher education, particularly a doctoral degree. I wanted that. I wanted to expand my breadth and depth of knowledge. And since I like study for the sake of study, a doctoral program would give me the freedom to study whatever I wanted uninterrupted for months or years. While considering a German education, a few more reasons appeared on my list: tapping into a well-developed research culture; developing a strong sense of commitment to research as a way of venturing into the unknown; developing networking skills across cultures; experiencing and developing a different kind of work ethic. The long research tradition in particular was attractive to me.

Once convinced, I searched for a relevant programme. The search was long and arduous. Finding English programmes or English-speaking professors in the maze of German universities was taxing. Obviously I wasn’t going to subject myself to pursuing a whole graduate degree in a foreign language of which I only knew how to say Guten Morgen at the time. I looked at internal and external ranking sytsems. I ploughed through the DAAD and the DFG websites (where I found my current programme), visited the DAAD office in Nairobi for an extended conversation on German university education, talked to friends who were living or had lived in Germany, read a lot fo stufff on the Web, some of which almost discouraged me from relocating to Germany, etc. Eventually I took the plunge, though gingerly. I wrote emails, wrote motivation letters, compiled an application packet and sent it in. After a few nerve-wracking interviews, the evasive fully-funded acceptance letter arrived in my mailbox.

So here I am. One year in, I’m happy to report that German education does not disappoint. The commitment to research for the sake of research? It’s there. The work ethic? That deserves a full blog post. My mind has evolved in leaps and bounds in one year in more ways than one. My excitement for pursuing a research career has quadrupled. My sense of confidence as a researcher, though broken down to bits at the beginning, now continues to grow. I am slowly finding my voice as a scholar. My confidence interacting across cultures has grown, even with my smattering German. I have almost found my footing. Definitely no regrets here. This is not to imply that I haven’t had lows, shocks and surprises… in fact many posts in this blog will focus on those. But all in all, I’m glad I took the plunge.

So let’s see what the remaining two years in Germany have in store for me. Watch this space.


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