1 Recruiting North Americans for Doctoral Study in Germany An Assessment of German Universities' and Graduate Schools' Online Presence DAAD New York May 2009 Laura Montgomery Program & Information Officer, DAAD New York Catherine Detrow Research Assistant, DAAD New York
2 1 INTRODUCTION Over the past decade, European universities have recognized the need for reform, improvement, and rapid internationalization in order to remain competitive on the global higher education market and to attract the highest quality students and researchers from around the world. On the one hand, the Bologna Process has fostered the standardization of education requirements throughout the EU and, in many cases, has made them more easily compatible with North American degree structures and has fostered the growing number of international degree programs many of which are offered in English. But more significant in terms of the implications for the "European doctorate" and the recruitment of highly talented American researchers has been Germany's Excellence Initiative, which was designed to strengthen Germany as a leading science and research location, as well as improve its international image and reputation for higher education on a world class level. Not insignificantly, one of the funding lines focuses specifically on the creation of graduate schools, which were also a necessary component for success within the Initiative's most coveted "concept for the future" line of funding. Concurrent with these institutional reforms in Germany to make the universities more attractive for aspiring American students and researchers, the current economic recession may also lead to increased interest in doctoral education in Germany. Layoffs and salary freezes (including doctoral teaching assistants) are becoming common at public universities across the United States 1 ; and there is a steady trend at all universities to hire non tenured faculty, 2 making domestic employment prospects in many fields less promising. A number of private institutions with some of the most prestigious PhD programs in the US are reducing enrollment of new students most drastically in the humanities and social sciences, but in science and engineering as well 3. There is a supply of and, potentially, a growing demand for doctoral education in Germany, but often the biggest challenge is to make information about the offerings available and attractive to potential applicants in the US. Although there is a general paucity of research literature addressing graduate program student choice, preliminary studies show that the factors affecting how and why students choose particular graduate programs are location, program expenses and reputation, faculty research interests and funding. Yet while German research universities often express strong interest in attracting PhD students and post doctoral researchers from the US and Canada, anecdotal reports indicate that Americans are often confused and deterred by the lack of Internet based, English language information about precisely the abovementioned decision influencing factors. Complaints include poor navigability, and unclear texts about the peculiarities of doctoral study/research at German institutions, program costs, application procedures, etc. 1 For example, this year Arizona State University eliminated more than 500 jobs, including deans, department chairmen and hundreds of teaching assistants, the University of Florida recently eliminated 430 faculty and staff positions, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, fired about 100 employees 2 The proportion of non tenured instructional staff in US higher education increased from 66 to 73% between 1997 and 2007 (American Federation of Teachers. (2009) "American Academic: The State of the Higher Education Workforce " 07for_web.pdf) 3 Jaschik, Scott. (May 13, 2009) "Top PhD Programs Shrinking." Inside Higher Ed.
3 2 Web Based Student Recruitment: Opportunities and Pitfalls This report focuses in particular on information available on the Internet websites of German universities and graduate schools. The Internet is an inexpensive means of communication that has the potential to be very dynamic and up to date. It's also a highly useful tool or even the only tool during early stages of information seeking available to international students who are considering doing a PhD in another country. A potential applicant from outside Germany will seldom have opportunity for campus visits, and connections between their home faculty and potential graduate faculty and advisors in Germany may be tenuous or limited in diversity. This is the case for students researching not only PhD programs abroad, but those in their own country as well. In a study of how undergraduate students find information about PhD programs, researchers found: All of the seniors interviewed used written resources to aid them in their search process; the most widely used was the World Wide Web. The students used the Web to explore listings of top graduate schools and programs, to explore individual institutions and departments, to examine a program s requirements and curriculum, or to become familiar with faculty member s research interests. For those students anticipating taking a year off from school before continuing on to graduate school, the Web was the only resource they used. 4 There are, of course, drawbacks to using the Internet as a tool for information dissemination. Above all, the style of reading on the Internet puts efficiency and immediacy above all else: It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of reading are emerging as users power browse horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. 5 In a country such as the US, where many young people have the mentality, "If it's not online, it doesn't exist," there is a great pressure not only to be present on the Internet, but to be well presented logically and attractively designed, with information easily accessible. "Users are picky and impatient, typically visiting only the first three results from a query, with one in five searchers spending 60 seconds or less on a linked Web document," according to a paper by a Penn State University scholar. 6 People make instantaneous judgments about whether to stay on a site, and if a site doesn't the give the right impression, users will bypass it. According to the same paper, within three minutes, 40 percent of searchers will have moved on. While some may have found what they wanted, others may simply have given up and moved to a different site. 4 Golde, C.M. & Robinson, C.S. (1999) "Waffling and flailing: Undergraduates in pursuit of a Ph.D." Paper presented at 24 th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education Annual Conference. 5 University College London (UCL) CIBER group. (2008) "Information behaviour of the researcher of the future." London: University College London. 6 Jansen, Jim. (2003) "An Analysis of Web Documents Retrieved and Viewed." Paper presented at 4th International Conference on Internet Computing.
4 3 SAMPLE AND METHODOLOGY This report analyzes the websites of 34 German graduate schools and university departments that offer the opportunity to earn a PhD while working in the English language in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). 7 All German universities honored through the Excellence Initiative for their "concepts for the future" were included. Otherwise, websites were selected as a typical prospective PhD student might encounter them: through search engine queries for English information about PhD programs in Germany. Additional websites were culled from the pages of the "International PhD Programs" brochure published by DAAD. (See Appendix 1 for a complete list.) The disciplinary breakdown is shown on the right. Biology 34% Neurology 17% Engineering 14% Mathematics 8.5% Medicine 8.5% Chemistry 8.5% Computer Science 6% Physics 3% The sample also included a variety of models for earning the PhD. Until recent years, the only way to earn a PhD in Germany was to submit a research proposal directly to a Doktorvater or mutter and, upon acceptance, complete a dissertation. With the advent the DFG's Graduiertenkollegs in the 1980's and, later, the Graduiertenschulen of German universities individually or in close cooperation with the Max Planck Society or the Helmholtz Association, greater structure was given to doctoral education in Germany. With this broadening spectrum of PhD opportunities in Germany in mind, the study included: 60% offering a course curriculum in which students must participate, in addition to conducting dissertation research. 17% offering a "traditional" PhD under the guidance of a faculty advisor, without lecture or seminar participation requirements. 23% of the schools surveyed did not specify what kind of PhD program they offer 38% of the websites belong to research schools operated jointly between a research institute and one or more universities. Although 80% of doctoral students in Germany follow the "traditional" doctoral path of individualized study, extra emphasis was put on studying these programs' websites because they are more attractive to international students. Indeed, international student enrollment at such schools is significantly higher, and one would expect these programs' websites to already be more tailored to the needs and expectations of a non German audience. Yet, while these websites may not be representative of the average university's departmental website, this analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of such relatively "advanced" internationalized programs will give any institution helpful pointers when designing their own online information resources. 7 These are fields in which English is more likely to be the lingua franca, and for which German universities commonly express interest in recruiting talented students from North America. It is, however, a challenge to recruit North Americans to do PhD work abroad in these fields, partly due to the outstanding opportunities at US institutions, but perhaps even more so because of a basic anxiety of falling "out of the loop" of research networks in the home country.
5 4 The qualitative evaluation of the websites was performed by a research assistant, a 21 year old American undergraduate student of journalism and anthropology who has spent a high school year and college summer studying in Germany. She brings to the study both an academic understanding of online communications, as well as a personal perspective similar to that of the target population, prospective PhD students (she and many friends are currently considering their own graduate school options). She speaks fluent German, but made an effort to evaluate the websites' structure and content based purely on the information available in English. Because of her US American perspective, this paper will report findings in terms of their relevance to website visitors from the US; however, most findings can be safely generalized to potential doctoral students from Canada. RESULTS Prerequisites for Admission In the United States, many students applying to PhD programs in the STEM fields do not hold a Finding 59% of schools only accept candidates holding a master's; 11% did not specify academic requirements master s degree. Because of the high cost of master's programs in the U.S. (the same fellowships and grants for doctoral students are not generally available to master's students) and the low availability of masters programs in the STEM fields, STEM students who pursue graduate education tend to enter PhD immediately after completion of a bachelor s. Furthermore, students who do complete a master's in a STEM field typically do so as a terminal degree, i.e. not the degree they would choose if the overall goal is to earn a PhD. Of the websites studied, 59% listed on their website that candidates must hold a master's degree in order to be considered for doctoral admittance. 15% of the schools accepted a bachelor's degree without restrictions, and 15% of the schools were willing to make an exception for applicants without an MA, so long as the students agree to take additional courses once accepted. 11% did not specify particular academic prerequisites. Furthermore, 9% of the programs specifically mentioned the option to do a "fast track" from bachelor to doctorate, the model commonly known in the US and UK. Application Process The application process should be clearly outlined for an international student. Easy access to a Finding 20% of websites surveyed either lacked an application deadline or had unclear information downloadable application forms saves both the student and the school extra work when it comes time for applications to be completed. The application process for a PhD program varies from country to country and from school to school. For example, there may be culturally different expectations for what information a personal statement should include. A potential applicant will want to know if application materials need to be translated into German, and whether s/he is expected to already have had contact with faculty at the graduate school in Germany. Additionally, accurate and up to date deadline information is critical. Deadlines for American PhD programs typically fall between November and January, and a student may miss deadlines in Germany if they are earlier.
6 5 Financing a PhD in Germany As mentioned in the introduction, finances play a very important role in an American student's Finding only 50% of the websites provided adequate financial support information choice of PhD program. Without the amounts awarded to PhD candidates clearly listed on a program s website, a student will not be able to know whether the program, or studying abroad, is an affordable option. While most PhD students in the U.S. do not have to pay tuition (especially in the STEM fields, where doctoral positions are often tied to funded research projects), some students do. And for any student, the amount of financial support (stipends, grants, etc.) available varies greatly among universities and departments. American students may not assume that German doctoral education is always tuition free, and the amount of financial support compared to what US institutions offer will influence their decision on whether to study abroad. Program websites should a) make it clear that there are no tuition costs for doctoral study in Germany, and b) if scholarships are available, state the exact or approximate amount of monthly financial support a PhD candidate can expect to receive, and c) indicate that in the German system, admittance to a doctoral program does not necessarily guarantee that paid teaching or research assistantships, but that such positions are generally available once professors have gotten to know the doctoral student. If students are expected/encouraged to apply for separate PhD funding, the school should make clear note of this as well, and provide links to relevant foundations/organizations. Employment & Teaching Abroad American students applying to PhD programs generally want to know if employment Finding None of the sites mentioned teaching/work obligations or opportunities opportunities or obligations will be provided and/or required while they are working toward their PhD. In the US, working as a teaching assistant or faculty adjunct is typically required of a PhD candidate, in addition to conducting dissertation research and participating in the program s core curriculum. On the one hand, this teaching experience may be seen positively, as it is often valuable for PhD graduates when they are applying for teaching positions at universities. On the other hand, PhD candidates interested in pursuing pure research in their future careers may welcome a lack of teaching obligations. Of the schools and programs surveyed, not one listed any information as to what is expected of a candidate regarding teaching opportunities or obligations. Navigability Concerning the overall structure of the websites surveyed, the majority (75%) were rated Finding Most sites were well structured; but a quarter had serious structural flaws and/or outdated information positively by the student researcher as 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 5 for navigability and user friendliness. However, the 25% that were more poorly rated often lacked an adequate, navigable structure. On these sites, many links are deeply buried underneath portions of the website. A website that uses a navigation menu with separate links to Application, Curriculum, Scholarships, Tuition and Fees (if any), Faculty and Life on Campus sections is not only structurally
7 6 easier to follow, but it is also more welcoming and transparent to the potential applicant. Universities should, moreover, update the contents of PhD program websites regularly to ensure that application and deadline information is up to date for the forthcoming academic year. A few sites reviewed for this report had not updated their contents since 2006, which makes an application for Fall 2009 or Spring 2010 seem impossible and gives students the impression that the program is poorly run or even discontinued. Finally, the search boxes on nearly half of the web pages provided few relevant results, or in a handful of cases no results at all. BEST PRACTICES & RECOMMENDATIONS Use of Visual Aids The Saarbrücken Graduate School of Computer Science at the Universität des Saarlands uses a flowchart to illustrate the phases through which MA and PhD candidates go in order to earn their degrees. The chart visibly outlines each step, providing prospective candidates with a visual explanation of the overall process. The chart s outline of the timeframe in which a PhD is accomplished, as well as the funding that is granted, instantly answers several basic questions a student will have when investigating a university s PhD program online. A similar streamlined chart would be helpful to explain the application process. Frequently Asked Questions Providing a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section on issues relating to housing, life in Germany as well as on campus, and applying for a student visa will aid foreign students in their decision to apply to a school. Many of the websites reviewed have an FAQ section already. While it is the job of a university s international student office to provide the answers to these questions, getting in contact via phone is not always easy due to the time difference between Germany and the U.S. Listing the answers to Frequently Asked Questions helps to alleviate confusion and anxiety prospective foreign students may have about applying to a PhD program in Germany. 8 Other Strengths 8 Online FAQs, however, should not be a replacement for or excuse not to provide prompt answers in English to students who contact the university directly with questions. Case in point: the DAAD New York alone answers around 3 5 calls a day from American and Canadian students who have tried to contact German university Akademische Auslandsämter with questions about study/research offerings and application procedures. These students generally claim to have ed the German university several times without ever receiving a reply.
8 7 Faces and Places: about a third of the program websites included descriptions of the university city/town and often profiles of current or recent doctoral students. This is definitely a best practice for attracting students from abroad, who may not be familiar with or have the opportunity to visit the campus. Particularly useful would be providing addresses of current students or alumni who are willing to answer prospective students' questions about research at the respective German institution. Although DAAD has received anecdotal reports of confusing terminology used on German universities' websites, no evidence of this was observed in the research for this report. Although the English on the websites varied in its fluency and elegance, no misleading or blatantly inaccurate terminology was found. 91% of the websites outlined the academic prerequisites for admission to the program to a sufficient extent, so that prospective applicants can discern whether they are eligible or not. While a few sites required visitors to download documents in order to obtain basic information about a program, the large majority of sites conveniently made all (or nearly all) key information available in text directly on their web pages. Target Audience Testing Finally, a good practice for creating any information resource is to test its effectiveness among representatives of the target audience in this case, doctoral students from North America. Master's or doctoral students currently at a German university could be recruited to review online materials and assess their clarity and effectiveness. CONCLUSION The research for this report revealed many positive characteristics of the information available online to English speaking students interested in pursuing a PhD in Germany. Of the 34 universities and PhD program websites surveyed, many provided ample resources for a prospective student from abroad. However, crucial information was often missing in regard to areas such as funding/financial support and employment opportunities or obligations. This report is intended to provide information on the mindset of a typical PhD seeker from North America and the response s/he might have to a German program's website; therefore it focuses more on the areas where program websites are in need of improvement rather than their positive features. The number of American and Canadian students who will actually enroll in a PhD program in Germany is relatively small. Nevertheless, the North American higher education system, especially that in the US, is held by many to be the global "gold standard" as far as quality and accessibility are concerned (according to this year s Open Doors study, the US is the most popular destination for study abroad worldwide, with international students making up 10% of students enrolled in graduate schools and at least 33% of doctoral students). Thus, understanding the characteristics of programs and services that meet American students' standards and expectations can also be a valuable asset for attracting students of other nationalities, who may be comparing their options at German universities to those in North America.
9 8 APPENDIX 1 List of Institutions TU Darmstadt International NRW Graduate School in Bioinformatics and Genome Research (Universität Bielefeld) Otto von Guericke Universität, Magdeburg Universität Göttingen (International Max Planck Research School) Universität des Saarlands RWTH Aachen Ludwig Maximilians Universität München Universität Jena Universität zu Köln Graduate School for Translational Biomedicine (Universität Frankfurt/Main & Paul Ehrlich Institute,Langen) Universität Luebeck Dresden International Graduate School for Biomedicine and Bioengineering (TU Dresden) Universität Bielefeld Universität Bremen International Graduate School for Materials Science (TU Munich and Universität Augsburg) International Helmholtz Research School of Biophysics and Soft Matter (Universität Koeln and Dusseldorf) Max Planck Graduate School of Neural & Behavioral Science (Universität Tuebingen) Graduate School of Excellence at the Universität Mainz Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (Universität Leipzig) Universität Paderborn Universität Hannover Charite Clinic Berlin (FU and HU Berlin) Universität Münster Universität Freiburg Universität Erlangen Nuernberg International Graduate School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (Universität Heidelberg) Universität Stuttgart Universität Bayreuth Bonn Cologne Graduate School of Physics and Astronomy (Universität Bonn & Universität Cologne) Ruhr Universitaet Bochum TU Berlin Universität Konstanz Dahlem Research School (FU Berlin) Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (HU and FU Berlin)
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