DFG to Introduce Changes

S harpening the Profile of DFG’s Graduiertenkollegs

Since their arrival on Germany’s educational landscape in 1990, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) supported Graduiertenkollegs ( research training groups) have proved to be a successful model for promoting excellence in science. In fact, other German research organizations and universities (the International Max Planck Research Schools, for example) have adopted this model in developing their own innovative mechanisms to promote the careers of junior scientists.

Clearly, Graduiertenkollegs have had an impact: About 10% of all German Ph.D. students are now enrolled in 1 of the 277 current Graduiertenkollegs, with DFG * pumping about ?72 million into them in 2002.

But, despite its evident success, DFG announced last week that it is planning a major overhaul of the Graduiertenkollegs programme. Taking effect with the next application deadline of 1 April 2003, the changes aim to further sharpen the Graduiertenkollegs’ profile by bolstering their innovative character, tightening their focus on research subjects and scientific excellence, and promoting deeper international co-operation.

“The DFG wants to readjust the Graduiertenkolleg programme, because it needs to meet the changing demands for Ph.D.-trained scientists,” says DFG’s coordinator of the Graduiertenkolleg programme, Robert Paul Königs, referring to the fact that Ph.D. training has become even more important in regard to Germany’s new junior professorships.

But the importance of a Ph.D. for a future academic career is only one of the factors driving change in the Graduiertenkolleg programme. Königs says that because a number of other programmes have adopted many of the innovations introduced by the Graduiertenkollegs, the overhaul is necessary to continue to “attract outstanding Ph.D. candidates to a research career.” Additionally, DFG is alarmed by the shortage of Ph.D. students in a number of disciplines, especially engineering and the natural sciences.

The anticipated changes are to improve the experiences of Ph.D. students going through the Graduiertenkollegs. In the future, DFG will require a tighter scientific, but nevertheless still innovative, focus for each individual Graduiertenkolleg. This might be achieved, for example, by reducing the number of senior scientists who participate ( see box).

DFG also intends to reinforce the internationalisation of the Graduiertenkollegs programme. According to DFG’s press release, “international visibility and cooperation should be trademarks for each individual Kolleg.” Currently, DFG classifies 26 of the Graduiertenkollegs as being international, meaning they not only involve German partners but also universities in France, the Netherlands, or other countries. DFG is planning to increase this number.

Graduiertenkollegs that meet these new regulations will win big financially. But, in addition to higher budgets for materials and equipment, DFG’s revamped programme will also fund 1-semester sabbatical leaves for professors who wish to intensify their involvement in a Graduiertenkolleg.

Other DFG Actions

On a different matter, DFG will lobby the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion to introduce greater flexibility into Ph.D. stipends. Currently, monthly Ph.D. stipends in Graduiertenkollegs start at ?921 plus a family allowance. Compared to industry salaries, this is not competitive. And it is increasingly less competitive with other Ph.D. student support schemes, both in Germany and internationally. By offering higher stipends–particularly in fields such as the natural sciences and engineering, which tend to lose many students to industry or other nonresearch jobs–DFG hopes to encourage more students to enter the Graduiertenkollegs and to stay in science.

In addition, DFG also intends to introduce more flexibility for the hosting universities. Under the current regulations, Graduiertenkollegs can be funded only for an initial 3-year period, with extensions of up to a total of 9 years possible upon positive evaluation after the first phase. From April 2003 on, this initial phase will be extended to 4 1/2 years. By moving the evaluation ahead by 1 1/2 years, DFG is adding heft to assessment in the area of doctoral education, simply because it will begin only after a number of students have already graduated from the programme. This change accommodates a request that many of the Graduiertenkollegs have been making for years. And it will benefit future Ph.D. students by placing additional emphasis on the actual evaluation they receive.

The new regulations will also change the focus of DFG’s application review. In particular, DFG’s granting committee will take a closer look at the general environment in which the potential Graduiertenkolleg would be embedded–not only the research activities but also the mentoring and counselling services that would be available to students. And DFG will evaluate institutional infrastructure and special support schemes offered by a university for Ph.D. candidates and visiting scientists from other countries. Moreover, the proposal’s general support by the host university will be necessary in order to get an application approved.

Although DFG is anticipating positive reactions from the universities, the revamp is waiting for its final blessing: Next week, the German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat)’–its opinion is highly regarded as a seal of scientific excellence–will officially comment on the new Graduiertenkolleg regulations.


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