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Apply for admission to a doctoral program

Many doctoral programs utilize a two-staged selection process. Based on their written application, eligible candidates are invited for interviews, symposia or summer schools.

As this selection process is highly competitive, you should prepare your application accordingly. The following advice is intended to illustrate the prevalent process and offer general guidance. Please consult the website of the doctoral program you are interested in for their specific application requirements and deadlines, as well as admission procedure details and open positions.

The information provided here may also be helpful for applicants looking for admission to individual doctoral studies.

Tips for a successful application

All required supporting documents for your application, as well as language and/or translation regulations and submission details (online or mail) are specified on the doctoral programs websites. Usually, you have to include your CV/résumé, diplomas (official transcript(s) of previous university-level degrees), a letter of motivation and/or a brief description of the proposed dissertation project (also called exposé or project proposal).

Some doctoral programs may also ask for a summary of your previous research. Additionally, one or two letters of recommendation (references) and proof of language proficiency (German or English) are frequently requested documents. Please note that in general, a degree from a 4-year program (Master or equivalent) is required for doctoral studies at the University of Cologne; you are welcome to contact the Albertus Magnus Nachwuchszentrum or the competent doctoral studies office (Promotionsbüro) in case of questions.

Your application will benefit considerably from planning a few months ahead. Drafting a project proposal often takes two to three months. And since obtaining letters of recommendation and language certificates involves the time and co-operation of other individuals and organizations, you should arrange for them as early as possible. Finally, proofread all your written application materials thoroughly.


Letter of motivation

Your letter of motivation (approximately one page in length) explains why you are a suitable candidate: the reasons you want to pursue a doctorate, the qualities and relevant previous experience you bring to the program/position and the fit between you and the program you are applying to.

Tailoring this letter to the specific characteristics of the program is essential. Be sure to inform yourself about all relevant requirements, such as interdisciplinarity, research focus,  personal and academic entry requirements. If applicable, consider how your planned research fits into the program and its existing research areas and how it relates to other projects within the program.


Project Proposal (also called exposé, research proposal, statement of purpose)

A project proposal gives an outline of your proposed dissertation project. If required, it is the centerpiece of your application. Thus, you need to allow enough time when developing your proposal in order to polish your first draft. You want to concisely define a research question, describe your approach to answering it, and explicate the significance and impact of your proposed project.

Keep in mind that clear and unexceptional prose distinguishes scientific texts. Furthermore, your proposal should be comprehensible for all members of the admission committee, including those with a scientific specialization differing from your area.

The following description is intended as a short overview of fundamental elements of a project proposal, to be adapted to the specifics of your field. Please check the regulations of each program carefully, especially regarding the length (typically five to ten pages) and specific questions to be addressed. 

  • Abstract: Briefly summarize your proposed project. What exactly do you want to study, how and why? Understanding a detailed proposal is facilitated by such a preceding summary.
  • Research topic: Clearly formulate a focused and interesting problem or hypothesis.

  • Aim: Describe the goal of your research project, suggesting what you hope to discover and how it will expand the knowledge in your field. Proposed contributions to research areas theories, methods or products should be highlighted.

  • Review of existing literature and, if applicable, your own work: Outline the current state of research in order to illustrate the context and originality of your proposed dissertation project.
  • Design and Methods: Discuss your overall approach and your rationale for choosing this approach. Lay out how you plan to structure your research and which methods, data sources, materials and concepts you will use. You might also reflect on challenges and problems you anticipate. Be sure to include specific techniques and pay attention to the feasibility of your project.
  • Timeline: If applicable, indicate a timeline with specific objectives, intermediate goals and possibly the projected date of completion, i.e. submission of your thesis.
  • Bibliography: Include all books, articles and other sources you refer to in your proposal. Choose a standard format in accordance with the conventions of your field.


Tips for a successful interview

© Sebastian Knoth

First of all, congratulations on being selected for an interview based on your convincing written application. Again, proper preparation is crucial for a successful interview. In many cases, you will be asked to briefly present your previous research or project proposal. In addition to specific technical and scientific questions, a discussion of feasibility and possible challenges – or impact, in case of previous work – is to be expected.

Since committee members often represent a variety of disciplines, you should also anticipate general questions about your approach and research context. Finally, you need to demonstrate your academic motivation (for pursuing a doctorate in this specific program) convincingly and authentically.

In some cases, competitive candidates are selected during a specially arranged symposium or summer school. Generally, the same points as above apply, especially regarding the presentation and discussion of your previous research or project proposal.  Additionally, these events afford an opportunity to become directly acquainted with different scientists and research areas of the program. You might even be invited to temporarily work in a research group in order to jointly advance your project proposal.