Doctor-What? Career fair with Dr. Doom, Dr. No and Co.

My PhD is slowly coming to an end and I thought this is the perfect time to take you to the heart of the matter. In my series “How to PhD”, I would like to show you different aspects of my life as a physics PhD student, and today I’m getting down to the nitty-gritty: What exactly does it mean to do a PhD? What exactly do I have to do to get it? And also in the context of the current #IchBinHanna debate in Germany: Is this all above board?

To start with, a short disclaimer: I am a German physicist and my experience is based mainly on my life in physics in Germany. I’ve met many PhD students from other disciplines and countries over the years and found out how different PhDs can be after all. It is difficult to draw an overall picture of physics, it is impossible to cover all types of PhDs. Therefore, while I refer to other examples I know in some cases, the bulk of the article is about PhDs in physics.

Let’s start at the beginning: Doctor-what? A doctoral degree? What does that even mean? Everyone is used to the term “doctor” from an early age, that it is much more than that. The doctorate is an academic degree, or more specifically the highest educational degree one can ever obtain. Strictly speaking, I am not “doing my doctorate” at all yet, but I am awarded the doctorate once I am done. The concept of a doctor as a teacher of medicine has existed since the 6th century. As an academic degree, however, there is only a little later. The sources I found were not entirely clear, but the first doctorate was probably awarded sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries.

What do you get a doctorate for? Or: What have I actually been doing for four years?

To get a doctorate, I have to gain new, scientific knowledge, because the goal of a doctorate is to learn how to work scientifically – so I have to find out something new and exciting. In the natural sciences, that means years of research, racking my brain, standing in the lab, crunching numbers (more of one or the other, depending on your taste). The successful doctorate then certifies that I can work independently as a scientist. Gone are the days of lectures, exercises, lab courses! Exams and tests are history! As a doctoral student, you go to work yourself and explore nature!


I am often asked: Isn’t it difficult to discover new things? What if you don’t find out anything? What if there is nothing left to research? Many think of research as groping in the dark, digging in a haystack, where sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover something new. In fact, doing research (during your PhD) is more like a scavenger hunt: your supervisor gives you a series of puzzles; clues to show you the way; tools to make your journey easier. He or she usually knows roughly where the treasure is, and often has a fairly accurate idea of what lies buried there. After all, during your doctorate you are still learning how research works, and fortunately you are not on your own.

The research question: What am I looking for anyway?

What you try to find out in your doctoral phase is what we call the research question. Ideally, you already know what the research question actually is from day one. In practice, however, this is rarely the case. The supervisor often has a rough idea of where you want to go. But you usually don’t see that yet, especially if you are doing your doctorate in a field you didn’t know before. Your research will be embedded in the context of the research group, maybe the topic will be given to you from the beginning because you are employed in a project, but maybe you are also free and can have a say in where it goes. In many cases, however, it is only with time that it crystallizes what is actually the core of the whole thing that you have researched.

Proud PhD

I’ve been thinking about my research question for this article, and it’s not so easy to pin down. Research questions are not as general and megalomaniacal as “What is dark matter?” or “How do you build a perfect quantum computer?”. I, for example, have worked on not one project in the last few years, but four. At least in theoretical physics, this is not unusual. I’ve been involved with each project for a year and a half to two years (this has overlapped – I’m not yet eight years into my PhD), and they all revolve around using a special kind of atom (called “Rydberg atoms”) for quantum technologies. So my research question might be “How can we optimise Rydberg atoms for quantum technologies?” However, it sounds like I am optimising these atoms for any kind of quantum technology, but that is not true. I am dealing with a very specific application, with a special case, with an experiment, with a nuance of a special effect.

You may see what I’m getting at: each PhD scratches a small corner of a small subfield of an infinitely large science. We will never arrive at the point where physics is “done.” There are so many different disciplines, with more subfields and sub-subfields. Even in my working group, which in principle deals with one subject, the focus diverges so much that I don’t always understand what the others are doing. We don’t step on each other’s toes so quickly, there is always something to do.

Lastly, it’s almost impossible not to find something out. You will always get somewhere – the question is rather how exciting it is. But you don’t have to revolutionize the world to get a PhD. If you follow the path of your supervisor, you will get somewhere. A good supervisor has also thought about it beforehand and knows roughly where the treasure is buried. Of course, they can also be wrong, but maybe you will at least find an unusual shell on the way, which is special in some way. And if you don’t find a shell, then maybe you’ve discovered a new way of digging (i.e. a new scientific method) – that’s also an achievement. In the end, as in many fields, it’s simply a matter of selling your stuff well.

Are we there yet?

Old PhD

How long does it take to decipher nature a bit more? A PhD in physics takes about four to four and a half years on average. The “standard period of study”, on the other hand, is three years – that’s a joke. According to a survey by the German Physical Society, only about 5% of doctoral students manage to do that. About 20% need even more than four years and a half. I, for example, am currently at 4 years and 3 months and am close to the end (hopefully). On average, PhD students are 31 years old when they graduate and about 1800 PhDs are completed per year in physics in Germany. About 20% of them are women. But leaving physics aside, what percentage of the German population do you think has a PhD? You can find the answer below!

I am The Doctor – Doctor Who?

Speaking of doctorates: Unlike the other academic degrees (Bachelor/Master of Science), the doctorate comes with a title that I am allowed to put on my German ID card. In fact, it is the only academic title that is allowed to go there. Why exactly this is, I honestly find puzzling. Why does the bouncer at the club or the postal worker have to know that I have a doctorate? For some people a doctorate seems to be important in order to appear important, competent or dramatic: Doctor Doom, for example (supervillain from the Marvel Universe), has the doctorate built into his stage name (even though he doesn’t have a doctorate at all). His adversary Mr. Fantastic (leader of the Fantastic Four), on the other hand, studied together with Doctor Doom and, unlike him, completed his doctorate. But he is quite modestly content with the title “Mister”.

However, there is actually not only one doctoral title, but the exact title depends on the field. In the English-speaking world, the Ph.D. is the best-known title which is also the one physicists get. It stands for Doctor of Philosophy or Philosophiae Doctor and is derived from the ancient formalism licentia docendi which, according to Google translator (because my Latin just ranges from In vino veritas to Quod erat demonstrandum to Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus) means: licence to teach. Even though there are PhD students who have never taught anything. We also use this abbreviation quite often in everyday life and refer to ourselves as PhD students. So now at the latest you know why my blog series is called “How to PhD”.

“Are you a real Doctor?”

The answer to this question depends very much on who you ask. Most people probably think of a “doctor” as the person with a stethoscope, but funnily enough, the medical doctorate is an exception to the other academic doctorates. In Germany, medical students usually start their doctoral thesis before the end of their normal studies, while we need a master’s degree for that. Often, doctoral theses in medicine are written “on the side” during a year. As a result, they are more comparable in scope and demand to a master’s thesis in the natural sciences. Why is this so? As a rule, physicians want to become medical doctors and not researchers. However, physicians with a doctorate are more highly regarded, which is why 63% of medical graduates opt for a doctorate. This rate is only higher in the natural sciences (64% in physics, 79% in chemistry and 86% in biology; for those who are interested: architecture with 6% and business with 7% are in the last two places). Of course, you can also do a decent research thesis in medicine, but not many trouble themselves with that. Unfortunately, I have not found any figures on this, but it is said to be “the exception”.

Once a doctor, always a doctor – or not?

Quoted loosely from Spiderman, we know “With a great power doctorate comes great responsibility.” Because with my doctorate, I commit myself to a lifetime of working according to scientific standards and behaving in a manner worthy of a doctorate. This means that even if I have received my doctorate in a completely decent and compliant manner, it can be taken away from me later if I screw up. For example, if I commit a crime, misuse my doctorate, or behave in an unscientific manner. For instance, if I with a PhD in quantum physics said that quantum healing was a great thing and scientifically absolutely sound, then I would knowingly be talking nonsense and misusing my doctorate. Bam – away it goes!

For scientific misconduct, I can even give you a very real example. In 2004, there was a pretty big case about the German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön. He has finished his doctorate properly, however, he has messed up afterwards: he has falsified, embellished and “modified” his measurement data. A total of 16 publications, even in the highest-ranking journals, are said to have been based on fake data. Schön was employed at Bell Laboratories and was then summarily dismissed, awards were revoked, publications were withdrawn, his doctorate was revoked. It all came to light only because no one could reproduce his experiments – the results were apparently too good to be true.


Why do so many scientists make this pact for life? Well, the “typical” workplace for scientists is research. And in research, a PhD is mandatory. Period. After all, the doctorate certifies that I can work scientifically. But why should you do a doctorate if you don’t want to do research? In short: more money, better career opportunities, less unemployment. Why PhD physicists are so popular on the job market outside of research is a bit of a mystery and a topic in itself (maybe soon in its own article).

But the truth is: almost no one goes through a scientific doctorate in order to get a well-paid job in business or industry afterwards. 80% of doctoral students say they started their doctorate because of their fundamental interest in physics and science. But despite their love for science, only 15% of PhD students see themselves in science in the long run: because, young and naive as they are, they throw themselves into the PhD with the goal (or vague dream) of later being a respected researcher, striving for knowledge, maybe even becoming a professor… only to become completely disillusioned during the PhD phase. From the science business, the mudslinging around the professorship, the lousy working conditions in research or the non-existent positions in the mid-level faculty (i.e. the only permanent position is the professorship at the top of the pyramid). A whopping 96% of scientific employees under the age of 45 (not including professorships) are employed on a fixed-term basis (#IchBinHanna sends regards). In science, we jump from one temporary job to the next. Usually, you stay in one position for 1-3 years and then have to change working groups, cities and usually even countries. “And then, and then, the whole thing starts all over again.” (Sorry to everybody who did not get the reference, it’s a famous German children’s song) 🎵

Money, Money, Money

I actually see myself as a spokesperson for science, but we unfortunately remain a bit gloomy. What do you actually live from during your doctorate? You don’t get paid for studying, do you? Fortunately, we do, because doctoral students are usually employed as research assistants at the university. So we actually get paid for doing research. But the crux of the matter is that half of the PhD students in physics only have a half-time position. So we are paid for 20 hours a week, but we work full time. A third of PhD students work between 38-42 hours – 42% even more than 43 hours. After all, you can do your doctorate in your free time.

These figures vary from research area to research area. It is rumored that engineers tend to get full jobs during their doctorate because they can earn much more in industry and have to be kept at the university with money. Natural scientists, on the other hand, “like to do research” and don’t need a financial incentive. Or fair pay. Or secure working conditions.

Doctorate, dissertation, defense

Hm yes, the article has become a bit glum, but let me say: I like my job. I like doing my doctorate and I enjoy my research. But research alone is not enough for a doctorate. In the end, you have to face two final bosses: the dissertation and the oral defense. The dissertation is the doctoral thesis in which I record all my intellectual effusions. The defense is a massive oral exam at the very end. Both consist largely of caffeine, stress, and insomnia, and each deserves their own article. Because I’m currently writing my PhD thesis (because: first four years of research, then half a year of writing) and want to share with you what will probably be the longest thesis I’ll ever write.

Finally, the answer to the estimation question: in Germany, according to the microcensus, 1.2% of the population of Germany had a PhD in 2019! So, on average, there is actually about one person with a PhD per plane. If someone shouts in panic “Help, is there a doctor on board?” I would still be rather useless, though. Unless someone urgently needs to solve a differential equation – then I’m ready to save the day!

Do you like what you read? Then you can buy me a coffee here! Maybe you also like my other articles from the series “How to PhD“. And if you don’t want to miss any new post don’t forget to subscribe to my blog.


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