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Jacob L. Wright

When I made my decision to begin the doctoral studies program at the University of Göttingen, I had already been traveling in Europe for a long while and knew Göttingen well. My original interests were Jewish Studies and Cuneiform Studies, and when I did settle down to learn German and do course work at the university, I naturally tended to these disciplines (both of which are well-represented at Göttingen). My reorientation to Hebrew Bible was due to a particular professor at Göttingen, Reinhard G. Kratz. After visiting his seminars, I was hooked. Later Kratz invited me to write a dissertation. My case therefore may be somewhat unusual since I was not on the market for PhD programs in biblical studies. Nevertheless, I think my ten years in Europe (later I taught at the University of Heidelberg for three years) have given me a good sense for the differences from other programs. Here I highlight some of the points that stick out in my mind.

During most of my time at Göttingen I was the only student from the US and one of the few students from beyond continental Europe. I therefore posed several challenges to the established system and accordingly faced hurdles along the way. In general, the qualifications for a doctoral degree were much more rigorous than those in most countries. Yet the faculties at Göttingen and elsewhere have instituted in the meantime several changes that promise to make the journey easier to navigate for international students. For example, students traditionally are asked by the professor to write a dissertation rather than approaching professors themselves. However, many faculties now participate in at least one university-wide interdisciplinary research project, called a Graduiertenkolleg. These are exciting opportunities for international students and deserve serious consideration. Also, vacant positions for lecturers and research assistants are occasionally advertized. Another option for those who want to work with a particular professor is to make an appointment with him or her in order to introduce yourself and discuss the possibility of writing a dissertation. It might be advisable to send a CV and a sample paper. If approached properly, German professors are extremely gracious and will do what they can to make your experience of studying with them a success. Once your potential Doktorvater or Doktormutter has demonstrated interest in your work, he or she will try to find ways to finance your stay, but they will also expect that you search for stipends and scholarship, of which there are many in Germany. (The cost of tuition itself is less than €1000 per year. One can live on €1000 per month. Insurance is state-funded and thus inexpensive.)

Before you begin writing the dissertation, the faculty will usually submit your academic record to a thorough investigation, comparing it with their own curricular requirements. You might be required to take courses for a year or two. If one cannot demonstrate proficiency in (Classical) Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew, she or he will have to pass the rigorous exams in these languages (the Graecum, Latinum and Hebraicum). Traditionally students take these exams already during their time in the Gymnasium (High School). In general I found that first year German students were working at a higher level than required by many PhD programs elsewhere. So be prepared for an initial shock!

In order to take your first courses, you will have to speak and comprehend German at least at a beginner’s level. But this should not discourage those without German proficiency. The easiest way to learn is just to go there and to immerse yourself completely (which means refraining from speaking your native language altogether). This is, to be sure, one of the great advantages of the program: Learning to speak a second language fluently and living abroad for extended period of time are life-changing experiences and indispensable components of a good education.

I should however point out that requirements for doctoral studies are in the process of being changed or have already been changed. Many universities are creating streamlined programs in English for international students. One should be able to finish within three years, even when taking advantage of the many extras (such as interdisciplinary seminars, language courses, travel, etc.).

As a doctoral student, you will be encouraged to participate in research projects and to take courses in a wide range of disciplines. The German universities are generally massive institutions, with world-class scholars in most disciplines. All interests are usually covered. For me as a student of Hebrew Bible, the fantastic institutes of Assyriology/Cuneiform Studies, Egyptology, and Classics at both Göttingen and Heidelberg, and not least the helpful colleagues in these institutes, contributed significantly to the success of my experience. At Göttingen I also profited from the leading research institutes for the study of Septuagint and Qumran manuscripts, and was part of a fantastic research team that edited the manuscripts of Avot de Rabbi Nathan. Both there and at Heidelberg I was impressed by, and learned a lot from, how the professors established ambitious and well-organized research projects. In this respect, the German universities offer many advantages over PhD programs elsewhere.

At Göttingen I had access to superb libraries, received extensive attention from my advisor and other professors, had the opportunity to work on exciting interdisciplinary projects, created my own research group with outside funding, mastered a language in which much of the most important biblical research was and continues to be published, and developed relationships with the many doctoral and post-doctoral students that continue to inform my scholarship. Yet in addition to the academic advantages of studying abroad, the experience is often a life-changing one, as it was for me.  Such programs are not for everyone, but I would recommend to both doctoral and post-doctoral candidates that they look into the number of possibilities for travel and research outside their home countries.

Jacob L. Wright, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Citation: Jacob L. Wright, " Why I Chose a German Ph.D. Program," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2008]. Online:


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