Stratification Without Producing Elites? The Emergence of a New Field of Doctoral Education in Germany

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education book series (PSGHE)


This chapter focuses on the production of academic elite pathways through graduate schools in Germany. Vertical differentiations and graduate schools are new phenomena in German higher education. Based on longitudinal data on doctoral programs at German universities, the emergence of a new field of doctoral education is reconstructed. The chapter explores whether this development is the outcome of isomorphic change and how it is connected to new vertical differentiations. It then analyzes how rank differences between graduate schools are established by focusing on the connections between institutional prestige and academic elite career pathways. Drawing on organizational case studies of two graduate schools funded by the Excellence Initiative, it is investigated how these schools relate to their graduates in order to construct academic elite career pathways.


Graduate schools Excellence Initiative Stratification Isomorphism Academic career pathways 

To this day, German higher education could hardly be considered as vertically structured (cf. Teichler 2009, p. 164). Up to now, a “fictitious equality” (Kreckel 2010, p. 242) has been assumed for universities of the same type. Degrees were of equal value. If there were reputational differences, they were related to specific disciplines in specific places but not to specific universities. In the last decade, both the reforms implemented in the course of the Bologna process and competitive funding schemes like the Excellence Initiative have triggered processes of horizontal and vertical differentiation. In contrast to the highly stratified Anglo-Saxon higher education systems, the emerging rank order here is still new and provisional (Bloch et al. 2014).

This is even more the case for new fields such as doctoral education in Germany. Graduate schools and other programs for the education of doctoral researchers are a relatively new phenomenon in German higher education. In the course of the last 10 years, such programs have been established nationwide at universities. They are designed to substitute the traditional individual relationship between supervisor and doctoral researcher with a curriculum as well as formalized supervision and recruitment. They are programs for the education of doctoral researchers. The Excellence Initiative supported the establishment of graduate schools in one of its three funding lines. It induced stratification by selecting a group of graduate schools and officially assigning them excellence status. As only a few graduate schools existed prior to the Excellence Initiative, a new field of doctoral education was created that had a stratification in place even before it was populated by graduate schools (Bloch and Mitterle 2017).

The first part of this chapter reconstructs the emergence of this new field. Based on longitudinal data, I will employ a neo-institutionalist perspective to explain the expansion of doctoral programs in Germany. In particular, I will ask whether this development is the outcome of isomorphic change in the German higher education system and how it is connected to new vertical differentiations.

The second part of the chapter analyzes how rank differences between graduate schools are established. It focuses on the connections between institutional prestige and career pathways. In a highly stratified higher education system like that of the United States, academic careers are built on the institutional prestige of the degree-granting university or graduate school (Burris 2004, Athey et al. 2007, Hurlbert and Rosenfeld 1992, Smith-Doerr 2006). Such “intra-prestige-group ‘inbreeding’” (Baldi 1994, p. 38) is a self-enforcing process in which career success (in terms of being hired by/admitted to a top-ranked institution) is related to the preceding level: post-PhD career success is attributed to the graduate school, whose prestige is simultaneously built on the placement of its PhDs in top departments. Institutional prestige is therefore crucial in the competition for talent (Paradeise and Thoenig 2014, p. 399). In an egalitarian higher education system like that in Germany, the institutional prestige of specific universities is not very pronounced. Rather, holding a doctoral degree in general enhances employment opportunities (Lenger 2008) and increases income levels (Mertens and Röbken 2013). Doctoral education is related to the reproduction of elites, as obtaining a doctoral degree and pursuing a (successful) academic career is heavily influenced by social background (Graf 2015; Möller 2015). The social capital of supervisors in terms of networks appears to be decisive for academic career advancement (Jungbauer-Gans and Gross 2013; Lenger 2008; for psychology: Lang and Neyer 2004). By contrast, institutional prestige only has a weak influence (Jungbauer-Gans and Gross 2013, p. 88).1 As university programs, the graduate schools of the Excellence Initiative can be seen as an attempt to establish “excellence careers” (Bloch and Würmann 2014, p. 150). Drawing on organizational case studies2 of two graduate schools funded by the Excellence Initiative, I will show whether and how these relate to their graduates to construct academic elite career pathways.

The Establishment of Doctoral Programs in Germany

Until the early 2000s, there was no specific sector of doctoral education in Germany. The only relevant regulation was derived from the binary structure of the German higher education system, which defines doctoral education as a prerogative of the universities. However, doctoral education is only loosely coupled to the university. In contrast to Anglo-Saxon higher education systems, it is not conceptualized as the third cycle of studies but as the first stage of professional academic practice (Kreckel 2016). Doctoral researchers nevertheless lack a specific status in the personnel structure of universities (Enders 1996). They are not enrolled in specific schools. The majority of them are employed as research associates.3 They are recruited by professors and not the department or the university. Research associates take on tasks in research, teaching, and administration. Alongside these organizational tasks, they work on their dissertation (Bloch and Würmann 2012). There is no formal curriculum. Instead, doctoral education is envisioned as a socialization process based on a master-apprentice model between supervisor and doctoral researcher that is shaped by informal learning processes, expectations, and sanctions (Engler 2001; Enders 1994; Oevermann 2005). In the traditional academic career system, career advancement is largely unregulated (Bloch and Würmann 2014), and universities have no specific programs for the education of junior researchers.

This situation changed in 2005, when the Excellence Initiative, a competitive device for the distribution of government funds over a period of five years, prompted the universities to apply for graduate schools in one of the program’s three funding lines. The framework of the Excellence Initiative and its official selection criteria has two performative effects on doctoral education. First, it addresses the universities as organizational actors, capable of strategic action and accountable for the effects of their actions (Krücken and Meier 2006; cf. Brunsson and Sahlin-Andersson 2000; Ramirez 2010). Graduate schools are conceptualized as university4 programs for the education of excellent junior researchers. They are expected to be part of a university’s profile (German Research Foundation and German Council of Science and Humanities 2010). Different from the traditional model of doctoral education, graduate schools include a curriculum, supervision agreements and formal admission procedures, as well as measures to increase gender equality and internationality. Universities thus have to transform the old master-apprentice model into an organizational program with formal rules.

Second, the Excellence Initiative induces stratification in the field of higher education. The competitive and formalized process of the Excellence Initiative leads to a clear assignment of status. A group of graduate schools is selected and officially declared to be excellent. Only these graduate schools are funded. This unequal distribution of resources marks the Excellence Initiative out as a “policy of excellence” that assigns universities and their graduate schools “an apical status and position within the higher education system” (Rostan and Vaira 2011, p. 57). Graduate Schools of Excellence, as they are officially called, are thus a resource used for positioning a university; they “are one method of a faculty or a university to create ‘critical masses’ of research capacity” (Schimank and Lange 2009, p. 71). In this they differ from their predecessors, the Research Training Groups (RTG; Graduiertenkollegs) funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Despite being a “support program for outstanding research and an elite of doctoral researchers” (transl. German Research Foundation 2000, p. 8), the prestige of the RTGs was tied to the selection procedure of an intra-academic institution for the competitive distribution of research funds and bestowed mainly on the successful applicants. These were groups of professors and not universities. Lacking an institutionalized status, RTGs are inherently temporary in their design, while Graduate Schools of Excellence are expected to persist beyond the frame of the Excellence Initiative.

After the Excellence Initiative had been launched, doctoral programs in German higher education boomed. Several other research associations, such as the Leibniz Association and the Max-Planck Society, started to implement their own doctoral programs, but the greatest expansion was seen in single universities or faculties: the number of doctoral programs without support from the Excellence Initiative, the German Research Foundation, or research associations increased from 91 (2006) to 516 (2014) (see Figure 13.1).
Fig. 13.1

Number of doctoral programs by funding organization 1990–2014

Sources: annual reports of the research associations, own data5

The boom in doctoral programs points to isomorphic change in the German university sector. Within the space of a few years, the overwhelming majority of doctoral-granting public universities (78 out of 88) set up at least one doctoral program on their own.6 Because this boom followed the funding of graduate schools through the Excellence Initiative, it can be related to both coercive and mimetic isomorphism in the field (DiMaggio and Powell 1983, p. 150f.). Public universities are to a large extent dependent on a single source of support, namely the state. Although the state has refrained from making doctoral programs obligatory within the university sector by law, access to the Excellence Initiative’s considerable resources depends to a large extent on having a graduate school.7 As graduate schools were still being funded in the second round of the Excellence Initiative, universities can also be expected to copy the strategies of their successful counterparts. From this perspective, Graduate Schools of Excellence act as promoters of stratification and simultaneously generate the very field of doctoral education in which they take the top position. This dynamic meets political expectations “to initiate a performance spiral [Leistungsspirale] with the goal of establishing top positions as well as an increase in quality across Germany as a site for universities and science” (ExV 2005, Preamble). Although graduate schools will no longer be funded directly in the next round of the Excellence Initiative, it has become a prerequisite for universities to have a graduate school if they want to be competitive in attracting public resources across different funding schemes.8

There is, however, a third source of isomorphic change to which the boom in doctoral programs can also be related. Normative pressures to ensure the quality of the PhD have been mounting in Germany, especially after some highly publicized cases of plagiarism at doctoral level, involving the minister of foreign affairs (Guttenberg) and education and research (Schavan), who as a consequence had to resign from office. Both the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK, 2012) and the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR, 2011) have recommended the general implementation of doctoral programs as a means of quality assurance. The establishment of doctoral programs is further promoted by the Bologna process, which aims at institutionalizing doctoral education as the third cycle of a European study system (Hornbostel 2009). Having a doctoral program has become proof that universities assume responsibility for the quality of their doctoral education.

The boom in doctoral programs, then, points to two dynamics in the newly emerging field of doctoral education: (1) a stratificatory dynamic driven by doctoral programs as a means of vertical differentiation and (2) a horizontal dynamic driven by alignment with a general model of doctoral education (cf. Bleiklie 2011, p. 21). The two dynamics are mutually reinforcing: although the Bologna process had already started in 1999, only a few doctoral programs had been established in Germany by 2006.9 In the absence of other normative pressures to transform doctoral education, the Excellence Initiative legitimized doctoral programs as a means of stratification. It sparked 262 proposals to establish a graduate school.10 Apparently, many proposals have been realized anyway, regardless of their success in the Excellence Initiative. These doctoral programs may be related to positioning a university in future competitions,11 but they – and other newcomers – are also legitimized by the Bologna process, which promotes the general implementation of doctoral programs across the system. Thus, many of the newly established doctoral programs are not intended to be competitive, nor do they have the necessary funding. For instance, almost a fifth (95 of 516 in 2014) of all programs run by single universities are service-oriented programs that structure the PhD phase only formally and only offer extra, not directly PhD-related, courses. The movement of these programs is not vertically-aspiring but horizontally-aligning.

This horizontal movement also impacts, however, on the binary structure of the German higher education system, and therefore on an established stratification between different sectors. The European degree structure differentiates between academic levels but not between types of higher education institutions. As a consequence, differences in the degree structure between universities and universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) have vanished, which has led to a “blurring of boundaries” (Witte et al. 2008) between the two sectors. This is only the latest development in a longer process of “academic drift” (Neave 1979) that has led universities of applied sciences to more and more resemble universities. Still, the universities retain the privilege of granting doctoral degrees. It is legitimized through their higher research quality and capacities, as universities of applied sciences are still considered primarily teaching-oriented institutions and their professors have a considerably higher teaching load. Without the right to grant doctoral degrees, they also lack positions for doctoral researchers.12 The privilege of the universities has, however, become a contested political issue. Universities of applied sciences demand the right to grant doctoral degrees at least for those faculties that have an established academic record. Lately, the government of Hesse13 has granted them this partial right. They establish doctoral programs to prove the quality of their doctoral education and to legitimize themselves as doctoral-granting institutions. Already, 26 of the 516 doctoral programs beyond the Excellence Initiative are run in cooperation between universities and universities of applied sciences.

Nevertheless, this “de-diversification“ (Teichler 2008, p. 367) triggered by the Bologna process has not led to a leveling of all differences “but rather towards processes of reassembling and restructuring” (Rostan and Vaira 2011, p. 68). Isomorphic change does lead to institutional resemblance, but it also brings with it new differentiations and can thus be related to stratification. If higher education institutions perceive themselves to be similar, and common concepts diffuse into the field (Strang and Meyer 1994, p. 103), then they also open up a space in which they can be compared with each other (Bloch and Mitterle 2017). Furthermore, if competition in this comparative space leads to a general “leveling upward” (Trow 1984, p. 144) of higher education institutions, this may run counter the state’s interest in institutional diversity.14 As a result, the state may react with policies of “leveling downward, toward the development of a large comprehensive unitary system marked by the characteristics of mass higher education, with certain small and selective elite ‘centers of excellence‘” (ibid.).

If the “leveling upward” of universities of applied sciences means that they are subject to the same requirements as universities, namely to set up doctoral programs in order to assure the quality of doctoral education, then the “blurring of boundaries” between the two sectors will continue and new vertical differentiations may come to replace the old binary structure (cf. Bleiklie 2011, p. 31): between universities of applied sciences or some of their faculties with the right to grant doctoral degrees and those without; and between universities with excellent graduate schools and those without. The latter universities then hardly differ from doctoral-granting universities of applied sciences. A new field of doctoral education thus emerges. At the bottom, universities of applied sciences are no longer excluded and some15 move into the field, while at the same time “centers of excellence” are demarcated at the top.16 Beyond their shared characteristic as university programs, different types17 of doctoral programs are connected with different aspirations and relate to different comparative spaces. Interdisciplinary programs relate to competitive funding devices such as the Excellence Initiative that take interdisciplinarity as one official criterion of excellence (German Research Foundation and German Council of Science and Humanities 2010). Disciplinary programs relate to the academic profession, as they educate doctoral researchers for a specific research area. Topic-centered programs relate to specific research discourses in the scientific community, as they bring together senior as well as junior researchers for a temporary research alliance. Service-oriented programs relate to the university as an organization, as they aim to incorporate all doctoral researchers of a university or a faculty into formal structures. Isomorphic change thus leads to a general alignment with one model of doctoral education while simultaneously advancing the emergence of new vertical differentiations that are connected with different types of doctoral programs.

The ‘Production’ of Academic Careers Through Graduate Schools of Excellence

The question now remains as to how graduate schools deemed excellent by the Excellence Initiative build their reputation in the new field of doctoral education. For the universities, having a graduate school is no longer per se a mark of distinction, as it used to be at the beginning of the Excellence Initiative. Moreover, so far there are no other devices beyond the Excellence Initiative that rank doctoral programs in Germany.18 What is perceived as constituting an excellent graduate school is open to the actors in the field. In following the criteria set by the Excellence Initiative, they cast themselves as selective (Bloch 2015), international (Bloch et al. forthcoming), and research-productive.

However, a key function of top graduate schools, especially in the highly stratified Anglo-Saxon higher education systems, is to produce academic elites. Here, academic careers are built on institutional prestige. In a new field of doctoral education like that in Germany, the interconnection between the prestige of the graduate school or the university and career pathways is still being established. As the Graduate Schools of Excellence have existed now for only ten years and the length of the postdoctoral phase varies considerably in Germany, the number of professorships obtained by their graduates cannot be used as a measure of success. They have, however, produced a considerable number of PhDs so far.19 The further careers of these PhDs have not been surveyed yet, nor is it the intention of this chapter to do so. Rather, I will focus on the question of whether and how graduate schools cast themselves as ‘producers’ of academic careers. Following the example of highly stratified higher education systems, the graduate schools could be expected to build a visible placement record.20 One indicator of how they relate to the subsequent careers of their PhDs is therefore the information provided on their websites. A survey21 of the websites of the Graduate Schools of Excellence, as well as of other doctoral programs run by single universities, shows that the information presented varies considerably (Table 13.1).
Table 13.1

Information about graduates on the websites of Graduate Schools of Excellence (N=33)22 and other doctoral programs run by single universities (N=409, service-oriented programs are excluded) (March 2016)

Information about graduates

Graduate Schools of Excellence

Other doctoral programs






Limited to name, dissertation topic, graduation date





Also includes current position










In general, only a minority of both the Graduate Schools of Excellence and other doctoral programs refer to the current positions of their graduates. However, more than a third of the former include such information, compared to only four percent of the latter. It appears to be more self-evident for Graduate Schools of Excellence to connect with their graduates’ careers. Nevertheless, a quarter of them and almost half of the other doctoral programs disclose no information at all about their graduates. Neither the individuals who have completed the program nor their subsequent careers are linked to the graduate school. Thirteen Graduate Schools of Excellence and more than half of the other doctoral programs limit information on their graduates to name, dissertation topic and graduation date. They specify their output in terms of persons and research topics but not of careers. Excellent graduate schools of both types do not conform to the expectation that connects them with elite career pathways. Rather, their sphere of influence ends with the date of graduation.

The remaining 12 Graduate Schools of Excellence that include information about current positions transform their graduates into alumni who belong to the graduate school’s community beyond graduation. The graduate school connects with them and their careers. Their career pathway can be constructed as part of the graduate school’s track record. Yet only one Graduate School of Excellence, the Graduate School of Economic and Social Sciences at the University of Mannheim, speaks of “job placements” when referring to its alumni.23 The term ‘placement’ constructs the subsequent careers of alumni as an effect of the graduate school, which by its reputation ‘places’ graduates in top positions. The graduate school is devised as a means to embark on an elite career trajectory.24

This very superficial data gives an initial impression of how differently Graduate Schools of Excellence relate to their graduates’ careers. It would, however, be wrong to conclude that the majority of them are completely disconnected from the further career advancement of their graduates. Data from organizational case studies at two Graduate Schools of Excellence, High Tech Graduate School and Scheelheim Graduate School,25 reveal a more differentiated approach.

At High Tech Graduate School, it is generally acknowledged that one of its purposes is the production of excellent PhDs for top positions:

It’s about elite education. Well, elite I don’t know, but for sure these are people who, during their PhD phase, have met the criteria you have in science in an outstanding way, that are going fast through their PhD, nevertheless publishing outstandingly, and getting a very good subsequent position. (Professor, High Tech Graduate School, interview 6)

Other Graduate Schools of Excellence share this notion when they advertise with “accelerated careers at the world’s best academic institutions and in high-technology industries.”26 They nevertheless refrain from using the term ‘placement’, as it narrows the effects of the graduate school to its graduates’ positions and employers. The term ‘alumni,’ by contrast, allows them to attribute a broader range of activities to the graduate school:

First, the graduates of 2013 as in all previous years are high-performing. (…) This student has been a very prolific writer. And this student has published in very high-ranking journals. And this student has moved on and took another position as a postdoc or at an Ivy League University et cetera, et cetera. So the first noteworthy thing I want to say is: Thank you very much for making us very proud. (Observation protocol, laudation at graduation ceremony, High Tech Graduate School)

The quality of the work, publications in high-ranked journals, and career advancement in general and at prestigious institutions are put forward as characteristics of High Tech’s graduates. A range of individual achievements is thus attributed to the graduate school. For instance, High Tech also provides a list of alumni with their current positions on its homepage. The sheer presence of the list is a claim that High Tech is ‘somehow’ related to these careers. Its concrete impact on them, however, is difficult to specify, especially in the interdisciplinary settings promoted by the Excellence Initiative:

If I may inquire, there could be a conflict between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity if you think about the later career. Well, I don’t know how far this interdisciplinarity reaches into the postdoc phase or whether the people return to their mother disciplines, being again [discipline A] or [discipline B], for instance?


Well, that is a good question. To tell the truth, I don’t know. (…) we should maybe sometime look at this (…) Also, to maybe do a follow-up survey in a few years. Let’s say, you have been a postdoc for three years, how has our interdisciplinary educational program influenced your current career or research? Did it leave a noteworthy mark at all? That is really, yes, it’s true, that is an important question. (Professor, High Tech Graduate School, interview 5)

As executors of a program for the education of doctoral researchers, faculty at High Tech as well as at other Graduate Schools of Excellence must believe that their program has an effect. Otherwise, they would be engaging in an organizational program that misses its purpose and as a consequence experience a lack of motivation. High Tech is an interdisciplinary graduate school, yet career pathways are to a large extent shaped by the disciplines, especially in their connection to specific areas of teaching. Interdisciplinarity is thus associated with career disadvantages,27 which raises the question of whether it continues to be practiced after the doctoral program has been completed. Against this background, it appears plausible that High Tech would not leave any “noteworthy mark.” Similarly, faculty at the likewise interdisciplinary Scheelheim Graduate School find it difficult to estimate the surplus generated through the program:

Well, it is very difficult to measure. You do not have more PhDs, thank God, that would be a wrong signal if these graduate schools [were to function] as ‘PhD mills,’ yes, for which labor market? You always have to see that. But this raising of the general level [allgemeines Niveau], which is so difficult to measure, that is what we are committed to. (Professor, Scheelheim Graduate School, interview 1)

Scheelheim Graduate School legitimizes itself through its role in increasing the quality of doctoral education. A measurable indicator such as an increase in the number of PhDs is delegitimized by a lack of labor market demand.28 Instead, the abstract purpose of the program allows a wide range of activities to be attributed to the graduate school without it having to specify the concrete relation between program and effect:

Yes, well, one of my doctoral researchers has just won the award for the best dissertation from [professional association]. (…) Now that is not the only example. And it is of course an indicator of success. (Professor, Scheelheim Graduate School, interview 1).

Similar to the term alumni, the reference to an abstract quality allows awards, publications, and the acquisition of third-party funded research projects to be attributed to the graduate school. They appear as manifestations of the special quality of the program.

I think that we have excellent students, which really distinguishes us. I think that we also have a very excellent faculty, which you can easily see from – we have done this very systematically for the evaluation – the many winners of the best awards (…), the Leibniz awards, or the European Research Council, where we clearly have an above average number of people; publications in the best journals, the number of publications per student, and for the faculty also, next to the awards, what other projects and clusters have been acquired. There is the [name of science center], there is the Research Unit [prestigious DFG program, r.b.]; there are many things that show that, on the student as well as on the faculty level, it is a special, outstanding, excellent group of people. (Professor, High Tech Graduate School, interview 6)

At High Tech, the list of achievements is extended to the faculty. However, these are not depicted as effects of the graduate school. Rather, the special quality of the graduate school is deduced from the faculty’s reputation; the performance of its doctoral researchers is only secondary. Thus, the graduate school’s performance record is disconnected from its graduates and their careers:

The excellence criterion (…) is based less on the people but rather on the school itself, and how it pursues the professionalization of [individuals from discipline A] and [individuals from discipline B]. (Professor, Scheelheim Graduate School, interview 5)

Hence, the production of academic elites can be neglected – it is not the graduates but the graduate school that is excellent. Disconnecting themselves from career pathways allows graduate schools to be or stay excellent without producing academic elites. However deliberate this disconnection may be, it is in line with the political goal of the Excellence Initiative, which was not to establish elite career pathways but excellent programs for the education of doctoral researchers. It is a policy aimed at the university as an organization, not at individual academics. It seeks to establish “centers of excellence” rather than an academic elite.

This “hesitant approach to elite education” (Deppe et al. 2015) in terms of the production of academic elite career pathways can partially be explained by the structure of the German academic career system. After the PhD there is a structural gap. PhDs do not embark directly on a tenure track potentially leading to a full professorship but on an insecure postdoctoral phase with shifting workplaces and an open end.29 Their career is solely aimed at obtaining a professorship (Bloch and Würmann 2013), which is only possible at another university, as in-house recruitment is prohibited by law (Hausberufungsverbot), and which still requires in most instances a further academic qualification, the Habilitation.

This has two consequences for the universities: first, the establishment of graduate schools does not change the structural condition that universities produce PhDs for an external labor market (Enders 1994, p. 234; cf. Musselin 2003, p. 15), that is, they cannot profit directly from the quality of their graduates. This is aggravated by the fact that the PhD is also valued in the non-academic labor market. It is estimated that a quarter of all doctoral researchers work on their dissertation alongside a job outside academia. At university, doctoral as well as postdoctoral researchers are employed as research associates who are part of the chair endowment (Kreckel 2016, p. 25f.) and are thus recruited by individual professors and not by the university (Hüther and Krücken 2012). For a scientific community that is primarily organized along disciplinary differences and specific schools of thought, the prestige of a university or its graduate school is only of secondary importance for the highly informal recruitment of junior researchers.

Second, in spite of this very limited impact on academic careers, it is nevertheless in the interest of universities to have a graduate school or another form of doctoral program. Graduate schools are a means to gain legitimacy by fulfilling demands posed by the environment, most prominently the state. As elaborated, a graduate school can stand for aspirations to model a university’s own doctoral education after top-ranked programs. But it can also be taken as proof that a university has taken care of assuring the quality of its PhD. Either way, having a graduate school enhances a university’s legitimacy.

If a graduate school relates to the comparative space established by the Excellence Initiative, fostering academic careers is not among the excellence criteria. These include only a vague reference to a general personnel development concept into which the graduate school needs to be integrated (German Research Foundation and German Council of Science and Humanities 2010). It is rather in specific disciplines that the placement of PhDs plays a role. This is acknowledged by disciplinary doctoral programs that refer to a comparative space different from the Excellence Initiative, in which other ranking devices take placement records to construct vertical differences between programs. For the other doctoral programs, career success is only secondary.30 Faced with a structurally limited influence on academic careers, it even appears to be rational for them to evade explicit references to placements or elite career pathways, as these impede their performance record. They must generate the impression of enhancing the career opportunities of their graduates without letting their graduates’ careers become a benchmark of their performance. Both organizational case studies show that these Graduate Schools of Excellence do not cast themselves as producers of academic elites or elite career pathways. Their faculty refrain from speaking of placement and experience difficulty in assigning concrete effects to the program. Stratificatory claims are derived from the special quality of the program and are thus decoupled from career effects.

Stratification Without Producing Elites

By reconstructing the emergence of a new field of doctoral education, I have shown how the introduction of rank differences by the Excellence Initiative is related to a successive boom in doctoral programs. From a neo-institutionalist perspective, this boom appears as the outcome of isomorphic change in German higher education. However, the question of change is also a matter of debate in neo-institutional theory. Greenwood et al. (2002, p. 60), for example, propose different “stages of institutional change” that eventually culminate in the diffusion and reinstitutionalization of new concepts. Such a model of different stages is useful in accounting for early adopters, taking the Graduate Schools of Excellence as promoters of stratification. Yet it has been criticized for limiting the actors’ responses at later stages of change to “mindless imitation fueled by anxiety-driven pressures to conform” (Lounsbury 2008, p. 350). As I have shown, the rapid expansion of doctoral programs in Germany is not driven by imitation alone but also by new vertical differentiations in the university sector and beyond.

One key factor affecting the diffusion of concepts is the “perceived similarity” of the actors: “perceptions of similarity provide a rationale for diffusion. They make it sensible for an actor to use another’s choices and the consequences of those choices as a guide” (Strang and Meyer 1994, p. 103). In the case of German doctoral education, we can see two different sets of actors acting on the basis of their “perceived similarity”: first, universities that aspire to a top position in the Excellence Initiative seek to satisfy its official criteria of excellence. Although graduate schools will no longer be funded through the Excellence Initiative, they have become a cornerstone of universities’ excellence strategies and may well serve stratificatory purposes in other comparative spaces in the future. Second, universities of applied sciences set up doctoral programs to prove their quality and thus as a means of substantiating their claim to be not only similar but also equal to universities. “Perceived similarity” thus relates to different segments of German higher education, depending on institutional type or position in either higher education sector. Isomorphism depends on who perceives whom as similar and along which lines. The general model of doctoral education as a program is adopted, but it serves different purposes. A new field of doctoral education has emerged, populated with doctoral programs that are driven by isomorphic change but cutting across different higher education sectors and generating new vertical differentiations.

It remains to be seen whether and how these vertical differentiations will eventually be stabilized. The work necessary to achieve such stabilization is left to the universities, as they have been transformed into organizational actors. Building a placement record based on institutional prestige, as might be expected when looking at highly stratified higher education systems, is not an immediate concern of Graduate Schools of Excellence or other doctoral programs, however. Faced with the structural limits of a career system that postpones the ultimate career success (obtaining a professorship) well beyond the PhD, they disconnect themselves from the career pathways of their graduates and do not cast themselves as producers of academic elites. Yet this does not mean that career pathways are generally neglected. Graduate Schools of Excellence and other aspiring doctoral programs have several organizational arrangements in place to increase the competitiveness of their graduates in the labor market, among them international mobility grants, career workshops, grant proposal writing training, hosting international conferences, and lectures by internationally renowned scientists. With such arrangements in place, they claim “to provide an excellent environment for doctoral research and education”31:

The education we receive here prepares us quite optimally, I think, for the academic market. Whether you consider the many graduate schools that have been established [through the Excellence Initiative], and as a consequence the ever increasing competition, a good thing, is a different question. But for sure I think that we are all very well bred [hochgezüchtet] here. (Doctoral researcher, Scheelheim Graduate School, interview 6)

Having access to resources, being internationally mobile and used to interacting with well-known scientists in academic settings, PhDs from Graduate Schools of Excellence are well aware that they are in a good starting position to face the fierce competition for a professorship. The Graduate Schools of Excellence provide their PhDs with the capital (publications, networks) that research has shown to be crucial for academic career advancement (Jungbauer-Gans and Gross 2013; Lenger 2008). They seek to disconnect these processes of capital accumulation from the traditional individual relationship between supervisor/mentor and doctoral researcher and attach them to the organizational level. The accumulated capital of the PhDs is transformed into an output of the doctoral program. Though Graduate Schools of Excellence refrain from claiming to place their graduates in top positions through their institutional prestige, they seek to empower their graduates to reach such positions. As “incubators” (Stevens et al. 2008, p. 132) that socialize their doctoral researchers to aspire to top positions,32 Graduate Schools of Excellence are a first step toward a rationalization of academic career pathways.


  1. 1.

    Some studies, however, claim that the reputation of the PhD-granting university plays an important role in specific disciplines, such as education (Röbken 2009), business administration (Röbken 2007; 2010), or mechanical engineering (Röbken and Grötzinger 2012).

  2. 2.

    The case studies were undertaken in 2012 and 2013 as part of the research project “Elite Formation and Universities” within the DFG research group “Mechanisms of Elite Formation in the German Educational System” (FOR 1612). They involved 25 interviews with professors, staff, and doctoral researchers as well as the observation of specific organizational arrangements such as extracurricular events, meetings of the selection committees, graduation ceremonies, and workshops.

  3. 3.

    Because there is no central database for doctoral researchers, their exact number in German higher education is unknown. The Federal Statistical Office (2016a) estimates that there are altogether 196,200 doctoral researchers, of which 64 percent (124,900) are employed by universities (ibid., p. 39), usually as research associates. Although some of them may also be matriculated in doctoral programs, altogether only 23 percent of all doctoral researchers participate in such programs (ibid., p. 33), among them scholarship holders. In some disciplines there is also a high proportion of ‘external’ doctoral researchers who either work in extra-mural research institutes or outside academia (ibid., 35f.).

  4. 4.

    Universities of applied sciences and private universities are excluded from the Excellence Initiative.

  5. 5.

    Based on a survey of all doctoral programs in 2014 at the 88 public research universities that are eligible to participate in the Excellence Initiative. The survey included the founding year of each doctoral program; however, those programs that had ceased to exist in the meantime could not be accounted for.

  6. 6.

    Of the ten universities that had at the time of writing not introduced a doctoral program, five are monodisciplinary universities for teacher education or public administration.

  7. 7.

    Within the framework of the Excellence Initiative universities need at least one graduate school (and research cluster) to be eligible for the most prestigious of its funding lines, “institutional strategies,” which assigns excellence status to the whole university (ExV 2005).

  8. 8.

    For instance, the latest federal competitive funding scheme, the Pact for Junior Researchers (Pakt für den wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs), requires the universities to have a personnel development concept in place for acquiring additional professorships. Graduate schools are one cornerstone of such concepts. In a similar fashion, research clusters funded by the Excellence Initiative and Collaborative Research Centers (Sonderforschungsbereiche) funded by the German Research Foundation have set up their own doctoral programs.

  9. 9.

    Apart from the RTGs funded by the German Research Foundation, which had already been in place prior to the Bologna Process but were inherently temporary.

  10. 10.

    Number of draft proposals (Antragsskizzen) for the first phase in 2005/06. Universities submitted another 98 draft proposals in 2011 for the second phase (German Research Foundation and German Council of Science and Humanities 2015, p. 13).

  11. 11.

    Some rejected proposals for graduate schools have received intermediate funding from excellence programs at Land level to enable them to prepare a successful application for the next round of the federal Excellence Initiative. Such funding is, however, very limited in scope. Apart from one explorative study on rejected research clusters (Simon et al. 2010), there is no research on the ‘losers’ in the Excellence Initiative.

  12. 12.

    These are mainly positions for research associates. In 2015, German universities employed 166,692 of the same, while the universities of applied sciences only 11,755, most of them third-party funded (Federal Statistical Office 2016b).

  13. 13.

    The Länder are responsible for higher education legislation.

  14. 14.

    “Governments generally do not like the tendency of modest or new institutions to emulate the styles and pretensions of the old elite ones. What they want is more diversity in the national higher education system, more vocationally relevant studies, new and more efficient modes of instruction, new and more democratic governance arrangements, new channels of access. The last thing they want is a bigger and bigger university system, with all the new colleges and technical schools aping the universities, taking on more arts programs, and demanding the rights and privileges of the universities, their research and graduate work along with their autonomy and self-governance” (Trow 1984, p. 143f.). In the end, it is the state that originally set up the binary structure and has maintained it up to the present day.

  15. 15.

    As devices like the Excellence Initiative focus on research, teaching-oriented institutions may regard them as “irrelevant to the activities in which the institution is engaged” (Bleiklie 2011, p. 31) and will thus refrain from such aspirations.

  16. 16.

    Both the Excellence Initiative and the funding ranking by the German Research Foundation reflect a tripartition of the German university sector, with 10 to 15 universities with an excellent in record in all research areas at the top, followed by another 30 to 40 universities that are excellent in some areas and have been partially successful in the Excellence Initiative (by gaining a graduate school and/or a research cluster). The remaining 70 universities are not competitive within the Excellence Initiative and are also at the bottom of the DFG funding ranking (Kreckel 2015, p. 407; cf. Hornbostel and Möller 2015, p. 52).

  17. 17.

    Based on the survey of all doctoral programs (N=516), four different types can be distinguished: (1) interdisciplinary programs in which disciplines from at least two different subject groups (e.g. humanities and natural sciences) participate (19 percent, N=97); (2) disciplinary programs that are confined to one discipline, often named in the title of the program (e.g. “graduate school of social sciences,” 37 percent, N=193); topic-centered programs that are related to a specific research topic in the tradition of the DFG RTGs (25 percent, N=131); service-oriented programs that structure the PhD only formally (19 percent, N=95).

  18. 18.

    There are, however, several research rankings in specific disciplines such as economics that are connected to these programs (cf. Maesse 2015).

  19. 19.

    Up to 2013, 2499 PhDs had been completed within the framework of the Excellence Initiative, 1897 of them in graduate schools (German Research Foundation and German Council of Science and Humanities 2015, pp. 31, 189). Overall, 27,707 PhDs were granted in Germany in 2013 (Federal Statistical Office 2016c).

  20. 20.

    See Nespor in this volume for visibility strategies of elite business schools in the United States.

  21. 21.

    I thank Norman Tannhäuser for his help in gathering the data.

  22. 22.

    Thirty-three out of currently 45 graduate schools of the Excellence Initiative have been funded since the first phase (2006/07) and have been in place long enough to produce graduates.

  23. 23.

    The Erlangen Graduate School in Advanced Optical Technologies does refer to placements, yet it includes under the heading “awards” a list of all faculty positions offered to their principal investigators and their graduates and whether they were accepted or declined ( [Accessed 8 May 2017]).

  24. 24.

    This explicit reference to career trajectories may be due to the specific academic culture in economics. According to Maesse (2015, and in this volume), doctoral programs in economics are unequivocally committed to the future career success of their graduates. This is supported by our findings on other doctoral programs that include information about the positions of their graduates. Five of these 16 programs include only cursory information. Of the other 11 programs, seven belong to economics, where this information is commonly expected.

  25. 25.

    All names are anonymized. High Tech belongs to the natural sciences and Scheelheim to the humanities.

  26. 26.

    Karlsruhe School of Optics and Photonics ( [Accessed 8 May 2017]).

  27. 27.

    Based on a survey of German professors, Zuber and Hüther (2013) show that interdisciplinarity is related to prolonging the period between PhD completion and obtaining a professorship.

  28. 28.

    Ironically, it is precisely such a presumed overproduction of PhDs which has led the international commission for the evaluation of the Excellence Initiative to recommend the exclusion of graduate schools from future rounds of the competition (cf. IEKE 2016, p. 28).

  29. 29.

    A transparent performance-based career system like the tenure track is only just beginning to emerge, for instance at Technical University Munich (TUM). There, the tenure track clearly serves aspirations to win talent and secure the institution’s position as an elite university: “TUM offers promising young scientists from around the world attractive career perspectives with its new career model: TUM Faculty Tenure Track. Highly qualified candidates are appointed as assistant professors (W2) with prospects for performance-based advancement to a permanent professorship (associate professor, W3). With further research achievements at the highest international level, this path can lead to promotion to a chair position (full professor, W3).” ( [Accessed 8 May 2017]). The recent Pact for Junior Researchers (Pakt für den wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs) is an attempt to establish tenure track professorships as an alternative career path across the system.

  30. 30.

    Graduate schools may be used strategically to establish a specific school of thought or a new research field, and they may take the career success of its PhDs not as an end in itself but as a means for achieving this specific purpose (cf. Bloch and Mitterle 2017).

  31. 31.

    Graduate School for Advanced Manufacturing Engineering (GSaME) ( [Accessed 8 May 2017]).

  32. 32.

    Gumport (2000) shows that US elite graduate schools socialize their doctoral researchers to aspire to top positions (cf. Maesse 2015 for similar effects of German doctoral programs in economics). In line with this, Morrison et al. (2011) found that graduates from elite programs value the prestige of faculty appointments more highly than those from non-elite programs, who value salary more highly. Consequentially, the former are more likely to choose their academic positions with respect to prestige.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of SociologyMartin Luther University Halle-WittenbergHalleGermany

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