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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

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Fig. 13.1


  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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Bloch, R. (2018). Stratification Without Producing Elites? The Emergence of a New Field of Doctoral Education in Germany. In: Bloch, R., Mitterle, A., Paradeise, C., Peter, T. (eds) Universities and the Production of Elites. Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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