Scholarships provide a basis to start a scientific career, to network and communicate with peers and to benefit from new opportunities. Applicants have to navigate from the wide variety of scholarships to find the appropriate program.

Scholarships in Germany, a short overview

Scholarships are voluntary cash and/or non-cash benefits to support education and training. In contrast to benefits of BaföG (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz, or Federal Training Assistance Act in Germany) grants, scholarships are not loans and are therefore not repayable. In general, scholarships awarded by public institutions or public sector bodies are tax-free (according to the German tax law). However, a prerequisite is that the financial benefit of the scholarship does not exceed general living costs. Moreover, a tax-free scholarship cannot have any requirements that would make it similar to that of an employment.

In most cases, scholarships do not include social security such as pensions, health insurance or unemployment insurance. Thus, the fellow is recommended to arrange at least a health insurance. However, if the awardee is obligated by the scholarship provider to any services, for example to support research or teaching, it needs to be verified by status determination procedure whether social insurance contributions have to be paid. These must then be paid by the scholarship provider.

No pain no gain

It is a common misconception that it is sufficient to be highly talented, socially, religiously or politically active or financially needy to receive a scholarship. There are far more selection criteria for scholarships such as age, research topic, state and university, and contributions of the receiving institution. Moreover, the candidate’s motivation, talent and creativity are important prerequisites for a scholarship. The road to a successful scholarship application might seem long and stony; however, chances increase when the application is well prepared.

Thorough research by the applicants ensures that they and their projects fit in the target group of the scholarship provider. In addition, it is essential to submit complete application documents on time and in a proper format. Application requirements and criteria should be strictly considered and met. The written application is the first step; many scholarship providers invite the candidates to an interview and to present the research projects in person. Applicants should be well-prepared to convince the scholarship provider; detailed technical or professional questions are not uncommon and should be precisely answered. Then, the applicants have to be patient and wait for the final decision.

Fruits of successful applications

According to an internal study, in Germany there are about 35 organizations offering interdisciplinary scholarship programs with a funding level that is above both the Germany Scholarship (300 euros per month) and the BAföG maximum (currently 735 euros per month).

This list includes non-university research institutions such as the Helmholtz Association, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Max Planck Society, Leibniz Association and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft which provide PhD students in graduate schools with scholarships.

The range of the different scholarship programmes regarding funding levels and periods is extremely broad. Besides living costs, costs for literature, publishing and conference participations to a level of about 1,000 euros per year on average are often covered by the scholarship programs. The duration of most scholarships is between six months and three years.

In addition to the financial support, many scholarships offer seminars and workshops for further training and continuing education. The character of these events varies depending on the scholarship provider. While in politically and religiously aligned scholarships participation is usually mandatory, other programs offer such events as an option to assist in building networks. This often leads to successful alumni networks resulting in benefits for both current and former fellows as well as for the scholarship providers.

The Beilstein Scholarship program

Since 2012, the Beilstein-Institut awarded 23 scholarships to PhD students to carry out studies in basic research at 20 different universities and research institutions across Germany. The financial support is 1,650 euros per month over a period of up to three years with an interim evaluation after 18 months. During the interim evaluation, the scholars have to overcome the challenge of convincing the foundation that their projects are worth a second funding period. In addition to the financial support, the foundation organizes scholarship meetings to provide the young researchers with a forum to get to know each other, to exchange ideas and information and to build up long-term networks. The foundation has hosted interdisciplinary events focusing on topics such as scientific publishing, plagiarism and open access. In addition, it also arranged a visit to the heavy ion accelerator at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung GmbH (Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research) in Darmstadt, where the group went in July 2014.

In the context of their research, the Beilstein scholars have proven that science can be very creative and can also show artistic facets. In a video Susanne Rommel, PhD student in the group of Professor Plieker at the University of Stuttgart, explains the operation of a fuel cell with the help of a model car, while Liana Movsesyan (GSI ­ Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, Darmstadt) presented a picture at the “Science as Art” exhibition at a meeting of the Materials Research Society (MRS) in San Francisco and describes this experience in an interview.