By H.J. Bungartz, K. Offe, and K. Schmidt

The context I: Diversity in German higher education and doctoral qualification

When looking at the concept of diversity, we have to emphasize that there is no single and universal approach to conceptualizing diversity. In the area of Diversity Management, diversity is often addressed in organizations and companies to increase operative efficiency (and maximize profits). On the other hand, the concept of diversity is linked to equity and antidiscrimination, having its roots in the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Emmerich & Hormel 2013, 183ff.). While some claim that it is impossible to combine the business and the equity perspectives due to their differing goals, motives and approaches, Krell (2013) argues that a combination may work, also for higher education institutions – although with a critical note on the growing entrepreneurial orientation of German universities. This, however, is linked to a critically discussed question: Does the increasing focus of German universities on the topic of diversity reflect the growing awareness that the ‘promise’ of equitable access and equal opportunities for a growing number of students hasn’t been fulfilled yet? Or does it rather show that the increasing competition and the growing orientation towards New Public Management approaches make universities take over concepts of performance-oriented Diversity Management from the business sector (Lutz 2013)?

In Germany, most universities are financed by the states (Bundesländer) and fall under the states’ regulatory control. One of their main functions is to promote research and to qualify the next generation of researchers. Universities’ predominant task, however, is to prepare students for professional activities that require the application of scientific knowledge and methods – as stipulated in the Framework Law for Higher Education Institutions (Hochschulrahmengesetz). Highlighted in this Law is also the importance of ensuring equity and equal opportunities: While there is a specifically dedicated paragraph on gender equality (§3), a university’s obligation to adequately consider the needs of students with disabilities as well as students with children is addressed in §2. When applying for a study program, applicants must not be disadvantaged because they take care of a child under the age of 18 years or support other relatives in need of care (§34). The general foundation for equity and non-discrimination in Germany, including the areas of education and employment, is the German General Equal Treatment Act, which aims at preventing or ending discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation (§1, Section 1, AGG). An important point of criticism on the Act is the omission of the dimension ‘social class’. The reason for this criticism also becomes clear when looking at the area of education: While, in theory and based on the idea of meritocracy, children enter the education system as ‘formally equals’ with the same opportunities, the social background still does make a difference. Although social disparities have decreased in the course of the 21st century, effects of social selectivity accumulate in individual biographies and educational pathways, also preceding the higher education level (Wolter 2011). Jahn et al. (2016, 39) show that the social background has a major impact on the choice of a specific academic discipline and study program. A higher social background is linked to a better performance in school and in academic studies as well as to a greater inclination to work as a student assistant, which comes with the opportunity to gain first-hand insights in research and the chance of getting to know a potential future doctoral supervisor. All of these aspects have an impact on the probability of whether or not graduates start a doctorate. Based on multivariate analyses of longitudinal data, Bachsleitner et al. (2018, 32) found “a substantial effect of parental education […], especially if at least one parent also had a doctorate […]. This is remarkable since the graduates are an already heavily selected group and have been exposed to various selection mechanisms throughout school and university.”

In theory, the list of diversity-relevant characteristics and their potentially inequality-inducing intersections is endless. When it comes to a university’s strategy to increase performance and ensure success in a competitive (international) environment, the diversity dimensions gender, culture (nationality/ migration background), and work-life-balance (compatibility of private/ family life and work) often seem to be addressed in practice. Of course, these dimensions are important in terms of equitable access and equal opportunities, but they are also strongly linked to a university’s chances to attract the best talents – and make them stay. Doctoral candidates in Germany contribute substantially to a university’s research output, which may allow the conclusion that considering diversity in doctoral qualification is both based on equity- as well as performance-oriented motives.

The context II: The ‘traditional’ individual doctorate

At TUM as well as at most other German universities, the ‘traditional’ and most common way to pursuing a doctoral degree is through the individual doctorate. As opposed to a structured PhD program, the individual doctorate is based on a close collaboration between the doctoral candidate and his/her supervisor in the department, institute, or research group. Doctoral candidates mainly work independently on their research projects and are supported by their dissertation supervisors.

Doctoral candidates are mainly seen as early-stage researchers and not as students anymore. This is also reflected in how doctoral candidates finance their doctorate: According to the National Report on Junior Scholars 2017, 77% of doctoral candidates have a contract as university employees, although with varying contractual hours: “In HE [higher education; HJB] institutions the proportion of full-time employees (defined here as those working at least 2/3 of the regular working hours of a full-time employee) varies between 42% in languages and cultural studies, and 82% in engineering” (Konsortium Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs 2017, 11). 6% of the doctoral candidates are employed by non-university research institutions, 6% by companies, 11% by other organizations. 17% of doctoral candidates are not employed (ibid.); the latter group probably also includes those receiving a scholarship or financing their doctorate privately.

In general, the model of the individual doctorate allows for a lot of flexibility and freedom, since it does not operate along start and end dates of the semester or cohort-based structures, including a fixed curriculum or examination periods. However, the model is also viewed critically, because of the strong dependency of the doctoral candidate on his/her main supervisor, who – for those employed by a higher education institution – is often also their boss.

The context III: Information on doctoral candidates

At German universities, diversity-related personal information on doctoral candidates is very limited. Some diversity-relevant criteria such as “gender” or “nationality” are commonly recorded as a formal requirement in the doctoral registration process, whereas providing information on a potential disability or a person’s health status is at most a voluntary information provided by individuals, unless they decide to apply for official social benefits and/or support services.

In general, reliable and comprehensive data on doctoral candidates in Germany is surprisingly scarce. The first Federal Report on the Promotion of Young Researchers (BuWiN) was published in 2008, followed by two further reports in 2013 and 2017 with varying focus topics. Based on an amendment of the University Statistics Law (Hochschulstatistikgesetz) in 2016, the German Government introduced a universal statistics on doctoral candidates in 2017 only. While some universities (TUM included) had started to systematically register doctoral candidates at a central level before 2017 already, all German universities now have to deliver reliable data on the number of doctoral candidates as well as information on their educational pathways, which will also allow for more reliable and nation-wide longitudinal analyses. While the universal statistics on doctoral candidates focuses mainly on formal education- and doctorate-related information, the National Academics Panel Study (Nacaps), a new multi-cohort panel study implemented by the German Centre for Higher Education and Science Studies (DZHW) promises to provide more comprehensive information: Nacaps started in 2019 and surveys doctoral candidates and doctorate holders in Germany at regular intervals. It covers a broad range of topics: motivation and attitudes, personal background, the qualification process as such, academic work and outcomes as well as career paths after having successfully finished the doctorate (DZHW 2019). Participation in this study is voluntary for doctoral candidates and as of now, only a certain number of German universities and higher education institutions are cooperating partners (TUM being one of them). Although concerns about data privacy were discussed with regard to the question whether universities wanted to cooperate with DZHW or not, Nacaps will most likely provide important information for quality assurance in doctoral qualification (including how to adequately address issues of diversity). Moreover, it may also be ‘easier’ for doctoral candidates to address certain sensitive topics, such as dis/ability or inadequate or unfair supervision, in an external, more anonymous setting.

Diversity in doctoral qualification at TUM

The contextual aspects discussed lead to challenges and opportunities with regard to supporting diversity in doctoral qualification at TUM. We want to discuss some of these challenges as well as potential (first) steps to more adequately address diversity.

  1. Due to the accumulation of inequalities in individuals’ educational biographies truly adequate approaches have to tackle systemic and structural aspects that go well beyond TUM, its programs, and infrastructure. Addressing diversity in doctoral education also means to expound the problems of the accumulation of inequalities in educational pathways at the political and societal level – and as a topic in research. TUM’s (already existing) cooperation with universities of applied sciences, which – in most German states – do not have the right to award a doctoral degree, but have a comparatively higher share of students who entered an academic study program after having completed a vocational training, may be seen as a first small step to contribute to an increasing permeability between educational sub-systems. Addressing transitions from Masters to doctoral level and providing assistance during the doctorate, e.g. through explicit ‘first generation’ information and mentoring programs may also be a tool to support students from different social background to see a doctorate as a beneficial qualification step and foundation for their future careers – an approach that some other German universities, such as the University of Cologne, already pursue.


  1. While the model of the individual doctorate allows for a lot of flexibility with regard to doctoral qualification as such, it also comes with its challenges: In most cases, doctoral candidates ‘enter’ the doctorate at TUM through their supervisor. We cannot assume that every potential supervisor is sensitized for issues of diversity as well as his/her own biases – although this awareness would be important for a fair identification of potential doctoral candidates as well as adequate support and supervision during the doctorate. TUM has introduced its Diversity Code of Conduct in 2012, which takes into consideration all TUM members: Students, professors, scientific and non-scientific employees. While, especially with regard to doctoral qualification, anti-bias workshops as well as good supervision trainings for all doctoral supervisors may be an effective approach, some take this even further and lobby for official selection and admission boards for doctoral candidates, applying objective criteria. To support doctoral candidates during the doctorate, it is a requirement that doctoral candidates chose an official mentor – who, ideally, is not part of their immediate research environment and can lend support and add an independent perspective. The different ways of financing a doctorate also lead to inequalities: Depending on their employment status as well as their respective job description, doctoral candidates are able to invest more or less time into their research and have more or less access to resources. With regard to equitable access for doctoral candidates with disabilities, for example, it is highly problematic that only those with a regular employment contract are entitled to receive work-related benefits and support, such as personal assistance or adaptation of the work place. Therefore, legal regulations as well as (financial) support schemes have to take into consideration the diversity among doctoral candidates.


  1. Access to diversity-related information on doctoral candidates may allow for a more adequate design of support mechanisms and structures as well as a monitoring of the impact of measures already in place. Gathering personal data at university level, however, is a tightrope walk between data privacy on the one hand and an improved data basis on the other. Designing diversity-related measures on a number of pre-defined diversity dimensions also bears the risk of manifesting dimensions as ‘given’, ignoring relevant other dimensions as well as not considering intersectional effects. Addressing specific needs and inequalities that we know of already, while at the same time being flexible to adapt and adjust measures is one approach: TUM provides, for example, a Diversity Degree Completion Grant, which allows doctoral candidates to present their case when applying for financial support. The TUM doctoral regulations explicitly include the possibility of waiving specific qualification requirements if need be. Consulting with the TUM Graduate Council, who represents all doctoral candidates of different disciplines at TUM, is also an important resource to gaining insight into the diversity-related challenges perceived at the grassroots level.


As could be shown, adequately supporting diversity in doctoral education is a complex undertaking that has to take into consideration contextual factors. It requires discourse and action at different levels, from individual to societal level. An honest reflection on diversity also has to take into consideration the competitive environment, in which universities ‘use’ diversity to increase their performance. While most German higher education institutions have agreed on diversity-related policies and do implement measures addressing equity-related aspects, there is a need for a continuous (critical) discussion of underlying diversity concepts and their effects. Addressing diversity from an equity perspective is imperative for higher education institutions – within their own institution and beyond.


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Corresponding author:

Hans-Joachim Bungartz, Technical University of Munich

Dean of Informatics, TUM Graduate Dean,,