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“Structured PhD programs are the future”

The Spemann Graduate School of Biology and Medicine celebrates its tenth anniversary

Freiburg, Oct 06, 2017

An excellent education in life and natural sciences: that’s what the Spemann Graduate School of Biology and Medicine (SGBM) has represented for the past ten years at the University of Freiburg. It was successful in both rounds of the recent competition for excellence. What has it accomplished? What’s next? Nicolas Scherger sat down for a chat with SGBM spokesman Prof. Dr. Christoph Borner to find out.

Christoph Borner wants to further form the Spemann Graduate School of Biology and Medicine into a type of umbrella for all structured PhD programs at the University of Freiburg. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Mr. Borner, what winning concept did SGBM use in the competition for excellence?

Christoph Borner: We set up a multidisciplinary and internationally focused program for obtaining a structured PhD. Our doctoral students not only pursue their scientific project, but also attend courses on how to write scientific texts and do presentations. They can study abroad and prepare their next career move by assessing the opportunities they have at the university, in the private or public sector. In the meantime, other graduate programs in natural and life sciences at the University have adapted to some of our standards.

What do you mean by “multidisciplinary and internationality”?

We didn’t want to include just one subject such as neurobiology or molecular medicine, but rather seven research areas so that the doctoral students can see the “Big Picture”. As a result, they meet once a month and present their results, organize an annual retreat, arrange conferences and can participate in an exchange program of up to six months.

How are the doctoral students supervised, how do they prepare themselves for their next career move?

Our supervision is somewhat more in-depth than in other graduate programs of the university. They also have a committee where the direct supervisor and two external researchers get together with the doctoral student. In our program, however, an additional study coordinator meets with the doctoral students twice a year. I receive a progress report about every single doctoral thesis, along with any problems that may arise that can be addressed well before the issues get out of hand. In addition, we offer to our doctoral students a career-mentoring program that is directed  towards a career in academic education as well as the private sector.

Was it difficult to attract the appropriate doctoral students in the beginning?

We set out a call for applications worldwide and immediately heard from about 350 applicants in the first round. At that time such programs were not commonplace. When we got really good applicants, they almost certainly accepted to join our program.

Is that no longer the case?

The competition has become fierce since then. We now have to assume that of ten excellent applicants that we wish to admit, we will lose two or three because they have decided to attend a different graduate school. But we still get extremely good people and are still forced to pass on excellent applicants.

What did you seek to improve in phase two?

We wanted to make our MD/PhD program more well-known, especially amongst medical students in Freiburg. Medical school focuses on patient treatment, not on basic research. As a result, a lot of students select a non-experimental topic for their medical thesis (MD) that they write while completing their studies. We seek to raise the number of experimental MD theses in the Faculty of Medicine and to inspire students to perform a PhD thesis after receiving their medical degree.

How did you go about it?

Together with Prof. Dr. Heike Pahl and Prof. Dr. Robert Thimme from the University Hospital, we developed the program „MOTI-VATE“, which has been financed by the Else Kröner Fresenius Foundation since 2012. It offers 15 doctoral students a monthly stipend of 1,000 Euros so that they can work on an experimental project for a year for their doctoral thesis, visiting SGBM courses and doing internships. After completing this training block, we plan to provide to them a certificate or even a diploma in Experimental Medicine in addition to their MD. We also hope that some graduates would be interested in getting their PhD (Dr. rer. nat.) with us. It is essential for a research career. For instance, the title Dr. med. is not sufficient to receive EU funding. In addition, the Dr. rer. nat. title increases their chances of landing a top position later at a university hospital.

What did phase two bring for students of other subjects?

A fast track – that is, an integrated master’s and doctoral degree program: The top two to five percent of their class should be able to start with their doctoral work during the second year of their master’s degree program. The doctoral students complete their master’s thesis from the results of the work they do in the first six months. They can then continue with their doctoral work and thereby save an entire year in doing so.

Not to forget that you wanted to strengthen ties with the private sector.

We have developed a new program: Mentors from the private sector accompany the doctoral students in their final year. Once a year we create appropriate tandems during a meeting similar to “speed-dating”. It has been so successful that pharmaceutical companies have learned how good our trainees are. Besides, we have started a seminar series called “Academia meets Industry“ with presentations from senior executives from all kinds of industries. After their visits to Freiburg, we nurture our contacts to identify potential collaborations in research and teaching. As a result companies might offer scholarships for our graduate students.

Was the SGBM well established during half-time already?

I think that the principle of a structured doctoral program like SGBM has to be more adopted by our university. Structured PhD programs are the future. At numerous Swiss universities, all doctoral students get their degrees through structured programs. Unfortunately, we are lagging behind them. The next step would be to associate all other structured programs at our university to SGBM by creating an umbrella that sets the standards of selection and supervision. But for that, we need sustained financing.


In the current excellence strategy there are no guidelines for graduate schools. What is next for SGBM?

It depends on the excellence strategy’s success, of course.  Our current budget is about 1.3 million Euros per year. I hope we receive both clusters for which we are in the running and that the universities of excellence will be successful in terms of funding. It would then be possible to support the SGBM further with a million Euro annual budget. Without additional funding from the excellence strategy, the school will continue to run, but it will be hardly possible to further develop what we wish to offer.

When all is said and done: is SGBM a model for success?

The question is how can you measure a graduate school’s level of success? Publications cannot be the only criterion, which would be more appropriate as a measurement for a cluster. For graduate schools, it is really important as to what happens to the graduates thereafter. At present we have 109 alumnae and alumni that work in research worldwide – partly in academia and partly in the private sector. Truth be told we will only be able to say whether we were successful in 20 or 30 years – then we will be able to see, for instance, whether some of them got professorships or top positions in the industry.


Signals from the Invisible

The Spemann Graduate School of Biology and (SGBM) and the cluster of excellence BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies will be celebrating their tenth anniversary from October 18-20, 2017 with an international symposium run by both institutions.


Interview with Dr. Marco Cavallari and Hanna Wagner from the organization team