Unique and innovative: Mainz postgraduate institute sets new benchmark in doctoral studies

Max Planck Graduate Center with Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz reports successful first semester of its doctoral program


The new Max Planck Graduate Center in Mainz, a joint venture of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the Max Planck Society, has had an excellent start and has been remarkably successful in the short period of its existence. The "Max Planck Graduate Center with Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz" – the full official name of the institute, also abbreviated to MPGC – represents an interdisciplinary concept, as the PhD students are encouraged to produce theses that cover not just a single subject but a variety of research fields. "It is surprising that such an extraordinary dynamism has developed here within just a few months. Various disciplines have been put into contact with one another and this active communication has very rapidly resulted in the creation of exciting new projects," so the Coordinator Dr. Ralf Eßmann's positive verdict on the institute, which opened on  June 1, 2009.

The MPGC represents a joint venture between four faculties of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the two neighboring Max Planck Institutes for Chemistry and for Polymer Research. The teaching staff currently consists of 30 professors and about the same number of young academics who already hold a PhD. "With its focus on the exploration of innovative, interdisciplinary fields that create a link between the natural sciences and medicine, the Max Planck Graduate Center provides an attractive research environment for outstanding postgraduate students," asserted Professor Hans Wolfgang Spiess, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and co-initiator and Speaker of the Scientific Steering Committee of the MPGC. The launch of this joint venture attracted considered attention, as this is the first time in Germany that a university has cooperated with an external research establishment to form a postgraduate institute. However, clear legal provisions have since been put in place so that the initial fears that the exclusive right of universities to award PhD degrees might be undermined have proved unfounded. Alumni receive the title of "Doctor rerum naturalium" (Dr. rer.  nat.) and a diploma issued by Mainz University but also bearing the logo of the Max Planck Society and the signature of the head of the Graduate Center. Moreover, in view of a memorandum that has been issued by the German Rector's Conference, it is possible that the regulations that govern postgraduate studies in Mainz could serve as a template to be used at other locations where the Max Planck Society has establishments.

Interdisciplinary research is at the very core and heart of the basic concept of the new institution, at which 22 postgraduate students are currently conducting research. "What we have done is not only to promote cooperation between the fields of medicine and chemistry, but also between pharmacy and polymer research," stated Eßmann. The Head of the Dean's Office of the Department of Chemistry, Pharmaceutics, and Geoscience at Mainz University is one of the four coordinators of the MPGC, who administer the Graduate Center under its General Manager, Udo Schreiner. There are many different potential areas of cross-over research: PhD students might, for instance, study the transport of gases in various situations. So they might want to research how warm air rises through the atmosphere, or how gases diffuse in pipes, and even what happens during pulmonary gas exchange in the body. Alternatively, they might be interested in investigating whether the use of special polymer coatings on medications will help deliver these directly to the target sites. To date, the usual practice was to concentrate on a single subject in postgraduate studies; this made it difficult to formulate an interdisciplinary slant on research that would open up entirely new perspectives and approaches. The PhD students are always assisted by two supervisors from different disciplines. They also have access to two mentors if they require further support. 

The excellent supervision and custom-made support programs in this PhD concept do mean that greater input is required from the candidates: "The hurdles are higher here than would normally be the case in a PhD program," stated Eßmann. Applications are accepted from candidates with a German "Diplom" or a Master's degree. Assuming their grades are good enough (most of the PhD students currently at the MPGC were awarded grades better than 1.5), they are invited to a selection interview. Once given a place, they are also expected to submit an annual progress report. "Thanks to the overall structure and our good supervisory system, we can assume that most students will be able to rapidly finalize their PhDs," explained Eßmann. Students can finance their course of research either by finding a postgraduate position or being awarded a grant. Most of the students from abroad tend to take advantage of offered grants.

To date, young academics from Australia, Japan, and the USA have studied at the MPGC in Mainz. For the forthcoming application round, it is planned to increase the international character of the MPGC by means of a program to encourage applications from abroad. There are still 10 to 15 places available for postgraduates with interdisciplinary interests and the necessary academic sense of inquiry.

"The MPGC will boost the international competitiveness of Mainz as a research hub," emphasized Professor Georg Krausch, President of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "This Graduate Center will help us achieve new quality standards in cooperation between research and the education of postgraduate students. We will thus not only be gaining access to some of the very best PhD students worldwide, but will also have the opportunity of integrating outstanding foreign researchers into our teaching body."