Guidelines for a successful PhD career


(adapted from Jan Borchers guidelines for a PhD career)

Students frequently ask me how one goes about "getting a PhD", in particular in our group. To give you an idea of the characteristics of successful PhD students from my past experience, here's a rough list of some guidelines. I hope they will help you to get a feel for what kind of people have been successful to get their PhD in my group in the past. Some of these characteristics are my personal preferences and may be different at other labs, some apply to most research positions in Learning Technologies or Computing Education Research, and some for research work in general.

International applicants should also find the information provided by the International Office helpful - what's required to start a PhD at RWTH Aachen University, where to apply, etc.

Jason Hong at CMU has compiled a great collection of advice for PhD students in Computer Science. I highly recommend having a thorough look at the materials on his list.

Note: This page is not a job posting or part of one. None of the guidelines below are requirements to apply for a position with us. In fact, hardly any of the people who have joined our group so far fulfilled all of them when applying.

Successful PhD students in our group typically...


  • Are quick, smart, creative, sociable, outgoing, and funny
  • Enjoy working with others in a group
  • Are disciplined, self-organized, know to manage their time and resources
  • Are interested in new technologies

Past performance

  • Finished their BSc & MSc at a German university (in 12 semesters or less) or international research university of high standing, with outstanding results (A / "sehr gut"..."mit Auszeichnung")

Domain knowledge

  • Have a CS and/or Computing Education (Lehramt Informatik) background
  • Know basic literature in Learning Sciences and Learning Psychology
  • Know the stuff covered in our classes Web Technologies, Learning Technologies and/or Computing Education (Fachdidaktik Informatik 1-3)
  • Have good programming skills
  • Have a sense for good didactics and can explain complex issues appropriate for the intended audience

Research skills

  • Have already published a peer-reviewed conference or journal paper as primary author, ideally at our target conferences such as EC-TEL, LAK, CSEDU, DeLFI, WIPCSE, ICER, Koli, or a related "tough" conference/workshop/journal

Teaching skills

  • Have worked as teaching assistant or in other teaching activities
  • Enjoy teaching, working with, and advising students

General skills

  • Are very quick at picking up new information
    • Fulfil the "first-derivative" rule: In the end, being quick at learning new knowledge is much more important than the current level of knowledge
  • Have a self-driven interest in uncovering and solving unknown problems
  • Are able to work hard and creatively without constant supervision or external motivation
    • Fulfil the "fire-and-forget" rule: I love working with people who go off with a task without coming right back with questions that I think they could have easily answered themselves (Google is your friend).

Language skills

  • Speak, understand, and write English fluently
  • Speak and understand German, or are willing to learn (for Computing Education Research oral and written fluent German is a must)

I hope these guidelines help you think better about your own career in Learning Technology and/or Computing Education Research, at our group or elsewhere. Please also have a look at our current and finished PhD theses and research projects as well as current publications including finished student theses. You can find further profile description in our guideline for initiative applications.