Graduate Studies @ MPI-SWS

MPI-SWS offers a vibrant, dynamic, multi-cultural environment for research and graduate education. Qualified candidates can pursue doctoral degrees under the supervision of MPI-SWS faculty, in cooperation with universities.

Graduate students work as members of one or more of the institute’s research groups, which perform internationally leading, highly visible research in their respective fields of specialization. Graduate students receive individual training and mentorship from MPI-SWS faculty, preparing them for leadership positions in academic or industrial research.

Why Choose MPI-SWS?

Program Structure

The graduate program is divided into a preparatory and a dissertation phase.

Preparatory Phase

In the preparatory phase, students take courses and engage in research with one or more faculty members with the expectation of passing their research qualifying exam within two years.

Course requirements

The graduate-level courses offered at MPI-SWS and the associated universities enable students to complement their existing knowledge of core computer science areas. Depending on the academic background of each student, the exact course requirements are decided on an individual basis at the time of admission. Incoming students with only a bachelors degree generally are expected to take a number of course credits similar to those of a masters degree. For incoming students that have taken post-graduate courses (e.g., as part of a masters degree), the course requirements may be partially or completely waived.

Students also have the opportunity to take specialized courses that focus on the development of scientific writing and presentation skills. These courses may be taken at any time in the program.

Exploring different research areas

Incoming students are assigned an initial faculty research mentor and have the opportunity to explore additional research areas through projects with other faculty before deciding on their doctoral advisor at the end of the preparatory phase.

Research Qualifying Exam

In addition to taking courses, students conduct research from the day they enter the doctoral program. Based on their initial research, students are required to pass a research qualifying exam, which is designed to evaluate the student's ability to successfully obtain a doctoral degree.

Dissertation Phase

In the dissertation phase, students focus primarily on research with their adviser with the goal of submitting and successfully defending their doctoral thesis, typically within three years from their qualifying exam. To help students stay on track, the dissertation phase contains two milestones: the Area Exam and the Thesis Proposal.

Area Exam

The purpose of the area exam is to assess a student's understanding of his/her broad area of research. It tests the student's knowledge of the area's fundamental problems, techniques and methods, as well as the student's ability to apply this knowledge to new problems. The area exam is taken after the research qualifying exam and before the thesis proposal.

Teaching Requirements

Teaching is both an important part of the academic training of a doctoral student and a uniquely effective learning experience. A student may complete the TA requirement at any point in the program, but before the thesis proposal.

Thesis Proposal

Within three years after the qualifying exam, a student is expected to form a doctoral thesis committee, prepare a thesis proposal and have it approved by the committee. The outcome of a successful thesis proposal is an agreement between the student and the thesis committee: the student lays out a path to the completion of their thesis, and the thesis committee -- if it approves the proposal -- confirms that the path laid out by the student is reasonable.

Thesis and Thesis Defense

Students end their doctoral research by submitting a thesis and taking a public oral thesis defense exam. The exam consists of a talk by the student followed by a period of questioning by the thesis committee.


Admission to our graduate program is highly competitive. A Bachelor's degree or a Master's degree from a top-tier institution of higher education is required. Applicants should have an outstanding academic record (at or near the top of their class), proficiency in spoken and written English, and strong letters of recommendation from their past academic advisers or work supervisors.

Applications are accepted only through our online application system. You will need to choose which program you are applying to, and upload a number of documents.

Choosing the right program

There are several different graduate programs that will allow you to work with MPI-SWS faculty. The programs are described more below. Here is a short list to help you choose which program is right for you.

  • Apply to the MPI-SWS Doctoral Program if you already know you want to work with specific MPI-SWS faculty members.
  • Apply to the CS@Max Planck Doctoral Program if you want to have the option to work with any faculty member at any of the Max Planck Institutes that engage in computer science research (i.e., MPI-SWS, MPI-INF, MPI-IS, or MPI-SP) or at our partner universities.
  • Apply to the IMPRS-TRUST program if, besides MPI-SWS faculty, you want to have the option to work with faculty at MPI-INF and the CS departments at Saarland University and TU Kaiserslautern.
  • Apply to the Maryland Max Planck program if you would like to engage in collaborative research between the University of Maryland and MPI-SWS, and divide your time between the U.S. and Europe. (NB: If you are interested in applying to the Maryland Max Planck program, you must also submit an application to the University of Maryland.)

Note that you may apply to more than one of the these programs, but please do so only if more than one program matches your interests.


After choosing the program you are applying to, the application system asks you to fill in your personal details and to upload PDF versions of the following documents:

  • CV
  • transcripts
  • statement of purpose (a two-page document explaining your academic background, your research interests, and why you are applying to MPI-SWS)
  • contact information of two references providing recommendations
  • English test scores (TOEFL, IELTS or Cambridge Test) are strongly encouraged unless you are a native speaker
  • GRE score (optional)

If you have a specific research interest, you may optionally indicate faculty members you would like to work with in your statement of purpose.


Applications are accepted throughout the year. Once your application is submitted, it will stay live for approximately four months.

For the MPI-SWS doctoral program, we make decisions four times a year, based on applications received until:

  • December 31
  • March 31
  • June 30
  • September 30

For the CS@Max Planck program, decisions are made once a year:

  • December 31

For IMPRS-TRUST, decisions are made twice a year, based on applications received until:

  • December 31
  • June 30

For the Maryland Max Planck program, decisions are made once a year:

  • December 17, 2021

In all cases, you need to submit a complete application before we can process it. (The website will display missing fields in red until your application is complete.) Note that even once you have completed your application, you can still update the application subsequently, e.g. to fill in additional information or add an additional reference.

We request references for those applicants that pass a first round of review; i.e. we do not request references automatically on application submission. Candidates considered for admission may also be contacted for a phone interview during the selection process.


Are doctoral positions paid?
All doctoral positions are fully funded, including social benefits. Students also receive funding to attend conferences and other events related to their research, and have access to outstanding facilities.

Do I need to know English?
Yes, English is the institute’s working language. Test scores are strongly encouraged for the application unless you are a native speaker.

Do I need to know German?
No, knowledge of German is not required, but you have the option of taking free German language courses during your graduate studies.

How long does a doctoral program usually take?
Graduate studies at MPI-SWS usually last for 4-5 years.

Can students travel to conferences/summer schools?
MPI-SWS provides funding for travel, and students regularly attend conferences or summer schools related to their research.

Can students go on research/industry internships?
Yes, internships are encouraged. For example, our students have recently done internships at Amazon Web Services, at Facebook, at Google, and at Microsoft Research, just to name a few.

When can I start?
Graduate students typically arrive at MPI-SWS between the end of August and mid-September. However, students may start their graduate studies at any time, provided that there is a mutual agreement between the student and their initial advisor.

Which graduate program should I apply to?
There are several ways to join MPI-SWS as a doctoral student. If you know that you want to work with MPI-SWS faculty, you should apply directly to the MPI-SWS program. If you are unsure, especially about the research area you would like to work in, we encourage you to also apply to CS@Max Planck and IMPRS-TRUST.

Do I get a degree from MPI-SWS?
MPI-SWS is not a degree granting institution. So while students’ primary affiliation is MPI-SWS (or MPI-SWS and the University of Maryland for the joint program), students obtain a doctoral degree from one of our cooperating universities as well as a certificate of doctoral research from MPI-SWS.

Do you provide help with visa proceedings?
Yes, admitted students from non-EU countries receive documentation to support their application for a student visa.

Do you provide help with finding accommodation?
Yes, MPI-SWS offers assistance in locating accommodation for incoming students.

What additional support is provided for those with families, or for members of groups that are underrepresented in computer science?
Additional support for families and underrepresented groups is described on our Equal Opportunity Resources page.

Your question wasn’t answered?
For more information regarding the MPI-SWS graduate program, please contact the graduate program coordinator:

Different programs

The MPI-SWS Doctoral Program, in collaboration with Saarland University and the University of Kaiserslautern, allows students to pursue a doctoral degree in computer science in any area covered by MPI-SWS faculty. Students admitted to the program are assigned an advisor from MPI-SWS, but have the opportunity to explore different areas of research before settling on their dissertation project. MPI-SWS values and encourages collaborative and interdisciplinary research with groups from within and from outside of the institute.

The CS@Max Planck Doctoral Program is a highly selective doctoral program in the broad area of computer and information science, with faculty at Max Planck Institutes and some of the best German universities. Students normally start their graduate studies at the Saarland Informatics Campus in Saarbrücken. While taking courses, they have the opportunity to explore research in different areas as part of immersion labs at different MPIs and universities. Latest in the 4th semester, they take the qualifying exam and start work with their chosen research advisor(s) at any of the participating MPIs or universities.

The International Max Planck Research School for Trustworthy Computing (IMPRS-TRUST) is a graduate program jointly run by the Max Planck Institute for Informatics (MPI-INF), the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS), the Computer Science Department at Saarland University, and the Computer Science Department at TU Kaiserslautern.

Our Maryland Max Planck Joint Program offers students a unique opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. degree under the supervision of faculty from the University of Maryland, USA, and a Max Planck Institute in Germany. Students are co-advised, perform collaborative research, take advantage of the expertise, resources, and culture at both institutions, and spend time in both countries. In this program, students can work in any area covered by the Maryland faculty and any Max Planck Institute.

Associated Graduate Schools

You might also consider some other graduate programs in the area that MPI-SWS faculty participate in:

Once you get admitted to these programs, you can contact MPI-SWS faculty if you are interested in working with them.

Support Services

The Max Planck Institute for Software Systems is invested in providing a variety of services to support the success and well-being of all of our institute affiliates and members.

General Support

Academic Career Support

  • Graduate Office Team: Gretchen Gravelle and in Kaiserslautern Maria-Louise Albrecht
  • Scientific Communication Support: Rose Hoberman
    Our Communication Support staff offer support for general English communication skills, scientific writing, and scientific presentation and speaking skills.
  • Your Academic Advisor: Faculty and Researchers
  • Student Representatives: Efstratios Tsirtsis (external representative, Kaiserslautern) and Vaastav Anand (internal representative/deputy, Saarbruecken)
  • Your Career Mentor: All students are assigned a career mentor in addition to their academic advisor/initial mentor. The career mentor may offer insight into exploring career paths, advise in goal setting, help with developing contacts, and offer other advice and assistance. The career mentor might also act as a mediator, in addition to the Ombudsperson, in the off chance that a conflict should arise between the student and academic advisor/initial mentor.

Mental Health Support

  • Mental health services: Various mental health services are available to institute members. They are free and confidential.

Support with Conflict Resolution

  • Ombudsperson: Anne-Kathrin Schmuck
    The ombudsperson offers strictly confidential advice for research-related issues, including if you have a question about proper scientific practice, if you suspect or know of scientific misconduct, or if you have a conflict or a problem with a superior. In case of a conflict with the ombudsperson, the managing director acts as a secondary ombudsperson.
  • Equal Opportunity Team: Gretchen Gravelle and Carina Schmitt
    The equal opportunity team offer strictly confidential advice for everyone related to equal opportunities in career development, compatibility of family and career, sexualized harassment, discrimination and violence.
  • Managing director: Derek Dreyer
  • Student representatives: Efstratios Tsirtsis (external representative, Kaiserslautern) and Vaastav Anand (internal representative/deputy, Saarbruecken)
  • Your Career mentor: All students are assigned a career mentor in addition to their academic advisor/initial mentor. The career mentor can act as a mediator, in addition to the Ombudsperson, in the off chance that a conflict should arise between the student and academic advisor/initial mentor.

Life in Germany

Living and Working in Germany

The booklet Living and Working in Germany from the Max Planck Society has most of the important information regarding visas, health insurance and medical care, finding and renting an apartment and public transportation. It also includes useful checklists for what you need to bring and what you will need to take care of initially. For interns who stay for less than three months not all of these may apply.

Living in Kaiserslautern and Saarbrücken

Saarbrücken and Kaiserslautern offer many attractions including parks, museums, theaters, restaurants, as well as beer gardens. The surroundings also offer many hiking and mountain biking opportunities:

MPI-SWS is located in the heart of Europe and in close distance to many small and big cities in Germany, France, Luxemburg, and Belgium.