Doing a PhD at the HZB Graduate Schools

Participants MatSEC Graduate School © HZB/S. Kodalle

HZB’s first graduate school has been open for three years.

The remote venue offered a charming view to the wintery lake in Chorin, but within minutes it was all but forgotten. Gathered in the hall were the PhD students from the graduate school MatSEC and their supervisors, all united by the common topic of kesterites, special absorber materials for thin-film solar cells. Even in this magnificent setting, everyone got straight to talking. “At that moment, we saw how the graduate school truly has an added value,” recalls PhD student coordinator Dr. Gabriela Lampert, who coordinated the retreat. “It was incredibly inspiring!”

This research colloquium was held already one and a half years ago now, and was an important way station in the doctoral candidates’ research. “Everyone got straight down to it, because the students already had their first results. So, there were very specific things to discuss,” says Gabriele Lampert. These colloquia, held on a half-yearly basis, are a core element of the graduate schools. MatSEC (Materials for Solar Energy Conversion) was the first of its kind at HZB, having started in the summer semester of 2013. Now, there are three more graduate schools under the umbrella of HZB – and the explicit goal is for all doctoral training to take place within graduate schools by 2019.

The advantages for the PhD students are clear: the chance to share knowledge with colleagues who are working on similar subjects often inspires new approaches and ideas. Another, independent pillar of the programme is the offer of soft-skill courses, which teach good presentation, efficient reading through literature, and the creation of appealing posters about one’s thesis. But it is not only the PhD students who benefit from the graduate schools; HZB benefits too. It’s a classic win-win situation, declares Susan Schorr, the spokesperson for MatSEC: “The PhD students contribute to our research results, there’s no doubt about that.” Schorr developed the concept for the MatSEC graduate school and has supervised several students herself. Her experience is entirely positive. “The effort of supervising is of course greater in the beginning but, little by little, it becomes less,” she says. At any rate, the results of the work outweigh everything. And not to be overlooked is the image factor – the perceptibility of HZB in expert groups is steadily increasing thanks to the graduate schools.

Susan Schorr had also never expected such a positive side-effect on her own work. “We managed to get two theoretical groups from Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität involved in the research,” she says. The universities had greater expertise than HZB in fields such as modelling of crystal structures. The combination of practical research and theory has noticeably enriched her work.

The subjects covered at the graduate school were developed from the strengths of HZB. “I thought, what is it we do well? For MatSEC, for example, it was a combination of photovoltaics as the focal topic and the work being done at the large facilities as the analytical side of it,” Susan Schorr explains. At MatSEC, the first of a total of 17 doctoral students have finished, and the others are finalising their theses. Offers have gone out for the second round, which starts now. The first new PhD students have already started their work. The subject matter at MatSEC is now deliberately defined more broadly than in the first round: the specific offers are within the field of semiconductor materials with large bandwidths for solar energy conversion, as well as thermoelectrics.

Close collaboration within the graduate school will of course continue. “The half-yearly colloquia have proven ideal,” Gabriele Lampert summarises. “Of the 16 PhD students, half can report on their theses and the progress they have made, and it will be the other half’s turn at the next retreat.” From what she observes, an informal sharing of knowledge has rapidly established itself within this official structure of the colloquia, where the PhD students talk directly among themselves when looking for inspiration, or give one another mutual assistance.