Stipend vs. contract – points to consider

Disclaimer: This information here is correct to the best of my knowledge. Please talk to your personnel department for more accurate information. Feel free to comment below if you have any corrections or additional details to contribute!

PhD students in Germany can typically receive their income in one of two ways: by signing an employment contract with their working group, or through a stipend from an external agency. While the net salary in both of cases is fairly similar, there are some fundamental differences between the two. If you are currently considering applying for a stipend, but also have the option to sign a working contract with your institute, there are a few things you may want to consider beforehand.


 A large number of organizations (DAAD, Helmholtz Association, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation etc…) offer fixed, monthly payments to doctoral researchers in Germany (enough for basic living costs and tuition). In addition to a monthly stipend, they normally provide extra funds for purchasing academic materials and academia-related travel (e.g. courses, workshops and conferences).

The advantage of being funded by an external organization is that you aren’t duty-bound to your working institution. You can work according to your own interests, set your own working hours and holidays, and you aren’t obligated to participate in any institution activities (whether you choose to exploit this fact is another matter). However, since stipends aren’t considered employment contracts by law, you don’t get the social security benefits that regular contract employees receive– namely, participation in health insurance, pension, unemployment insurance and work experience (see below). Additionally it is possible that in some cases, when applying for permanent residency in Germany after your PhD, the years receiving a stipend will not be counted as working years. This however differs in each case. If you are concerned about this, please discuss it with your contact person at the municipality.

Contract (TV = TarifVertrag)

 In Germany, research is considered to be a civil servant position (since we’re funded by hard-working tax payers) and so the terms of an employment contract, similarly to other workers in the public sector, are predefined by the Collective Wage Agreement for the Civil Service. What this means is that the number of working hours, holidays and the height of the salary is fixed by law. The terms of the contract are continuously renegotiated and might be updated (likely to your benefit) throughout your employment period.

TV-L and TVöD

If you have a TarifVertrag, it will probably be one of these two. In terms of salary and social benefits they are essentially the same. The difference stems from a furrow in the federal structure of the research system – in most cases, universities are covered by TV-L while research institutions (like Max Planck) are covered by TVöD. TV-L/öD are negotiated independently but by the same union, so the differences between the two are generally minor.

*If you work in a Max-Planck institute, it is possible you receive a Fördervertrag (see below).

Most life sciences PhDs don’t receive 100% of the TV-L/öD salary, but rather 50-65% (that’s a different topic for discussion). Theoretically this means that only half of your time is (by law) dedicated to work that your PI instructs you to do, while the other half goes towards your own project. The written thesis (the one you defend in the end) is technically your own project, so a (ruthless) PI would be within his right to ask you to do non-thesis related work during the payed 50% of your time. What happens in practice differs between labs and PIs and is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Calculating your TarifVertrag salary

 You can look up your TV-L/öD salary here. If you’re in Göttingen, that means you’re under TV-L West, or TVÜ-Bund if you’re Max Planck.

  • Your pay grade (Entgeltgruppe): This is E13 (the lowest for people with a Masters degree or equivalent)
  • Your level (Stufe): unless you’ve worked in German public service before, you start at 1:
    • First year: Level 1
    • Second and third year: Level 2
    • Fourth year: Level 3
    • …hopefully that’s sufficient (until you’re a PostDoc)
  • Your pension scheme (Zusatzversorgung): This is VBL
  • Your working time (Arbeitszeit): The percentage out of a full work week (39hrs for TVöD, 39:48hrs for TV-L. Talk about German precision!). This depends on your own contract but it’s probably either 50% or 65%.
  • Your tax class (Lohnsteuerklasse):This depends on your familial status (e.g. married, children, etc.) If you’re not married and without children, choose Class I. Otherwise, this can get quite complicated – here’s a quick overview – good luck…

For example – a non-married, childless second year PhD, working under a 50% TV-L would expect to earn an average monthly net salary of € 1384.16 in 2019.

With a contract you get all the social benefits of a public servant. Some central examples are subsidized health insurance, pension accumulation, unemployment insurance and gaining work experience (see Stufe, above). You also pay taxes, so you might be able to bank some more cash by filling out a tax return.

Max Planck workers – Fördervertrag

If you’re working at a Max Planck institution, you may have the option to be employed under a Fördervertrag. This a contract constructed specifically by the MPS society with the aim of combining the benefits of a TarifVertrag with the ‘scientific freedom’ granted by a stipend. So you have the freedom to work on your own project entirely (or at least as is initially defined between you and your PI), but you still get some of the social benefits of a TarifVertrag.

The salary is the same as the 50% TVöD with a possible hiring bonus in addition. The idea of the Fördervertrag was amiable however it looks at the moment like it still does not protect the doctoral researchers as much as wished, for example pension build up is not included. Another disadvantage is that it is not possible to increase your salary at a later stage (e.g. from 50 to 65%), not even by getting a new Fördervertrag. Instead of offering a higher-paying contract, the difference can be given in the form of a ‘hiring bonus’. This bonus can only be given at the start of the employment contract. So if you would like to negotiate such a hiring bonus with your Fördervertrag, keep in mind that this can only be done when you first join the institute and sign your contract. PhDnet, the network of all PhD candidates and PhD representatives of the Max Planck Society, continually works together with the General Administration to improve the conditions of the Fördervertrag, with a recent success for example of increasing the holidays from 20 to 30 days.

 Summary – Stipend vs. contract

  Stipends Contracts
Vacation Unlimited


Vacation days do not have to be formally approved

30 days per year


Vacation days have to be formally approved

Working hours You are not legally obligated to a set number of working hours, or to participate in institute activities You are obligated to the number of working hours defined by your contract (e.g. 50% of a 40-hour work week)
Scientific freedom You can work independently in your own interest. Legally your boss cannot require you to stray from your desired thesis project During your contract hours, you may be asked to work on tasks unrelated to your personal thesis.
Salary Depends on the stipend. Often comparable to a 50-65% TV contract (~ €1300*) but some may be higher
*Before reduction of health insurance payment
Depends on no. of working hours, study year and tax class. Normally ~ €1300 for an early PhD
Subject to tax NO YES
Pension NO YES
Subsidized health insurance NO YES
Unemployment insurance NO YES
Other social benefits Depends on the stipend. If exist, they are often limited as compared with a contract e.g. liability, accident and disability insurance, larger support for parental leave


Linda Olsthoorn

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, MPI for biophysical chemistry

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