The PhD program at EC2/BIG-NSE is broken up into two phases:

    Curricular 1st year/initial phase

    Program of past initial phases HERE! [Old BIG-NSE Website]


    Students admitted to the center/school begin by going through an “initial phase,” usually of three-and-a-half months duration (from October to mid-January). One aim of this phase is to integrate the different branches of science and engineering and establish a common scientific language among the new PhD students.
    It requires a basic knowledge of the other fields to be able to appreciate the respective problems. Even though this is less of an intellectual problem for talented students, such efforts are hampered by the general tendency to suppress issues that are at first sight only loosely related to the students' problems. However, interest in such problems increases significantly if students are involved in groups with other students from different disciplines.

    Thus, the strategy of sensitizing students to topics beyond their own disciplines relies on the combination of a scientific education program introducing the fundamentals of the complementary research fields, and the establishment of a social network among students. During this initial phase, the students therefore not only attend the same lectures and courses but also work and relax together in the same rooms.

    In detail, the initial phase consists of the following elements:

    • introduction to the Cluster of Excellence UniSysCat in the form of
      • a few presentations
      • excursions to all participating labs at the nine institutions
    • basic lectures
    • soft skills courses
    • language courses
    • preparation of the PhD work plan
    • social activities

    The diverse elements are presented in detail below. After the "initial phase," the students join their respective labs to start their research. However, during the first year they continue to be regularly invited to workshops, seminars and soft skills courses. Thus, their first year at EC2/BIG-NSE remains quite curricular.

    Building up an international network of scientists...

    ... through top education...

    ...and fun!

    Introduction to the UniSysCat cluster/excursions

    Several presentations aimed at providing a quick overview of all scientific activities conducted at UniSysCatare held at the very beginning of the "initial phase" of the doctoral program.

    These presentations are usually complemented by a series of excursions to all labs taking part in the cluster. The excursions take place every Friday during the "initial phase" of the program, usually from 9 am to 5pm. Altogether the new batch of PhD students (usually around 10-15 people) visit more than 50 labs.

    This part of the program gives the new students a unique view of all people involved in the UniSysCat cluster and allow them to see where the different participating institutions are located all over Berlin, what equipment is available in each lab etc.

    This knowledge is a huge plus for young scientists starting their PhD. If they need specific expertise or equipment later on during their PhD research, for example, they will know where to find it.

    One of the introductory lectures about UniSysCat:

    One of the many excursions to a UniSysCat lab:

    Basic lectures

    To provide the new students with an overview of all aspects of catalysis and teach them a common “catalytic language,“ UniSysCat project leaders give approximately 20 basic lectures (2.5 hours each) in English every year in the EC2/BIG-NSE seminar room. The relaxed atmosphere (small groups of no more than 15, drinks and cookies served) facilitates interaction between students and lecturers.

    Click here a list of such lectures given to EC2/BIG-NSE students in the past (2019 winter semester).

    Our lecturers are the senior and junior researchers participating in UniSysCat, a faculty of around 60 researchers from 9 institutions, covering a huge diversity of research areas around catalysis. See here for a list of all UniSysCat project leaders in the five research areas A to E.

    Soft skills courses/seminars

    During the initial phase, a few non-scientific courses are also offered to the students, starting with the seminars “Getting Started” (a kind of time management course for PhDs)," followed by a few more on “Scientific Writing,” “Intercultural Communication,” and "coaching" seminars on how to prepare and deliver "Scientific Presentations".

    In addition to these courses, which are offered every year during the initial phase, further courses are regularly offered to the students during their research phase, depending on their interests (e.g., “conflict management,” “applying for positions,” “how to successful write project proposals”).

    EC2/BIG-NSE students can also benefit from similar offerings from the TU Doc Office (Nachwuchsbüro der TU), as well as UniSysCat partner institutions (e.g., IMPRS "Complex Surfaces in Material Science" at FHI, Berlin Mathematical School/TU, Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience/TU, InPROMPT/TU ("Integrated Chemical Processes in Liquid Multiphase Systems"), SALSA/HU (School of Analytical Sciences Adlershof).

    Thus, the EC2/BIG-NSE students have multiple ways and means of improving their soft skills for free during their PhD.

    Intercultural communication seminar

    Language courses

    During the initial phase, shortly after their arrival in Berlin, the new students are offered daily three-hour German courses for two months.
    Once a week they also receive the opportunity to improve their scientific English.
    If they wish, they can also take an introductory course in French.

    After the initial phase, the students can continue to improve their German and English proficiency in evening classes at least partially funded by the doctoral program.

    Our students may, at any time but at their own cost, also take advantage of the university language courses offered at ZEMS and SKB. Here they can choose from a wide variety of languages. The prices are very reasonable for students.

    "Galette des rois" celebration during the French course

    English proficiency evaluation at ZEMS


    Several times a year, EC2/BIG-NSE workshops are held on different scientific topics. Some of these workshops are even organized by our PhD students, who benefit from extra funding to invite a few renowned international scientists from their research area to give a talk within the workshop. Here an example of a recent such workshop. Here and here a few more examples from the past [Old BIG-NSE website].

    Occasionally, workshops offered by renowned Einstein Visiting Fellows temporarily working at UniSysCat are organized at EC2/BIG-NSE.

    For example, in December 2018 a workshop called "X-ray Spectroscopy and Synchrotron Radiation" was tutored by Einstein Fellow Prof. Dr. Stephen Cramer from the University of California, Davis, USA.

    The latest such workshop "Microbiology at Atomic Resolution," took place in January 2020 and was tutored by Prof. Dr. Katrina Forest from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

    Finally, one of the most important workshops that our students participate in is the one where they present their PhD work plan at the end of the "initial phase", e.g. 3.5 months after having started at EC2/BIG-NSE: Parallel to the lecture and excursion program detailed above, the new students are asked to prepare a draft work plan during the initial phase. It includes a literature review, thoughts on the aim of the planned research and its feasibility, a search for potential collaborators within the cluster, reflections on the necessary equipment, potential milestones, difficulties, and alternative scenarii; At the beginning of January, the work plan is then presented to the UniSysCat community, allowing for early and broad feedback about the planned research, and some additional spontaneous collaboration offers. Here the announcement for the 2020 EC2/BIG-NSE Workshop.

    During the initial phase, a series of presentation coaching sessions (one hour for each student) are held as a mean of preparing the new students for their January presentation of the work plan.

    Participants in the workshop tutored by "Einstein Visiting Fellow" Steven Cramer

    Students presenting their work plan at the annual EC2/BIG-NSE workshop in January

    Team formation/social integration

    To encourage a sense of belonging to a team or a family, EC2/BIG-NSE regularly organizes social events.

    They range from normal pizza evenings ("BIG-NoSEs," as they call themselves spend a lot of time eating together) to larger intercultural evenings: e.g. we have had several Indian, Chinese, Persian and Latin American evenings in the past, with more than 70 guests each time.

    We also regularly practice sports together, like biking, ice-skating, volleyball, table tennis or French "pétanque."

    Thanks to these efforts, our students develop friendships with students from other research groups, research areas and countries, a network that they can use not only during their PhD but also many years thereafter in their future careers.

    Altogether, our students should not only receive a top PhD education, but they should also have a lot of FUN doing so!

    Daily program

    On the "Daily program" page you can check the daily current or past program offered at EC2/BIG-NSE.

    Research phase

    After the end of the initial phase in mid-January, students join their research groups to start carrying out their individual research project. The first year of our doctoral program is still quite curricular, meaning that the new PhD students will continue to be regularly invited to take part in seminars, courses, and other activities designed to complement their education as future researchers.

    Some of these activities are presented in the section "Further highlights."