If leading research and a pioneering approach to learning are the cornerstones of a great education institution, the University of Cologne (UoC) sits among the best. “We have an incredibly strong reputation, combining excellent study programmes with room for personal creativity,” says Professor Dr Axel Freimuth, UoC’s Rector.

This reputation spans centuries. The sixth-oldest university in Central Europe, UoC now hosts 50,000 students and is part of the German U15 – a group of leading, research-intensive German universities, equivalent to the UK’s Russell Group. “The German U15 network allows us to jointly advance research and teaching at a national and international level,” notes Professor Dr Freimuth. “We’re one of the most popular universities in Germany, offering academic excellence in a cosmopolitan, open-minded atmosphere.”

In UoC’s doctoral programmes, doctoral researchers are encouraged to shape their own learning. “Taking responsibility for one’s own research project means developing an original idea, deciding on approaches and methods, and convincing others of its plausibility,” says Dr Susanne Crewell, Professor of Meteorology and Speaker of UoC’s Albertus Magnus Graduate Center (AMGC), the umbrella institution that supports all UoC doctoral researchers and supervisors. “This is the essence of doing a doctorate: contributing to the knowledge and discourse of an institution and the scientific community as a whole.” UoC doctoral researchers also take their research beyond the university campus. “It is important that young researchers test and present their results at symposia and conferences,” says Dr Katja Mertin, Managing Director of the AMGC. “It’s valuable experience that may influence others.”

Geoscience doctoral candidates Madlen Krone and Sebastian Fastenrath have experienced this first-hand. On participating in the Global Conference on Economic Geography 2015, they commented: “We extended the international visibility of our work and discussed our preliminary results with international experts – and we developed our social networks.” This is echoed by Abdullah Al-Maruf. After attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, he said: “It was great to share my research ideas and get feedback from an international, intellectual audience.”


Fruitful collaborations

Then there’s UoC’s collaborative research. “We have seven cross-faculty research centres and a number of Clusters of Excellence,” says Professor Dr Freimuth. The CECAD Research Centre, which explores ageing-associated diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, is a prime example.

In addition, another 10 collaborative research centres are staffed by globally renowned experts. Strong regional and international research networks are also important. “We have close ties to neighbouring universities and benefit from fruitful collaborations with non-university institutes, such as the German Aerospace Center, Forschungszentrum Jülich and eight Max Planck Institutes in the region. These bring enhanced career opportunities and training programmes.”

As for the global landscape, “Our doctoral researchers are increasingly international,” says Professor Dr Freimuth. “Excellent research needs an international context.” So UoC’s international partners – including Keio University in Japan, Yale, University College London and the University of Cape Town, among many others – provide opportunities for student exchanges, research collaborations and even exchanges at management level.

It’s a complete, pioneering package, as summed up by doctoral candidate Thomas Blanck. “The scholarship programme of the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities offers the right combination of academic freedom and structure,” he says. “Interdisciplinary classes, events and numerous international schemes help broaden my horizons and make good progress on my dissertation.” It’s this blend of nurturing research and progressive education that makes the university stand out, both nationally and globally.