Shopping Around Europe for Your PhD

When the time came for me to look for a PhD, once I had obtained my MSc, I decided I would leave France for the UK. I had heard that PhD positions were easier to find there, and I wanted to improve my English and sample life in a different country. So I was pleased when I found an interesting project and a welcoming supervisor in Bristol.

Once there, I realised I could have applied for a PhD much sooner. In the UK, a Bachelors' degree is sufficient for entrance into a PhD programme. I felt that I had wasted years of valuable time.

I was also disappointed to find out that I wasn't entitled to social security benefits in the U.K. as I would have been in France. Would I have done things differently had I known all this before? I'm not sure. Still, I wish I had been better informed when making my decisions.

Many others who went to another European country for their PhD will probably tell similar stories of encountering differences among the various PhD systems that they didn't feel prepared for. Despite all the talk about unifying its education systems in line with the Bologna Process, for now each country in Europe has its own way of training the next generations of researchers. Cultural differences, within and outside academia, make things more confusing still. Throw in the traditional scarcity of official data on PhD education and you have a system that's confusing to all but the best informed of potential PhD students.

Recently, UNESCO-CEPES reviewed the doctoral training systems of 13 countries in a report Eurodoc called "the most updated overview of doctoral programmes in Europe." In Doctoral Studies and Qualifications in Europe and the United States: Status and Prospects (2004) , Barbara Kehm, Professor at the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Work at the University of Kassel in Germany also drew a comparison between the doctoral training systems of Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Training Approaches

The first thing a young researcher has to consider when looking for a PhD is what kind of training do you think will suit you best. Kehm notes that as a whole Europe is now looking at "abolishing the traditional 'apprenticeship model'" of supervised, independent research in favour of more structured training. But for now you can choose to follow either training system ? provided you choose a country that offers it.

France now has only formal programmes available. Germany, Austria, Russia, Poland, Italy, and Norway have the two systems living side-by-side. In the United States, the apprenticeship model still rules, though so-called "professional doctorates" are emerging there, like they are in the UK and the Netherlands. These have the particularity to offer closer relationships with industry and interdisciplinary approaches to training and research.

It's not just the form of PhD training that varies from place to place. Admission procedures vary, too. Students seeking a traditional PhD may need only locate a supervisor willing and able to provide advice and financial support. But for students who wish to be admitted to a more formal doctoral programme or graduate school, rigid prerequisites, application deadlines, and formal review procedures are the norm.

Getting In

In her report, Kehm highlights the fact that "requirements in terms of number of years of previous study and previous formal qualifications vary considerably." Thus students in France and the Netherlands may only consider starting a PhD with a Master's degree or equivalent under their belt, while a Bachelor's degree will suffice in countries such as the UK. Differences might be ironed out in the future if Europe is to follow an assumption common across the Member States that "the American pattern of BA/MA/PhD tends to be considered as the 'gold standard' to which European universities aspire ? or should aspire." Still, for now you may decide what would be most beneficial for your career: some additional training before starting your PhD, or giving yourself more time to apply to grants and fellowships, many of which have a maximum age limit.

Regardless of the level of experience required for admission, PhD positions are more competitive in some countries than in others, due to stringent regulations regarding the number of PhD students, especially in the formal training programmes. Sweden, Romania, and Italy are all examples of countries that strictly limit the number of students admitted to PhD programmes. "The reasons are typically the requirement to guarantee adequate resources and to support, [or], as in the case of Italy, the numbers of available tenured positions for postdoctoral academic staff," explains Kehm. In other countries--the United States is the best example, though other countries are starting to follow its lead-- the number of PhD training positions is less controlled, with institutions looking far outside its borders for scientists to fill the available slots.

Your Status During Your PhD

Differences in status among PhD students in the various nations covered by the report may be the most significant differences of all. In most countries, doing a PhD gives you the status of a student affiliated to a research entity and possibly also an affiliation with a doctoral school or programme. But there are some notable exceptions. In Poland, for instance, doctoral trainees are treated more like faculty members, "through employment in their universities as teaching assistants." As junior scholars, they enjoy faculty privileges even though they do not receive regular salaries. In Romania and the Netherlands doctoral students are given a "somewhat hybrid position," and are considered as "doctoral trainees being employed and salaried by the university on a temporary basis."

Securing Funding

The "tendency [for] the financial situation of doctoral students [to be] insecure" across Europe, as Kehm puts it in her report, is hardly news to doctoral trainees. In Spain, the Young Researchers´ Federation (FJI) points out in another report that students often have to start their PhD before knowing the outcome of their grant application. In contrast, in Sweden and Norway, guaranteed funding for the duration of the doctorate has become an entry requirement.

Despite these differences, scientists across Europe support themselves in similar ways. Most countries, Kehm notes, offer state grants or scholarships, and trainees enrolled in doctoral programmes may receive a stipend ? though in some countries--the UK, for example--students will have to pay tuition fees. In most places, trainees may receive teaching or research appointments, giving them the opportunity to earn money while gaining valuable teaching or research experience. Yet this is not without negative consequences. Kehm warns that "insecure funding and the need to earn money, and additional research and teaching duties" were responsible for the rise in time-to-degree over the past few years.

Social Security: What's That?

Another important issue that ties in with both the way you are being funded and your status within your country is your entitlement to social security benefits, and the fact that researchers-in-training are often halfway between students and employees complicates matters further. For example the Spanish FJI are lobbying for PhD students and postdocs to be given "all basic rights pertaining to any contract, such as unemployment pay, retirement contributions, and maternity/paternity leave, sick or risk during pregnancy leave, proper redundancy conditions, and compulsory coverage by the Law of Prevention of Working Risks ( Ley de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales)." Doctoral students are luckier in France, where they "have student status and must be enrolled [with a university] so that they can be eligible for [some] social security benefits," notes Kehm.


No less important for a successful doctorate is the issue of supervision. Kehm reports that, "even in those countries that have a more structured doctoral education, insufficient supervision has been a continuous concern." Yet some countries do better than others in this respect; students seeking top-notch supervision may head for the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, or the Russian Federation--the only countries to mention a yearly review of study and supervision plans as a common practice in PhD training.

It's all confusing enough in principle, but in practice things are eased a bit by the information and support resources offered within the various countries covered by the report. "All countries have mechanisms in place to receive doctoral students from abroad and to recognise their previous qualifications," writes Kehm. Nevertheless, the process is likely to be more complicated and bureaucratic than one might wish.

Still, mobility is probably always worth the effort as no country, not even yours, is giving it all to you anyway. "It is a bit frustrating to find out that in certain circumstances, PhD candidates in the UK might be finishing their training when a French PhD would only begin," says Francis Vella, a French PhD student who also experienced the British system. "I see that as a plus for the British. [But] I do not think it is normal not to have social benefits when earning a PhD stipend, so this is a plus for the French system."

For more details about the education system in your own country, or one that you are considering going to for your PhD, read the original UNESCO-CEPES report.

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