PhD Positions In Europe

Last Updated on December 21, 2022 by Omoyeni Adeniyi

Getting a Ph.D. degree is an experience that changes your mind, broadens your horizons, and can open up new doors for you. You will be stepping into a role as a researcher but also as a collaborator with other students and teachers. There are many different schools and universities in Europe which make it incredibly hard to choose where to go. Many students start their PhDs not knowing whether they are going to be happy or if it’s the right choice for them.

PhD candidates in Europe must choose their thesis topic and supervisor during the application process. Students apply for specific vacant doctoral projects that are usually tied to a professor’s research. As part of their application, they must create a research proposal for this project.

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PhD Positions In Europe

11 Things You Didn’t Know About PhD Study in Europe

All PhDs have to be unique (that’s kind of the point) but aren’t PhD qualifications pretty much the same? Well, no, actually.

Studying abroad isn’t just a way of accessing different facilities, sources of expertise and research opportunities. It’s also a means of accessing very different approaches to PhD study as a whole. Nowhere is that more true than Europe, with a wide range of higher education systems and many of the world’s top universities.

This post isn’t about all that though. This post is about some of the things I’m pretty certain you don’t know about studying a PhD in Europe.

Some of them are interesting and thought-provoking. Some are a little more surprising and – dare I say – slightly odd. Together they all paint a picture of the kind of unique opportunities Europe offers for PhD study abroad – a picture that differs in interesting and attractive ways from the UK, USA or other destinations.

So, if you’re thinking of a PhD in Europe, read on. If you aren’t, I think you should be, so read on as well.

1. Germany invented the PhD

We have to start with this, really. You could be forgiven for assuming the PhD has existed since the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of Oxford and Cambridge) and that students have been researching projects and writing theses for as long as there have been universities for them to submit them to.

Actually, they haven’t.

The modern PhD originated with the founding of Humboldt University of Berlin in 1810. Previously academic experts had focussed on gaining mastery of existing knowledge and worked towards. . . a Masters degree. The new PhD reflected a new focus on adding to knowledge through original research.

The qualification soon spread to the USA (Yale University gets credit for awarding the first American PhD) and other parts of Europe, but it was Germany – and Europe – that set the standards that still define a doctoral degree (and made a pretty significant original contribution to knowledge in the process!).

2. Some European countries don’t charge PhD fees

It’s true, several European countries don’t charge tuition fees for their PhD programmes.

There’s a good chance you have heard something about this, but whatever you’ve heard probably needs qualifying. Not having to pay fees doesn’t mean a PhD in Europe is ‘free’.

A PhD without fees isn’t the same as a funded one. You’ll still need to cover your living costs for three or more years (during which you’ll be far too busy to do much paid work). But, a lack of doctoral fees is still a very attractive proposition – and something that isn’t on offer from the UK, USA or other popular study destinations.

Countries that don’t charge PhD fees include Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Finland – though conditions may apply in some cases.

3. Students are often examined in a public ceremony

You may know that a PhD usually ends with a ‘viva voce’ or ‘doctoral defence’. This is when the student discusses their work with examiners and answers questions about their methods, findings and conclusions. Being able to pass this test proves that your PhD is an original piece of academic research.

In countries like the UK this takes place privately. You sit in a closed room with a couple of academics. There’s some water. Your chair squeaks. Post-it notes keep failing out of your dissertation. Trust me, I’ve been there.

In Europe this exam is often part of a public ceremony. Instead of defending your thesis in a small room somewhere, you stand up in front of an audience (including fellow, students, friends and family) to discuss (and perhaps formally present) your work. That might sound a little intimidating, but the key word, above, is ‘ceremony’. This really is a celebration of the hard work you’ve done and a suitable finale for your research. In some cases it’s also literally ceremonial, with the real assessment taking place when the thesis is read and ‘passed’ for examination.

Either way, it’s more interesting than sitting in a small room with a squeaky chair.

4. In the Netherlands, PhD students go to their exam with bodyguards

This is 100% true. They’re called paranimfen and they were traditionally there to protect the student if things got heated. These days, they’re part of the ceremony. Still pretty cool though.

5. Lots of countries offer English-language PhDs

There are lot of languages in Europe (121, according to some really-not-PhD-standard research I just did on Wikipedia).

However, it’s not uncommon for universities to deliver their PhD programmes in English. This is especially likely if the aim is to attract international students and sometimes these opportunities are specifically labelled as ‘international PhD programmes’ for that reason.

Things vary between countries, universities and subjects so don’t just assume that you’ll be able to study in English. But, equally, you might be surprised by how often you will.

6. Some countries offer PhDs in lots of languages

A quick honourable mention to Switzerland here, which has four official languages (French, German, Italian and Romansch) and offers PhD study in three of them, plus English. Sadly, Romansh (a local language with roots in Roman Latin) isn’t generally used for academic work.

7. Portugal holds an annual festival celebrating student life

Whilst we’re talking about individual countries, Portugal needs to be recognised for holding what – I think – is the world’s only national student festival: the Quema das Fitas (‘ribbon burning’) which is held in the country’s biggest university cities and features parades, serenades and. . . top hats. Google it.

8. European universities sometimes give their PhD researchers jobs

I don’t simply mean that European university might employ you once you’ve gained your PhD (though many countries do offer generous post-study work visas).

I’m actually speaking here of work during your PhD. It’s not uncommon for European PhD researchers to be classified as staff rather than students. In fact, this is the standard approach in Denmark, the Netherlands and a few other places.

Being defined as a staff member usually means you’ll receive a salary and other employment benefits, in return for some teaching and administrative responsibilities. Exact conditions vary between countries, but, needless to say, this is a great option if it’s available to you: offering ‘funding’ for your doctorate as well as practical work experience alongside it.

9. PhD programmes often include extra training

Having invented the PhD as a research qualification around 100 years ago, European universities are now playing a big part in modernising the doctoral degree. And that, somewhat paradoxically, often means (re)introducing taught elements.

It’s now quite common for European PhD programmes to include extra modules alongside your thesis. These tend to cover the core techniques and methodological training you’ll need to carry out your research and / or the transferable skills you’ll need to seek work with your PhD.

Some also include more conventional taught classes covering subject knowledge, but this is more likely to be a requirement for students starting a programme without a Masters.

In any case, this extra training can enhance your doctorate (and your career prospects).

10. Europe means Europe

Despite being home to such a broad range of countries, cultures and languages, higher education across Europe is actually standardised in key ways, thanks to something called the Bologna Process.

This means that European doctorates (and other degrees) fulfil the same criteria, even if their actual structure and content varies a little from country to country. Recognition of qualifications and standards also makes it easier to work elsewhere in Europe once you’ve earned your PhD.

“Europe” can mean “Europe” in a more literal sense too, as many countries are part of the borderless Schengen Area. EU citizens can move around this region freely and international students can usually apply for a single Schengen Visa to do so. Needless to say, being able to access facilities, archives or expertise in other countries is very useful during a PhD. It’s also nice to be able to travel a bit if you need a break.

11. Brexit means. . .

There’s a small chance you may already have been aware of the ten facts above, but I’m willing to bet you don’t know what Brexit means for PhD study in Europe. Because nobody does. At least not yet.

The UK has guaranteed that EU students will pay the same fees and have access to the same funding in 2019-20 and other European countries will probably be doing something similar. The best advice I can give you is to check with your university if you aren’t sure. We’ll also have more updates and advice in our newsletter as soon as we know more.

In the meantime, don’t let Brexit put you off learning a bit more about PhD study in Europe – if this blog proves anything it’s that there are some great opportunities and experiences waiting for you.

Doing a PhD in Europe vs. the US

Are you thinking of doing a PhD abroad? There are some considerable differences between European and American PhD programs that you should know about before applying. Read on to determine which program is right for you.


It is often not possible to do a PhD in Europe without first earning a Master’s degree. In the US, many PhD programs accept applicants who only have a Bachelor’s degree. Students usually earn a Master’s as part of the PhD program after they have completed a few years of coursework and passed certain exams. This doesn’t mean that all doctoral candidates in American PhD programs have entered the program straight from undergrad. Several still choose to do a Master’s first before applying for a PhD. In some programs students who already have a Master’s might not be required to take as many courses as students with just a Bachelor’s, but this isn’t always the case. 

Time to Degree

European PhD programs are shorter than those in the US. For example, it takes three years to complete a PhD in France, Norway, the UK, and Germany. Across Europe, a three to four year PhD in common. In comparison, six years is the average time to degree in the US with many PhDs in the humanities taking seven or eight years to earn their degree.

Thesis Topic

PhD candidates in Europe must choose their thesis topic and supervisor during the application process. Students apply for specific vacant doctoral projects that are usually tied to a professor’s research. As part of their application, they must create a research proposal for this project. It is also possible (in the UK for example) to apply to a department rather than a specific position, but applicants must still include a research proposal and are advised to contact potential supervisors before applying. In the US, candidates apply to a department’s PhD program, rather than a specific PhD project. While they have to discuss their research interests and identify potential supervisors in their applications, students do not decide on their thesis topic until their second or third year. In fact, many science and engineering programs have students rotate between different labs in their first year before deciding on their supervisor and dissertation project.

Teaching Requirement

PhD candidates occasionally have the opportunity to teach in Europe, although teaching is not a requirement in many countries. In the US, PhD candidates are often required to teach undergraduates, often as teaching assistants for a large lecture class. A teaching assistant leads smaller tutorials for 20-30 students and grades their exams and papers. Most PhD students will TA one class each semester for two to three years. Several American PhD programs also have mandatory pedagogy courses for graduate students.


Many European PhD programs require students to do little to no coursework. Candidates start working on their dissertation projects right away. American PhD programs, regardless of the field, require students to take two to three years of courses and seminars about topics across the discipline before they being working on their dissertation.

Funding and Salary

In several European countries, PhD students are seen as employees and have work contracts. As employees, PhD students pay into health insurance, pension, and unemployment insurance. In countries where PhD students are not employees (such as the UK and Italy) students apply for university scholarships, external fellowships, or research grants for funding. Tuition fees are drastically lower in many European countries compared to the United States. Funding at American universities varies widely, as do tuition fees. Private universities have higher tuition than public state schools (though international students usually higher tuition at state schools). The top schools offer five-year funding packages which cover tuition and fees and provide a monthly stipend. They also often include health insurance and conference travel. At other schools, students must compete for fellowships at the university, state, or national level to fund their PhDs. In some departmnets students will be paid and receive partial tuition credit for take teaching assistantship or research assistantship positions.

Comprehensive Exams

Most European PhD programs do not require students to pass qualifying exams to progress through their PhDs. There are some notable exceptions, like Sweden, where PhD candidates do an oral and written exam at the halfway point of their PhD. In the US, students usually have to pass a series of comprehensive exams before they can start working on their dissertation. The exams test the student’s knowledge of the major fields within their discipline. While every university will have a slightly different exam structure, there is usually an oral and a written component. Sometimes students also have to orally defend their dissertation proposal. After the candidate has completed their coursework and passed all the required exams they are considered ABD (all but dissertation).

11 Secrets of a PhD in Europe vs USA that Matter

A PHD in Europe or USA?

They’re VERY different!

If you are trying to decide between pursuing a PhD in the US vs a PhD in the UK, you should think more about which fits you best. There are 11 major differences between the two systems and you need to choose the one that fits you best:

1. Masters Degree

Typically, in Europe, you would join a PhD program after completing your Master’s degree. In the US, you would spend a few years taking courses (alongside research) to get your Master’s degree.

If you already have a Master’s degree, you may get a course waiver, which could reduce the time needed to complete your PhD.

Most of the US universities ask for GRE and TOEFL in your application for PhD program. But this not mandatory for European, including UK and German universities. Though TOEFL, preferably above 90, is highly recommended for international students.

2. Choose your project before starting your PhD

In the UK (and Europe), you typically choose a project before starting your PhD. This is different from the US, where you typically apply to a department for your PhD first and your thesis and research evolves in a year or two.

3. No classes

There are no class requirements for a PhD in the UK. You begin your research right away. The assumption is PhD students know their research areas. After all, you start by applying to a professor / lecturer with a research area in mind.

Now, that might be true for some students. Others may want to get exposed to new ideas and potential research topics. In addition, they may also want to have a wider peer group that gets formed in classes.

4. Time to completion

PhD programs in the UK (and rest of Europe) take around 3 to 4 years to complete. In the US, a PhD may take up to 5 or 6 years.

After a PhD in the UK, students generally go on to their postdoctoral research. After a PhD in the US, students tend to go directly from graduation to academia or research jobs without a postdoc.

In many UK (and European) universities, there are firm guidelines on just how long a PhD takes and those are more important than individual decisions by a student’s advisers. In comparison, in the US, some students can fly through their PhD in 3 years with tremendous amounts of research, while others can take as long as 8 to 10 years to complete their PhD.

There are different systems within Europe.

In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, a PhD takes 4 to 5 years and includes additional teaching duties. Students in these schools are considered as employees. They receive monthly salaries which are comparable to the salaries earned by graduate students working in various industries and are taxable as well. A PhD student is allowed to either present or attend at least one conference anywhere in the world, expenses for which are taken care of by the research group.

In Germany, a 4-year PhD is considered too long and funding might not be available after the first three years of the PhD program.

5. Work-life balance

This point is less about the PhD in question, and more about the cultural difference between the UK (and Europe) and the US, but this could be a factor in your decision making if you are particular about the type of culture around you and the kind of lifestyle you wish to have.

The PhD lifestyle is much more relaxed in the UK (and in Europe). You will have more time for yourself as well as your friends and family in the UK, while pursuing your PhD.

In the US, PhD students are often overworked with more teaching and grading responsibilities. They also have a lot of class work.

6. Hierarchical structure

In the US, PhD students report to and directly interact with their professors, but some of the PhD programs in the UK are headed by the Professor but there is also a Reader and a Lecturer. Students sometimes feel this hampers their flexibility to work, while restricting their exposure to the lab as well as the head of the lab.

7. Future opportunities

Some students feel that the US offers more opportunities to PhD students in academia as well as jobs. This can be true as the US has many universities offering teaching positions as well as companies offering jobs to PhD students. However, irrespective of whether you earn your PhD from Europe or the US, some experts say you may have to hustle to find a great job after your PhD.

8. Different stipend (salary)

For most PhD in the UK (and Europe), stipend (or salary) comes centrally from the universities or from Government research organizations. These stipends (or salaries) may be limited to only 3 years.

In the US, stipend (or salary) comes directly from your supervisor without any limitation on the duration of the PhD. Unlike in big US universities, there are fewer TA responsibilities for PhD students in UK universities.

In many cases, you don’t need to pay tax on your income as a graduate student in the UK (and Europe).

In Germany, international PhD students are funded for 3 years by the German government.

9. Less publications

In the UK, you have less chances of getting published. Your time is more focused on your thesis document.

10. Less chance of faculty position afterwards

In the US, students opt for faculty positions after receiving their PhD. This isn’t necessarily the case with PhD students in the UK, who opt for postdoc positions to remain in academia.

11. More similarity than differences

The UK (and European) universities are being influenced by the US system. Many UK universities’ Computer Science schools have Doctoral Training Programs which are essentially 4-year PhD programs, with the first year focused on teaching. These programs offer more flexibility about what you end up doing and who you end up working with. Also, these programs often are sponsored by industries, which means these have higher stipends and you may get an adviser in industry.

So, which one to choose – UK (or Europe) PhD vs US PhD?

Apart from the factors mentioned above, you should focus on the quality of the research group and reputation of the professor. You should look at the top conferences about your topic of interest and note where the papers come from. That’s your best clue as to which university / school you should choose.

academic positions europe

Academic job titles can seem to be full mystery and hidden meaning, even those in the traditional path: Ph.D. to postdoc, then to assistant, associate and full professor. Even though I’ve been in academia several years, I still wonder: What exactly are these jobs, and what are all the other academic jobs that aren’t exactly in this flow? 

This week I investigated all the academic job titles I could find to understand what the options are for people looking to participate in research and teaching in academia. I am not including any alt-academic or academic administrative jobs, since my colleague Martina Efeyini covers those beautifully in her columns, like this one on research administration careers. I’m also not including clinical research positions here — only positions related to bench work or teaching.

I have included links to relevant resources about positions when available. Some positions that I did not include resources for have definitions and resources on various university websites. These school sites, like this one for University of North Carolina or this one for the University of Michigan, usually contain information specific to how the jobs function at each school, and are more helpful than general resources.

Ph.D. student

A Ph.D. student works under a principal investigator, and often under postdoctoral fellows/researchers, to complete their own project. In doing so, they learn the details of a field and how to conduct research, from forming and testing hypotheses, to troubleshooting, to writing papers.  Getting a Ph.D. can also help you develop soft skills, such as how to learn a new topic, how to seek help, how to divide a task into smaller doable parts, and how to network. A Ph.D. can prepare someone for further research and research training, like a postdoctoral fellowship; a move into industry; and other fields that require critical thinking, such as consulting, science or medical writing, or teaching.

Postdoctoral fellow/researcher

A postdoc is a position many new Ph.D. holders look for. It’s used to deepen and broaden a doctorate holder’s knowledge and training and prepare them for an independent research career.

Assistant professor

This is typically a tenure-track job, meaning that, after a set number of years, usually about seven, the professor undergoes an institutional review. This review can include an evaluation of the professor’s publications, their involvement in and service to the institution, their personal tenure statement, several letters from fellow academics, and teaching evaluations from students and evaluators. If reviewed favorably, the professor gets tenure and becomes a permanent professor — someone who can’t be fired without due cause. If the assistant professor doesn’t get tenure, they’re usually asked to leave, to look for a job elsewhere.  

Associate professor

This is typically a full-time, tenured faculty position with all the freedom that comes with that, as well as all the responsibilities and duties. Some institutions have associate professors who are not tenured, but generally associate professor would be the step after an assistant professor gains tenure. This position can last for a professor’s entire career if they don’t apply for promotion to full professor or if their application is turned down. As with tenure applications, promotions to full professor involve external letters and committee reviews. Unlike with tenure applications, if someone is turned down for promotion as an associate professor, they do not have to leave the university. They can continue their work as before, and, if they want, can apply again. 

Full professor

This is about as senior as you can get in the professor world.  Some reasons people may apply to be full professor would be: respect and prestige, satisfaction, pay raise, eligibility for certain awards and recognition, eligibility to chair a department and serve on certain committees, or generally having more input in how things are run. It may also come with increased academic freedom.

A subcategory here is a chaired professor. An endowed chair position title usually looks something like the “John Doe Professor of Biology” where the name is someone who has donated money for, or endowed, the position. This benefits the professor because, besides respect, it usually comes with funding, so that a part of their salary or some of their research funds come from the endowed position.

Teaching professors

Some schools have the same ranks for teaching professors (assistant teaching professor, associate teaching professor, and full teaching professor) for people devoting their time to teaching. They go through similar steps and tenure review, though the review focuses on their teaching and service rather than research.

Research professors

Many schools have the ranks of research professor (including research assistant professor and research associate professor). These professors dedicate their time to research, generally without teaching responsibilities, and, importantly, without tenure. They typically have fixed-term contracts of one to five years, and while their contracts can potentially be renewed endlessly, they do not gain the protections of tenure. Research professors can carry out many of the same activities as other professors, including obtaining grants and running a lab. They can also run or participate in core facilities, described below.

Associate research scientist

These and similar positions are typically filled by someone who is more knowledgeable and experienced than a postdoc but who does not run their own lab. They may run their own projects in a lab and have a fair amount of independence, while still being in a principal investigator’s lab. Some institutions require postdocs after some number of years (usually five) to either be promoted to this more independent and potentially permanent position or to leave.


This position can mean different things at different institutions. However, often it means a role similar to associate research scientist but with more independence and the expectation to become an assistant professor. Sometimes instructor can mean a job similar to a full-time lecturer.


The meaning of this title seems to vary from institution to institution. Often, it is a full-time, nontenured, teaching position and can be held by someone with an M.S. or Ph.D. Sometimes lecturers have research duties as well. The lecturer title occasionally refers to a part-time teacher, such as an adjunct (see next item).

Adjunct professor

This is part-time teaching position, usually hired on a per-course basis. The degree requirements vary from position to position and school to school. You can read my post about adjunct positions here.

Visiting professor

This title is typically reserved for professors who are temporarily working at another institution. A visiting professor may be a professor who is employed full time elsewhere and is taking a year away or may be someone without a permanent institution who is filling in for a permanent professor who is on sabbatical or medical leave.

Technician or lab manager

The technician and lab manager positions vary a lot. They might maintain stocks of reagents, keep the lab compliant with trainings and safety regulations, spearhead their own projects, write their own papers, and everything in between. They might work for one lab or split their time between a few. They might devote their full time to specific department-wide tasks, such as managing animal colonies. Unlike the other job titles described here that vary from institution to institution, technicians’ jobs can even vary widely between labs at the same institution. One lab might rely on techs to make media while having no expectations that they’ll ever do any experiments, while another might expect them to manage projects like a grad student or postdoc. Some act as trainers for undergrads, too. The job might be full time or part time and can be a fulfilling lifelong career or just a yearlong in-between post for someone thinking about grad school.

Core facility manager

Many institutions have core facilities of shared specialized equipment. This might include facilities for advanced microscopy, flow cytometry, genomics and sequencing, tissue culture, antibody production, and more. These facilities are run by experts in these techniques. This means that someone who would like to use a technique in their work but doesn’t fully know how or doesn’t have their own equipment can talk to the core manager and work out how to carry out their desired experiment — and use the core’s facilities to get it done.

The core manger typically is not involved in their own research projects but is hands-on involved in many research projects, in addition to maintaining the necessary equipment. They might run how-to sessions and teach new users how to do experiments using their equipment. They might take in samples from various labs and carry out the necessary analysis or experiments themselves.

This can be an ideal position for someone who has deep expertise on equipment and techniques but doesn’t necessarily want to run their own lab or do their own experiments. In this position, you can stay up to date and on the cutting edge of the science, putting your skills to good use without the stress of running a lab.
A subtype of this is the biostatistician and data scientist. With the increase of big data, biostatisticians and data scientists can have their own role in universities. This role is similar to a core manager in that they can take their expertise and help many other scientists with their work.  While there are certainly biostatisticians and data scientists who are professors conducting their own research, there is a growing need at universities for data scientists who function like core facilities, helping other labs analyze their data correctly.

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