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Posted on 16 Jun '21

10 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 Queima 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 There are Europe-wide opportunities

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. In normal, non-COVID times 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.

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