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Joint-PhDs: A Guide

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Joint-PhDs are doctorates which are done at two degree-awarding institutions. This type of doctorate, also called split-site PhDs, does not mean that you are simply supervised by one supervisor in one university with another advising you on an informal basis. Joint-PhDs mean that you are fully registered in two universities, having to comply with admission requirements and assessment regulations at both institutions and that it will result either in two PhD degrees (double PhD) or one jointly-awarded PhD (one diploma with the two university logos). The reason universities offering double degrees rather than jointly-awarded degrees is often practical in nature, for example one country’s legislation does not allow joint-degrees.

Originally a French concept which involved joint-supervision or co-tutelle (a term still used today, meaning indiscriminately double- or joint-PhD), joint-PhDs are much more that a period of research abroad which could be achieved simply as a visiting PhD student in a host institution. They provide an integrated educational experience which, at the outset, assumes the need for the student to be supervised by two experts and to have access to two research environments for the benefit of the research.

There are 3 main types of joint-PhDs which can be listed in order by the amount of work required by yourself to make it happen (starting with the simplest):

  • Pre-defined project (which happened to be done jointly at two universities)
  • Established high-level university schemes (between 2 or more institutions)
  • Joint-PhD with two universities of your choice which do not already have a formal agreement

Is a joint-PhD for me? Why do a joint-PhD?

Most often joint-PhDs are a means for two universities to strengthen a research collaboration. These two universities are often home to the top research experts in a particular topic (or are top ranking universities which have a desire to be explicitly recognised as partners).

Joint-PhDs are not an easy option and they will not suit all students. You’ll have to reflect carefully on how a joint-PhD adds to your training and your research. Would a supervisor in another type of institution be of greater advantage to your research? For example, a second supervisor in industry, a research institute or a learned society. It also actually takes a particular type of person to do a joint-PhD and you’ll have to be mobile, resilient as it may be difficult to feel part of a PhD cohort, able to discuss research with supervisors half way across the world, willing to mediate between two supervisors who may have different institutional priorities, able to adapt to the culturally-different ways of conducting research and able to fulfill the demands of two administrative systems. Although joint-PhD students have access to training opportunities in two universities, it does not necessarily mean that joint-PhDs are an easier way to secure funding.

However, joint-PhDs which result from university collaborations are prestigious in nature since the students have access to the top researchers in their area of interest or to two high ranking universities and they can provide fantastic opportunities for PhD students to distinguish themselves from others. The other obvious benefits for students are:

  • Access to complementary facilities and resources
  • Exposure to two cultural approaches to research
  • International student mobility
  • Enhanced acquisition of research and transferable skills, such as negotiation skills, use of videoconferencing, adaptability...
  • Better networking opportunities for future job prospects

Although joint-PhDs appear to be a fairly specialised type of doctorate, they benefit doctoral research in the case of:

  • Comparative research projects
  • Research projects requiring techniques, equipment or resources available in two universities
  • Local industrial/public sector involvement in two countries
  • Dual supervision allowing complementary approaches to research questions

The all-important question of funding

Senior management in universities is often keen to cooperate with institutions which are equal in standing or expertise. They have a willingness to train students jointly and sign formal agreements but they don’t always have central budgets for joint-PhDs. There are few programmes which offer dedicated scholarships, for example Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorates or advertised projects with pre-defined funding and/or fee waivers. Click here to view some examples of these schemes currently being advertised on FindAPhD.

Other schemes, for example the Universitas21 joint-PhD, will have all the admin in place but funding is not guaranteed and may be found through the departments you want to work with.

Most often you’ll be competing with “conventional” PhD applicants for funding and a number of studentships exclude joint-PhDs or do not carry extra funding for traveling costs. Below are a few examples of external funds available for periods of mobility as part of joint-PhDs:

How to apply for a joint-PhD

Joint-PhDs are as varied as PhDs themselves and the application process will depend on the institutions involved, the countries where the institutions are located, the subject area and whether there is a dedicated joint-PhD application form. It is likely that filling in the application forms will be the last step search as there is a significant amount of fact-finding to do beforehand.

In most cases you’ll have to gain formal admission in both universities. Depending on what kind of joint-PhD you go for (see the three main type above), you‘ll have to balance out straightforwardness and the freedom to design your own project, bearing in mind that advertised joint-PhD projects are few and far between.

Advertised joint-PhD projects

These are pretty much the same as applying for other advertised projects commonly found in the sciences and not too dissimilar to applying for jobs. The advantage is that the set-up is in place and it is a fair assumption that the two supervisors have a willingness to work together, if they don’t already have a long history of collaborating on research projects and publications. Just follow the application procedure.

University-University schemes

The most common type of joint-PhD, it involves institutions, which at university-level, have agreed to deliver jointly-awarded PhDs to co-supervised students, each recognising the quality of the other university. It does not necessarily mean that all researchers in the institutions have been paired or that they know each other and that they would agree to take on joint-PhDs (or that there is funding in place).

You will have to do a bit of work to find “matching” supervisors who have relevant research interests to yours and to secure funding for the then agreed periods of study at each institutions (do not despair, there are joint-PhD scholarships or packages of funding put together by supervisors once they have agreed to supervise you). In the UK, Research Councils, especially in the context of doctoral training accounts which are administered by the universities themselves, are becoming more flexible and if relevant, may agree that RCUK funds are used towards a joint-PhD.

Make sure you contact the relevant office and follow the application process which may simply entail the completion of admission forms at each institution.

Joint-PhD arrangement of your own making

So you’ve identified two supervisors in two separate institutions and this would hugely benefit the research project you have in mind. Well, brace yourself! If two institutions do not already have a joint-PhD agreement, it could be really difficult, if not impossible, to get the university administrations to set one up just for you. These agreements are complex and normally seen as long-term undertakings aimed at supporting research cooperation beyond the duration of one PhD. There are exceptions and some of the most active institutions in terms of joint-PhDs, such as Ghent University in Belgium, may be more accommodating.

If your supervisors are on your side, however, they may also be able to convince their respective institutions. So, you’ll have to do all the background work on your own, then agree everything about the project with two supervisors without really knowing whether it is possible at all. It may be a completely new thing for each institution and the application process may not be defined as yet. But if it is the best way for you to conduct a research project you are passionate about, it is always worth a try.

Things to bear in mind

Check what is included in the offer letter(s) for a joint-PhD: funding level (if any), defined periods of time abroad, visa procedures. Do you need insurance for each institution?

You’ll have to find accommodation every time you move between universities and if you have a family, will it be possible for you to do a joint-PhD in two different countries? Who will pay for your travel expenses between institutions? Are you prepared to leave friends and colleagues for varying periods of time?

Are the institutions really allowed to award a joint-degree? This sounds odd but it is worth checking with the official authorities at the universities. You don’t want to find out that a rogue researcher has decided to bypass the official procedure because it is complex.

Make sure you register at both institutions (even if you’re told it doesn’t really matter). You will require it to be awarded a joint/double degree or to get a student visa, if you require one.

Is there a lead or home institution? Which regulations would you follow when going to conferences or if doing fieldwork in a third country? Be clear of what would happen if things went wrong in one or both institutions.

What language will you have to submit your thesis? Which assessment procedure will be imposed?

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