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Joint PhD and Cotutelle Programmes – A Guide

Written by Mark Bennett

A joint PhD is a doctoral programme that is awarded by two or more universities in collaboration with each other. Also known as cotutelle PhDs, these degrees offer students the opportunity to spend their time at more than one university, benefiting from parallels between different research specialisms at each institution.

This page covers what you need to know about doing a joint PhD, with information on finding a programme, arranging your supervisor(s) and funding the project itself.

What is a joint doctoral programme?

A joint PhD is a doctorate that is done at two or more degree-awarding institutions. Sometimes referred to as a split-site PhD, doing a joint PhD doesn’t mean that you’re simply supervised by one supervisor in one university while another supervisor at a different university advises you on an informal basis.

Instead, you’ll be fully registered in two (sometimes more) universities, having to comply with admission requirements and assessment regulations at both universities.

After finishing your joint PhD, you’ll either receive two PhDs (this is known as a double degree) or one jointly-awarded PhD (one diploma with both university logos on). The reason for this distinction is often practical in nature (one country’s legislation might not allow for jointly-awarded degrees, for example).

You may also come across these kinds of programme being referred to as ‘cotutelle’. Some institutions may use this term interchangeably with joint PhDs. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is occasionally a small distinction to be made: sometimes a cotutelle PhD may be a bespoke arrangement for an individual PhD student, rather than a full programme across two universities.

These are the three main types of joint PhDs:

  • Pre-defined projects (which happen to be done jointly at two universities)
  • Established high-level university schemes (between two or more institutions)
  • A new arrangement with two universities of your choice which don’t already have a formal agreement

As you can imagine, establishing your own joint arrangement between two universities will involve more effort and organisation than applying to a pre-existing joint PhD. If you have a fantastic research proposal and two ideal universities/supervisors in mind, such an arrangement could be incredibly rewarding.

What about joint MD-PhD degrees?

In the USA, aspiring doctors often choose to undertake a qualification known as the MD-PhD. This dual degree combines vocational medical training with academic research expertise.

Why do a joint PhD?

Joint PhDs are much more than a period of research abroad which could be achieved simply as a visiting PhD student at a host institution. They provide an integrated educational experience which, at the outset, gives you the opportunity to be supervised by two experts and to have access to two research environments for the benefit of your project.

They’re often a way for two universities to strengthen their collaboration in particular research topics. This, combined with the fact that the two institutions are usually home to top academics in their respective research areas, means that they can provide you with access to research synergies that wouldn’t necessarily be possible at a single university.

Of course, joint PhDs aren’t an easy option (neither are traditional PhDs!) and they won’t suit all students. Before applying for one of these programmes, it’s a good idea to reflect carefully on how a joint PhD would enhance your training and research.

It takes a particular type of person to do a joint PhD and you’ll need to be willing to mediate between two supervisors who may have different institutional and research priorities. You’ll also need to be able to adapt to two different ways of conducting research and fulfil the demands of two administrative systems.

Despite these potential challenges, there are plenty of reasons why a joint PhD can be an incredibly rewarding and worthwhile experience. You’ll:

  • Have access to complementary facilities and resources
  • Be exposed to two cultural approaches to research
  • Enjoy the benefits of international student mobility
  • Gain transferable skills
  • Get better networking opportunities for future job prospects

If you’re at all unsure about the logistics of how a particular joint PhD or cotutelle programme will work, don’t be afraid to get in touch with the relevant admissions department. They’ll be more than happy to explain how the nitty-gritty of dividing your time between two or more institutions will work.

How to apply for a joint PhD

The application process for a joint PhD can be as varied as the programmes themselves. The exact method will depend on several factors, including the universities, where they’re located and in what relation to each other, and the nature of your research project – i.e. whether you’re applying to an advertised project or putting forward your own research proposal.

University-to-university schemes

These are the most common kind of joint PhD, involving universities that have agreed in principle to award joint PhDs to co-supervised students. Such programmes usually involve the participation of a particular department where there is a pre-existing connection to another institution.

However, this doesn’t mean that all the academics have necessarily been paired up or that they’d agree to take on supervision for a joint PhD. Instead, you’ll have to do a bit of work to find ‘matching’ supervisors with relevant research interests (both in terms of your own project and each other).

This means getting in touch with potential supervisors to gauge their interest in your project. Once you have the backing of academics at each university, you can begin the application process.

There will usually be a dedicated joint PhD coordinator who will handle applications and point you in the right direction if you’re unsure about anything. Generally speaking, you’ll need to submit the following documents:

  • Proof of your academic qualifications
  • An academic CV
  • An employment CV (if relevant)
  • A research proposal
  • A cover letter
  • Academic and/or employment references

With these schemes, it’s important to find out which university is the ‘lead’ or ‘home’ institution, as this will have an impact on factors such as assessment, language and other regulations. You may have the option of nominating one or the other as your home university.

In terms of funding, schemes such as these are likely to have financial support attached, although competition may be fierce.

Advertised joint PhD projects

You’ll probably find that applying for an advertised joint PhD project won’t be too dissimilar from a traditional advertised PhD project, apart from the need to show that you’re capable of satisfying the entry requirements of two different universities.

Compared to other forms of joint PhD, there is an advantage to these kinds of programme in that the set-up is in place. It’s also fair to assume 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). Similarly, an advertised project will come with funding attached, so you won’t have to worry about making a separate application for that.

Making your own joint PhD arrangement

This is perhaps the most challenging way to do a joint PhD, where you identify two potential supervisors for your research proposal at two universities that don’t already have a cotutelle arrangement.

These agreements are complex and normally seen as long term undertakings to support research cooperation beyond the scope of a single PhD.

Of course, if your supervisors are equally passionate about your research, they might be able to convince their respective institutions to agree to a joint PhD. The application process may be ill-defined if it’s a completely new arrangement for the universities but it’s worth persevering if you believe it’s the best way to achieve your research goals.

Where can I do a joint PhD?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already realised that there are a great many forms and combinations of joint PhD. This can make working out where to actually begin looking for one quite a daunting prospect!

There are several places to begin your search, however. One of the most obvious is to simply search for joint PhDs here on FindAPhD. A number of universities list joint doctoral programmes on our website.

If you have a particular university in mind, it’s always worth doing your research on their website to find out what opportunities they might offer for a joint PhD. Their international department will also be a good source of information.

In addition, there are several organisations and schemes that help administer joint PhD programmes. We’ve listed a couple below.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA)

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are an initiative by the European Union, enabling PhD students to study across Europe within university partnerships known as MSCA Doctoral Networks. The funding offered by MSCA covers both joint doctorates and industrial doctorates, which are targeted at those who want to develop their skills outside academia.

You can find out more in our guide to MSCA funding.

Universitas 21 joint PhDs

Universitas 21 is an international association of 27 universities that aims to encourage collaboration and cross-border research. These goals mean that it provides an ideal framework for joint PhDs, allowing research students to enjoy the benefits of individual study programme tailored to their interests, as well as the opportunities that come with working within a larger academic network.

You can find out more about U21 joint PhDs on their website.

Search for a joint PhD programme

Ready to take on the challenge? Browse a range of joint PhDs on our website.

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Last Updated: 12 August 2021