PhD Study in Iceland – A Guide for 2024 |

PhD Study in Iceland – A Guide for 2024

Written by Mike Davies

Iceland is a large island that sits at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, with a population of nearly 373,000. Despite its tiny population it is one of the most developed countries in the world. In fact, the Global Innovation Index ranks it within the top 20 countries, worldwide, for innovation.

Iceland also maintains a firm commitment to sustainability and renewable energy, with over 80% of its energy supply coming from local renewable sources. As a result, it is ranked in the top three countries for green economy performance.

There are many advantages to studying for an Icelandic PhD and here we lay out a few of them. From the PhD process to student visas, this guide will get you prepared to start looking for a PhD in Iceland.

PhD opportunities in Iceland – what’s on offer for 2024?

Education is a key part of the Icelandic government's drive for innovation and future-planning. The country has a rich history of academia, being home to the ancient writers responsible for recording almost all our current knowledge on Norse mythology.

Iceland has several well-respected universities that consistently deliver high quality education and research. The country is also home to over 1,740 international students.

An Icelandic PhD will give you opportunity to study in a picturesque and progressive country, with a geological landscape that has earned it the nickname 'the land of ice and fire'.

There are some great reasons to study for your doctorate in Iceland:

  • Very open society — Iceland is home to a very liberal population and is committed to equality and religious tolerance as well as implementing many progressive laws.
  • Spectacular landscapes — From the geothermal lakes to the stunning glaciers and volcanoes that dot the country, you certainly won't be short on photography locations.
  • Natural research areas — Iceland's commitment to sustainability will have you in a prime location if you're looking to research renewable or green energy solutions, while geographic features offer unparalleled opportunities for research into volcanic activity, glaciers and marine life.
  • Widespread English — Many Icelanders speak English to a high degree of proficiency, making communication with the locals easy.

PhD Study in Iceland - Key Details
Universities 7
Oldest University University of Iceland (1911)
International Students 1,740
PhD Length 3 years
Representative Fees None
Academic Year September to May

Coronavirus updates for international students at Icelandic universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in Iceland, please check the official Study in Iceland page for updates.

PhD life in Iceland

Want to know more about life for international PhD students in Iceland? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.

Icelandic universities

Currently there are seven higher education insitutions in Iceland, most of them are publicly owned. The two major universities for research output are the University of Iceland and Reykjavik University.

The University of Iceland is a public institution that offers PhD programmes covering most fields of research, and Reykjavik University is a private university offering programmes with a focus on engineering, computer science, business and law.

All higher education facilities in Iceland are monitored and accredited by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, although they remain highly autonomous.

University Rankings

Top Icelandic Universities in 2024
University THE 2024 QS 2024 ARWU 2023
University of Iceland 501-600 1201-1400 601-700
Reykjavík University 601-800 - -
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

PhD structure

The structure of an Icelandic PhD is broadly similar to many other European countries, and the qualification is directly comparable with those granted by other EHEA member countries. This system consists of three consecutive cycles: Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate. Following this structure, a PhD will usually lead on from a Masters degree and is intended for students who possess the aptitude to pursue independent research.

The Bologna Process

The Bologna Process brings together a range of countries to form the European Higer Education Area (EHEA). Members of the EHEA share a common three-cycle framework that allows degrees from one country to be easily recognised within others.

Programme length

Most Icelandic PhDs are a minimum of three years long and do not often exceed four years.

The academic year in Iceland runs from September to May and is divided into an autumn and a spring term with a holiday around Christmas and the New Year.

PhD programmes

PhD programmes in Iceland are similar to PhDs elsewhere in Europe.

To apply for a PhD in Iceland you will need to have an idea of what the topic of your research will be. This is usually agreed in advance of your application with a supervisor at the university.

The PhD process

During the first year of your PhD you'll be expected to develop a background knowledge in your chosen research field as well as acquire preliminary data. You will also need to organise any training modules that are required by your programme in this time.

Before the end of your first year you will be required to develop and present a research proposal. A research proposal must lay our the background and motivation behind your proposed project, as well as a well-defined methodology and any initial results you may have gathered.

You'll need to successfully defend your research proposal before a thesis committee, comprised of experts in your field.

Over the course of the PhD you'll need to submit regular progress reports in which you update your thesis committee on the headway you've made in your research.

Finally, you will complete a thesis detailing your work. Your thesis will demonstrate your knowledge of the subject matter, as well as present your findings on your chosen topic.


If you are applying for a PhD programme you will have at least one supervisor who is a recognised expert in the intended field of study. You will likely need to contact this supervisor to agree on the direction of your project before making your application.

Your supervisor will monitor your progress and provide advice on your project when necessary. They will also be responsible for sponsoring your research proposal as well as the submission of your final thesis.

At some point during the first year you'll also be assigned a thesis / doctoral committee of two to four members, whose role will be to guide you towards the completion of your research.

The committee members will be responsible for examining your regular progress reports and ensuring that you are making progress in your PhD. They will also be responsible for assessing your final thesis submission.


At the end of your research you will need to produce an original doctoral thesis in order to be considered for a doctoral degree.

Having completed your thesis your supervisor and thesis committee will first ensure that it's fit for presentation.

You will then be required to defend your thesis to your thesis committee and one or more external examiners. The defence will usually take the form of a short presentation of around 30 minutes, followed by an oral examination. During this session examiners will ask questions to determine whether you have the necessary breadth of knowledge, to award a doctorate.

Fees and funding

Whether or not you'll be required to pay fees depends on whether you study at a private or public university. Tuition at public universities is free, but private insitutions are largely allowed to set their own fees.

The cost of tuition at private institutions doesn't usually depend on your nationality and will typically come in at around €3000 per term for home students and at around €6,000 per term for international students.


There are several scholarships and other finance options available to help pay any tuition fees, as well as provide a maintenance allowance.

Each university in Iceland has a variety of its own scholarships which vary depending on your tuition fees, if necessary, and provide you with a monthly maintenance allowance. You'll need to contact the university directly to find out the details about individual grants.

Icelandic Research Fund

The Icelandic Centre for Research (RANNIS) offers the Icelandic Research Fund (IRF), which is available to PhD students studying at Icelandic universities. It is a competitive fund that is focused on enhancing scientific research.

PhD students can apply for this grant which will cover up to three years of study. The maximum value of the grant is €844,046 and this can be used to cover tuition fees, travel costs as well as your living costs.

Applying for a PhD in Iceland

PhD applications in Iceland are processed by individual faculties. The requirements and application process can therefore vary depending on the university you are applying to, and even the field of study.

In most cases, you will need to submit an application to the faculty you wish to study in. If applying for an advertised project, then you should follow the given application procedure.

On the other hand, if you wish to propose your own research project, you will generally need to first contact the supervisor who will then sponsor your application.

Admission requirements

To be eligible to apply for a PhD in Iceland you will need a Masters degree in a relevant subject area or an equivalent degree or examination from an acknowledged research university.

You may be able to apply for a PhD if you are currently studying for a Masters degree and will have graduated by the time the doctoral programme is due to start. This is at the discretion of the university to which you're applying, so it's worth checking with them directly.

Most Icelandic universities also recommend international students submit GRE test scores. You can learn more about GRE examinaiton from the Educational Testing Service.

Language requirements

For international students whose native language is not English and have not studied at a higher education facility that instructs in English, you will be requrired to provide proof of English proficiency. This can be submitted in the form of TOEFL, IELTS (Academic) or Cambridge English (CAE or CPE) test scores.

Application process

The process for applications will differ slightly between faculties and universities, however most will ask for the following during your application.

  • Transcripts — you will need to submit official transcipts of your qualifications including an explanation of the grading system if a degree is not from an Icelandic university
  • Referees — two or three referees will be required who have experience with your academic work
  • Statement of purpose — the precise format varies but broadly this is a short description of your intended research and your motivations for undertaking it
  • Scholarship / grant conformation — you may be required to demonstrate you have funding in place

In most cases applications can be made year-round.

How do I write a PhD research proposal?

The research proposal is an important part of any PhD application, regardless of where you choose to study. Take a look at our guide for some tips and advice on writing a PhD research proposal.

Student visas

Visa information for UK students in Iceland

UK students will no longer be EU citizens from the 2021-22 academic year onwards. This means you may be considered as an international student when studying in Iceland. You may be subject to different visa requirements and fee rates, unless otherwise stated.

If you're a citizen of an EU/EEA member country, then you don't need a visa to study in Iceland. However, you'll need to register your legal residence with the Registers Iceland (the civic registry of Iceland) once you arrive in the country.

This will require you to fill in an application form and procide the following documents:

  • Passport
  • University admission letter
  • Medical insurance details (ie. EHIC)
  • Bank statements confirming your financial support

Non-EU/EEA nationals

If you're not from the EU/EEA, then you need to apply for a residence permit before you travel to Iceland. This should be done as soon as you've received an acceptance letter from you university.

You will need to contact the Directorate of Immigration in Iceland and provide the following:

  • Proof of financial security (around €1,445 per month)
  • Health insurance details
  • Housing certificate
  • Proof of university admission
  • Copy of your passport
  • Criminal record certificate

You will also need to attach a receipt for the processing fee (around €100) that you will have to make in advance of your application.

You will need to visit the Directorate of Immigration when you arrive in Iceland to be photographed and undergo medical examination. You will then be issued with a resident visa that is valid for up to one year. You must renew this yearly to be allowed to remain in the country.

Next steps

Studying a PhD in Iceland gives you the opportunity to conduct globally recognised high-quality research and offers excellent experience for future work, both in and out of academia.

Employment opportunities in Iceland are growing every year, especially in geological sciences, business and finance. So long as you can get to grips with the local language, an Icelandic doctorate will provide you with an excellent jumping off point for a career in this beautiful country.

If you would prefer to move back home, your new doctorate will be recognised as the same level of qualification as a doctorate from most other European countries. Your experience with a new language and culture will also give you some great talking points when it comes to interview!

Find a PhD in Iceland

Decided that Iceland is the right destination for your PhD? Why not get started browsing some Icelandic PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Living in Iceland – A Guide for PhD Students

What's it like to live in Iceland during a PhD? Our guide covers accommodation, student living costs, working and other key information.

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Last Updated: 09 November 2023