PhD Study in Spain - A Guide for 2023
Written by Chris Banyard
More than just a sunny holiday location, Spain is also a popular international study destination with historic universities and a range of PhD study opportunities. PhDs in Spain are well-structured to provide high-quality training and professional development.
This guide covers everything you’ll need to know about PhDs in Spain, complete with information on universities, funding and applications.
PhD opportunities in Spain – what’s on offer for 2023?
Spain is regularly regarded as one of the most popular destinations for international study, and it’s not hard to see why.
Its Mediterranean climate and beautiful beaches make the country an enjoyable (and relaxing!) place to learn and research. But, Spanish universities are still renowned for high-quality teaching and impact across many research areas.
Spain puts particular emphasis on doctoral training and development, with structured course content and strong relationships with non-academic partners.
Of course, Spain also has an exceptional heritage when it comes to the Arts, Literature and Science, including figures such as Pablo Picasso, Salavador Dalí, Francisco la Goya, Antoni Gaudí, Miguel de Cervantes, Salvador de Madariaga and Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Here are some of the highlights you can expect if you study a PhD in Spain this year:
- International outlook – Spanish universities are welcoming to international students and the country has strong travel connections to other countries of Europe
- Learn Spanish – Spain is the best place to learn the world’s second most spoken language, even if your PhD isn’t taught in it
- Cultural heritage – with the third largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites in the world, lively cities and many exciting festivals, Spain has no shortage of historical and cultural attractions
- Climate and atmosphere – Spain offers famously sunny and comfortable weather, beautiful beaches and countryside
- Affordable – the cost of living in Spain and tuition fees are relatively low for doctoral students compared to the rest of Europe
Spain’s famously relaxed atmosphere may also help balance the pressures of a PhD. Tricky experiments and research materials are bound to look better after a little siesta.
PhD Study in Spain - Key Details
||University of Salamanca (1218)
||€2,300-5,500 or less per year
||September to August
Coronavirus updates for international students at Spanish universities
For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in Spain, please check the official Study in Spain page for updates.
PhD life in Spain
Want to know more about what it's like to live and study abroad in Spain during a PhD? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.
Spain’s higher education system is divided into public and private universities and university institutes. All are registered in the Register of Universities, Centres and Qualifications of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. 50 of these institutions are public, with the remaining 34 being private. There are also non-university institutions, but these do not award doctorates.
PhDs in Spain are offered by a specific university’s doctoral college or at a university research institute (separate training centres formed by collaborating universities and independent partners).
Spanish university cities
There are several cities in Spain with one or more universities and large numbers of students:
Spanish university rankings
The universities of Spain perform respectably across the three main rankings tables, with several universities present in the top 500 in the world.
Top 10 Spanish Universities in 2023
|University of Barcelona
|Autonomous University of Barcelona
|Pompeu Fabra University
|University of Navarra
|Autonomous University of Madrid
|Complutense University of Madrid
|Open University of Catalonia
|Universitat Ramon Llull
|University of Valencia
|University of Vic-Centrak University of Catalonia
|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.
Do rankings matter for PhD study?
University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.
PhDs in Spain follows well-defined guidelines about structure and supervision. It is organised by a university’s Academic Commission, formed of appointed academics and researchers.
In Spain, full-time PhD studies last for a maximum of three years. It is possible to have enrolment on a doctoral programme extended for an additional two years, but this must be specially approved by your university’s Academic Commission. Part-time PhD programmes last for five years.
Although the main activity during a PhD is research, you may also need to attend training courses, seminars and partake in other academic activities. These are coordinated by your Academic Commission.
Often, Spanish doctorates are formed from two stages (ciclos): the first stage (during the first-year) focusses on the training courses to the value of 60 ECTS credits; the second stage focusses on research and writing of the thesis.
As a PhD candidate in Spain, your status will be registered in one of two ways:
- University student – very similar status and rights to other university students
- University student and research trainee – common for doctoral students, includes funding status (grant or contract) and has additional rights
In addition to the Academic Commission, each doctoral programme has two supervisors, with different responsibilities:
- Mentor – equivalent to the traditional PhD supervisor, responsible for monitoring your interaction with the Academic Commission.
- Thesis director – responsible for planning your training activities and ensuring the thesis has sufficient impact and novelty. This may be your mentor, and the Academic Commission can change this individual at any point.
There may also be additional supervisory figures, such as co-directors in the case of a PhD programme that is multi-disciplinary or based at multiple institutions.
In addition to the doctoral thesis, PhD candidates in Spain are assessed through several other pieces of work:
- Personal activity portfolio – this documents all relevant training and research activities carried out throughout your doctorate, and is regularly reviewed by your mentor and thesis director
- Research plan – this details your prospective methodology, objectives, and the resources of your research. This can be amended throughout your doctorate, but must be completed before the end of your first year and approved by your mentor and thesis director
- Written agreement – this is signed after admission and establishes your rights and responsibilities
To successfully complete you PhD in Spain, you must write a doctoral thesis demonstrating expertise in a research field and the ability to carry out independent research.
This must be examined at a public defence. After the thesis is completed, it is given public status to allow fellow researchers to review your work. The public defence session takes place in front of a board of expert examiners, most of which will be external to your university.
The Academic Commission will also assess your research plan, personal activity portfolio, and progress reports as part of your assessment.
In general, the cost of PhD study in Spain is lower than in most other countries in Western Europe. Spanish tuition fees are relatively affordable, and there are several sources of doctoral funding available.
Tuition fees in Spain are calculated per ECTS credit instead of per semester or year. This is currently set between €22 and €36 per credit.
As most of the set hours of study of a PhD are carried out in the first year, this equates to around €2,200-3,600 for the initial year of study. Subsequent years still have tuition costs for training and research costs, but these can be typically significantly lower at around €200-600 per year (plus other administration costs).
International students are usually charged higher tuition fee rates than domestic students, and the fees may vary by university and research discipline. You can check the specific tuition fee costs at your prospective university’s website.
Scholarships and funding opportunities, or becas, are available for PhD study in Spain. Some of these are available for international students, and can be found from the following sources:
PhD funding in Spain
Our guide to PhD funding in Spain has more information on the scholarship opportunities and how to pay for your doctorate.
Applying for a PhD in Spain
PhD applications in Spain are made directly to the individual university, doctoral college or university institute. Although the process and admission criteria can vary, in general Spanish PhD applications are relatively straightforward.
Applications for PhDs in Spain are made directly to your potential university and / or doctoral programme’s Academic Commission. In the first instance, you should contact your programme coordinator to gauge the availability of PhD positions and learn more about the application process at the specific university or doctoral college.
PhD programmes in Spain can have varying application deadlines and start dates, depending on your university of choice, research discipline, and any associated training components. Most Spanish universities will want to receive enquiries about prospective doctoral study between January and May in preparation for the following academic year.
You will usually need to submit additional application materials such as a research proposal, CV, references and even attend an interview. Certain official documents to be submitted may also require an official Spanish ‘sworn translation’.
Applying for a PhD
PhD applications in Spain will require additional application documents and processes. These are similar to those in the UK. Our guide explains PhD applications for a prospective PhD student.
To successfully apply for a PhD in Spain, you will normally need to hold both a Bachelors and Masters degree relevant to your research field. Equivalent degrees are acceptable, provided they correspond to at least 300 ECTS credits overall. Other qualifications will need to be recognised by Spanish National Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) or at the Spanish Ministry of Education.
PhD entry requirements
The general eligibility criteria for PhD applications in Spain is similar to most other countries in the Europe. Our guide explains entry requirements for a prospective PhD student.
Although more courses in Spain are being taught in English, it is still the case that many doctoral programmes are administered in Spanish. In this case, your prospective university will have Spanish language requirements – the nature of these depend on the university’s individual policy and the PhD programme structure. You may have to demonstrate your Spanish through the completion of Spanish language tests. Even if Spanish is not required on your PhD programme, you will find proficiency in the language very useful both for study and daily life.
There are several immigration procedures that must be completed to study a PhD in Spain. The specific details and processes required depends on your country of origin.
Visa information for UK students in Spain
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 Spain. You may be subject to different visa requirements and fee rates, unless otherwise stated.
Non-EU / EEA students are required to have a valid student visa (type-D) to initially enter Spain. This is not required for EU / EEA students; a valid passport or identity card is sufficient.
The initial study visa is valid for the first three months of residence in Spain, and during the first month it must be extended to a long-term visa in person at your local Diplomatic Mission or Consular Post. The initial study visa should be applied for at a Spanish embassy or consulate in your home country with plenty of time before your move to Spain.
Typically, the materials required to apply for a visa are:
- A completed application form
- Passport-style photographs
- A valid passport
- Proof of university enrolment
- Proof of health insurance (where not covered by the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), private international healthcare insurance is mandatory with a minimum coverage of €30,000 for full duration of your PhD)
- Proof of financial support (usually to equivalent of €657 per month of the academic year)
- Proof of address in Spain
Additionally, there will be an associated €60 application fee for each visa application.
All doctoral students living in Spain must register with the Central Register of Foreign Nationals (Registro Central de Extranjeros) within the first three months of residence. The application requires similar documentation as the visa application. You can register in person at either:
- Your local Register’s office (Oficina de Extranjería)
- Your local police station
Completion of registration grants you a Foreigner’s Identity Number (NIE) which enables you to open a Spanish bank account, use Spanish health services and be eligible for student discounts.
Implications of student status
As a PhD candidate, you could be classified as a ‘student’ or as a ‘research trainee’. This distinction may have implications on your immigration procedure regarding employment status. You should contact your prospective university’s international office for more information.
More information regarding travel and immigration procedures can be found on the Spanish government’s Immigration Portal or by contacting your prospective university’s international office.
The structure and content of PhDs in Spain is designed towards professional skills development and often involves close relationships with industry partners. As such, PhD graduates from universities in Spain can expect to gain excellent training and a globally recognised degree ideal for entering highly-skilled careers.
In particular, Spanish language ability is a highly sought-after skill and enables communication with some of the world’s most important industries and businesses.
Can I work in Spain after my PhD?
In addition to updating your visa and residence registration to reflect your new employment status, you will also need to obtain a valid work permit (if you are a non-EU / EEA national) and register at your local National Institute of Social Security (INSS). Some post-doctorate jobs within academia and research are highly valued, and therefore may not require a work permit.
Graduates of Spanish universities with high-skilled / high-paid jobs, originally from non-EU / EEA countries, are eligible to apply for an EU Blue Card granting permanent residence.
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