Europe's historic and world-renowned universities have always been home to leading scientists, artists and thinkers. You'll be welcome to follow in their footsteps as a PhD student.
Modern international students often pay surprisingly low fees and study within generously funded higher education systems, with ground-breaking research opportunities supported by generous funding from the European Union and other organisations.
The diversity of opportunities in Europe is matched by a robust system of qualification recognition and credit transfer, meaning that your degree will be internationally recognised and accepted. European PhD programmes often also include a range of additional training and development opportunities (this, after all, is the continent that invented the modern doctoral degree).
The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is a network of 48 countries that share a common system for university degrees. It is made up of all 28 EU members (including the UK) as well as other countries from elsewhere in Europe and Eurasia.
All EHEA members follow the Bologna Process, an agreement signed in 1999 at the University of Bologna (Europe’s oldest university). This organises academic degrees intro three cycles:
Academic degrees from one EHEA country are automatically recognised in others. This makes it a lot simpler to study abroad in different parts of Europe or to work in another European country with your doctorate.
Doctorates are a relatively recent addition to the Bologna Process and fit more loosely within its guidelines. For example, there is still no standard length or credit value for a PhD in Europe and individual programmes may include additional training or other elements in addition to your research project.
However, studying within the EHEA does offer several important benefits for PhD students:
The following countries are members of the European Higher Education Area:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
The European Research Area (ERA) was formed after the European Higher Education Area to help coordinate research activities across the EU and other associated countries. ERA members benefit from substantial framework funding programmes such as Horizon 2020, which can help create opportunities for PhD training.
Most degree programmes in Europe are measured using the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation Scheme (ECTS). This is one of the reasons that degrees can be recognised across the EHEA as all qualifications at the same cycle are ‘worth’ the same number of credits.
Each credit represents a certain amount of learning hours for a course, with a year of study usually being worth 60 credits. The independent research that makes up a PhD is harder to measure using this system. This means that doctoral degrees don’t usually have a total ECTS credit value.
However, ECTS credits are sometimes used to measure training units and modules as part of more structured PhDs. Some of these courses have a minimum credit requirement that students must meet before they begin working on their thesis. This number is usually quite small (around 20-30 credits, or half a year’s worth of work).
The Bologna Process ensures that degrees are easily recognised by universities and employers elsewhere in Europe. This is useful if you have a European Masters degree and are applying for a PhD in a different EHEA country.
The EHEA can also help you receive recognition for international qualifications from universities outside Europe.
Each country in the European Higher Education Area has its own National Academic Recognition Information Centres (NARIC) and these are part of the European Network of Information Centres in the European Region (ENIC). Together, these form part of a network known as ENIC-NARIC, which can help assess your foreign qualifications and confirm that they meet the entry requirements for a PhD in Europe.
Your university may ask this network to help check your Bachelors or Masters degrees, or you may be able to use ENIC-NARIC yourself to ask about your qualifications.
Bear in mind though that the final decision to admit you to a PhD is always made by your university, not ENIC-NARIC.
Each country in Europe is free to set their own fees for doctorates and other degrees. However, EU member countries must charge the same fees to citizens of other EU countries as they do to their own students.
The following countries are part of the European Union:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.
Other international students may pay more to study in Europe, but this isn’t always the case. Some countries actually charge no fees to any PhD students, regardless of nationality. You can find out more in the individual guides above.
Eligibility for PhD funding in Europe is usually the same as your fee status. If you pay the same fees as a local student, you will normally be able to access the same funding (such as student loans or other bursaries). It’s always worth checking this, however.
PhD students in Europe also have the potential to benefit from wider funding schemes such as Erasmus+ or MSCA scholarships. These are usually focussed on student mobility and research collaboration between universities in different countries.
Whether you’ll need a visa for a doctorate in Europe will usually depend on two things: your nationality and whether the country you wish to study in is a member of the European Union.
EU students don’t need a visa to enter other EU countries. You can do so freely for up to 90 days. During this time you will need to register your presence and receive a residence permit which will entitle you to live in the country longer term and complete your PhD. The exact name and application process for your residence permit will be set by the country you study in. These conditions usually apply to EEA and Swiss students too.
Other international students will normally need to apply for a visa to enter a European country as a student. Once there you’ll also need to apply for a residence permit.
Additional exceptions may also apply in some countries. Check our guides, or contact your university’s international office if you aren’t sure about your visa requirements.
The Schengen Area is a borderless region within the EU. It allows completely free movement between neighbouring countries, with no need for additional visas or passport checks.
EU students automatically have the right to travel across the Schengen Area and remain in another EU country for up to 90 days.
International students will need to apply for a separate Schengen Visa in order to do so. This could be useful if you wish to travel elsewhere in Europe for research or leisure whilst you are completing your PhD. Note that in most cases the visa that lets you enter the country you are studying in will not automatically provide you with a Schengen Visa.
You can find out more on the European Commission's Schengen Visa website.
Last updated 19/02/2021