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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Turkey

by Mark Bennett

Whatever you're seeking from postgraduate study abroad, there's a good chance you'll be able to find it in Turkey. Students looking to live and research somewhere exotic will find plenty of appeal in Turkey's varied landscapes and Mediterranean climate. Those attracted by historical architecture and heritage sites will be able to explore the traces left by the successive world empires that have made Turkey their seat. These attractions don't have to be extra-curricular either. Students in humanities fields will have opportunities to explore archives and material artefacts dating from some of the most important civilisations in Europe and Asia - including the remains of the ancient city of Troy. Those in the sciences will also have unique opportunities to study a landscape formed by complex tectonic processes or to examine the country's stunning biodiversity (an estimated 80,000 or more species can be found across Turkey's range of habitats).

Whatever you study you'll be one of a large number of foreign students living and working in Turkey as the country becomes an increasingly popular choice for international PhD study.

Key facts

  • Turkey has a population of just over 76 million, the majority of whom live in towns and cities. Its capital, Istanbul, is the largest city by population in Europe. Istanbul also has one of the most vibrant histories of any modern city having served successively as the capital of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman empires.
  • Turkey is governed as a parliamentary democracy, with an elected presidential head of state and a prime minister serving as the head of government.
  • The Turkish climate varies by region, with temperate conditions on its Mediterranean coast and a more contrasting seasonal climate on inland plateaus.
  • Turkey is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with over 35 million foreign visitors each year.
  • Turkey has a rich heritage as the historic centre of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the majority of its modern population are Islamic. However, the country is fully secular, with no official state faith and religious freedom constitutionally guaranteed for all.
  • The official language is Turkish, but a range of other languages are spoken by different groups. English is commonly taught in schools.

Culture, leisure and everyday life

Modern Turkish culture is the product of the country's long and varied history as the seat of successive transcontinental civilisations. Traditional Turkish values revolve around the family with kinship playing an important role in wider social and commercial relationships (many Turkish businesses are still family-owned). Islamic philosophies are also important, but do not place any restrictions on individuals. You should show respect for religious spaces and customs, but will be welcome to dress and behave freely regardless of gender or ethnicity.

Public holidays

Unsurprisingly, the two most important Turkish holidays (or Bayrams) are associated with traditional Islamic festivals. The end of the Ramadan fasting period is marked by a period of feasting referred to as the Şeker Bayramı ('holiday of sweets') due to the traditional serving of candied foods. Eid al-Adha is celebrated two months and ten days later and referred to as the Kurban Bayramı ('the sacrifice holiday'). On this occasion it is traditional to sacrifice livestock and to distribute its meat evenly between the family, neighbours and the local poor (some modern celebrations replace the sacrifice with a charitable donation). Observance of these Bayram (and the associated Ramadan fasting period) is not compulsory, but non-muslims are welcome to join in with elements of the celebrations.

Other national holidays derive from Turkey's political history; one of the most important is Republic Day, which commemorates the founding of the modern Turkish state on October 29th 1923.

Food and drink

Turkish cuisine is highly varied, with many elements that are common to the wider Mediterranean region and others that draw upon Asian influences derived from the Ottoman period. Many are likely to be very different from the more familiar versions sold as takeaway food in some other countries. You may be surprised for example, at the varieties of high quality kebab available in Turkey: even with around three to four years to spend studying for a PhD in the country you may struggle to try them all! Vegetarians need not worry, as meat-free dishes also play a key role in Turkish dining. Stuffed vegetables (dolma) are popular and come in a wide range of varieties. Vine leaves filled with seasoned rice and pine nuts are a particular speciality.

Of course Turkey is also internationally renowned for its sweets. The most famous, Turkish delight was probably invented in Istanbul in the eighteenth-century, but other traditional dessert foods have a much longer history. Baklava - a pastry sweetened with honey - was originally served in the Imperial Topkapi Palace.

The most characteristic Turkish drink is probably Raki, an aniseed aperitif that is similar to the Ouzo enjoyed in Greece.

These and other dishes are available inexpensively from restaurants, cafes and markets so, whatever your budget as a PhD student in Turkey, you can enjoy authentic foods - many of which were once served to the Ottoman sultans!

Accommodation and living costs


Many Turkish universities offer their own dormitories and these are usually available to international postgraduates. Student halls will generally be single-sex and may have shared facilities, but they can offer a useful option in the early part of your PhD before you are able to examine other accommodation. Costs will vary depending on the facilities included, with some options as low as 63TL ($30) per month, and others closer to 630TL ($300).

Major university cities such as Istanbul and Ankara will also offer private letting options designed for students. These are likely to cost between 420-1050TL ($200-500) per person per month and are best rented with a group of fellow students once you have established yourself as a PhD student in Turkey.

Groceries and dining

General living costs in Turkey are relatively low, particularly if you use street markets to purchase locally produced groceries. Market shopping is actually a staple feature of Turkish life - the grand bazaar in Istanbul dates back to the Ottoman period and is one of the largest in the world. Staple products are generally inexpensive if bought in this way: a litre of milk will cost around 2.10TL ($1), a loaf of bread roughly 1TL ($0.5) and even a medium quality bottle of wine is likely to be little more than 25TL ($12). Purchasing at markets also makes it easy to shop around and - if you work on your Turkish - politely haggle for a better price.

Turkish restaurants come in a range of styles, serving traditional cuisines as well as familiar international foods. An inexpensive meal for one is likely to be little more than 15TL ($7), though some restaurants may offer a more up-market experience, with prices to match - perhaps a good option when you're looking to celebrate a particularly successful piece of work!

Working as a PhD student in Turkey

Working whilst studying in Turkey can be relatively difficult. Because the country is not yet a member of the EU, nationals of other European countries won't be automatically entitled to employment rights. You may still be able to apply for a work permit, but this will usually require the support of a prospective employer and will not necessarily be accepted. Casual work in tourist areas may be easier to come by - particularly if you speak a foreign language - but you should ensure that any work you undertake is safe and legal. Another option is to contact your university and ask whether it provides any employment opportunities for its own students. You may be able to acquire work as a research assistant or technician in some fields, and assistant teaching and demonstration opportunities may also be offered later in your PhD.

You can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information

Travel and transportation

For most foreign students the most direct route into Turkey will be via air travel. The country has several international airports and its busy tourist industry means that flights are available to suit a range of budgets. Overland travel is also possible, but can take a long time (of course, it also offers a brilliant opportunity to see the sights on your way).

Travel options within Turkey include buses, trains and subway services, many of which offer discounts to students. One of the more unique options available is the shared taxi or minibus service referred to as the dolmuş. These run on specific routes, but will stop to pick up passengers at any point along the way. The word dolmuş derives from the Turkish word for 'stuffed' (much like the stuffed vine leaves, or dolma, mentioned above) and, as such you probably shouldn't expect the most luxurious ride on one of these services! Dolmuş are perfectly safe however and offer a convenient and uniquely Turkish travel option.

Money and banking

Turkey offers a modern banking system providing online account-management services, international currency transfer and automated cash machines. Accounts are available to foreign students upon proof of identity and address. Currency exchange is also available at most banks, but will incur a commission charge; this may sometimes be cheaper at dedicated exchange bureaus.


Universities in Turkey will usually offer a free medical service to students, providing basic consultation and advice. Further treatment will need to be paid for and you should therefore consider purchasing health insurance sufficient to cover your time as a PhD student in Turkey. A range of international insurers provide policies suitable for this purpose, but you may be encouraged to purchase a specific local policy from the Turkish Social Security Institution (SGK). Your university's international office should be able to advise you as to your requirements and obligations.

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