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PhD Programs in Austria

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

As far as research credentials go, Austria is hard to beat. It is one of the countries with the highest number of Nobel prizes per capita, as well as being a bastion of cultural and intellectual excellence. This is reflected in its cities and universities which play an important role in the research and intellectual capital of the country.

According to the European Commission, Austria has 'the third highest national target among EU Member States. In the past decade, Research and Development (R&D) intensity in Austria has progressed faster than the EU average. Public spending on R&D as a %age of GDP has shown a clear upward trend in Austria since 2002, and increased during and after the recession of 2009, despite budgetary constraints.'

With expertise across a range of disciplines but in particular the sciences and humanities, Austria is good choice for researchers at all stages of their careers, including PhD students.

Higher education

Austria's higher education sector comprises 23 public universities, 13 private universities and 18 institutions officially considered as 'Fachhochschulen' (University of Applied Sciences). Institutions enjoy a high degree of autonomy and offer a full spectrum of degree programs. PhD degrees are by in large delivered by public universities and you are recommended to check the accreditation of private institutions to make sure they can award doctoral degrees.

PhD structure

As Austria is a signatory of the Bologna process, the traditional degrees are being replaced by a three-year Bachelor's degree leading to Master's degree (one-two or more years) in turn leading to a PhD, a three-year degree.

However, the 'old' system is still in place in some universities, and the duration of the degree programme may be four to five years depending on previous education and individual progress. For example, if you hold a Masters degree, the PhD will be shorter.

These programs are often divided into two phases, before, and after the qualifying exam. Students who have gone straight into a PhD from their bachelor degree have at most two years from their start date, and students with an MS degree have one year from their start date to pass the qualifying exam. The first phase is not dissimilar to Wellcome Trust 4-year PhDs in the UK, where students do lab rotations in their first year.

For Bologna PhDs and for the second phase of the longer PhDs, the structure is very similar. A PhD student works primarily on research towards a thesis for three years. Regular progress reviews and expected milestones are set up, the student being required to make satisfactory progress throughout.

In terms of the 'curriculum', PhD students will receive training in research methods (quantitative/qualitative), literature review, statistics and specific research techniques (for those in the sciences). You will have to take part and present at research seminars or journal clubs, and will most likely be offered courses which will contribute to your professional and personal development and you are strongly encouraged to take advantage of those. The University of Innsbruck has a handy example of a PhD timeline. While it is for a PhD in management, it gives you an idea of what to expect in general.

The PhD examination consists of a public defence, an oral presentation of the draft thesis in the presence of the examination committee, followed by questions and answers on the thesis. To be awarded the PhD you must satisfy the committee that you have produced an original piece of research. You will also have to have completed some coursework and may be expected to have published in peer-reviewed journals.

Admissions requirements


Despite Austria’s adoption of the European qualification system known as Bologna and similar to the UK system, some universities offer PhD programs which can be accessed directly from a Bachelor's degree (or equivalent). Most Bologna-compliant institutions will require a Masters degree for entry into a three-year PhD.

Note, however, that Masters degrees from Fashhochschulen (delivered over one year and equivalent to 60 ECTS credits) are not suitable for entry into doctoral studies.


While English is the working language of research, there are a number of PhDs where you will be required to speak German. If this is the case, you will have to provide evidence of German proficiency, generally a minimum of a DSH II level.

If you are not a native English speaker and German is not required for admissions, you will have to provide evidence of English proficiency through a TOEFL or IELTS certificate, for example.

Application process

There are deadlines for application but these are specific to individual institutions. Generally, for entry in September you will have to submit your application and reference letters by December/January, prior to the start of the new academic year.
For PhDs associated with full scholarships and/or as part of a wider research program, an interview is likely to be part of the selection process.

Please note that Austrians take administrative procedures very seriously so be sure to supply all the documentation and follow all the instructions you are given to the letter. All diplomas and certificates submitted as part of your application procedure must be official documents with the official stamp (or 'apostille') of the institution issuing them. In addition, all documents required for admission which are not originally issued in German have to be translated into German, and the translation has to be certified by an accredited professional such as a lawyer. Original documents in English are accepted.

In addition to the application form (online or downloaded/printed), you will have to provide:

  • Degree certificate(s), for applicants who have completed their degree. If you are currently studying and will complete after the application deadline but before the start of the PhD, you can also apply.
  • Official transcripts of all courses passed within the relevant first degree program, including grades, weekly hours and/or ECTS credits or credits.
  • Information about the duration of your Bachelor/Masters and the number of ECTS credits or credits or weekly hours required for the completion of the program (if in a Bologna-compliant country, a Diploma Supplement).
  • English proficiency (and/or German proficiency).
  • Reference letters: you may be asked for as many as three within the application deadline. These are often submitted by the referees themselves rather than the applicants so you should contact your referees and ask them if they are willing to provide a recommendation in good time.
  • You may be asked for a 'statement of purpose'. This is generally a one-two page essay in which you explain why you want to do the PhD program of your choice and the research area(s) that are of most interest.
  • If applicable, graduate tests, CV, or portfolio.

How much does it cost?

Tuition fees

The country’s university system was free until 2001; since then studies have been subject to tuition fees (approx. €360/semester for Austrian and other EU citizens, about €700/semester for non-EU citizens). In 2008 however, the government decided to abolish fees for EU/EEA citizens who complete their studies in a set time. For international students, the tuition fees of around €700 per semester will be applicable even if your degree is completed in time. However, there are different rules for different third-world countries. The University of Vienna has a table of countries and their tuition fee status.

Other fees and costs

In addition to tuition fees, all students are required to pay the Austrian Students’ Union (ÖH) fee (€18) and student insurance. Upon admission to a university any applicable fees must be paid by a specific deadline (for each semester) before enrolment is confirmed.

Employment contract

PhD students admitted onto large and structured PhD programs and those who will be working on supervisor-led funded projects will be offered employment contracts. This is the case at Vienna Graduate Program on Complex Quantum Systems (CoQuS) and at IST Austria, for example. This means you can expect to receive a competitive salary with full health cover and a tuition fee waiver. Your income will be taxed as any other employee in Austria. Contracts will be given for three-five years depending on the type of PhD program your institution offers. In addition, you may receive support for:

  • Travel expenses to scientific conferences and workshops.
  • Research stays abroad at collaborating institutions.
  • German-language courses.


  • Universities offer a range of personal studentships (for highly-qualified individuals with their own research projects) or supervisor-led projects which have funding attached to them.
  • Employment-type PhDs
    Employment in third party funded research projects is a well-established opportunity for doctoral candidates to work as financed project team members on their thesis topics. Vacancy databases like the FWF job market (from the Austrian Science Fund) or the EURAXESS portal are good sources of information for up-to-date job advertisements.
  • Fellowships of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
    Fellowship programmes and awards for outstanding scientific achievements financed by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) support highly qualified young researchers.

Careers and employment

In Austria, the PhD is still considered as the qualification of choice for those aiming to start a career in academia. However, this is changing and with greater emphasis on transferable skills, PhD graduates will be highly sought after in private or public organisations which value their enhanced analytical, reflective, and critical abilities.

Universities will provide advice and information to their students and graduates. It is worth utilising this resource as much as possible as they will have good knowledge of local employers and opportunities as well as having contacts with international companies. Careers offices will often publish fairly comprehensive job listings, including for the term time and summer holidays.

Careers services often host graduate fairs which are a great opportunity to meet some of the local and multinational recruiters. The careers service of the Vienna University of Economics and Business (known as the WU Career Centre) hosts the Austria's largest recruiting fair for graduates of business, technical studies and natural/environmental subjects.

If you require a visa to study in Austria, check what the conditions are for you to work post-study in our student’s guide to living in Austria.

PhD programmes in Austria

To find out what programmes are available in Austria, check the FindAPhD database.

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