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PhD Programs in Belgium

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

You may not know much about Belgium other than the fact it is famous for its beers, for being the world diamond trade centre, and I bet you didn’t know that Audrey Hepburn was born there?!

In terms of research and education, Belgium is a unique training destination and is very much part of the fabric of Europe. Not only is it centrally located, it also boasts:

  • A multicultural and multilingual society with French, Flemish, Dutch and German being widely spoken.
  • French and Flemish language universities, most of them also offering masters courses in English.
  • Institutions which are often part of consortia delivering Erasmus Mundus programmes.
  • European political institutions such as the European Parliament as well as higher education institutions such as the College of Europe which all bring an international community to its midst and,
  • ancient universities which are well placed in the rankings (six universities in the world top 400).

Even more important if you are thinking of doing your doctoral research in Belgium, it has fantastic research facilities, either in universities or in European organisations and is at the centre of many Erasmus Mundus joint-PhD programmes.

Higher education

The higher education system in Belgium follows the Bologna system of the three consecutive cycles: Bachelor-Master-Doctorate. There are five types of institutions in Belgium which offer Masters programmes all aligned to universities or university colleges. The main difference between the two is that research exclusively takes place in universities and doctorates are only awarded by universities.

The university sector in Belgium is, essentially, organised into two streams, Flemish-language universities and French-language universities. Students who have come out of the German school system, typically enrol in institutions in the French community or in Germany. All universities are publicly-funded.

  • Six Flemish universities.
  • Seven French universities.
  • One transnational university between the Netherlands and Flanders.

Foreign institutions

Several universities have set up branch campuses in Belgium, mainly in the capital Brussels:

  • Boston University Brussels (USA).
  • Business University, Brussels (Costa Rica).
  • Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent (UK).

PhD structure

The academic year runs from September to July with holidays which broadly follow a Christian festival calendar, although as a PhD student you will be expected to work throughout the year (except for annual leave).

As for many continental European countries, the degree of doctor is awarded after a period of research sanctioned by a doctoral thesis and a public défense. The main criteria for the award of PhD are that you have conducted independent and original scientific research and that you are capable to present this research orally and in writing.

As per arrangements when you first register at your university, you may allowed to submit your thesis in English but you may also be expected to submit an abstract in the official language of your university. So even if you conduct most of your PhD in English, you are advised to undertake language tuition so you can fulfil this requirement, but also interact more effectively with your research colleagues and in your everyday life.

In Belgium, a PhD usually takes four to six years, sometimes even longer, in particular if you are employed by the University as a research or teaching assistant.

As a PhD student, your main activity will be to do research, mostly on your own project. However, you may be expected (and it might be compulsory to do so) to be involved in teaching, either by teaching directly, marking papers or supervising dissertation students. Other activities will include attending conferences, giving presentations and publishing scientific papers.

In Belgium, doctoral education is supported by a strong network of doctoral/graduate schools and all of them will deliver doctoral training programmes to support you as an early career researcher and to prepare you for your future career (in or outside of academia). Participation may be simply encouraged (actually it should be part of your own personal development plan) but some universities have a requirement for doctoral students to gain a minimum number of credits through formal courses so check what the regulations are at your institution and your faculty.

Erasmus Mundus Joint-Doctorates and other joint-PhDs will have their own structure and doctoral training programmes delivered in collaboration between all the universities partnering in the delivery of those PhDs.

During your research, you will be supervised at least one supervisor, 'promotor' in Dutch (although it is common practice to have two supervisors, or more for joint-PhD).

Fees and scholarships

Tuition fees

PhD fees, sometimes referred to as enrolment (or first enrolment) fees are generally nominal and equivalent to an admin fee. They are sometimes displayed as enrolment fee and défense fee separately but generally equate to a total which can range from €580-835.
Other costs which you may have to take into account:

Research funding

Self-funded students are really rare in Belgium and PhD candidates are generally funded through their university or through an external scholarship, as it is expected that funds to cover research costs will be available to you. If you are supported by your university, you are likely to be offered an employment contract which will come with a monthly income. This means you will have to pay tax (and get a work permit if relevant). For example, you may be offered an assistant (Assisterend Academisch Personeel / AAP) role which will involve teaching and working on your PhD research.

Scholarships

  • BAP OZR: funding through a research project of the Research Council (OZR) or through a research project of your promotor.
  • Research Foundation – Flanders (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek - Vlaanderen or FWO for short!) PhD Fellowships.

For prospective and existing PhD students in Flemish universities, this fellowship is awarded to around 200 PhD students on the basis of the quality of proposed research. Applicants must have recommendations from their supervisor and be from Belgium or EU countries; or if a non-EU national, applicants must hold a first degree from an EU country.

As above but for clinicians, veterinary surgeons, dentists and pharmacist to be released part-time from clinical duties and to undertake research leading to a PhD.

  • FWO PhD projects held by your promotor.
  • FWO travel and conference grants.
  • Institute for the promotion of Innovation by Science and Technology in Flanders (IWT).

IWT provides postgraduate research grants which are available to academics who can apply for funding. Similarly, IWT offers funding for PhD projects in collaboration with industry (the project is called Baekeland mandate).

Similar to FWO, with which it sometimes offers co-funded PhD scholarships, this organisation offers PhD funding for student in Flemish universities.

Innoviris is the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation. They provide PhD scholarships under their Doctiris scheme which aims to finance doctoral projects carried out in collaboration with an industrial partner.

Entry requirements and admission

For entry into a PhD, students are expected to hold a Masters degree, preceded by four years of undergraduate studies, or the equivalent of a minimum of 300 ECTS, or its international equivalent.

English is sometimes the working language in research settings in language but universities may require that you may have to demonstrate language proficiency, in France or Dutch/Flemish, either by showing you have studied in that language previously or through a language certificate.

Application process

Before you complete the formal application forms you will have to find a supervisor willing to take you on as a doctoral student. There are two ways to do that:

  • Apply for an advertised funded project.
  • Research academics who have relevant expertise in an area in which you want to do your PhD. This means that you must have at least a strong idea or research question for your doctoral research.

You will then be expected to find funding to support your doctoral research. This may be through your supervisor, university scholarships (which almost always require a letter of recommendation from your proposed supervisor) or external scholarships. Some universities will accept your application if you have applied for scholarships but have not received confirmation yet.
Once you have this in place, you should fill in the application form, online or by downloading the documentation and sending it back by email. In addition to the form, you are likely to have to provide:

  • An official copy of your qualifications and transcripts.
  • A translation of these documents into Dutch, French, German or English by an accredited translator.
  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Proof of Dutch / English proficiency, depending on the programme that you are applying for.
  • References/recommendation letters.
  • Your research proposal (if relevant).

Your application will then be assessed by a central office to ensure you meet all the minimum entry requirements. It is then sent to the faculty/school which will assess the academic quality and suitability of your application in relation to your programme of choice.
If successful you will receive a letter of admission which is necessary for you to:

  • Apply for a visa (if relevant).
  • Finalise scholarship applications (if they require an offer of admission).
  • Complete your enrolment before or at registration.

Careers and employment

Employability and employment is at the heart of Belgian higher education and postgraduate degrees are designed to prepare you for the job market. Most universities will host careers fairs, often in the Spring, ahead of graduation and the end of the academic year. Other universities will have guest lecturers from your professional sector and/or specialist career counsellor. Whatever is available, you are recommended to take full advantage of it.
Remember also that Belgium, or more specifically, Brussels is the centre of European law, politics, lobbying, administration and research. Many organisations, research or not, have their headquarters there so it is worth considering these in your job searches. Proximity to other European countries and the recognition of quality education in Belgium mean that you’ll also have opportunities in neighbouring countries, in particular if your stay in Belgium has given you language skills beyond your mother tongue.

PhD programmes in Belgium

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

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