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PhD Study in Estonia - A Guide for 2019

Estonia has a well-earned reputation for innovation and technological excellence, and studying a PhD in this Baltic nation represents a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of its dynamic research landscape.

An Estonian PhD will equip you with the tools to succeed as a researcher in any number of fields, with English-language programmes available in plenty of disciplines. And, to make Estonia even more appealing – there aren’t any tuition fees for doctoral programmes, regardless of your nationality.

This page will give you an introduction to PhD study in Estonia, covering essentials like funding, visas, the university system and visas.

PhD opportunities in Estonia – what’s on offer for 2019?

Estonia might be a small (and relatively young) nation, but it punches well above its weight in terms of technology and start-ups, playing an important role in the development of companies like Skype and TransferWise.

One important aspect of Estonia’s national identity is its commitment to the idea of a ‘digital society’ – the Estonian government has long invested in digital solutions for its citizens, becoming the first country in the world to enable electronic voting. Nowadays, many important services in Estonia can be conducted entirely online.

Studying a PhD in Estonia is a fantastic chance to immerse yourself in its innovative start-up culture – who knows, perhaps your own research will eventually lead to the creation of a successful tech company like Skype?

These are just a handful of the reasons you should consider pursuing doctoral study in Estonia this year:

  • No tuition fees! – Regardless of your nationality, you won’t pay any tuition fees for an Estonian PhD and scholarships are often available to help with other expenses.
  • Innovative environment – The beautiful capital of Tallinn is one of the most dynamic and welcoming cities for start-ups in Europe.
  • Quality of life – In addition to its low cost of living, Estonia scores highly on several quality of life metrics.
  • Location – Situated at the crossroads of Northern Europe, Estonia is a great place from which to explore the other Baltic countries, the Nordic region and Russia – whether for research or recreation!

PhD Study in Estonia - Key Details
Universities 7
Oldest University University of Tartu (1632)
International Students 3,476
PhD Length 4 years
Representative Fees None
Academic Year September to June

PhD life in Estonia

Want to know more about life for international PhD students in Estonia? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.

Estonian universities

The higher education sector in Estonia is relatively small, with six public universities and one private university. Doctoral students will enrol at one of these research-centric universities.

There are also 13 professional higher education institutions that offer more vocational qualifications.

Estonia is a member of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and its universities follow the Bologna Process, which means that PhDs are considered ‘third-cycle qualifications’ – just like elsewhere in Europe and many countries worldwide. As such, you’ll need a Bachelors and a Masters to be able to apply for a PhD in Estonia.

Doctoral schools

Some doctoral schools in Estonia are led by inter-university consortia, generally offering interdisciplinary PhDs that encourage cooperation between universities – both within the country and internationally.

Estonian university cities

Estonia’s seven universities are based in its two biggest cities: Tallinn and Tartu. Tallinn is the financial and political centre of Tallinn, combining a fairy-tale, UNESCO-listed Old Town with ultra-modern architecture.

By contrast, Tartu is considered the cultural centre of Estonia, home to the country’s oldest university and a thriving student population.

PhD structure

Most Estonian PhDs will take four years to complete, consisting of 240 ECTS credits. During the PhD, you’ll be expected to complete an extended, original research project, as well as certain professional development modules. You may also have the opportunity to do some teaching within your department and take part in seminars.

At Estonian universities, PhDs usually follow into one of the following two categories:

  • Advertised projects – More common in STEM subjects, you’ll be expected to work on a pre-defined research project. These PhDs are typically more structured in format.
  • Self-proposed projects – This is where you submit and work on your own research project.

As part of their drive towards internationalisation, universities in Estonia are offering increasing numbers of English-language PhDs – you can find links to these programmes on the official Study in Estonia website.

Supervisors

You’ll typically be assigned a supervisor by the relevant university department, who will offer their expertise and guidance during your research. If you’re proposing your own research project, this may be the academic who you contact with your research proposal during the applications process.

Assessment and examination

A four-year Estonian PhD is usually worth 240 ECTS credits. The breakdown of these credits is normally along these lines:

  • Specialty courses – 36 credits
  • University-wide elective courses – 12 credits
  • Optional courses – 12 credits
  • Research project / doctoral thesis – 180 credits

As you’d expect, the doctoral thesis plays an important role in your PhD. It’ll be assessed on its originality, technical competence and the extent to which it answers your research question. You may also have to give a presentation based on your research findings.

Fees and funding

As we’ve already covered, there are no tuition fees for PhDs in Estonia, which is great news – you won’t have to pay anything, no matter what your nationality is and whether you’re an EU citizen or not.

Scholarships

There are lots of different scholarships and funding options for PhD students in Estonia, aiming to encourage the brightest and best research students from around the world to study in this vibrant country.

These are some of the funding opportunities on offer:

  • Doctoral allowance – PhD students in Estonia can claim a monthly payment of €660 from the Estonian Government. You should apply for this through your prospective university.
  • Doctoral student’s performance stipend – Worth €400 a month, this is paid alongside the doctoral allowance. You’ll need to satisfy certain academic performance-related criteria and it’s only available for 48 months.
  • Doctoral stipend (smart specialisation) – If your research relates to ICT, health technology or resource management (or another ‘smart specialisation’ growth area), you could apply for a doctoral speciality scholarship worth €440 a month.

Visiting doctoral students in Estonia can apply for a Dora Plus scholarship of €660 a month, payable for 10 months.

Applying for a PhD in Estonia

PhD applications in Estonia are processed through the country’s centralised DreamApply system, rather than the universities themselves. The deadline for applications is usually between June and July for PhDs beginning in September, but it varies from institution to institution.

Entry requirements

When applying for a PhD in Estonia, you’ll need to show that you satisfy some typical entry requirements and provide relevant documentation. This is what you’ll usually need to supply:

  • A completed application form
  • Two or three passport-sized photos
  • An academic CV
  • Certified copies of your academic qualifications (Bachelors and Masters)
  • A copy of your passport (or another ID document)
  • A research proposal
  • Proof of English language proficiency
  • An application fee

You may also have to take part in an entrance interview, either in person or via Skype.

Your research proposal is an important part of the application process and you can expect to be quizzed regarding its feasibility and your research methods during the interview.

Language requirements

You’ll need to show that proficient in the English in order to study a PhD in Estonia (sometimes even when you’ll be studying in Estonian!).

There are exceptions if you’re a native speaker or if you’ve already studied in English at a university in an English-speaking country (or, indeed, in another EU / EEA country).

These are the standards you’ll typically have to meet if you’re taking an English language test:

  • TOEFL iBT – 75
  • IELTS – 5.5
  • Cambridge English – B2 First, C1 Advanced or C2 Proficiency
  • Pearson Test of English Academic – 29

In general, you’ll need at least B2 proficiency in English according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Student visas

If you’re an EU citizen, you should apply for a temporary right of residence within three months of your arrival in Estonia. You can do this by visiting your local government authority and registering your address in Estonia. Within one month of doing this, you’ll also need to apply for an Estonian ID card.

Non-EU nationals

Non-EU citizens (this includes EEA and Swiss nationals) should apply for a temporary residence permit for study from their nearest Estonian embassy or consul. You’ll usually need to bring the following documents with you:

  • Completed application form
  • Confirmation that you have health insurance and enough money to support yourself
  • Identification
  • One digital passport-sized photo
  • A letter of acceptance from your university

Once you’ve arrived in Estonia, you’ll need to register your address with the local government authority.

For more information, please visit the Estonian Government’s page on residence permits for study.

Next steps

Studying a PhD in Estonia is a fantastic opportunity to experience one of the world’s most cutting-edge digital societies. And, with the Estonian government keen to retain talented international students, there are great post-PhD possibilities – particularly if you’re a wannabe entrepreneur. Estonia prides itself on the fact that it only takes around 20 minutes to found a company here.

on-EU students can stay in Estonia for up to nine months after finishing their PhDs and can use this time to look for a job and apply for a temporary residence permit for work.

Find a PhD in Estonia

Decided that Estonia is the right destination for your PhD? Why not get started browsing some Estonian PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 01/11/2019

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