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PhD Programs in Italy

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Studying in Italy, like most study abroad experiences, is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your education and career. It’s not just the living experience, beautiful food, great fashion, historic buildings and good weather that students benefit from. No, it's the high-quality education is what attracts international students to study in Italy.

You can do a research degree in all Italian universities (there are no “non-research universities”) in a broad range of subjects. It is an in-depth enquiry in your chosen field conducted under the expert guidance of experts, many of them come from overseas too. In addition to having an affordable tuition fee regime, Italy is also home to world renowned arts institutions, multi-nationals and well-known research institutes and companies (notably in the pharmaceutical industry). The other thing to mention about the Italian higher education sector is that it benefits from a very strong engagement with European institutions and with partners in the rest of Europe.

Universities in Italy have existed for centuries (actually some of the oldest universities in the world are in Italy; the University of Bologna was founded in 1088) so you may find it surprising is that the “Dottorato di ricerca” (the Italian equivalent of a PhD), is a relatively recent addition to the Italian academic landscape, having been introduced in 1980. Before that the PhD equivalent was the Diploma di Perfezionamento (the “specialisation” diploma) which was the continuation of a specific five - six year degree (designed to be the preparation for a research degree).

The Italian Higher Education system

Being perfectly vetted to the European higher education system, Italy introduced the three-cycle structure in 1999: first cycle (“Laurea”: three years), second cycle (“Laurea specialistica” or “Laurea magistrale” (two years) and the third cycle as Research Doctorate (“Dottorato di Ricierca”). This system called “the Bologna process” aims to create a common higher education area in Europe allowing for an easier credit transfer (called ECTS) and qualification recognition framework within Europe and beyond.

Most universities in Italy are public universities, all undertaking research activity. There are around 90 of them, ranging from very large institutions hosting around 100,000 students to much smaller specialist institutions of a few thousand students. Public universities are all autonomous and decide their own priorities and administration. All senior academics and research staff in public universities are expected to carry out high level research, and universities are evaluated on their research by an independent body.

There are a few private universities in Italy. If you decide to choose a private university, make sure it is recognised by the Italian Ministry of Education. State-recognised private universities offer the same standard of education and their qualifications carry the same recognition as those from the public universities. The main difference is in the way these institutions are funded and as a consequence, the tuition fees they charge (which tend to be higher – see the tuition fee section below).

Research is also carried out in laboratories and structures linked to the National Research Council and the Superior Higher Education Schools which are research-focussed but deliver doctoral degrees. These are:

  • Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane di Firenze (SUM).
  • Scuola IMT (istituzioni, mercati, tecnologie) alti studi di Lucca.
  • Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia (IUSS).
  • Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.
  • Scuola Superiore “S. Anna” di studi universitari e di perfezionamento.
  • Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati di Trieste (SISSA).

PhD structure

An Italian PhD is normally three - four years in duration (the fourth year may require permission). PhD students tend to receive their training within “Doctoral Schools”, which offer specialist training in your relevant subject area and also provide opportunities to gain transferable skills. PhD students work on an individual research project in close collaboration with their supervisor(s) in the framework of the Doctoral School.

The main activity for a PhD student will be to conduct research along with attending seminars. No ECTS credits are given during the third cycle, although approximately one semester (30 ECTS) of coursework is usually part of a doctorate. Throughout the period of research, students are guided and mentored by the experts in the field they have chosen.

To obtain a doctorate in Italy, a PhD student (called “doctoral candidate”) will have to produce a thesis (around 100,000 words) based on original research and of “publishable” standard as well as defending this thesis in front of a panel comprising of experts in the field.

If you are coming to Italy as part of an Erasmus Mundus programme, the workload associated with coursework may be higher as the programme may include a common curriculum for all students in the first year of the doctorate before starting the research project as well as a PhD-long programme of seminars, summer schools and tutorials.

Lingua franca: Italian or English?

Research in Italy is normally carried out in Italian (there are Italian language courses for international students), however some programmes are delivered in English, and it is often possible for international students to use English or other languages for their thesis by prior arrangement.

Italian universities offering courses taught in English:

University of Bologna

University of Florence

University of Genoa

Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi - Milan

University of Milan

University of Napes "Federico II"

University of Rome "La Sapienza"

LUISS Guido Carli - Rome

University of Palermo

University of Pavia

Polytechnic of Turin

University of Venice "Ca' Foscari"

University of Verona

University of Salento


Academic calendar

The academic year in Italy starts from the end of September or beginning of October until July. Generally, a semester system is followed by universities; semester one starts in September/October and ends in January/February. The second semester starts in February and ends in July.

Entry requirements

Within the Bologna three-cycle framework only holders of second-cycle degrees (ie. Masters degrees) can apply to pursue a PhD degree, even if you come from a country, such as the UK or Ireland, where it may be common practice for Bachelor holders to go straight into a PhD.

You may also have to sit a competitive or entrance exam to gain admission into university in Italy. Candidates are ranked on the basis of their exam performance and then assigned a place on the PhD programme. If you are applying for an international doctoral programme or an Erasmus Mundus joint-PhD programme, there may be no entrance examination. Universities may therefore reserve places for international students who will be selected on the basis of their application. Most PhD applicants will also have to go through an interview process. In all cases, admission is very competitive and positions are restricted to a limited number of applicants, regardless of where they are from.

More often than not if you want to do a PhD in Italy, you will have to demonstrate a good command of Italian (not least if you wish to sit the entrance exam which is in Italian). Universities will ask for an Italian proficiency certificate (Link to Italian qual article when it's up)

Application procedure

It is advisable to start your search for a PhD programme in Italy at least 12 months before your proposed start date. The documentation required generally includes:

  • All transcripts and diplomas (and translations, if applicable).
  • A full CV.
  • Two or three references.
  • A project proposal which interestingly, may not be just about the research but more about your attributes, why you are the best person for the PhD programme and what your career aspirations are. Check what your university requires.
  • A health insurance certificate, if you are from outside the EU.

Evidence of previous qualifications (diplomas and transcripts) will need to be submitted with an Italian translation, although some universities accept documents in English and French, and you may have to submit these documents after converting the marks or grades obtained in your home country in accordance with the grading system that is followed in Italy. NARIC can help with degree and grade equivalences.

If you are applying for a “standard” PhD at a public university (and therefore required to sit the national entrance examination), you will have to go through a number of administrative steps which may look something like this:

  • Check the closing dates on your university’s website and make sure you allow plenty time to submit your application in time.
  • Contact your nearest Italian consulate or embassy and fill up the application for the PhD degree in your chosen university. All the necessary documents are to be provided to the consulate (translated in Italian and stamped by competent authorities, such as a lawyer, of your home country).
  • The consulate’s staff will scan your application and supporting documents and provide you with a letter which is required for enrolment as well as a student number and an account, required to register for the admission examination held in Italy (see the “entry requirements” section above).
  • You may be required to submit further documentation but this is subject to your succeeding at the competitive examination. As the medium of language of these exams is Italian, you will have to provide a language proficiency certificate before being allowed to sit the admission examination.

For international programmes, those which involve a university’s own entrance examination or Erasmus Mundus PhDs, the procedure is generally online and you will be able to submit all the documentation required. It is very similar to applying for a PhD in the UK, Australia or Sweden. In addition, you are strongly advised to contact prospective supervisors to get agreement in principle to they are willing to take you as a supervisee.

Tuition fees and finances

Many of the universities and other higher education institutions in Italy establish their own fee structure and fee levels vary from university to university. However, there is a legal minimum fee for enrolment and maximum level for student contributions to costs and services, which cannot exceed 20% of state funding. Tuition fees range from € 850 to € 1,000/year. Private universities will be much more expensive than the government-funded universities.

You may also have to pay an application fee and if you are taking the national entrance examination, there will be an additional fee (around €50).

Your university may have what is called a “Diritto Allo Studio Universitario” or students’ office which manages all student academic services as well as extracurricular activities, sports, transport, and other matters. Note that there will be a fee for you to have access to sports or other facilities.

Financial support

Student assistance in terms of scholarships, student loans, housing assistance, university restaurant meal tickets, and fee waivers are provided to both international and Italian students. Financial assistance is means-tested and you will have to provide bank statements (your own and/or your parents’/spouse’s) or tax returns to demonstrate your financial needs.

Scholarships (from Italian organisations/institutions and overseas sources):

  • Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for overseas students.
  • University research centres and public research bodies
  • A number of research organisations such as the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), Istituto Nazionale per la Fisica della Materia (INFM) and Ente Nazionale per le Nuove Tecnologie, l’Energia e l’Ambiente (ENEA) also offer funding for PhD students.
  • Bursaries from individual institutions
    • Search for current PhD Opportunities in Italy in the FindAPhD database.
    • Politecnico of Turin for a Master in Navigation and Related Applications (MNA) offered to students from developing countries or countries with economy in transition.
    • “Roma Capitale” and other organisations for foreign students of Roman Law and Eastern Mediterranean Law at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”.
    • European College of Parma Foundation:  Diploma and Master in Advanced European Studies– Interdisciplinary Programme on the Process of European Integration.
    • “Foundation Alfredo Aristide Cagnoli” for students from People’s Rep. of China and/or from India.
    • Instituto Superiore di Design for foreign students and Italians residing abroad
  • The Council on International Educational Exchange have grants available for American students to study abroad:
  • Fund for Education Abroad

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