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PhD Study in the Netherlands - A Guide for 2019

The Netherlands has one of the most impressive and prestigious university systems in Europe. It’s also a country that has developed and shared rich traditions of artistic, cultural and scientific achievement.

PhD study in the Netherlands is a popular choice for many students looking to tap into this culture of open-mindedness, innovation and international exchange of ideas. The country’s multicultural and multilingual population also means that most of its doctoral programmes are taught in English.

This page covers everything you’ll need to know about doctoral research in the Netherlands. It includes important up-to-date information about the Dutch university system, the structure of a typical Dutch PhD programme and key facts for fees, funding and visa requirements.

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

Dutch universities have an impressive reputation and are a popular destination for many PhD students. The Netherland’s university system dates back to the 16th century and boasts many famous artists, thinkers and scientists.

Doctoral researchers are highly regarded by Dutch universities, which offer many benefits for international students:

  • Employee status – most PhD students in the Netherlands are paid university employees, with associated rights and responsibilities such as formal teaching
  • International student population – the Netherlands has a proud tradition of international exchange, with around 10% of students coming from abroad
  • Historic university system – the Netherlands has several universities dating back to the 16th century
  • Global recognition – 12 Dutch universities are ranked in the top 200 in the world for 2019

In addition, Holland is perhaps the only country in which PhD students defend their thesis accompanied by ceremonial bodyguards (no, really).


PhD Study in the Netherlands - Key Details
Universities 70
Nobel Prizes 21
Oldest University Leiden University (1575)
International Students 89,920
PhD Length 4 years
Representative Fees n/a*
Academic Year September to August

*Most PhD researchers are paid employees and do not pay traditional tuition fees

Dutch universities

There are three main types of higher education institution in the Netherlands. As a PhD student you’re most likely to be studying at a Dutch research university, but the three categories are as follows:

  • Research universities – are the main academic institutions for PhD-level research, with advanced facilities and expert faculty available to train doctoral students
  • Universities of applied sciences – or HBO institutions (hogescholen) specialise in practical Arts and Sciences, but do not offer PhD programmes
  • Institutes for international education – are a smaller sector of higher education designed particularly for international students focusing on intercultural knowledgeexchange; currently, only the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education offers a PhD programme

Although Dutch PhD programmes are offered by research universities, your study will take place in dedicated Graduate Schools (associated with an individual university) or Research Schools (often formed by a consortium of institutions to pursue ongoing projects and areas of investigation).

Dutch university cities

There are several cities in the Netherlands with one or more universities and large numbers of students:

Dutch university rankings

The universities of the Netherlands are globally recognised and renowned, and this is reflected in international university league tables. Dutch universities are found in the upper reaches of the three major university world rankings, with 12 in the top 200 for 2019.


Top 5 Dutch Universities in 2019
University THE 2019 QS 2019 ARWU 2018
Delft University of Technology 58 52 151-200
Wageningen University of Research =59 125 101-150
University of Amsterdam 62 57 101-150
Leiden University 68 =122 74
Erasmus University Rotterdam 70 179 79
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

PhD structure

A doctoral programme in the Netherlands is a research-focussed third-cycle qualification, as defined by the Bologna process. Like in the UK, Dutch doctoral research is carried out on a specific topic and documented in the form of a thesis that presents the student’s original results and conclusions.

Employee status

Most PhD candidates will be classified as employed professional researchers, and therefore paid a salary during their doctorates. In return, you will be required to fulfil various duties as a researcher and contribute to your institution’s academic work and operations. This is likely to involve teaching responsibilities as well as other responsibilities.

PhD length

A Dutch PhD lasts for a minimum of four years. This is partly due to your employee status as a doctoral researcher and the additional teaching and administrative responsibilities that this entails.

Doctoral researchers that are not formally associated with a university (i.e. external doctoral candidates) may take longer to complete their studies.

Supervision

PhD students have a supervisor, who is an expert academic university professor, responsible for overseeing your research and thesis writing. They will also need to approve your final thesis for submission.

Depending on the specific structure and requirements of your doctoral programme, this supervision may involve regular progress checks and formal review points. You may also have a co-supervisor.

Provisional supervision

Unlike in other countries, a Dutch PhD supervisor’s position is technically provisional during your doctorate until they are officially appointed before the ceremonial viva defence, where they will play a key role.

PhD defence ceremony

A unique aspect of the Dutch PhD is the ceremonial thesis defence. This serves a similar purpose to the UK viva voce examination. However, it is a much more ceremonial process and can be quite different to other PhD assessments.

All participants, including yourself, will be required to wear full academic dress and use formal specific titles and terms of address. The ceremony is opened and closed by an officer of the university, called the beadle (or pedel), who does so using a ceremonial mace. You will also be allowed to be accompanied by two supporters (paranimfen) who traditionally acted as bodyguards if things got heated, but in modern times provide moral support and practical assistance.

During the thesis defence, you will be assessed by an appointed Doctoral Committee of at least three academics (if more, still an odd number) to determine whether your thesis is worthy of awarding a doctorate. These may be made up of a professor, or ‘most learned opponent’ (hoggeleerde opponent), or a post-doctorate academic, or ‘learned opponent’ (zeergeleerde opponent). You could also be asked questions by other invited individuals.

The Doctoral Committee must give their decision within five weeks of receiving your thesis. Therefore, the committee will usually have already made their decision and the thesis defence process is mostly ceremonial.

PhD candidates are normally expected to have published at least a part of their thesis prior to submission and examination.

Accreditation

Dutch PhD degrees are awarded directly by each individual university. The universities are responsible for the quality and content of your doctoral training. However, quality assurance for the PhD process is overseen by The Netherlands and Flemish Accreditation Organisation (NVAO).

Fees and funding

Many Dutch doctoral programmes do not charge traditional tuition fees due to students being employed as professional researchers. Where they are required, PhD tuition fees in the Netherlands are generally comparable to those across the rest of the EU. The fees remain the same for EU / EEA and Swiss-national students. There are also several national and university-specific funding opportunities available for prospective international doctoral researchers.

Dutch PhD fees

Most PhD students in the Netherlands are considered as university employees, and therefore receive a salary to fund their research. Therefore, there are no traditional tuition fees for doctoral candidates or doctoral fellows.

However, there are other types of doctoral candidates that may not be considered as university employees. These are:

  • contract doctoral research associates have their research sponsored by an external source such as a scholarship or external employer
  • external doctoral candidates are self-funded and work on their PhD research in their free time

These PhD students will usually have to pay some form of tuition. The specific fee to be paid can be variable and depends upon the research institution, the research itself, and the length of study.

Regardless of whether you have employee status or not, you may still be required to pay statutory fees to cover supplementary costs for supervision, examination, administration and university access. The specific cost of these varies with individual universities and research disciplines.

Dutch PhD funding

A selection of scholarships for PhD degrees are available. The following are good places to look for further information:

  • Nuffic – The Dutch Organisation for Internationalisation in Education
  • Study in Holland – an initiative of Nuffic
  • Euraxess – an organisation that promotes academic mobility in Europe

Individual universities also offer funding options for their students. You can find what PhD funding is available on their websites.

Applying for a PhD in the Netherlands

The PhD application process in the Netherlands is similar to the process in the UK but can differ in some key ways. You can find information on contact details by browsing PhDs in the Netherlands, or by visiting university websites directly. Because PhD candidates are employed doctoral researchers, you may also find PhD positions listed as jobs.

Admission requirements

In the Netherlands, a standard requirement for PhD admission is holding a Masters degree in a relevant subject area.

As a member of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the Netherlands will readily recognise a Masters degree from other European countries. Many equivalent foreign qualifications may also be recognised – you can check your degree equivalency at Nuffic (The Dutch Organisation for Internationalisation in Education) or at your prospective university’s website.

Any other admission criteria will be set by your prospective university and can vary depending on the specific institution and research discipline. Due to the status of Dutch PhD researchers as university employees, you may also be required to undergo additional application processes and submit more application documents than a typical PhD student. These could include a personal statement, CV, and strong academic and / or professional references.

PhD entry requirements

The general eligibility criteria for PhD applications in the Netherlands is similar to most other countries in the EU. Our guide explains entry requirements for a prospective PhD student.

Language requirements

Most PhD programmes in the Netherlands are taught in English, and non-native English speakers will be required to present satisfactory scores in English language tests. The typical scores required are below.

Test Score Requirement
Computer-Based TOEFL 213
Paper-Based TOEFL 550
IELTS Minimum of 6.0

It is also possible to study a PhD programme taught in Dutch. In this case, you may be required to present satisfactory scores of Dutch language tests. Even if your studies are in English, it may be beneficial to learn some Dutch to simplify daily life and communication with fellow Dutch researchers.

Application process

The Dutch academic year runs from September to August. The application deadline for most study programmes is 1 May. However, because PhD programmes are less dependent on coursework and exams, the application deadlines are usually flexible and should be checked with your research institution of choice.

Many university degree applications can be made through the Dutch higher education portal Studielink, which requires you to register an account and allows you to submit your application data electronically. This is similar to the UCAS system for UK undergraduate students. The platform can also arrange the payment of tuition fees.

However, for many PhD programmes you will need to apply directly to your prospective university. The application process can differ depending on the specific research institution – you should always check the application procedure on the university’s website.

Applying for a PhD

PhD applications in the Netherlands will require additional application documents and processes. These are similar to those in the UK. Our guide explains PhD applications for a prospective PhD student.

Student visas

The Netherlands is a multicultural, multilingual and cosmopolitan country that welcomes immigration applications from a range of countries. Students from elsewhere in the EU and EEA won’t normally need a visa to study at Dutch universities. International students from elsewhere will normally need to arrange entry visas, study permits and other materials.

If you do require a visa, your university will need to support your application. They should contact you to assist with this once you have enrolled. If this is not the case, you can contact your host institution’s HR department and / or international office for relevant information.

Applying for an entry visa

If you are an EU / EEA / Swiss national, you will not require a visa for PhD study in the Netherlands. You can freely enter and leave the country and travel during your degree. Citizens of some selected other countries may also be exempt from requiring a visa – a full list is available from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND).

Other international students will require a long-stay entry visa (MVV). Your university will usually apply for this on your behalf and you will be able to collect it from a Dutch Embassy or Consulate in your home country before you travel. Depending on the specific conditions of your visa, you may be restricted to travel within the Netherlands, neighbouring countries (e.g. Belgium and France) or most European countries.

Applying for a residence permit

EU / EEA and Swiss citizens do not require a residence permit to study in the Netherlands, and do not need to report to the IND.

Other international students need to apply for a Provisional Residence Permit for study (VVR) from the IND. The application and its costs are usually competed by your university on your behalf and you will be able to collect it from a Dutch Embassy or Consulate in your home country before you travel. The residence permit is valid for the duration of your doctoral programme plus three months, for a maximum of five years. However, you can apply for an extension.

Registration with the local Dutch council

All foreign students, including EU nationals, must register with the local Dutch council of residence upon arrival in the country. The exact regulations can vary with different councils. You will be registered in the Personal Records Database (BRP) and be given a Citizen Service Number (BSN) by the IND. You will normally need to present proof of identity (passport and certified copy of your birth certificate) and a record of your accommodation in the Netherlands.

EU / EEA / Swiss students will do this after registration with the IND by their university. Other international students will need to do so after receiving their entry visa and residence permit.

Health Insurance

To study in the Netherlands, by law you must have health insurance for the duration of your PhD.

EU / EEA students will normally be covered by the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This entitles you to healthcare in the Netherlands.

Non-EU / EEA students will need to be insured with a health insurer of your home country (that is valid in the Netherlands) or take out private international health insurance. Doctoral candidate from some countries may need to undergo a medical test for tuberculosis (TB) with the Area Health Authority (GGD) within three months of receiving a residence permit. More information is available from the IND.

Travel document validity

All of the following documentation only retains its validity if you are continuing your PhD studies – discontinuation of your doctoral programme for any reason will require you to apply for updated or additional travel documents.

Next steps

The Netherlands holds the research performed by its universities in high regard, and the country and its academics have an excellent track record in world research. As a doctoral graduate from a Dutch university you’ll be an attractive and very employable researcher.

A Dutch PhD also provides professional experience of working more formally within higher education. Receiving your PhD in the Netherlands is an impressive academic qualification and an excellent gateway into further academic research.

Many Dutch research universities also have strong links with business and industry, offering additional professional training and partnerships.

Can I work in the Netherlands after my PhD?

EU / EEA and Swiss nationals do not require a residence permit or work permit (TWV) to work in the Netherlands after doctoral study – a valid passport or ID card is sufficient. You will need to maintain your residence registration.

Other international students will need to apply for an Orientation Year residence permit. To do so, you must be registered in the Personal Records Database (BRP), have a Citizen Service Number (BSN), and pay a fee of €285. To remain in the country for more than one year, you can apply for a longer term residence with the Netherlands’ Highly Skilled Migrant Permit.

Find a PhD in the Netherlands

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in the Netherlands? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 30/11/2018

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