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PhD Programs in Portugal

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in Portugal?

Though situated at the edge of Europe, Portugal has always played a central role in its intellectual and cultural history whilst also looking outward to the rest of the globe. Portuguese trade and exploration were fundamental to the development of the modern world and continue to connect the country with Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) nations and communities across Asia, Africa and South America. As a PhD student in Portugal today you will have the opportunity to draw upon from this heritage of discovery and intellectual exchange as the country's global connections are capable of enhancing projects in fields as diverse as comparative literature, international relations and marine biology.

Higher education is also a subject of pride and celebration within Portugal itself. The Universidade de Coimbra, founded in 1290, was one of Europe's first universities and its campus is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coimbra also originated the quiema das ftas, or 'burning of the ribbons': an annual festival celebrating student life. Today Coimbra is just one of several Portuguese universities performing well in various international ranking tables.

Portugal's cultural heritage and higher education traditions help explain why it already attracts plenty of international students (with over 10% of enrolments at Portuguese universities originating from overseas). Of course, there's also something to be said for other aspects of Portugal's international appeal. As a PhD student in the country you'll have the chance to spend several years living and working in a Mediterranean climate, amongst the beautiful medieval architecture of cities like Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra.

The Portuguese university system

Higher education in Portugal draws upon an established network of institutions and infrastructure whilst also adopting European standards established by the Bologna Process. As such, Portuguese degrees operate within a three-cycle structure and utilise the European Credit Transfer system (ECTS) to structure and weight course components. This means that a PhD in Portugal offers you the chance to benefit from established specialisms and expertise in a modern, internationally recognised format.


Image Credits (top-bottom): Martin Robson; Fracois Philipp; Hom26; Jairo.

Varieties of higher education institution in Portugal

There are two broad types of higher education provider in Portugal. University (universidade) institutions undertake research, whilst polytechnics (politénico) focus upon applied knowledge and professional training. Both are respected in their particular areas of expertise, but, as a PhD student you will only be able to study at a universidade as politénico do not award doctoral (doutoramento) qualifications.

Portuguese universidade may be either public or private institutions. The most significant differences between the two are a tighter regulation of fees and student numbers at public universidade.

International campuses have yet to become established in Portugal, but some domestic institutions operate within the MIT Portugal Programme, which pools faculty and expertise to develop areas of interest to Portuguese higher education strategy.

Accreditation and regulation

All universidade and politénico are regulated according to the same process. This involves initial approval of programmes by the independent Agency for Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Education (A3ES) before official recognition can be granted by the Directorate-General for Higher Education (DGES), a branch of the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education. This two stage process is highly valued within Portugal for its ability to undertake a non-partisan assessment of higher education whilst maintaining legislative responsibility for its quality and success.

Course structure

The Portuguese academic year

The Portuguese academic year is made up of two semesters, with holiday periods based around traditional seasonal and religious festivals. A Christmas vacation lasting around a fortnight takes place across December and January and a few days of holiday are usually allotted to the Carnival celebration that precedes Lent. Easter is celebrated with a two-week holiday and the year usually finishes with a long summer vacation (or férias grandes) between June and September. In addition, where the quiema das fitas festival is celebrated, some institutions may mark the occasion with a short holiday - offering you a great chance to take part in this vibrant celebration of student life!

PhD content and examination in Portugal

There is no minimum period of enrolment for a PhD in Portugal, but you should expect to be registered for around three or four years. Depending on your area of study you may be assigned coursework and research training during the early stages of your doctorate, before commencing work on a doctoral thesis (or its equivalent in practical or creative fields). The production of your research work will be guided by an appointed supervisor. You may be able to choose a supervisor in advance, but some universidade will prefer to assess your needs themselves and assign support accordingly.

The award of your doctorate will ultimately depend upon the successful defence of a thesis. This will usually take place as a public event, rather than through the closed-room examination favoured in countries like the UK. A panel of expert examiners will be appointed to scrutinise your work and investigate your general subject knowledge (the exact number may vary between different institutions, but at least half will usually be external to your university). This public defence may seem like an intimidating challenge when you first consider a PhD, but you should really think of it as one of the unique opportunities offered by study abroad. By the time you're ready to submit, you'll be a formidable expert on your chosen topic and the open examination will allow you to take pride in that expertise in front of peers, friends and family.

Alternative routes to the PhD degree also exist in Portugal, but only apply in specific circumstances. Suitably experienced candidates in all fields may be allowed to submit and defend a thesis without enrolling in a formal programme of supervised study, but this is unlikely to apply to the majority of students proceeding directly from a Masters degree. Options for distance-learning also exist for PhD students in Portugal and are provided by the Open Universidade Aberta. Coursework, supervision and thesis defences for these programmes may all be undertaken online with 'live' sessions arranged remotely, as required.

Language requirements

The majority of university-level teaching in Portugal is carried out in Portuguese, but courses in English are more common at postgraduate level. Appropriate language tests in English or Portuguese may be required on some PhD programmes - particularly those with large amounts of group interaction or written coursework.

Of course, you shouldn't underestimate the value of acquiring some Portuguese language skills, even if these aren't explicitly required by your course. Some knowledge of the local language will definitely make living in Portugal more enjoyable and the three to four years of your PhD will offer plenty of time to benefit from and hone your abilities. Don't forget either that Portuguese is spoken by more people worldwide than any other European language except English and Spanish, so coming out of your PhD with some ability to speak it certainly won't hurt your future career prospects.

Admissions and applications

Applications to study for a PhD in Portugal are made directly to universities. You should aim to apply as far in advance as possible because confirmation of enrolment will be necessary for some visa and residency applications.

Admissions requirements

In order to become a PhD student, or doutorando, in Portugal, you will usually require a Masters degree in a relevant subject area. Foreign qualifications will need to be recognised by your institution. This is usually automatic for degrees from European states participating in the Bologna process, but other degrees may need to be examined by a responsible office within your university.

Competitive applications

Most Portuguese institutions maintain limits on student numbers (a system referred to as 'numerous clausus') in order to encourage a high standard of candidate. A separate quota of places is sometimes maintained for international students, but overseas admissions at some universities may still depend upon competitive ranking relative to other applicants for a specific place. Entrance examinations may also be set at some institutions. As with many features of international study you should see this as an opportunity. Acquiring a competitive place to study for a PhD at a Portuguese university will demonstrate your abilities at an early stage of your research career. You'll also have earned the opportunity to study in a country where student status is respected and celebrated.

Visas and immigration for study in Portugal

Portugal is a member of the European Union and the European Economic Area and a signatory to the Schengen Agreement. This means that immigration procedures are quite relaxed for students from many European countries.

EU citizens, together with those from the EEA and Switzerland, will only need to apply for a registration certificate. This should be obtained within three months of arrival in the country, though an additional 30 day grace period may apply. More information on registration certificates for EU and EEA citizens is available online from the Portuguese government.

If you are a national of a state that is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, you may enter Portugal freely on a Schengen Visa.

Nationals of most other countries will need to apply for a student visa in order to study in the country for more than three months.

Specific requirements for different visas and registration certificates may vary, but you will usually need to provide some or all of the following materials:

  • A valid passport or identity card.
  • Confirmation of enrolment at a Portuguese higher education institution.
  • Evidence of sufficient funds or funding to support you for the duration of your studies.
  • Confirmation of Health Insurance (covered by an international agreement such as the European Health Insurance Card, or through a private policy).
  • Proof that you possess no outstanding criminal convictions.

Visa applications and enquiries should be made at the Portuguese embassy in your normal country of residence. A student visa may take up to the three months to issue, so you should investigate your individual requirements at an early stage of your application to study abroad. Additional advice is available at the website of the Portuguese immigration service.

PhD fees and funding in Portugal


Though the cost of living in Portugal is generally low, its tuition fees are quite expensive. A minimum cost for programmes at public universidade is stipulated by the Portuguese government and maintained in relation to the current minimum wage. Private providers have more freedom to exceed or undercut this base amount.

This means that fees for a PhD in Portugal may vary between different institutions, but you should generally expect to pay between €2,000 and €3,000 ($2,800-4,200) per year of full-time study. EU citizens (together with nationals of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) are not required to pay fees at a higher rate than domestic students, but different rates may apply for non-EU nationals.


Individual universities may offer funding to their students, awarded according to merit or financial requirement. EU nationals should automatically be eligible for these opportunities, but restrictions may apply to other students from overseas. You should be able to find out about potential funding availability and eligibility from your institution.

Opportunities to study in Portugal may also be offered and supported under Erasmus Mundus partnerships and exchanges. You can read more about the Erasmus Mundus programme here.

The Ploteus website, run by the European Commission, may also be able to provide information on funded study opportunities in Portugal.

Careers and employment

The Portuguese government places a great deal of value on employability as an outcome of its university programmes. As a result, all higher education institutions in the country are required to prepare annual reports on measures taken to enhance their graduates' career prospects in and out of academia.

Whatever you choose to do with your PhD, time spent studying overseas in a competitive university system will enhance several areas of your CV. If you take the opportunity to learn Portuguese you will also benefit from being able to speak a world language, rendering you attractive to employers in Lusophone regions around the world (including large emerging economies such as Brazil).

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