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PhD Programs in Spain

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in Spain?

With some of the oldest universities in Europe and a culture and climate that attract millions of visitors each year, PhD study in Spain is an attractive option. The country's university system participates fully in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) with Spanish PhD programmes conforming to standards set by the Bologna Process. This makes Spain an attractive and accessible destination for students seeking high quality qualifications with international recognition.

At the same time, Spain's universities draw on the country's own unique cultural and intellectual heritage. Driven by a history of exploration and innovation, Spanish artists and thinkers can lay a claim to inventions as diverse as the European novel and the modern discipline of neuroscience. Today Spanish universities continue this legacy of breadth and innovation with research programmes in a broad range of subjects and pioneering developments in important areas including renewable energy technologies and organ transplant procedures.

Spain is keen to help drive these developments by attracting the best international students to study for a PhD at Spanish universities. For this reason, Spanish doctoral programmes are designed to be attractive and accessible, with a large amount of teaching and training in English as well as support for students seeking to improve or acquire Spanish language skills.

PhDs in the Spanish university system

Spanish universities may be either public or private, though the majority are the former: of the 82 universities currently operating in Spain, 51 are state-run institutions. In theory, any of these universities may award PhD degrees, but to do so they must establish recognised doctoral programmes that accord to a set of criteria. These include the establishment of an Academic Commission responsible for designing and coordinating each specific programme. This commission is made up of recognised subject specialists and may include external researchers and experts in addition to members of the university's own academic faculty.

A number of Spanish PhD programmes are offered through external centres specialising in advanced research and training. These can be dedicated doctoral colleges or university research institutes providing doctoral training within ongoing projects. It is not uncommon for more than one university to collaborate in the establishment and running of such centres, with non-academic partners also participating in some subject areas. This means that a PhD in Spain allows you to access the best academic and professional expertise in your field, without being limited to a faculty within a single institution.

Spanish course structure and PhD content

The organisation, content and duration of Spanish PhD programmes follows fairly strict regulations with respect to course structure and supervision. The following section includes detailed information on the organisation of a Spanish PhD, PhD supervision at Spanish universities, assessment and grading of Spanish PhD work and the language requirements for PhD students in Spain.

Most Spanish doctorates include two stages (ciclos). The first will usually take place in your first year and involves a formal course of study to the value of 60 ECTS credits. This is designed to provide advanced research training and ensure that you have the specialist subject-knowledge necessary to complete your PhD. During this time you will also begin to outline and agree your prospective research project. This will involve drawing up a research plan covering your intended objectives and research methodology, with a projected timetable for the various stages and overall completion of your PhD.

For the remainder of your programme you will focus on researching your thesis, under the supervision of appointed experts in your subject area. The designated duration for a full-time PhD in Spain is three years, with part-time students expected to submit their thesis within five years. You should be aware that these durations are quite strictly regulated, though extensions may be granted upon application.

Supervision of a Spanish PhD

The supervision of a Spanish PhD follows a similar procedure to other countries. One or more faculty members will be appointed by your programme's academic commission and will include two official roles: a mentor and a thesis director. The mentor is responsible for your pastoral care within the university and for managing your official interaction with the academic commission during your programme. The thesis director is more specifically responsible for the quality and success of your academic work. This includes identifying and meeting your training needs as well as monitoring the progress and quality of your research. Your mentor and thesis director may be separate individuals, or the roles may be the collective responsibility of one faculty member.

Your supervisor/s will also be responsible for various formal procedures relating to your studies and status as a PhD student in Spain. Upon being admitted to your programme you will sign a written agreement with your university, mentor and thesis director. This document will formalise your expectations and responsibilities as a participant in your doctoral programme and will outline procedures for research ethics, intellectual property rights and any conflict mediation and resolution as required. You will also maintain a personal activity portfolio during your studies. This will record your academic research and training activity and will be subject to monitoring and evaluation by your supervisory team.

Assessment and examination of a Spanish PhD

The academic commission responsible for your programme will maintain an ongoing qualitative assessment of your progress through your personal activity portfolio. This will not usually involve any formal assessment outside of that attached to the 60 ECTS credit training course(s) at the beginning of your programme. However, you will need to consistently satisfy your academic commission in order to be allowed to continue towards the submission of your thesis. If your portfolio receives a negative evaluation it will usually be resubmitted for a second assessment at an agreed period. If it fails to satisfy the academic commission at this point you may be dismissed from the programme.

Once you have completed your thesis to the satisfaction of your thesis director you will submit it to your university and a date will be appointed for its defence. During this interim your thesis will be granted public status. This allows other academic experts in your field to access and review your work and to send you their feedback prior to your defence. This might seem like a slightly strange procedure, but it represents the Spanish commitment to the quality of its higher education and the conscientiousness of Spain's academic community. It is also likely that any advice you receive will be helpful in preparing you for your examination.

Defence of a Spanish PhD thesis is public, with other academic experts in your field entitled to attend and ask questions according to the regulations established by your appointed board of examiners. This board is made up of external experts and is chiefly responsible for questioning you during your defence and determining the outcome of the examination.

Grading of a Spanish PhD thesis

Unlike in some other countries where the PhD degree is usually awarded without a specific grade, boards of examiners in Spain assign a specific verdict to a candidate's thesis. Beyond simply passing the defence, your work may be graded as 'very good' or even 'excellent'. In addition, a thesis deemed unanimously 'excellent' by all members of the board of examiners may also be awarded a 'cum laude' status to further distinguish it.

Other distinctions are also applied to Spanish PhDs, under specific circumstances. A PhD project that involves a period of study placement at an institution outside Spain may be distinguished as a 'European Doctorate' (if the placement took place within an EU member state) or an 'International Doctorate' (if elsewhere).

Whatever grade your thesis is awarded, studying for a PhD in Spain will leave you with a particularly impressive qualification. Though comparatively rigorous and involved, the regulations for Spanish doctoral programmes will demonstrate your ability to manage an extended project and work independently at a high level. Documents such as your research portfolio will also provide you with a record of your achievements and activities that may be referenced in applications for academic positions or produced as a record of your abilities and accomplishments that will still have value in a non-academic context.

Language requirements for PhD study in Spain

An increasing number of programmes in Spain are now taught in English, but, as a PhD student at a Spanish university, you will almost certainly benefit from the ability to speak some Spanish. This will allow you to network more effectively with colleagues as well as making day to day life in Spain easier (and much more enjoyable). Your university's language requirements will depend on its own policy and the teaching process for its programmes. If necessary, you may be asked to take a Diploma in Spanish known as the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE). This is the official Spanish language test organised by the Cervantes Institute. You can read more about Spanish language tests and qualifications in our guide .

Admissions and applications for a Spanish PhD

Admission to a Spanish PhD programme will usually need you to hold a Bachelors and Masters degree in a subject relevant to your intended research area. Candidates without these formal degrees may be admitted if they can demonstrate that they hold other qualifications equivalent to the value of at least 300 ECTS credits. Qualifications from outside the EHEA may need to be formally verified.

You can access more information on the recognition of foreign qualifications from the Spanish NARIC (part of the Europe's National Academic Recognition Information Centres). In some cases you may need to have your existing degrees accredited by an official body within the Spanish Ministry of Education. This is an unlikely, but relatively simple process and can be commenced at a Spanish Embassy or Consulate. More information on recognition and accreditation of qualifications for study in Spain is available from, the official portal for Spanish universities. You will usually need to submit certified copies of your qualifications as well as identity documents and a description of the course(s) of study you have carried out. Your university's international office should be able to provide specific advice on the accreditation and recognition requirements (if any) that will apply in your case.

In addition to requiring prospective PhD candidates to hold appropriate first and second cycle degrees, Spanish universities may also set additional admissions criteria. This is more likely on programmes with competition for a limited number of places. This may involve submitting a formal research proposal and / or personal statement outlining your experience and explaining your suitability for the programme. In some cases you may also be called to interview. Your university should publish detailed information on its admissions and applications process on its website and should be happy to help you with any specific questions

Criteria for the submission of official documents

Spain operates fairly strict guidelines with respect to the documents submitted as part of a university application. Official documents issued abroad will usually need to be accompanied by a 'sworn translation' into Spanish. This can be conducted by certain diplomatic and consular representatives (at Spanish embassies abroad, or foreign embassies within Spain). Independent sworn translators also provide this service within Spain.

Application deadlines

The academic timetable in Spain runs from September to May, though some universities may begin their year in early October. Applications for PhD programmes vary, but most institutions will wish to hear from prospective students between January and May to admit them for the following academic year. The actual point at which you start your PhD programme will probably depend on the scheduling of any timetabled training components. Universities will usually publish specific information on their websites, but you can also contact them with additional enquiries.

Visas and immigration for PhD students in Spain

Visa requirements for PhD study in Spain will vary depending on your nationality. Students from within the EU follow a slightly different procedure to applicants from elsewhere. The type of visa you hold may also determine your right to work whilst studying a PhD in Spain.

EU students

Students from the EU do not require a formal visa to enter Spain, but will need to register with the Central Registry for Foreign Citizens to receive a Foreign National Identity Number (Número de Identificación de Extranjeros). This is necessary to open a bank account and get discounted fares on public transport, and also allows access to Spanish healthcare services.

Non-EU students

Students from outside the EU will usually need to apply for a type-D multiple entry visa. This is initially valid for three months, after which it must be extended (see below). Bear in mind that you must apply for this student visa in the first instance; you will not be permitted to enter Spain on another visa (for example a tourist visa) and then apply for a student visa from within the country.

In addition to a completed application form, two - four passport photos and the payment of any associated fees, the following documents are usually required as part of a Spanish student visa application:

  • A passport, valid for the duration of your intended stay in Spain.
  • Proof of university admission (for example, an offer letter from your institution) and details of your PhD programme.
  • Proof of healthcare cover (some embassies/consulates may have a minimum level of insurance).
  • Proof that you have the means to support yourself financially whilst living in Spain. As a rule, you should be able to demonstrate personal savings, income or financial support equivalent to at least €532 ($685) for each month of the academic year.

In some cases you may also require:

  • Proof of address in Spain.
  • A medical certificate.
  • A police background check from your country of residence.

You can begin a visa application at a Spanish consulate in your home country. In most cases, the initial processing period is seven days. If you don't hear back from the consulate during this time, you can assume that your paperwork is in order and that your visa will be delivered. It will usually take a further two months for the visa to be produced, at which point you may collect it.

Extending your student visa

Within a month of arrival in Spain you will need to apply for a non-community student card from the regional government. This allows you to obtain a longer-term student visa and also to enrol fully at your university. To do this, you must go to your local Foreign Nationals Office and make an appointment for fingerprinting to process the foreign national ID card. The fee for this is usually €15 ($20).

Where to go for additional advice

Exact immigration criteria can vary for students from different countries. If you think that any exceptions or particular requirements may apply to your application you should be able to get information and guidance by contacting a Spanish consulate in advance. Your university may also be able to assist you, either through a dedicated international office, or through its student recruitment and admissions department. You can also access detailed information and advice at the website of the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Free movement within the Schengen Area

One of the advantages of having a Spanish student visa is that it will also qualify as a Schengen Visa. This means you'll be able to travel freely across 26 European countries - perfect for visiting additional research facilities or archives (or enjoying a well-earned break during the holidays!). In most cases, EU students will be able to do this as standard.

PhD fees and funding in Spain

Fees for university study in Spain are calculated 'per credit' rather than per semester or per year of study. As ECTS credits correspond to set hours of study, this practice reflects the actual cost of providing teaching and training on a given degree programme. The Spanish government provides guidelines for costs per credit in each new academic year. At present this is between €22 ($28) and €34 ($44) per credit.

PhD degrees are not currently covered by the ECTS credit system and fees are therefore calculated based upon the expected training and research work to be undertaken by candidate during a given year of study. Costs vary between universities and degree programmes, but are relatively low in comparison with some other European higher education systems. As a very rough guide you can expect to pay between €200 ($257) and €600 ($772) per year, though additional costs may be incurred for registration and administrative procedures.

Higher fees may sometimes be charged for students outside of the EU. You can look up fees for a specific doctoral programme at your institution's website, or contact their international office for more information.

Funding for PhD students in Spain

A large number of scholarships and funding options (becas, in Spanish) are available to help encourage and support international postgraduates in Spain. The following is a list of some of the main providers and funding bodies.

In addition to these you can view a list of other grants for study in Spain on the AECID website.

Our own postgraduate funding website provides a comprehensive database of small grants and bursaries available to support postgraduate study around the world, including travel bursaries, living cost support, fee waivers and exchange programmes. Click here to start searching for funding to study a PhD in Spain, or elsewhere.

Careers and employment with a Spanish PhD

Graduate opportunities and employability are core principles in the design of Spain's rigorous and high quality PhD programmes. A Spanish PhD is seen as a professional development process as well as an academic qualification. This is reflected in the structure of a Spanish PhD and the incorporation of a personal portfolio, but is also supported through a range of external corporate and industrial partnerships. This means that a PhD in Spain will provide you with a strong CV in addition to an excellent and internationally recognised academic qualification. Your time spent studying abroad will also enhance your skills and experience. Employers will recognise the independence and willingness to meet new challenges that it represents; meanwhile, if you've taken the opportunity to develop your Spanish skills you'll be able to communicate in one of the most important languages for global business.

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