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PhD Programs in Switzerland

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in Switzerland?

Studying a PhD in Switzerland will give you access to a well-funded, internationally renowned higher education system, offering the ideal combination of reputation and innovation. The oldest Swiss universities date back to the 14th and 15th centuries and have gone on to establish reputations as centres of excellence and innovation in fields as diverse as the Natural Sciences and Business Studies. Today Switzerland operates within the European Higher Education Area as a participant in the Bologna Process. This means that, in addition to the opportunity to study at some of Europe's most prestigious institutes of higher learning, gaining a PhD in Switzerland will provide you with a well-recognised qualification that will enhance your academic or professional career.

As a PhD student in Switzerland you'll also have unique opportunities to travel elsewhere in Europe, whether to adjacent countries such as France, Germany and Italy or - with the help of an excellent rail network - to destinations slightly further afield. Within Switzerland itself you'll have the opportunity to visit some of the most famous landscapes in Europe, including the Swiss lakes and Alps that have provided hundreds of years of inspiration for travellers and explorers.

It's no surprise that Switzerland already hosts over 40,000 international students at all levels of university study, with around 50% of PhD students coming to study in Switzerland from other countries. The international appeal of Swiss higher education is enhanced by the country's unique linguistic environment. Different regions of Switzerland speak either German, French or Italian, with an increasing number of postgraduate programmes also being offered in English. This means that whatever language you speak, you are likely to find an accessible PhD programme in Switzerland. What's more, Switzerland's international and cosmopolitan culture will enhance your prospects for further work and research abroad once you have finished your PhD.

PhDs in the Swiss University System

The organisation of Swiss universities and higher education institutions reflects the country's political subdivision into cantons (individual member regions of the federal Swiss state) with an overarching central government. 10 of Switzerland's 26 cantons include Cantonal Universities; these are the main centres of research and higher level academic training within the Swiss university system. In addition, there are also two Federal Institutes of Technology and seven Universities of Applied Sciences (with numerous affiliated schools and colleges) in Switzerland. As a PhD student in Switzerland you can study at a Cantonal University or a Federal Institute of Technology. Universities of Applied Sciences do not award doctoral degrees, though they do offer Masters programmes.

Swiss universities for PhD study

Cantonal Universities offer research opportunities in a wide range of subjects and are the main venue for doctoral training in Switzerland. They are administered by individual cantons in partnership with the Swiss federal government.

Switzerland's two Federal Institutes of Technology - ETH Zurich and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) are elite institutions offering a range of PhD programmes, many of which have a multidisciplinary focus.

Accreditation and quality assurance

Responsibility for Swiss university education is shared between cantonal governments and the central Swiss federal government. Individual cantons are responsible for supervising and maintaining their universities, with funding support from the central government. This means that Swiss universities are free to construct innovative study programmes and pursue their own research agendas whilst still benefitting from high levels of state funding. The Federal Institutes of Technology are administered centrally by the federal government.

Various organisational bodies oversee this system and are responsible for looking after the interests of universities and protecting the quality and reputation of Swiss higher education. These include the Swiss University Conference (SUC), which collectively represents the cantons and federal government, as well as the Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities (CRUS) which represents universities directly.

Swiss course structure and PhD content

As in other countries, PhD study in Switzerland represents the highest possible level of attainment for postgraduate students and confirms that a scholar has the knowledge and expertise necessary to be considered as a professional member of the academy community. This means that Swiss PhD programmes take place after Bachelors and Masters level study and focus upon independent research towards a substantial doctoral thesis. The exact length of a PhD in Switzerland varies, but is usually between three and five years.

PhDs in Switzerland usually follow one of two formats. General PhDs are traditionally organised around supervised research within a specific university faculty or department. You will be assigned a supervisor responsible for guiding your research and ensuring you meet targets, but the majority of your work will be independent. Structured PhDs are a more recent development and are often offered by partnerships of multiple institutions or their graduate schools. A structured PhD programme in Switzerland may involve more formal training and coursework in your academic discipline alongside the research and writing of your thesis.

Examination and assessment of a Swiss PhD

The primary assessment of a Swiss PhD is an oral examination, taking place at the conclusion of your studies. This will require you to defend your thesis before a panel of recognised experts in your academic specialism. At least one of these will be from outside your university. A structured PhD may also require you to complete assessments and examinations related to any obligatory units of study that are part of your programme.

Admissions and applications for a Swiss PhD

Universities in Switzerland are free to set their own requirements for admission to a PhD programme. In practice, you will almost always be expected to hold a Masters degree in a relevant subject area. Particularly competitive programmes may also rank applicants based on attainment at Masters level. Application deadlines will also vary. The Swiss academic year runs from September to June, but entry to doctoral programmes may be relatively flexible - particularly if your PhD does not include large amounts of coursework.

Recognition of existing qualifications for PhD study in Switzerland

Because Swiss universities operate within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), recognition of qualifications from elsewhere in Europe will not usually be a problem. Switzerland's strong tradition of international education also means that qualifications from further afield should also be recognised without much difficulty. If you need advice on the status of your previous degrees within the Swiss higher education system you can contact Switzerland's branch of ENIC-NARIC (the European Commission's National Academic Recognition Information Centres). Your university may also be able to assist you with enquiries.

Research proposals for PhD study in Switzerland

In addition to demonstrating that you hold a relevant Masters degree, you will also need to confirm that you are ready to conduct independent research as a PhD student in Switzerland. This will usually involve submitting some form of research proposal as part of your application. Here you will provide an outline of your proposed thesis, including information about the timeline and methodology for your research. You don't need to worry about having an exact idea of everything you'll cover in your PhD and exactly how you'll go about it (that's what doing the PhD itself is for after all!) but you should give your prospective institution a good sense of your ideas, aims and objectives. This will allow them to see your potential as a PhD candidate. Applications to structured programmes, or programmes that fall within ongoing research projects may not need you to provide as detailed a thesis proposal. However, you should still be able to demonstrate that you are sufficiently knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the research area in question.

Language requirements for PhD study in Switzerland

Switzerland is relatively unique in that its main language differs by region. As a general rule, the central and northern area of the country speaks German, the western region speaks French and Italian is spoken in parts of the South. As you'll soon see if you look at a map, these language areas correspond closely with Switzerland's French, German and Italian borders. The dominant language at Switzerland's universities tends to correspond with that of their region:

Language Universities
French UNIGE Geneva, EPFL Lausanne, UNIL Lausanne, UNINE Neuchatel
German UNIBE Bern, UNIBAS Basel, UNILU Lucerne, ETH Zurich, UZH Zurich, UNISG St. Gallen
French and German UNIFR Fribourg
Italian USI Lugano

In small parts of Switzerland (particularly the canton of Grisons) a native Swiss language known as Romansh is spoken, but this is not the language of instruction at any of the country's research universities.

In some cases it may be possible to study wholly or partly in English; your university should be able to advise you as to the requirements for its PhD programmes. Remember though, even if you are not explicitly required to speak the local language as a PhD student in Switzerland, you will benefit personally and academically from being able to communicate and interact as freely as possible. Learning a second language can also be an excellent way of making the most of your time as a PhD student abroad and coming away from your doctorate with an even more impressive CV.

If you're interested in learning a second language for study in Switzerland or want to know what the testing and certification procedure might be like, take a look at our guides to French, German and Italian language tests for PhD study.

Visas and immigration for PhD study in Switzerland

Your immigration and visa requirements as a PhD student in Switzerland will depend on your country of origin. Students from within the EU and EEA will not usually need a formal visa to enter Switzerland and reside in the country as a student. Those from elsewhere will usually need to go through a slightly more complex immigration process. Your health insurance entitlements and requirements will also vary according to nationality.

If you are a resident of the EU or EEA you can enter Switzerland freely, but will need to check in at the local Resident's Registration Office within 14 days of arriving in the country. Here you will provide information necessary to formally register you as a foreign resident in Switzerland. As well as completing associated paperwork, you will be expected to provide:

  • Your passport or identity card.
  • Proof that you are registered at a Swiss university.
  • Proof of your Swiss address.
  • Proof that you have sufficient funds to support yourself whilst living in Switzerland as a student.
  • Two passport-sized photographs.

Students from outside the EU and EEA will need to acquire a visa before travelling to Switzerland. This can be done by visiting or contacting a Swiss Embassy or Consulate in your home country. Staff there will be able to inform you of the exact documents you will require and help you begin your application process. You should bear in mind that a Swiss visa may take some time (potentially up to eight months) to issue. It's therefore a good idea to commence your application to study a PhD in Switzerland with plenty of time available to confirm your university registration and receive your visa.

Health insurance

Switzerland has a compulsory health insurance system that guarantees access to a range of quality medical care services and appropriate medical treatment to all people living in Switzerland. Every person living in Switzerland for more than three months, including international students, must have basic health insurance coverage. Students from countries that provide international health coverage may be exempted from the compulsory health insurance. Other students may be exempted if they have equivalent health insurance coverage in their home country.

PhD fees and funding in Switzerland

University education in Switzerland is supported by generous public funding and central investment. This means that tuition fees are relatively low, though exact costs will vary between universities and doctoral programmes. Funding for PhD study in Switzerland is also available from a range of providers, many of which support international students.


As a rough guide, you can expect to pay tuition fees of around CHF 1,200 ($1,280) or less per year as a full time PhD student at a Swiss university. Additional registration fees may also be charged per semester, along with examination fees, and are generally quite low.


Funding for PhD study in Switzerland is available from a number of sources.

The Swiss government offers a small amount of funding to foreign PhD students each year as part of its Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Scholars and Artists. Application usually takes place between August and October for awards in the next academic year. Specific information on funding to study in Switzerland for students of different countries can be viewed on the website of SERI, the State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation.

The Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities (CRUS) also manages a list of scholarships for both Swiss nationals wishing to study abroad and foreign students looking to study in Switzerland.

Other funding may be available from your university itself. Some will offer scholarships or other support to students meeting merit-based or means-based criteria. In some cases you may also be able to take up an Assistantship position at your institution and receive a salary or fee waiver in return for carrying out teaching and administrative responsibilities. You can usually view such funding on university websites, or contact them for more information.

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 support your study for a PhD in Switzerland, or elsewhere.

Careers and employment with a Swiss PhD

A Swiss PhD will equip you well for an academic or professional career. Switzerland's universities are internationally recognised and renowned, and participate in a range of international research projects and partnerships. This means that not only will your Swiss PhD be recognised and respected in academic departments around the world, you'll also have been introduced to a range of research networks beyond Switzerland itself. This experience will further enhance your academic career prospects, whether you wish to seek a position in Switzerland or elsewhere.

Your PhD will also be of use to you if you choose to go into industry or seek a professional career outside of academia. Various international businesses operate out of Switzerland, with major global companies including Google, eBay, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and Chevrolet. A Swiss PhD and the experience of living and studying in Switzerland during your doctorate will prepare you well for careers with these and other companies. What's more, your time working in a highly cosmopolitan, multi-lingual environment will make you a strong candidate for positions in international business or industry around the world.

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