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PhD Study in Switzerland - A Guide for 2019

With five borders, four languages and a famously cosmopolitan culture, it’s no surprise that Switzerland is a popular destination for international study. Opportunities for a PhD in Switzerland are especially impressive as the country boasts some of Europe’s top research universities – a situation that reflects the Swiss attitude to international cooperation and exchange.

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

Swiss universities are generously funded, globally renowned and very popular with international students. What’s more, PhD study in Switzerland is highly regarded with students often treated as staff and ambitious plans to increase the number of doctoral researchers at universities.

Here are a few reasons to consider Switzerland for your PhD right now:

  • Highly international universities – More than 50% of PhD students at Swiss universities come from abroad. Wherever you study, you’ll be part of a diverse and welcoming academic community.
  • Emphasis on doctoral education – The Swiss higher education system is currently focussed on increasing PhD-level training and introducing innovative new research opportunities. This framework runs from 2017-2020 and your PhD could be a part of it.
  • Multi-lingual education – There are four national languages in Switzerland, French, German, Italian and Romansch. Many PhD programmes are also provided in English, offering a range of opportunities for students from different linguistic backgrounds.
  • Funding for early career researchers> – The Swiss National Science Foundation offers generous support for postdoc and early career researchers who want to research in Switzerland after a PhD.
  • Travel! – Switzerland’s sublime mountains and picturesque lakes have been attracting tourists and travellers for hundreds of years. The country is also an excellent base from which to visit other parts of central Europe and the Mediterranean (whether for research, or pleasure).

PhD Study in Switzerland - Key Details
Universities 41
Nobel Prizes 26
Oldest University University of Basel (1460)
International Students 51,911
PhD Length 3-5 years
Representative Fees €880-1,760
Academic Year September to May

Swiss universities

Switzerland is actually a federal republic of 26 individual cantons responsible for their own regional affairs, including higher education. Most Swiss research universities are regionally administered as local cantonal universities, but some institutions are also centrally controlled by the federal government or through other structures.

In total, there are four types of university in Switzerland:

  • The 10 cantonal universities are run by individual Swiss states (not every Swiss canton has a university). They carry out original research as well as teaching and can award PhDs in various subject areas.
  • The 2 federal institutes of technology are the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). These are some of Switzerland’s most prestigious research centres with global reputations in various subject areas. They are centrally administered by the Swiss federal Government and have the power to award PhDs.
  • The 9 universities of applied science and arts focus on connecting theory with practice to deliver advanced professional and technical training or solve specific challenges. They don’t traditionally award their own PhDs, but some have begun partnering with cantonal universities to develop innovative collaborative doctoral programmes.
  • The 20 universities of teacher education award professional qualifications in teaching, often associated with particular languages. On rare occasions they offer collaborative PhD programmes in highly specific topics associated with educational theory.

As a PhD student you’re most likely to be based at a Swiss cantonal university or federal institute of technology. However, you may also have opportunities to take part in collaborative research and training programmes involving other specialised institutions within the Swiss higher education system.

Swiss cantons and study languages

The language spoken in Switzerland varies between cantons.

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.

Universities will normally teach in the language of their canton, though some also offer programmes in English. The languages for each Swiss canton are as follows:


Swiss Universities and Study Languages
Canton Language Cantonal university
Zurich German University of Zurich
Bern German / French University of Bern
Luzern German University of Lucerne
Uri German NA
Schwyz German NA
Obwalden German NA
Nidwalden German NA
Glarus German NA
Zug German NA
Fribourg French / German University of Fribourg
Solothurn German NA
Basel-Stadt German University of Basel
Basel-Landscaft German NA
Schaffhausen German NA
Appenzell Ausserrhoden German NA
Appenzell Innerrhoden German NA
St. Gallen German University of St. Gallen
Grisons German / Italian NA
Aargau German NA
Thurgau German NA
Ticino Italian University of Lugano
Vaud French University of Lausanne
Valais French / German NA
Neuchâtel French University of Neuchâtel
Geneva French University of Geneva
Jura French NA

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.

Some cantonal universities will teach in other languages in additional to that of their canton (including English).

Swiss university cities

You don’t have to be Einstein to pick a Swiss city as your academic home-away-from-home. Here are some of the most popular student cities in Switzerland:

Incidentally, Einstein picked Bern and Zurich.

Swiss university rankings

Switzerland is home to some of the world’s most renowned universities, with a history of higher education stretching back to the fifteenth century. Today, the top Swiss universities are the highest ranked in Europe outside the UK.


Top 10 Swiss Universities in 2019
University THE 2019 QS 2019 ARWU 2018
ETH Zurich 11 7 19
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne 35 22 81
University of Zurich =90 78 54
University of Basel 103 =160 96
University of Bern =110 139 101-150
University of Geneva =135 108 59
University of Lausanne =176 =149 101-150
University of Fribourg 201-250 601-650 301-400
University of St. Gallen 401-500 375 -
University of Neuchâtel 501-600 - -
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

Swiss universities use the three-cycle degree system established by the Bologna Process. A PhD (or doctorate) is a third-cycle qualification, usually coming after Bachelors (first cycle) and Masters (second cycle) degrees.

This means that a PhD is the highest level of postgraduate degree you can achieve in Switzerland and represents a significant achievement.

As in other countries, the Swiss doctorate is a research-based qualification, involving independent work towards an original thesis. There are two typical routes towards a Swiss PhD:

  • Traditional or general PhDs take place within a single university under the guidance of one or more of its academic experts. You’ll spend most of your time working on your doctoral thesis, though opportunities for additional training and development may also be offered.
  • Structured PhDs are a more recent development. They involve more formal training as part of the PhD programme and often involve collaboration between different institutions (including partnerships of different institutional types, such as cantonal universities and universities of applied sciences).

Both types of Swiss PhD are equally respected qualifications, providing good preparation for careers in science, research and other areas.

PhD length

A PhD in Switzerland lasts for 3-5 years. Traditional PhDs tend to be shorter, whereas the length of a structured PhD may be increased slightly to include extra training or other activities.

The academic year in Switzerland runs from September to May and is divided into two teaching semesters (September to December and February / May to June). PhD research may continue outside these periods, but any formal training within your programme will usually take place in term time.

Supervision

You’ll be assigned at least one academic supervisor during your PhD. This may be the principal investigator for the laboratory or research group you work within, or an experienced academic with expertise in your general field. Your supervisor will act as a mentor for your project and will work with you to guide and support your research.

Some Swiss PhD programmes involve second or multiple supervisors. This is especially likely if you are following a structured PhD, within input from more than one institution. Each supervisor will normally have a specific role to play in your project, sometimes focussing on particular topic areas or on providing overall mentoring and pastoral support at your university.

Assessment and examination

The main outcome for your PhD will be the doctoral thesis you write up and submit at the end of your research. This must represent a substantial original contribution to your academic subject. It should offer new knowledge and / or data that, in principle at least, is worth publishing for other scholars and researchers to use.

Your thesis will be assessed through an oral examination or defence. In Switzerland, this takes place in a public setting, rather than as a private viva voce exam (such as that used in the UK). You will discuss your PhD in front of a panel of experts, including at least one external examiner from outside your university. The panel will ask questions about your research and conclusions and may sometimes ask you to provide a short presentation of your main findings.

Structured PhDs may also involve some smaller assessments during your doctorate, such as coursework and exams for training modules. You will need to pass these in order to continue with your programme, but they won’t determine a final ‘grade’ for your PhD degree.

ECTS credits for Swiss PhDs

Some Swiss PhD programmes use the European Credit Transfer and Accummulation System (ECTS) to track students' progress through coursework, but this isn't standardised. When ECTS is used, you'll normally need to complete around 18 credits of work.

Fees and funding

All students in Switzerland pay fees, including EU, EEA and international students. However, generous government support means that the cost of these fees is quite low. Funding is also available from universities and the Swiss Federal Government.

PhD fees

Individual universities are free to set their own fees. These are typically between €880 and €1,760 for a full PhD.

Sometimes universities will give fees per term, rather than giving the cost of a full PhD, so make sure you check what a published fee refers to. If you see a fee per term you should normally multiply it by six (two terms per year, for three years of study) in order to get the total tuition fee for a typical PhD.

Other costs may include registration fees, examination fees and student union fees. These are likely to be quite small.

Paid PhD positions

Sometimes Swiss universities advertise PhD opportunities as paid research positions or assistantships, with students effectively employed by the university as temporary staff. You won’t pay any fees for a PhD offered in this way and you’ll receive a regular salary.

As an employee with the university you may also be entitled to additional benefits including sick pay and holiday leave. In return, you’ll normally be expected to assist with undergraduate teaching and other administrative responsibilities during your PhD.

It’s a good idea to check whether the university you’re considering offers these positions and what their conditions are.

Swiss PhD loans

Some universities will provide additional support to their PhD students in the form of financial loans. This is dependent on individual universities’ policies and subject to their own eligibility criteria (you may need to be a graduate of that university and / or make a case for financial hardship).

Federal scholarships

The main source of funding for international PhD students in Switzerland is the Swiss Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students (FCS). They award an annual Government Excellence Scholarships programme.

Students from over 180 different countries are eligible to apply and selection is based on the candidate’s academic qualifications and achievements as well as the merits of their proposed PhD work. If your application is successful, the scholarship will normally cover your fees and living costs.

Looking for PhD funding?

Our guides provide information on a range of PhD scholarships and other funding options.

Applying for a PhD in Switzerland

You can find PhD opportunities in Switzerland by searching for advertised projects and programmes, or browsing information on university websites. You should then apply directly to universities themselves.

Entry requirements

In most cases you’ll need to already have a Masters degree in a relevant subject before you can apply for a Swiss PhD. This will be the main academic requirement for admission to doctoral research.

Other requirements will depend on the type of PhD you are applying for:

  • If you are responding to an advertised project or position you will need to put together a personal statement or cover letter, along with an appropriate academic cv and references. Your university should provide further information and guidance for this.
  • If you are coming up with your own PhD topic (as is common in the Arts and Humanities) you should normally submit a research proposal outlining the scope of your project, its objectives, methodology and outcomes. Supporting material such as academic references may also be required.

Applications to join structured PhD programmes may not require an initial research proposal as students will often develop their project during the first year of the doctorate.

Continuing Education Masters

Swiss universities distinguish between academic Masters degrees (such as the MA or MSc) and professional 'Continuing Education' programmes, which aren't necessarily considered appropriate for PhD admission. Check your qualifications with the university if you aren't sure.

Language requirements

Individual Swiss universities traditionally teach in the language of their canton, which will be French, German or Italian (Romansh is not used as an academic language of instruction).

PhD programmes are likely to be offered in a university’s local language, or in English. The availability of English-language PhD opportunities in Switzerland may depend on your subject area. Highly international subjects such as Science, Engineering and Business are more likely to be taught in English; Arts and Humanities subjects may only be offered in the local language.

You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively in the language used for your PhD programme and may be asked to complete a French, German, Italian or English language test in order to prove this. The exact test required will depend on your university and subject.

Language lessons in Switzerland

Even if you don't need to demonstrate language skills for your PhD, Switzerland is an excellent place to acquire them. Most universities offer free lessons for their students.

Application deadlines

There isn’t usually a deadline for Swiss PhD applications. However, international students from outside the EU / EEA should apply as early as possible in order to leave time for their visa to be processed. Some universities set recommended deadlines (PDF) for international applications in order to allow for this.

Student visas

Switzerland’s visa and immigration system reflects its welcoming and inclusive attitude to international visitors and scholars.

EU and EEA students

Students from the EU and EEA do not require a visa to study in Switzerland. You can freely enter Switzerland for up to 90 days.

However, as this isn’t nearly long enough to complete a PhD, you will need to register with your local cantonal authority and receive a longer-term residence permit. You must do this within 14 days of arriving in Switzerland.

To gain a residence permit you will need to provide proof that you have been accepted to study your PhD at a Swiss university along with evidence of health insurance and sufficient financial resources for your degree (see below).

f you wish to work in Switzerland during your PhD you will also need to apply for a separate work permit.

International students (non-EU / EEA)

Students who are not from one of the 28 EU countries or the three EEA countries (Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway) will need a student visa to enter Switzerland for a PhD. This will be a type D visa for employment or study longer than 90 days.

You should apply for your visa at Swiss embassy or consulate within your own country (not from within Switzerland). You will need to provide the following:

  • Proof that you have been accepted to study a PhD in Switzerland
  • Information on your planned studies
  • Your academic CV and personal statement (this can be similar to the one you provided for your PhD application)
  • Details of your accommodation in Switzerland
  • Evidence of health insurance (see below)
  • Evidence of sufficient funds for living costs during your PhD (see below)
  • A declaration that you will leave Switzerland at the end of your PhD (unless applying for a separate post-study work visa)

You should begin your application for PhD study as soon as possible. The visa application process can take eight weeks or more and you will need to provide a large amount of information.

The cost of a Swiss student visa is €60.

Health insurance

Switzerland has a compulsory health insurance system that guarantees access to a range of quality medical care services and appropriate medical treatment. Students from countries that provide international health coverage such as the EU’s European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) may be exempted from the compulsory health insurance. Other students may be exempted if they have equivalent health insurance coverage in their home country.

If you do need to purchase health insurance during your PhD you can expect to pay around €950 per year (in monthly instalments). Further information is available from the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health.

Evidence of sufficient funds

All foreign students in Switzerland (from the EU, EEA and elsewhere) must be able to support themselves during a PhD. The amount of money you must have access to will depend on the requirements set by your canton, but is likely to be at least €18,000 per year.

You can provide proof of funds in various forms:

  • Evidence of a scholarship you have been awarded
  • An employment contract with your university, such as a paid position or assistantship
  • Proof of funds in a personal bank account

Alternatively, you may be able to provide a declaration of sponsorship by a Swiss national or other appropriate third party who is willing to cover your costs whilst you study abroad.

Next steps

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.

Can I work in Switzerland after my PhD?

Students from the EU and EEA can work in Switzerland following a PhD, subject to applying for a new residence and work permit.

Students from other countries are normally able to apply for a post-study residence permit, subject to evidence of accommodation and financial support. This allows you remain in Switzerland for up to six months whilst you seek work. Once you find work you may become eligible for a longer term or permanent residence permit. See the official Swiss Immigration Service website for further information.

Financial support for PhD holders seeking academic work in Switzerland is also available from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Find a PhD in Switzerland

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

Last updated - 30/11/2018

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