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.
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.
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.