Career Advice

Doing a PhD in Europe vs. the US

5 Minuten Lesezeit · Von Academic Positions

Are you thinking of doing a PhD abroad? There are some considerable differences between European and American PhD programs that you should know about before applying. Read on to determine which program is right for you.


It is often not possible to do a PhD in Europe without first earning a Master’s degree. In the US, many PhD programs accept applicants who only have a Bachelor's degree. Students usually earn a Master’s as part of the PhD program after they have completed a few years of coursework and passed certain exams. This doesn't mean that all doctoral candidates in American PhD programs have entered the program straight from undergrad. Several still choose to do a Master’s first before applying for a PhD. In some programs students who already have a Master's might not be required to take as many courses as students with just a Bachelor’s, but this isn't always the case. 

Time to Degree

European PhD programs are shorter than those in the US. For example, it takes three years to complete a PhD in France, Norway, the UK, and Germany. Across Europe, a three to four year PhD in common. In comparison, six years is the average time to degree in the US with many PhDs in the humanities taking seven or eight years to earn their degree.

Thesis Topic

PhD candidates in Europe must choose their thesis topic and supervisor during the application process. Students apply for specific vacant doctoral projects that are usually tied to a professor’s research. As part of their application, they must create a research proposal for this project. It is also possible (in the UK for example) to apply to a department rather than a specific position, but applicants must still include a research proposal and are advised to contact potential supervisors before applying. In the US, candidates apply to a department’s PhD program, rather than a specific PhD project. While they have to discuss their research interests and identify potential supervisors in their applications, students do not decide on their thesis topic until their second or third year. In fact, many science and engineering programs have students rotate between different labs in their first year before deciding on their supervisor and dissertation project.

Teaching Requirement

PhD candidates occasionally have the opportunity to teach in Europe, although teaching is not a requirement in many countries. In the US, PhD candidates are often required to teach undergraduates, often as teaching assistants for a large lecture class. A teaching assistant leads smaller tutorials for 20-30 students and grades their exams and papers. Most PhD students will TA one class each semester for two to three years. Several American PhD programs also have mandatory pedagogy courses for graduate students.


Many European PhD programs require students to do little to no coursework. Candidates start working on their dissertation projects right away. American PhD programs, regardless of the field, require students to take two to three years of courses and seminars about topics across the discipline before they being working on their dissertation.

Funding and Salary

In several European countries, PhD students are seen as employees and have work contracts. As employees, PhD students pay into health insurance, pension, and unemployment insurance. In countries where PhD students are not employees (such as the UK and Italy) students apply for university scholarships, external fellowships, or research grants for funding. Tuition fees are drastically lower in many European countries compared to the United States. Funding at American universities varies widely, as do tuition fees. Private universities have higher tuition than public state schools (though international students usually higher tuition at state schools). The top schools offer five-year funding packages which cover tuition and fees and provide a monthly stipend. They also often include health insurance and conference travel. At other schools, students must compete for fellowships at the university, state, or national level to fund their PhDs. In some departmnets students will be paid and receive partial tuition credit for take teaching assistantship or research assistantship positions.

Comprehensive Exams

Most European PhD programs do not require students to pass qualifying exams to progress through their PhDs. There are some notable exceptions, like Sweden, where PhD candidates do an oral and written exam at the halfway point of their PhD. In the US, students usually have to pass a series of comprehensive exams before they can start working on their dissertation. The exams test the student’s knowledge of the major fields within their discipline. While every university will have a slightly different exam structure, there is usually an oral and a written component. Sometimes students also have to orally defend their dissertation proposal. After the candidate has completed their coursework and passed all the required exams they are considered ABD (all but dissertation).

Von Academic Positions  ·  Published 2019-10-28

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