By Lucy Zheng

This month, we asked SPSP community members to share their experiences of their PhD program and what you should consider when you're picking a PhD program. The first part is an easy-to-read table delineating some clear differences. The second part of the article consists of tips and suggestions.

General differences

The below are general requirements and do not pertain to all institutions in a particular country. Please follow requirements and instructions for the specific schools when applying.

  Typical for USA/Canada Typical for Europe (Germany/ Netherlands responses)
Length 5-years+ 3-years+
Prerequisites (may include some or all of the following)
  • Bachelor's
  • GRE
  • TOEFL (int'l)
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Recommendation letter
  • Personal statement
  • Master's*
  • IELTS, B2 (int'l)
  • Motivation letter
  • Reference letter
  • Give a talk
How to apply Apply to the program, but need to find a mentor that shares your research interests
  • Apply for a specific topic and supervisor
  • Dissertation topic is discussed with the supervisor or is described in the vacancy
  • Some schools may require a written proposal of a research plan
  • More likely to offer financial support in the form of TA positions
  • Having applied for funding recommended (Canada)
  • Schools may not offer funding
  • Need to have your own funding, or
  • Apply to external scholarships and grants
Requirements for graduation
(may include some or all of the following)
  • Coursework
  • Seminars
  • Brownbag presentations
  • Teaching experience
  • Published papers
  • Little to no coursework
  • Points to graduate**
  • Published papers
  • Teaching
Milestones during PhD
(may include some or all of the following)
  • First year project
  • Written, Master's thesis, or Preliminary Exam (does not require defense)
  • Qualifying Exam
  • Dissertation defense/exit
  • Regular meetings with advisor to plan
  • No qualifying exam
  • Dissertation proposal
  • Dissertation defense/exit
  • Yearly evaluation***
Status Student
  • Employed by the university and have work contract
  • Salary that increases every year, build up pension, have leave days
  • More common for academics to have 9-5 or 8-6 workday

* Usually preferred that applicants have a Master's degree (usually 2 years) focused on research. If you can prove that you have acquired research skills in other ways (e.g. published papers) then a research Master's degree is not always necessary. There are a few fast-track programs that are possible after the Bachelor's.

** Students may need to collect enough "credit" before they can get their degrees. Credit points can be collected by presenting at an international conference or national conference, attending seminars, colloquia, or summer schools, and other activities. Points and accumulation are determined by the student and advisor.

** First year evaluation is most important, because it is decided if your contract is extended for another 3 years

Tips and suggestions

Getting a PhD in Europe is comparable to the late years of a PhD program in the U.S.

  • If you don't yet have a specific idea about what research topic you want to do, programs in the US are more flexible because they don't usually require a detailed research proposal.
  • In Europe, the PhD is a degree you get once you are done with the more formalized, school-style part of your education (Bachelor's and Master's). You are not really a student in an official program, but rather an early-career researcher who has to prove that they can contribute to the scientific community. [In Germany, PhD are almost always supervised by tenured full professors, not so much by assistant professors or postdocs.]
  • This may mean if you pursue a PhD in Europe, you receive less coursework and training.

Take into consideration:

  • Statistical training that you will receive at that institution
  • Hierarchy of universities (Brand name of university matters less in Europe)
  • Campus culture (Europe doesn't really don't have a campus culture comparable to the one in the US – many universities have "organically" grown into the surrounding cities and towns, students barely ever live on campus, and college athletics (in the U.S. sense) don't exist)
  • Funding (If I want to collect data, does my supervisor have external funding to cover data collection costs?)
    • For international applicants: If you don't have your own funding, it can be difficult to find a PhD program in Europe that offers full financial support.
  • Supervision (How often are the meetings? Will I get the type of guidance from my supervisor that I need?)
  • Networking (How well is my supervisor connected to others in the field I'm interested in?)

Find out more about the city and country.

  • Visit the city and meet potential advisors in person
  • Find out as much as possible about the specific country that you are applying to. Countries in Europe are very different from each other, in language, food, traditions, and (perhaps most importantly) culture. If you are considering a PhD program in a specific country in Europe, I would advise you to talk to academics that moved to that country, to learn more about their experiences and challenges (e.g., culture shocks, housing, transport, etc.).

Acknowledgements: A huge thanks to Susanne Bücker, Manon Van Scheppingen, Julia Rohrer, Nene Chantavarin, Lynda Lin, Hasagani Tissera, Heidi Vuletich, and other contributors to this article!