PhDs around the world

Prompted by a couple of comments on my previous post, I started wondering about different PhD procedures around the world. Thanks in no small part to tez intech00bs, I have scientist friends in many countries, but most of the PhD students I am in touch with regularly are students here in England. In this country alone, procedures for obtaining the degree vary from institution to institution, and from discipline to discipline. (I have one friend who earned her PhD in fine art by submitting a website.)

So, in a biomedical PhD in the UK, the period of study is normally three or four years full time (or six to eight years part time). At the end of the PhD, the student submits a written thesis which is examined by two examiners. The student has an oral assessment (‘the viva’) after which the examiners decide whether or not to award the degree, subject to major, minor or (more rarely) no corrections of the thesis.

Unlike in some other countries, in the UK there is no requirement for the student to have submitted work for publication in peer-reviewed journals in order to be awarded the PhD. And, unlike in Finland and Sweeden, here in the UK the viva is a private and not a public affair.

I am aware, for example, that in the US the period of registration in grad school is typically longer than the three to four year limit here in the UK. In Finland, I understand, a PhD is normally “by publication” – the student must have had sufficient publications accepted in peer-reviewed journals. (I also understand that in some European countries a PhD candidate is employed as staff by their institution, which is not typically the case here in the UK.)

So, how are things where you are? Wikipedia has a partial list but it is somewhat incomplete, focusing mainly on the criteria for admission to a PhD program. I am happy to update my ideas above, wiki-style, if they are not correct. I am particularly interested in what doing a PhD is like in countries outside Europe and the US as I don’t know how things differ there, if at all.

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26 Responses to PhDs around the world

  1. Eva says:

    Canada and the US are very similar to each other, I think, but varies per institution/department. I know that at Harvard (Med) you *can* defend without published research but they keep you longer than if you *did* publish. (It’s something like 7 years minus 1 year per published paper.) At UofT (Toronto) it differs per department: my department (and all the other life sciences) required one published first author paper and enough material for at least one more. Minimum duration was 4 years if you came from a MSc program or 5 years if you had to transfer but it’s often longer. I did 6.5 years and finished only 2 weeks after my lab mate who started a year before I did! The thesis defense (viva, but we don’t call it that) is usually with 7 examiners, 3 of which have been mentoring throughout the whole PhD (including supervisor). Most departments in North America have closed defenses, but mine just opened them up to the public a few years ago. Only the talk part was open, though – the examiner questions after were still closed.

    Holland is totally different: PhD students are employees, and when they defend their thesis (after 4-6 years) it’s already bound and printed and done. The defense is entirely public, including the questions, and it’s ALSO a personal graduation ceremony. The examiners wear their robes, and the candidate is all dressed up and accompanied by two “paranimphs”, which are like witnesses at a wedding: they stand next to the candidate during the whole exam and ceremony, and don’t do anything. They’re usually friends or very close colleagues. The exam ends not when all questions are answered, but when the time is up. Examiners get a fixed amount of time (45 minutes I think), and after that a guy in ceremonial dress comes in and says “hora est”, and then the committee retreats and decides.
    Dutch theses are also printed in very large numbers – 100-200 or so – and handed out to lab mates, friends, students, people who attend the defense seminar, etc. I have a whole shelf of theses from friends and from former colleagues. While I was in Canada, a lot of people in Holland I hadn’t talked to for years would suddenly e-mail me and ask me for my address in Canada so they could send me their thesis. That’s how big a deal it is.

    Ask Richard about Australian PhD “exams” (and why I used quotes there).

  2. bilouweb says:


    I am French and the Phd procedure differs from university to university.

    In my case, I had to follow 30 hours of training in science (global things like statistics or programming skills), 30 hours of training on “professional training” (it means writing a cv, how to find a job, writing a research project…) and 30h of training in general things.

    Then you can present your work to your referees. And it is only on their advise that you can defend your Thesis and have your Phd.

    But in the same town, in another university, they ask for one publication in a journal with an impact factor greater than 3.

  3. bilouweb says:

    I add that you can have your Phd after 3 years because the majority of fundings are for 3 years.
    But if you can find fundings for one more year, it does not matter.

  4. Erika Cule says:

    @Eva – When you wrote “they keep you longer than if you *did* publish” I assumed you meant in the viva itself, so when I read about minus one year I thought 😮

    From the Wikipedia article I linked to above, it seems that entry criteria also vary from country to country – here in the UK you can be admitted to a three- or four- year PhD with or without a Masters degree (although one might be useful, particularly if it is a Masters with a large research component). Or you can, like I did, go on a 1+3 program which is four years of study of which the first year is a Masters.

    The system in Holland sounds more similar to what I heard about the Finnish system. I think it is lovely that you share your thesis with family and friends, but then I am someone who likes to collect books, and I doubt many of the printed copies get read in entirety!

    @bilouweb – In the UK, the training component is specified by the University. At Imperial we must take some transferable skills training – you can read about my experience here. The specification of the impact factor of the journal you must have published in seems curious, and no doubt sparks its own set of discussions.

    About your second comment, in the UK it is similar, for example, my institution will allow me 48 months from when I first registered for the PhD proper (after the Masters year) in which to submit although they encourage me to submit within 36 months, which is also the amount of time for which I have funding.

    Better get on with it then!

  5. bilouweb says:

    @Erika: the impact factor is obviously curious. I think it is not clearly mentionned but every student know that it is the “hidden rule”.

    In fact, in France, procedures differ, not only from university to university, but inside a university too. “Doctoral schools” have been created to manage funds. I was in the “Mathematics Doctoral School” which have different rules than the “Life Science Doctoral School”.

  6. I was struck by my experiences as a PhD viva examiner in Portugal, where the defence is public, very public with a full hall of attendees. The student had done her research in industry in the Netherlands – where all her work was conducted in English. The viva was consequently half in English (which was obviously the language I conducted my questions in) and half in Portuguese, with the student apparently struggling to find the correct technical terms in Portuguese because she only knew the English ones. At the end of the viva I was, as the external, expected to say whether she should get her degree with distinction or not – despite the fact that I had only been able to follow a fraction of the viva (the thesis was of course in English at least), and that there were 6 (I think) other panel members, who all spoke Portuguese. After it was all over we were all transported to a restaurant some distance away in the country where there was feasting and dancing. So my last task was to dance with the candidate’s father!

    An interesting experience, but if the candidate’s thesis had been marginal, which it absolutely wasn’t, it might have been hard to resolve whether or not they should pass.

  7. ricardipus says:

    Eva – I’m not sure all that you stated is correct about U of T, although things may have changed since I did mine, and as you note it varies between departments. Certain things are globally mandated by the School of Graduate Studies though.

    I believe the minimum PhD residency period is three years, but that is counted from the time you become a PhD student. Starting with an MSc and completing a qualifying exam (typically at 18 months or so) or starting with a BSc and completing a reclassification exam (same timeline) results in no difference in overall time, so the realistic time to completion is minimally 4.5 years. The School of Graduate Studies will start warning you after a total of 7 years, and will kick you out if you hit 10 (provided there were no extenuating circumstances). Most people I know take about six, although I’ve known people who did it in about four, or even one who was done in three (not sure how, since that seems to violate the timing “rules” I mentioned above). One guy almost got turfed out, graduating in his 10th year, more or less.

    I also believe that there is no requirement for publications. The “rule of thumb” in Medical Genetics was that you should have three data chapters in your thesis, which would logically correspond to three publications, but in fact the School of Graduate Studies placed no such requirement and in theory you could obtain a PhD without ever having published anything (in practice, of course, this is unlikely to the point of near-impossibility).

    Of course, everything varies confusingly between departments – MedGen wanted three data chapters with a coherent story told (dare I say, a “thesis”?), whereas in Immunology your three data chapters could be about three completely unrelated sets of experiments (that makes no sense to me, but whatever).

    As extra fun and games, many U of T departments used to have not one, but TWO PhD defences – a departmental one, which was done without an external examiner, and the “Senate” defence, with School of Graduate Studies representation, and an expanded committee including the external. Fortunately in MedGen they’d scrapped this nonsense by the time I did mine, but it used to be that the departmental one was the hard one – basically the department making sure you were able to graduate and wouldn’t be an embarrassment in front of the external examiner. There was a minimum wait time (6 weeks I think) between the two, which just served to drag everything out even further.

    Ah, graduate school. It was fun much of the time, but I don’t miss it even slightly now.

  8. ricardipus says:

    Also – forgot to say that I love the Dutch PhD theses that Eva describes. Much better than the stodgy 8.5 x 11 inch bound books we generate. People even commission artwork for the covers, and have matching bookmarks printed. Wonderful stuff.

  9. chall says:

    Eva> The Swedeen [ 😉 ] way might be slightly changed now with the “change to Bologna process” I’m not totally sure but at least earlier on it was either a BSc or MSc [let’s go with 3 or 4 years of undergrad studies ending with a short thesis and a Swedish exam] before you got accepted into grad studies.

    when I did mine, it was a cap on how many years you could do it (mainly financial) and you got 4 years… and then TAing so you got another .5-1 year on that.. there is usually a difference btw the first 2 years and the last years, in terms of being “employee” or “living on student grant”. (Huge difference in terms of being eligable for social system like sick leave, parental leave, unemployment benefits etc) Not to mention btw social sciences/humanitarians/biomed…. [big generalization; time is not as harsh in the humanitarians… but they usually work more as TAs and have more grant supported research since their salary is the main cost. Biomed gets ’employed’ but need to publish and get out after a set time. Pros and cons from both places.)

    After you publish first author paper(s) [most places would say at least one, preferably 2< ] and then at least 2 more where you are some where in the shared first/second/third you write up your theisis – most then turn to writing a "summary" where you place your research in the context and refrerence the papers, which are printed in the same booklet behind your summary. You can therefore also add "manuscripts" and refer to them (especially if you have run out of money but have data but haven't finalised the manuscript but would like to show that you "are on your way").

    Then your supervisor and the department decides you are ok for defending your work in public…. You get an external "opponent" and a committee (3-5 ppl) who will ask even more questions (mainly from other places, not from your department and usually not from same Faculty). It's not common to "fail" the defense, however it does happen.

    Guess the main difference is that all the defense is open to the public, annonced on the website/news papers and anyone who wants can not only go in and listen but in the end – after your presentation, the opponent's comments and questions, the committee's questions anyone in the audience can ask you questions about your work! (I think this is partly since there are mainly public universiteies and therefore the tax money has paid for a lot of the research but I'm not sure… it could be the old school thing that it tends to be open to the public?)

  10. Erika Cule says:

    @bilouweb – Crikey – unwritten rules are certainly something to be aware of. I wonder if an international student coming to study in France would be as aware of what is expected of them as might be considered necessary.

    @Athene – I already have some idea of who will be asked to be my external examiner. I am trying – and failing – to imagine my dad dancing with either :-S

    @richardipus – That does sound lovely about Dutch thesis. College theses are regulation purple – we don’t get to choose.

    @chall – That is logic about the public being the funders of your work – do many people go?

  11. ricardipus says:

    Erika – we get to choose what colour to bind our own copies (or those to give to our supervisor, etc.), but the unbound copies submitted to the department and library system wind up in “regulation” colours as far as I can remember. My copy is an ugly brown colour that I mistakenly thought would be an attractive, old-leather kind of look – but the one in the library is bound in regulation blue.

    blue version:

    brown version:

  12. Eva says:

    School of Graduate Studies now sends someone to your department defense at UofT, so it’s combined.

    Oh, and not every department had the same funding. Mine (biochemistry) had guaranteed funding , but it was via the supervisors, so they HAD to keep paying even if their students were in their 7th year. So it’s in the best interest of the supervisor to get their students out the door, but at the same time you didn’t have to cut off a project for lack of funding. But not all departments had that.

    I can’t find the source that says you can be done faster after a MSc degree than with transfering. I think it was department specific too, but they changed the website where I thought it was.

  13. Bob O'H says:

    The Finnish system is that you can either write a monograph or (more commonly in the sciences) bind your papers together into a thesis along with an introduction. The thesis is first examined by two pre-reviewers, who’s job it is to decide if the thesis can be defended. In practice if you get through this, you’re going to get the PhD.

    The defence itself is public. There is one examiner, the Opponent, and a chairman, the Kustos (whose job is basically to pour water). It’s all terribly formal with suits and top hats. One odd custom is that after the opponent has finished the grilling, the kustos asks if anyone has any questions for the student. If anyone asks, then the tradition is that they have to be invited to the party afterwards. BUT the tradition is also that they have to decline.

    The party afterwards is also formal, with a big dinner and speeches. Only after that does the party really start. Luckily they’re usually held on Friday.

  14. James says:

    I think it depends on the discipline you do your PhD in (i.e. arts Vs. science) in Australia but I at least know for a biomedical science PhD scholarships are awarded for 3 years and the universities will push you to finish asap as they get there cut of funding on the back end. during those three years there is no requirement to publish peer-reviewed papers but any that are published can be used as part of the thesis or if enough (generally 4-5 I think) high quality peer-reviewed papers are completed in the three years you can apply to complete by publication instead of by these.
    During the PhD students are also required to complete a core-component which varies across Universities, Faculties, Schools and Disciplines but for me included writing up a literature review and at least two 45 min seminars presented to the Discipline.

  15. Erika Cule says:

    @ricardipus – Do you remember here, a lengthy discussion on the choice of color of thesis binding?

    After Bob’s response I am wondering which country has the best post-viva celebrations. (Probably not the way to choose where to undertake your graduate studies.)

    Thanks James for offering an Aussie perspective. That is curious that the department get their cut of funding at the back end – do you mean that they don’t get their money until after you have graduated? If so, who or what pays your fees and lab costs in the mean time?

  16. ricardipus says:

    @Eva – I could be imagining all this of course, but that’s how I remember it… ‘course that was a long time ago. 😛

    @Erika – NO! I’d forgotten all about that excellent discussion. 😀 Proves once again that I only have a limited number of ideas. Fortunately, recycling them is environmentally friendly.

    Also @Eva – pretty sure that most (all?) of the BMS (basic medical sciences) departments at U of T had guaranteed student stipends. Not so in the arts of course. I am stunned at how much money grad students are paid these days – I used to feel rich at $14,500 per year which was what the stipend in MGB was when I started (note to non-Torontonians – that was *before* tuition and income tax, although at that salary level you wouldn’t end up paying much tax (if any) anyway).

  17. Linda says:

    Erika & Cath, Good Lord, i didn’t realize there were PhD “exams” down here. The ANU certainly doesn’t have that kind of debauchery. There’s isn’t much to it at the ANU (I’d be interested in what Richard says as well). The PhD’s 3-4 years (5 if you’re crazy, had kids or were working, or just had shit luck), and there’s no exams, no coursework, and demonstrating or teaching is optional. There’s no defense either. you can either write a thesis (200-300 pages on average) or submit by publication (3-4 suffices). It’s not different from the MPhil, the program’s the same except that it’s 1-2 years. It’s entirely possible to finish the PhD here in 3 years total, i’ve known 3 biologists now capable of it. They were exceptional and lucky. The record for thesis writing was 6 weeks.

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  19. rpg says:

    I remember being SHOCKED that Australians didn’t have to defend their theses. I have to wonder, why?

    • Bob O'H says:

      It would mean they would have to meet people from the Real World. Really, they*re doing us a favour.

      • Linda says:

        Haha. oh no the real world D:
        I asked my when’s my defense? His reply was that my thesis is the defense..
        It is a bit odd considering that they make their honours students go through a defense and proposal presentation.

        I forgot there’s a midterm review of some sorts for postgrads, but it’s not really taken as a big deal. And there are research student seminars or internal conferences where you present your work, but it’s not counted towards your degree :/, and I think all universities have this regardless.

  20. D says:

    Here is an Indian perspective (or what used to be the procedure to get a science PhD (5 years) at an Indian research institute about 5 years ago). I believe now the PhD duration is 4 years- not sure what else has changed!

    You need to have a 2 year master’s degree in science or a bachelor’s degree in engineering to be eligible for admission into the 5-year PhD programme. You also need to qualify in either the nationwide eligibility test (by the University Grants Commission) or the written test offered by the institute. If you qualify, you are then be called to visit the institute for an interview/oral exam. If you pass this, you are admitted and will also get full funding for 5 years from the govt or the institute (in India PhD salaries are not funded from the PI’s grant).

    One year into the PhD you take a ‘generals’-type (like in the US) oral exam (with a panel of examiners different from your viva panel) to be allowed to continue. Then at the end of 5 years, assuming you have done enough work (usually decided by the supervisor 🙂 – not sure what the official guidelines say) you are asked to give a departmental colloquium (as some sort of an internal check). Within a few months of this you need to submit you thesis (electronic copy + some sort of soft-bound form) to the examiners.

    There are two examiners: one from within the country (internal) and one from abroad (external). The internal one can’t be from the same institute as the candidate. Once they return the reports, you can have your viva. The time from submission to viva used to be pretty long (sometimes up to a year)- I hear it is now 2-3 months. Viva involves giving a talk again in front of everyone in the department, followed by a closed-door defense where your examiner(s), PhD supervisor and the head of the department are present.
    If you pass (I am not sure I’ve heard of anyone who failed their PhD viva :)), you make the final changes in your thesis and bind it.

  21. Erika Cule says:

    @Linda and rpg – Crikey, I didn’t realise there was no viva or defence in Australia. How are you given corrections? By letter/email?

    @D – Thanks for an Indian perspective. It is interesting that you give the presentation (I presume this is what the colloquium is) before you submit. These sorts of pre-viva checks (see the pre-review described in Bob’s comment) sound like quite a good idea to me. No such thing exists in the UK, although there is nothing to stop you presenting/submitting your work somewhere in the runup to submitting your thesis, if you are organised enough.

  22. Steve Caplan says:

    It’s been a few years–and in the meantime I am still becoming accustomed to the US system–but I did my Ph.D. in Israel. At that time (1993-1998, and I believe things are relatively similar today), acceptance into a graduate program was by first finding a mentor/sponsor. There were no “rotations” or trials, because most students had already done a 2-3 year Masters research degree with a full research thesis and examination (which in my view was harder than the Ph.D.).

    Once accepted, there was no set time for graduation. It was all contingent on the supervisor’s (and supervisory committee’s) assessment of the student’s advancement. This, of course, was entirely arbitrary, as for some supervisors, 3 papers in good journals were not enough, whereas for others a single manuscript submitted was sufficient. The average graduation time was about 6 years.

    It is of interest, that unlike in the US system where the final oral presentation (public) and then defense (private) are held AFTER submission and approval of the dissertation, in Israel the ‘final public talk’ is given ahead of the writing of the thesis.

    In this system, since the final obligation of the student is to submit the dissertation and then await corrections/approval months later, most Ph.D. students who were bound for postdoc positions outside the country would actually fly out months before actually being awarded their degree–myself included. For most US institutions, this was not an issue, but since I chose the National Institutes of Health (NIH), run of course by the US government–having the actual degree documentation was a strict requirement.

    Ironically, having received a Human Frontiers fellowship, I was able to start at the NIH for my first 4 months until my Ph.D. was approved as a “Volunteer” with my own money.

    Now having observed and been exposed to multiple systems in numerous countries, it would be great if we could take the most logical parts from each system and create something better.

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  24. Petya says:

    In Germany there are usually two ways to finance your PhD: either you have a 50% work contract at the institution (that means you are paid 50% of the regular scientific salary, but you are supposed to work 100% or even more) or you bring your own fellowship from an independent source. In the first case you are not obliged to actually complete a PhD – but of course, this is what most of us try to do. Usually you get a 2 years contract and, if you can show some decent progress, an extension for a third year. If you have not completed your thesis by this time, you either have to be very creative and find some other support or apply for unemployment benefit. For the thesis as such publications are not strictly required, but strongly encouraged. Actually at the moment there are two possibilities to graduate: the PhD can be awarded from graduate programs, and if you are working at a university you get the Dr. rer. nat., which is the old German title and means “doctor of the natural sciences”.

    I started my work in a neurosciences lab at the MDC in Berlin about two months ago, so by now I have a half-time contract but strictly seen, am not a PhD student yet – I have to apply to a program or university for this because the MDC is an independent research institution. I almost made my mind already that I would enroll at the Free university in Berlin, which gives you more freedom – you don’t need any ECTS points for that, which means, basically you CAN attend all the workshops, seminars, lectures etc. like students enrolled in a PhD program, but you MUST not do it, so you have much more freedom for adapting your time schedule to your needs (and don’t have to skip an entire day of experiments just because you have to attend a lecture on something completely unrelated to your subject which happens to take place at the opposite end of the city). But, apart from these administrative differences, the PhD and Dr. rer. nat are pretty much the same thing. At the end you have to submit your thesis, either a classical one or the so called “cumulative”, which means three articles and a general introduction. Usually several weeks after submission there is an open-public defense before a committee of 5 senior researchers, during which you give a talk of about half an hour about your research and then you are being asked questions, related to your research, from the committee.

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