Tamara De Beuf, OG Heldring Institute & Maastricht University

Samantha Zottola, North Carolina State University

Whether you are browsing the web in search of a PhD program or you are exchanging experiences with fellow graduate students, you have probably noticed considerable differences in how PhD programs around the world are organized. This article features 11 striking differences between PhD programs across the world. Differences in, for example, teaching duties or program duration, will be discussed for three large regions: North-America, Commonwealth Nations and continental Europe. To our knowledge, this is the first article to compare these three regions, as most sources focus on the comparison of two educational systems, such as USA vs. Europe, or USA vs. UK.

If you are considering graduate school, we hope this article will help you find the best fit for your academic and personal needs. For current graduate students, insight into the scope of PhD programs may increase understanding of the academic life of fellow PhD students across the globe. Likewise, for faculty, we hope this article encourage awareness of the ‘academic upbringing’ of colleagues, especially in an international setting. Finally, on the administrative level, awareness of the different approaches may contribute to the debate on best practices in designing, implementing and running doctoral programs. Note that this article will not address differences between disciplines or specific universities. Rather, it will provide a broad overview of differences between PhD programs across major regions in the world.

What’s in a Name?

When familiarizing yourself with graduate degrees, you may be puzzled by the terminology and multitude of abbreviations. Some terms can be used interchangeably, such as ‘doctoral’ and ‘doctorate’; however, this is not the case for ‘doctorate’ and ‘PhD’ (see Figure). Similarly, a master’s and graduate degree do not correspond exactly, as ‘graduate’ refers to all post-bachelor degrees and not only to a master’s. Furthermore, you will encounter PhDs, PsyDs, EdDs, MDs, etc. These are all doctoral degrees, yet different types.

The abbreviation ‘PhD’ stands for the Latin Philosophiae Doctor and refers to ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, which is an earned academic degree. Despite its name, a PhD is not exclusively for students studying philosophy; the rank can be awarded across all academic programs. The word has its roots in the ancient Greek philos (love) + sophos (wisdom/knowing), referring to an appreciation of knowledge rather than a specific study. A PhD is characterized by a strong research orientation; students have to conduct extensive academic research on a chosen subject. After earning the degree, PhDs typically continue as scientists and/or academics.

Alternatively, there are professional doctorates that train students to become clinical scientists who are more likely to serve as practitioners than their colleagues obtaining a PhD. A professional (practice-focused) doctorate is common in fields such as medicine and law (i.e., MD and JD), and is also available in psychology as ‘Doctor of Psychology’ (PsyD), and in the field of education as ‘Doctor in Education’ (EdD or DEd).

What’s in a title? Someone who earned his or her PhD can use the title of doctor, abbreviated as Dr or Dr., or use the post-nominal Ph.D., PhD, or DPhil. These titles cannot be used together (e.g., Dr. Jane Doe, Ph.D.), preference should be given to one of them. Someone who is still working on earning a PhD degree is called a doctoral student, doctorandus, or PhD student. In North America, a PhD student becomes a PhD candidate (or doctoral candidate) when he or she has completed all coursework and only has the dissertation to work on. Depending on the program, the student may also have to pass a comprehensive (oral) examination to obtain this particular status. Remember that the use of the title ‘PhD candidate’ is restricted to academic settings. To avoid misrepresentation, it should never be used with clients.

Differences across Regions

In this article, we focus on the research-oriented doctorate degree, the PhD. Each country has its own specifications and customs when it comes to academia in general, and PhD programs in particular. It is beyond our scope to discuss programs of all 196 countries in the world. Therefore, we organize our comparison into three broad regions: North America (i.e., Canada and USA), Continental Europe, and the Commonwealth of Nations (CN). Information concerning the latter primarily pertains to the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, and might not apply to other members of the CN.

For details on PhD programs in specific countries, we refer to websites such as FindAPhD and Academic Positions. For example, the ‘FindAPhD’ website lists information on 36 countries and how they typically organize a PhD.

In what follows, we compare these three regions on 11 PhD-related topics; from admission requirements and financial matters, to term structure and program duration, to obligations and the final assessment.

1. What does it Take to Get in?

Although all regions require good academic performance, typically with a distinction grade, the minimal entry level may differ. In continental Europe, a master’s degree in a related subject is required to be eligible for a PhD program, whereas in the CN and USA, a bachelor’s degree can be sufficient. In the CN, more specifically, a first or upper-second class bachelor’s degree is accepted, which is equivalent to a GPA of 3.3 or higher. Australian programs might additionally ask the applicants to demonstrate research competence (e.g., through peer-reviewed publications, presentations and significant research experience/training). Likewise, in the USA, applicants must hold an undergrad degree in which they acquired significant research experience. A master’s degree can be earned prior to beginning a PhD program or as part of the PhD program. Canadian programs parallel the European requirement of a master’s degree. However, Canadian programs may offer a fast-track for honors undergrad students. A bachelor’s honors degree (Hons) is awarded after completing more rigorous classes, research and a bachelor’s thesis, in addition to the regular bachelor’s program. Nevertheless, for these students, PhD programs will likely be extended with additional master’s level training in the first year. Occasionally, mainly in Europe, a student may be invited by a supervisor to start a PhD, without going through the formal application process.

In addition to prior academic degrees, universities will have other requirements to fulfill, such as letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and academic transcripts. Moreover, North American programs require applicants to pass additional examinations (e.g., GRE or GMAT) and in all regions, non-native English speakers have to prove English proficiency via internationally recognized English language tests (e.g., IELTS or TOEFL). For resources on the application process, such as writing a personal statement, we refer to the Graduate School Resources section at the IAFMHS website.

2. What does it Cost?

The cost of PhD programs varies by country, student status (domestic/local or international), and type of university (privately or publicly funded). In this paragraph, we present general rules and we strongly advise to research tuition fees of the particular programs of interest.

Overall, fees for European PhD programs are low compared to Commonwealth and North American programs. Moreover, many countries (e.g., Finland, Germany, Denmark) offer free doctoral programs at public universities to EU citizens. Non-EU students are typically charged higher tuition fees, although these do not reach the numbers of English-speaking countries.

In the UK, a PhD student generally pays £3,000 – 6,000 (about USD $4,000 - $8,000) each year and this amount increases to £9,000–14,500 (about USD $12,000 - $19,000) for non-EU (pre-Brexit) students. In Australia, international students pay between AUD $14,000 and $37,000 (about USD $9,900 - $26,000) per year. For domestic students, the cost is lower as they benefit from state subsidies. Unlike the UK and Australia, New Zealand does not charge higher fees for international students; fees vary between NZD $6,500-9,000 (about USD $4,400 - 6,000) per year.

Completing a PhD in the USA is most expensive; between US$28,000 - $60,000 annually, with private schools at the upper limit. Public schools offer lower tuition for in-state students (students that live in the same state as the university) versus out-of-state students (students who live in other states or international students). Compared to the USA, Canada is perhaps surprisingly ‘affordable’ with most universities asking an annual tuition fee of CAD $2,000-9,000 (USD $1,500-6,700) for domestic students and between CAD $10,000 and 23,000 (USD $7,500-17,000) for international students. Furthermore, North American PhD programs have additional graduate student fees on top of the tuition fee. Graduate student fees, or ‘compulsory incidental fees’, are used to pay for campus and student services other than instruction (e.g., health-related and recreational services).

3. Funding Opportunities

It is possible to obtain complete or partial funding for a PhD program. However, the abundance of funding sources varies widely and, in some cases, comes with stiff competition. Four possible funding sources are bursaries, scholarships, fellowships, and grants provided by governments, universities, hospitals, or foundations.

Bursaries and scholarships are similar in that they do not have to be repaid but differ in that bursaries tend to be need-based and scholarships tend to be merit-based. There is a lot of variation in what these funds can be used for (e.g. housing, tuition, textbooks, etc.), their amount and duration, whether the money is taxable, and whether accepting the money comes with any work expectations. These are all critical points to consider when applying for and accepting bursary or scholarships. The website Scholarships for Development provides an updated listing of scholarships, searchable by country, that are available to international students.

The other major sources of funding for academic work are grants and fellowships. These funding sources also do not require repayment; however, they are highly competitive. Some grants require the completion of specific research. They are awarded based on a proposed research project that must be completed within a set time frame. With this type of grant, awardees may be expected to meet deliverables throughout the funding duration and to share a final paper or report at the conclusion of the grant. This type of grant is not likely to be awarded to a student. However, it is possible that a student’s advisor may obtain this grant (possibly with the student’s assistance) and use a portion of the funding to pay for their student’s tuition and support their student with a stipend. Other grants, called training grants, fund an individuals’ academic training. Training grants and fellowships are similar in that they are seen as an investment in a future scientist or clinician. Because these funding sources are designed to support a candidate’s training (e.g., coursework, fieldwork), they usually do not require specific output.

Each funding opportunity has specific requirements or qualifications, and in some countries, funding might be more difficult for international students to obtain. For example, international students in the USA and Canada will find that government funding is limited and competitive. However, other countries provide more abundant funding to international students.

There are a few other possibilities for funding graduate studies. One is to look for companies that will fund employees who wish to obtain a PhD, in return for a commitment to stay with that company for a set number of years after the PhD is obtained. Another possibility, seen in European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, is that universities consider graduate students to be employees. Students are paid a (sometimes tax-free) wage to conduct research as part of their doctoral program, with few obligations beyond research.

However, more commonly, PhD students work as tutors or research assistants and in return for this work, universities waive tuition and provide students with an annual stipend. The specifics of this type of arrangement vary (e.g., tax-free vs. taxed stipends), but it is used to fund programs in North America, Continental Europe, and CN alike. An important consideration for this type of funding is the amount of work that will be expected. As we will discuss in the next section, teaching can be time-consuming so taking on a teaching assistantship may require considerably more work and thus delay or put a strain on your own classwork and research. The same is true of research assistantships if they involve research outside the scope of a student’s primary interests or if students are not credited for the work they do. Therefore, it is important for students to be fully aware of the expectations, scope and focus of assistantships.

In general, for all funding opportunities, the student must weigh the level of funding, spending options, and output/work requirements carefully. Nevertheless, these funding sources reduce, or even eliminate, the need for graduate students to borrow loans.

4. To Teach or not to Teach

The expectation for PhD students to engage in teaching either as teaching assistants or as primary instructors, varies in programs around the world. Teaching may be a requirement of the funding that students receive toward paying their tuition (see above). When serving as a teaching assistant, students typically work under the primary course instructor and may be expected to grade homework, proctor tests, host study sessions, or engage in other tasks to assist the course’s main instructor. When graduate students serve as primary instructors, they are responsible for creating curriculum and teaching an undergraduate level course on their own.

The level of supervision/support that students receive when they are primary instructors varies by university. Some programs provide resources and training opportunities that students can use before they serve as primary instructors. Other programs lack resources and students may find themselves in charge of a class with little to no formal preparation.

In general, teaching assistantships are a good experience for students who are interested in careers in academia, especially for those with teaching-oriented career goals. For them, this proof of teaching skills is valuable to include on their CV. Nevertheless, teaching comes with challenges; it is time-intensive and demands a specific set of skills. Therefore, students with less interest in teaching are encouraged to carefully think through the pros and cons of a teaching assistantship.

5. Research first or Research later?

In European and Commonwealth countries, students typically apply to a specific research project or they are invited to a program by the principal investigator, whereas in the USA, the way students apply varies. Students may apply to a specific supervisor up front or they may apply to a department in general and then apply to a supervisor one or two years into their PhD. In the USA, many programs start off with broad coursework which leaves more time for the student to explore different topics of interest. This means that students in the USA often decide on their specific research topic a little later than students in other countries. The latter approach is also possible in the UK; however applicants still have to include a research proposal and a potential supervisor in their application. Compared to the USA, Canadian PhD programs are typically more research-focused from the outset. Students decide on their research topic shortly after admission.

6. Pick and Choose a Supervisor

The significance of choosing the right supervisor or dissertation advisor should not be underestimated, as the student-supervisor relationship is one of the most important determinants of success in a PhD program. As stated earlier, it is most common in European and Commonwealth programs for supervisors to be involved right from the application. In continental Europe, a supervisor is linked to the research project students apply to. The primary supervisor is a full professor and expert on the subject who takes on the role of principal advisor. In CN programs, students are required to connect with the lead investigator of an existing project or a faculty with appropriate research interest, prior to applying. More supervisors (co-supervisors) can be invited to join the project and guide the student throughout the program. In North American programs, the timing of when a supervisor (also called mentor or advisor) is approached, varies.  While this is shortly after admission for Canadian programs and some programs in the USA, in other USA-based programs, the student may already be two years into their PhD. Some programs assign a supervisor to the student, based on common research interests. This supervisor becomes the primary advisor for the dissertation. Other faculty may also contribute to the student’s training, especially when there is additional coursework.

7. Work those Courses

In many European and Commonwealth PhD programs, students have little to no coursework as they immediately start working on their research project that will result in their dissertation. Students might be required to attend a few seminars each year. In sharp contrast, North American programs come with heavy coursework, especially in the USA where the first two or three years primarily consist of courses and seminars. In addition to courses, some doctoral programs in North America arrange internships and placements.

8. Intermediate Assessment during a PhD

The comprehensive exam (also called preliminary examinations’ "prelims"; general examinations, "generals"; or qualifying examinations, "quals") is a major component of PhD programs in North America. In fact, in some programs, a student is not considered a PhD candidate and cannot submit a dissertation proposal until they have passed this comprehensive exam. The exam often includes both a written and an oral component though the exact structure and content are decided by each program. Students may pass unconditionally, with conditions (edits required), or they may fail. Depending on the field of study, a student who fails the comprehensive exam may be expelled from the program or given the opportunity to take the exam again within a year. Many Commonwealth and European programs do not require a comprehensive exam, with a few exceptions. For example, Sweden and Hungary require written and oral exams at the halfway point of a PhD program. In the UK, universities require an informal oral exam of the progress a student has made toward their dissertation after one year of full-time study.

9. It was Fun while It Lasted…

For students who prefer a short track to their doctor’s title, a PhD program outside of North America would be recommended, especially if they already have a master’s degree.

Completing a full-time PhD program in North America takes three to eight years of a student’s life, with an average of about six years. In the USA, compared to Canada, there might be less pressure to finish as students can keep funding until they complete the program. This is different from European and Commonwealth countries in which a full-time PhD takes three to four years to complete.

However, that is when the absolute numbers are considered. A PhD program in the USA can be entered with a bachelor’s degree; therefore the first two years of coursework in an USA doctoral program are equivalent to obtaining a master’s degree in Europe. When accounting for a one or two-year master’s program, graduate school in Europe also lasts four to six years. Finally, program duration might differ per university, per department, and program type (e.g., research vs. clinical).

10. The Cherry on the Cake

Much of the dissertation and defense process is similar in countries around the world. However, some specific details of the process vary between countries (e.g., committee members, timing). In North American programs, PhD students begin to work on their dissertation after comprehensive exams are completed, usually in year 3 of their program. After passing these exams, students propose their dissertation (i.e., topic, literature review, analytic plan, expected results) to a committee and begin the process of data collection and writing. In most European and Commonwealth PhD programs, students propose their dissertation as a part of the application process and begin working on it upon program entry.

The length of the dissertation varies by field of study and program requirements. The length and structure of the dissertation varies by field and program requirements. Typically an APA paper structure is followed, however, some programs allow a publication-based dissertation (i.e., 3 to 5 journal articles tied together with an introduction and conclusion).

‘The Defense’ is the final step before obtaining a PhD (also called a viva voce in some countries). In North America, students defend their dissertations to a committee of approximately four academics. These include their primary supervisor, two professors from within their department, and one professor external to their department. In Europe and CN, the size of the committee varies and includes at least one professor from within the student’s department and at least one professor or expert who is external to the department. The length of the dissertation defense, or viva, varies but is typically one to two hours. During this time, committee members ask questions about the specific contents of the dissertation, such as the main hypothesis or methods of collecting data, as well as more general questions to test a student’s knowledge of the field. In some countries, the defense is open to members of the program and the public, while in other countries (primarily in the UK), the defense is private.

Overall, this final step of the PhD process is quite similar across countries so PhD students around the world can relate and commiserate over the process of writing and defending a dissertation. For some great advice on how to survive this process, check out this article from two of our previous student board members!

11. Life after a PhD

Traditionally, PhD-holders have ended up in academia or research. People interested in this track often take a postdoc position for a couple of years and then move into a full-time academic position. However, in recent years PhD holders have increasingly looked outside of academia (#AltAc) for work. This trend is common in the North America, Continental Europe, and CN. To illustrate, less than half (44%) of PhD earners in the US and just under half (53%) in Europe work for universities in traditional academic positions. Many PhD holders are seeking positions in government, industry/business, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, and other fields. Many of the skills gained in a PhD program can be easily (and successfully!) transferred to work settings outside of academia (although there is some disagreement with this point). With the highly competitive nature of the current (academic) job market, this is an important route to consider. In fact, many universities around the world are beginning to include training for non-academic jobs as a part of their PhD programs.

Even though finding employment within academia can be challenging, unemployment rates for people who hold PhDs in social sciences are low worldwide (4% in Europe and under 1% in the US) . In sum, some PhD holders may end up in career tracks they did not originally envision, rates of employment are high, and many PhD holders report happiness with their jobs.

There is increasing recognition for the need for more resources on career possibilities. As such, the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) supported the development of ImaginePhD, a free online career planning tool for PhD students and postdocs in humanities and social sciences. Grad students self-assess their career-related skills, interest and values, and explore potential careers from sixteen job families. In addition, an algorithm aligns self-assessed skills and interests with job families. Get inspired by stories of fellow PhDs in past IAFMHS newsletters and on the podcast PhD Career Stories. Or check out Building a Career Outside Academia for some great information on alternative-to-academia career possibilities.

There is More to It

In this article, we have sketched the difference between PhD trajectories with broad strokes. We understand that this approach has limitations. First, to maintain overview, we decided to discuss three broad regions in the world. We acknowledge that there are more regions that offer competitive PhD programs beyond North America, Continental Europe, and Commonwealth of Nations. For example, Asian countries such as Singapore and South Korea already have a well-established system of higher education and countries such as China and Saudi Arabia are expanding their higher education. The mentioned differences may not generalize to these programs. Second, our comparison zoomed in on 11 topics. While these themes may relate to the most obvious features of PhD programs, there are more characteristics to consider, for example work-life balance. Third, we focused on full-time and university-based PhD programs. Other options, such as part-time programs and external (company-funded) PhD programs as well as Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) programs were left out of the discussion.

Wrap Up

In sum, while PhD programs around the world have common themes (e.g. term structures, dissertation format, defense process), there are considerable differences in approach. Some of the most notable distinctions relate to finances (i.e., tuition and funding), focus at admission (broad versus subject-specific), instruction (i.e., coursework and teaching), and determining the primary supervisor. Awareness of these variations between regions may assist prospective students in choosing a graduate program that aligns best with their skills, talents and future aspirations. Among PhD students, this awareness could challenge one’s assumptions on overseas programs. Perhaps most importantly, discussing these themes may lead to comical conversations about each other’s programs and their accompanying agony.

This blog was published as an article series in the IAFMHS newsletters of 2019 and updated in March 2023 by Alexa Barrett, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We welcome comments, feedback and personal experiences on the discussed themes via students@iafmhs.org.

[All images were freely downloaded via Pexels and Canva

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