A North American Perspective on doing a PhD in Europe

Whether we like it or not, the world academic language is English, and if you are a North American aspiring academic, it would make sense to stay close to the ivy-covered centre of the universe. Some of us, however, do not make that choice. We are two Canadians (one Anglophone and one Francophone) who decided to study in Europe instead of staying in Canada or going to the US. Much is made of the differences between Anglo-American and European approaches to both of our disciplines (IR and philosophy respectively) and leaving North America to study in Europe may raise a few eyebrows.

So, what is it like to leave the hegemonic academic culture to study in Europe? We asked ourselves a few questions about it, and the following is our take on doing a PhD across the pond…

Why did you decide to go?

Zoe: I always assumed at some point I would live abroad and when I applied for PhD programs, I didn’t seriously think about staying in at home. Academically, studying in Europe was more appealing than the US (not least because I didn’t have to add GRE-prep to the application process) but, as a native English speaker, it seemed pointless to do academic work in a second language. So, I looked for programs with interesting faculty and a general approach to the discipline I thought would be appropriate for the type of research I wanted to do. I applied to UK programs and the BTS. BTS has much better funding than the UK programs I was accepted to (also: Berlin > Coventry). The fact that my co-author was already living in France was an added bonus.

Etienne: I came out of six years of philosophy at the University of Ottawa with Canadian funding that I could take to any university I chose. Through my advisor in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to go study with a respected scholar working at la Sorbonne whose work I was interested in. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, especially given that I didn’t feel like doing (nor do I agree with) the GRE. The US was a no go, and the idea of living four years in Paris with full funding sounded pretty good.

What are the biggest differences (academically and socially)?

Zoe: I am in the odd position of studying in a German program that is (to an extent) modeled after the programs at home. So it doesn’t feel that different, socially or structurally. One of the small things that has struck me is the extent to which having a PhD is valued here. While Canada may not have quite as pronounced of an anti-intellectual streak as the US, getting a PhD is not something that will necessarily be greeted with a lot of enthusiasm or understanding. Also, the job market in North America isn’t that great (or really really terrible, depending on who’s talking). My European colleagues don’t seem to have quite this level of fear of unemployment and I think a PhD is considered intrinsically more valuable here than at home.

Etienne: Being from Quebec and sharing a language and to some extent culture with the French, I expected to feel pretty similar to them. I am not. I would be inclined to say that there is much more distance in everyday social relationships in France than in North America. I feel more North American than I ever did before, a bit like a pickup truck parked in front of the Fontaine Saint-Michel. Of course, the academic environment is a reflection of the wider social customs.

What are pros of studying in Europe?

Zoe: Of course, the general benefits of living in another country, learning a new language etc. apply to doing a PhD abroad. Academically speaking, it will also expose you to different ways of doing your discipline, which can be really interesting and challenging. If you manage to maintain contacts back home, you will also greatly expand your professional network, which can’t hurt, in light of the aforementioned employment issue.

Etienne: The scariest part of doing a PhD in France may also be the best. Being here, you understand quickly that it is up to you to work on a daily basis, and to get feedback on your ideas. If you don’t pressure yourself to do this, nobody else will. It might be overly optimistic, but I think this makes the unstructured PhD training very efficient. Think of it as a cruel but useful test. If you do manage to write a good book-length dissertation without constant feedback, I have no doubt that you can be an academic. You might not get a job, but if you do get one, you are going to be good at it. But, to be honest, the best part of the experience is more on the personal level, I get the chance to spend my mid-twenties between Paris and Berlin while being paid to study Kant and Aristotle.

And the cons?

Zoe: Of course as an outsider, you will to some extent be at a disadvantage compared to home students; another difference I have noticed in Europe is the prevalence of research teams, something I think isn’t as common at home, and as an international student you may not have a lot of faculty connections (aside from your supervisor) at the outset and have a harder time getting involved in other projects.

Of course there is also the question of whether a European degree is valued in the States. The general consensus on various message boards I’ve seen is, unfortunately, no unless you are in a highly specialized field.

Etienne: The experience of doing a French PhD can vary completely from one individual to another. If you are lucky, your supervisor will be interested in you, you will be integrated to a research team and you will find people who can give you feedback on your work. If not, you will be really isolated in an academic culture you don’t necessarily understand. It might also be more difficult to re-establish contacts in your home country. Luckily, I am fairly well-integrated in a research team. If not, I think I would find the process twice as hard.

What advice would you give someone considering a European PhD?

Zoe: I feel bad now that my cons section is so much longer than my pros, given that I’m actually enjoying the experience. I think the most important thing is to decide on what your goals are, academically and professionally, before you make your decision. If you want to be the next Anne-Marie Slaughter, and you already live in North America, it might not make sense to study in Europe. If you are more interested in experiencing another academic culture, living abroad short term, and possibly working here as well, then I would suggest at least considering it.

Etienne: Before doing it, ask yourself the following questions: Do you want to do it because you think it will really help you to get a job afterwards (wrong answer) or because you think it has intrinsic value (right answer)? How hard do you want to compete against the Ivy Leaguers, many of who will have been taught to devalue your European PhD?

If you do decide to do it, then I would suggest the following: 1) Find a few friends or professors who can give you feedback (harsh feedback when necessary). 2) Find yourself a workplace away from home. One of the hardest things in France is actually to find a place where you can work seriously, as the majority of students do not get office space. 3) Think of Europe as a network, and try to find opportunities to present your work in different countries. 4) Focus on your PhD, and not too much about the professional challenges that might come after. If you need to adapt, you will (especially if you need food). 5) If you have sporadic (and rather intense) breakdowns, then remember that’s just a normal part of being a PhD student, wherever you are.

13 thoughts on “A North American Perspective on doing a PhD in Europe

  1. American here completing a PhD in Europe.

    PhD training in Europe varies considerably depending on the country. “Overall” a PhD done in the Nordic countries better qualifies someone for independent research than a PhD carried out in the major countries of the European mainland (France or Germany). The exception here being that Dutch PhDs tend to be closer to their Nordic counterparts in terms of expected quality. Typically the average Swedish or Finnish science PhD must have 4-5 first authored publications in international journals before they are allowed to defend a compilation dissertation/thesis. These requirements weaken the further south one goes. The level of English (the international academic language) is also much more widely used and considerably more fluent in the Nordic region than in mainland Europe. There is also more mobility because these Nordic students have less of a language barrier to surmount.

    The value of a European PhD on the American market depends on the specific European research group, and whether that group has strong links with institutions in the US and vice versa. My view is that quality PhD graduates will have made their contributions in such a way that it truly does not matter where one obtains their PhD – after all you are judged on the quality (and quantity) of your research productivity during and after your PhD completion.

    The unstructured nature of European PhDs is in contrast to the hand-holding and often redundant coursework that accompanies most North American PhDs. Ultimately the major difference that I’ve found concerns the treatment of PhD students/candidates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US you are considered and treated like a student whereas in Europe you are considered a colleague in training. I am employed, paid a livable wage (I can save even after food and housing), have a job title, have health insurance, five weeks of paid vacation, have access to free childcare, an office and I pay into the national pension system. Find me an equivalent PhD opportunity in the US and I’ll sell you the Montmartre. Brains migrate and academia in the US is collapsing under its own mismanagement and greed. Science is now done by Asian PhD students at American universities who are willing to work for peanuts just for a chance to realize the elusive “American dream”. Much of it is good marketing. Among those that do migrate back to their home countries an American PhD=prestige. Even with a stipend there is a huge opportunity cost to doing a 5-6 year PhD in the US.

    1. Derrick, these are some great points. Of course, Europe consists not only of France and Germany and so it makes a lot of sense to me to look at the Northern European countries as well (or Southern or Eastern Europe for that matter). So thanks for complementing Zoe’s and Etienne’s experience.

      Yet, I do not agree completely with this assessement:

      “Overall” a PhD done in the Nordic countries better qualifies someone for independent research than a PhD carried out in the major countries of the European mainland (France or Germany).

      What is your claim based upon? How to do you assess ‘overall quality’? To me, there is just too much variation regarding the institution, the field of study, or even the supervisor. And the higher education system has changed so much over the last few years now and it is still changing (Bologna reform). Some would even say that the the national education systems are converging. Hence, I would not make the claim that Northern European countries are better / worse / whatever compared to other countries. But I’m curious to know why you think that Norther ‘better qualifies someone for independent research’.

      And, again, out of curiosity, you are based at a Northern European institution, aren’t you?

  2. Great comments. Thank for the insight. Can you share which college you chose in Europe? I’m researching how to fund such an endeavour.

    1. I just finished my PhD in the Netherlands. My opinion covers the Netherlands, Germany, and the German-speaking center of Switzerland, Zürich, as I seriously considered doing my PhD work in these three countries. I decided on this because of my respect for their academic rectitude without the kind of arrogance I see in the Ivy jungle. (I did my MA at one of “those.”) The PhD work here is “to demonstrate that you are capable of conducting an independent research work that is demonstrable, opposable, and defendable.” In fact, in the three countries this is more or less the legal definition of a PhD degree. And some jobs, not just in academia, require that you are a PhD. I think this is a major difference, compared to the US system. Also another difference is that in most of the EU, universities are funded by the national government, with no or little tuition, and most of the time with a salary. So the money issue is out of the way. Most PhD candidates I know of here in NL are more mature, well into their thirties. Those in their forties are not uncommon. In order to be admitted into the process, you need to submit a proposal that will survive a peer review process. In NL the process usually involves one year of work and another review. If you are judged not as productive (depending on what this may mean, depending on the discipline), then you will be asked to stop and leave. Under the condition that you pass the one-year review, the pattern appears that the younger ones (in their twenties) take a lot longer to finish the thesis, while the mature ones seem to have a better time, finishing in four years or less. I guess when it comes to independent research, maturity matters… You are asked to assemble a review (not advisory) committee from the beginning. Here’s the chance for you to convince other scholars you respect to join your work. They will sit through the process until the day you present and defend your thesis. I am skeptical if the US dissertations are any more innovative or groundbreaking, and the EU ones less so. I feel that the PhD in the three countries I mention tends to be more pragmatic and perhaps realistic than their US counterparts. The PhD process here is officially called “the promotion,” and your advisor is called “the promoter.” I think this says a lot about the process.

      Trying to decide which system is better I think is purely personal. If you know what you want to do, want to jump straight into it without wasting time, and know that you are ready to do it on your own, then do it in one of the three countries I mention. If you still need a milk nanny, then do it in the US. I am sorry that this might sound very nasty, but I have seen as many idiots in the Ivy jungle as anywhere else. So it’s a matter of finding the right environment that will “support” your work.

      There you have my 10 cents.

  3. Hi Zoe and Etienne,
    Do you know anything or anyone who is doing a PhD in history in Europe? Also, does your stipend cover a visit home or do you need anything way to pay for this? Thanks so much.

  4. I discovered this website after googling “why do I think Europe is better than North America in research” – so there was my disclosure :) I agree with everything flyingdutchman said.
    I did my PhD in Life Sciences in the Netherlands and am now a 4th year postdoc in Canada (the highest rank Canadian University there is, if you’re curious). I’m now “senior” enough to help my boss mentoring 2 Canadian grad students and, oh boy, outside the lab, they are financially miserable.
    Grad students here are paid CAD 20,000 and postdocs are paid CAD 40,000 before tax. No pensions and limited benefits. Even worse, grad students also pay really expensive tuition fee (not sure how much exactly).
    I was fortunate to be able to obtain European funding and have been paid with European salary scale so far. As a comparison, my 1st year postdoc salary was EUR 54,500 (~ CAD 76,500). In the “Canadian salary scale”, you need to be a Research Associate with 8+ postdoc experience.
    There are so many smart grad students and postdocs with decent publication record who left academia in my institute because of the sh***y appreciation they get from the government and/or the institution. People left academia everywhere, but here is so much more than what I’ve seen in Europe (UK, Netherlands, Sweden at least).
    My EU funding agency has a policy that encourages me to come back to Europe after postdoc. I will do so, gladly. Academic life is miserable in Canada. Quality of life science research in Europe is comparable to Canada.
    I do care about my students and would like to encourage them as much as I can, science-wise. Personal-wise, I wish I can quickly get a PI position in Europe and “adopt” these students in my lab so that they don’t have to be miserable here. PhD period was probably the best period in my life, really productive and happy, and it’s supposed to be like that for everyone.
    And with that I’d like to finish my rant :)

    1. Dee,

      That is an interesting assessment, and I am glad to hear someone got something for their studies! I completed my Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge and am moving on to study my PhD; my choice is between Halifax and Helsinki. Neither institution comes with any funding worth a damn — the only reason I can afford to consider my Helsinki study right, is because of the lack of tuition charges; I’d be financing through good old Canadian student loans (what little I have left). In fact, one of the big issues I have to overcome if I take Helsinki is how to go about changing my status with the Finnish authorities so they do not try to tax a student who is not earning a red (or any other colour) bean!

      Halifax is no better — despite winning a scholarship, I am only left with about $4000CAD after I have paid my tuition. I can only afford to go there if Dal. agree to let me teach a *bunch* of classes — one a semester. It looks likely that this will not be the case. Nevertheless, this is $4000 more than Helsinki — the downside is the length of the degree: 6 years apposed to 3-4 (my student loans will only fund 3 years of study — after that, I am on my own!)

      Of course, I am keen to work with people at Helsinki — that is the point of my application there — however, due to the recent cuts and the lack of philosophical discourse at the institution itself, I am not certain whether it would be the right move (given that discourse of a philosophical nature often leads to greater thought development than being sat in a room reading to yourself). I don’t yet have any experience studying in Europe, but I am keen to do so because the people at Helsinki and a fresh perspective on my research area; I am keen to go to Halifax because of the opportunity to teach and the knowledge that, though I am fed up with coursework, it will probably increase my AOCs.

      My biggest concern is not whether or not my European degree will afford me better chances at North American Markets, but whether I can get hired anywhere at all! I have recently discovered that teaching and researching positions in Europe are less popular and less available — but my interest is not solely in research, but in teaching as well. To be frank, after 6 years of schooling, I would quite like to have some financial security, but out of the 7 institutions who offered me a position for my PhD, the most cost effective are ‘no money at al’l, or ‘money only if you teach (providing we have course for you to teach). My calculus is a function of limiting debt and maximising potential — it’s just more breadline than many others’. I fully expect my PhD to be the worst experience of my student career.

  5. Hi. I’m currently busy doing my masters in nutrition in South Africa. I’m thinking of doing a PhD abroad, from what I’ve read it seems Europe is a much better option. Can anyone point me in the right direction as to country and university? Would one be able to conduct the PhD in my home country or would I have to move abroad?

  6. Hello,
    Are Ph.D Programs typically shorter in the amount of time to complete them in Europe than in North America ?

  7. I’m considering a PhD in philosophy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Any thoughts?

  8. Hi, I am 40 Year old and a practicing Doctor. Since my Medical School, I always dreamed to become a researcher involved in basic science – labs, Maths, Computers but could not do so because everyone was so surprised why I want to leave lucrative career for uncertain academic world. Now I have option still to join PhD in varied subjects related to Medical Sciences in EU – in Denmark, NL, Germany etc. What are your opinion about such a career change at this age?

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