PhD in Europe vs US – Key Differences

A PhD is the last level of education you can achieve in a particular field. To earn a PhD, a student must show academic and research mastery in their subject. If you are considering pursuing a PhD program, you should explore all your options. Renowned institutions are offering prestigious PhD programs all over the world. Generally, you have hundreds of options to pick from, but choosing a single program within so many can be overwhelming. This article compares PhD programs in Europe vs the US. Both locations offer competitive programs. However, the doctorate programs in such different locations vary significantly in terms of length, structure, minimum requirements, etc. The section below expands on the key differences:

Comparison: PhD Europe vs US

Program Structure and Minimum Requirements

In the US, a student with just a bachelor’s degree can get accepted into a PhD program. The PhD program consists of a combined master’s plus PhD degree. First, the students complete coursework for 2 to 3 years. Then, they must pass qualifying exams to prove knowledge in their field and readiness to conduct research. Once they have passed the qualifying exams, they can continue to the last part of the program: their own research. If a student fails a qualifying exam twice, the university won’t let them proceed and earn a PhD. Yet, they can still graduate with a master’s.

It is possible to shorten the length of a PhD program in the US if the student has a master’s degree in their field of study. Then, some courses can be credited to as completed to shorten the coursework portion of their program. However, this is not a general rule. Each university has its own procedures regarding this matter. A factor to keep in mind is that universities are more likely to credit courses if the degree was awarded recently.

In Europe, the structure of PhDs is different. The vast majority of programs require a master’s degree. And the master’s degree must align with the field of study the student wishes to pursue during their program. PhD candidates are already familiar with research and start working on their thesis from the very beginning. In most cases, there is no need to complete any coursework or take qualifying examinations.

Length: Time to Degree

According to the 2018 Doctorate Recipients from US Universities Report [1], the average PhD candidate takes 8.6 years to complete their degree. Doctorate programs in Physical Sciences such as biology or physics, are the shortest with an average completion time of 6.9 years. Similarly, Engineering PhDs took an average of 7.3 years. On the other hand, PhDs in Education took the longest to complete with an average time to degree of 14.7 years. In the US, the research advisor decides when the student has made enough research contributions to graduate.

In Europe, PhDs tend to be a lot shorter. The average time to degree is four years[2]. Many programs have predefined set lengths. The students must put enough effort into their thesis to obtain meaningful results within the timeframe. Four years might seem short compared to the 8.6 years in the US, but incoming students already have a master’s degree in their field of interest.

Thesis and Thesis Advisor

PhD applicants in Europe have a clear idea of their research interest. They chose their research advisor and thesis topic during their application. During admissions, they are asked to pitch their research topic not only to sell their idea but also to prove their expertise in research methods.

Since, in the US, many students start their PhD right after their bachelor’s, they might not have much experience in research yet. They are not expected to choose an advisor or thesis topic right from the start. Most admitted students are still learning about their interests. Because the program includes at least two years of coursework, they have a few years to explore different subfields and figure out which one to pursue.


Top US institutions offer fully-funded PhD programs with a stipend for living expenses. Others offer fully-funded programs to only a limited number of fields of study. However, the vast majority of students in the US must search for funding through other channels such as grants, scholarships, and their research advisor. Also, some students fund their studies through Graduate Assistantship (GA) and Research Assistantship (RA) positions at the university. This positions include several duties, such as grading homework and tests, assisting during classes, and performing research.

The government supports many PhD programs in Europe. Yet, this funding might be limited to only tuition costs or might have a maximum term limit depending in the country. Students in Europe must also search for other funding opportunities to secure their financial situation. Again, students can apply for grants and scholarships, and perform work for the university.

The main drawback of taking a TA or RA position is the additional work students must perform. PhD programs are very demanding and take many years to complete regardless of the location. When students are loaded with extra responsibilities, they are more likely to get delayed on their research and even quit the program.

Other Considerations

Studying abroad can allow you to explore a different part of the world and widen your options for PhD programs. However, moving to another country is a challenge. For example, you need to research about student visas, funding, and language barriers. PhDs in the US are entirely in English. In Europe, many universities offer English based doctorate programs, and others offer programs based on their local language. In regards to visas, visas are required when studying abroad. US applicants will need to apply for a student Schengen visa. And European applicants will need to apply for a student F-1 visa.

Final Comparison: PhD Europe vs US

  • PhD Europe vs US: Explore study abroad programsLength: PhDs in Europe are considerably shorter (8.6 years vs. 4 years)
  • Minimum requirements: Bachelor’s degree in the US vs. Master’s degree in Europe
  • Thesis topic: Students in Europe must know their research topic from the start
  • Funding: Funding options vary across institutions and countries
  • Language: PhD programs in the US are in English. European universities offer programs in different languages.
  • Visa: Required in most cases

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