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In the US PhD prospects apply to several universities and those select an amount of applicants from that pool according to how many open spots the universities have for that term. Criteria for admission are GPA, GRE/SAT and research experience documented by 2-3 letters of recommendation.

In Europe the application process is often times quite different in the way, that not a selected number of applicants get admitted each year, but each available research/teaching assistants position is treated individually. Because the requirements differ vastly, a lot of the times the only formal requirement for application is a 'good' or 'very good' masters degree and/or experience in field x or with technology y.

I wonder, are letters of recommendation expected, if so how many, and how important are they actually?

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We can distinguish two different kinds of doctoral graduate studies in Europe:

  • Programs through "graduate colleges" and "graduate schools" with centralized admissions policies
  • Individual PhD positions in the research group (or institute, chair, etc.) of an individual professor

In the first case, everything is essentially along the lines of an application to a US-based graduate program, and letters of recommendation still carry the same weight.

For an individual position, letters of reference may be important, but as you suggested, it depends on the individual professor doing the hiring. For some research groups, the posting of an application is a formality, as they're only interested in hiring "internal" candidates (that is, people who have already worked in the group as bachelor's or master's students, and who thus can be "directly" evaluated). For people doing real searches, however, letters of recommendation are also important, because they can provide information about a candidate's research abilities in a way that is not possible just looking at a transcript or set of certificates.

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    I don't fully agree. For example, I'm enrolled in the Swedish National Graduate School in Space Technology. However, it was still the individual professor who decided to hire me as a member of the research group (in fact, I was a master student at the time). So I'd say that in at least some cases, the two kinds that you describe are mixed together. – gerrit Jun 15 '13 at 17:16
  • @gerrit: I've added an additional clarification of "centralized admissions policies" which I hope makes my intention clear. – aeismail Jun 15 '13 at 19:02
  • Right, clearer now (: – gerrit Jun 16 '13 at 21:24

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