I'm a US undergraduate in math and physics and I'm looking to ultimately do a PhD in either physics or math. It seems that a lot of the research I connect with the most is happening in Europe. I also like the focus on research rather than coursework in European PhD programs. However, I've found most of the process confusing for an outsider like me.

I would like to know the ins and outs of how graduate programs work over there. There's different lingo there, for example: Taught vs Research MSc. Which is better ultimately for a PhD program? I also get the feeling that Master's and PhD in Europe mean something totally different than what we mean in the US. Are there funded Master's programs in Europe (in math/physics) as there are in the US? How does funding compare?

For reference, I've been looking at schools in UK, Germany, and Switzerland (although not so much Switzerland due to the high cost of living).


Edit: I'm now aware of how broad my question is. Nevertheless, I found much of your advice helpful in gaining a general knowledge of how to pursue postgraduate degrees abroad and some additional considerations, so thanks! If/when I have more specific questions about this process I will ask them in a different thread.

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    This is incredibly broad. A proper answer might take a book. Consider revising to lower the scope? Feb 22 '19 at 23:42
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    The UK, Germany and Switzerland are three completely different countries. For instance, one is in the EU, one isn't, and the other is about to leave. They have different educational systems (albeit somewhat aligned after Bologna), speak different languages, have different cultures etc. Some programs are funded, others you need to pay for. This can vary even within the same country, let alone the continent! You really need to make this a good deal more specific. Your question is like asking about "North America" and expecting the answer to cover Mexico, the US and Canda.
    – terdon
    Feb 23 '19 at 15:24
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    @terdon offers a good place to start. "Taught vs Research Msc" is an entire question in and of itself in my opinion. Somebody else may have already asked it! At this point, I personally don't think you should modify this question anymore. I think the boat to narrow the question has sailed as you've already got some insightful answers, but consider the scope issue for future questions. Feb 23 '19 at 16:02
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    Don't overthink the high cost of living in Switzerland. Virtually every PhD position is coupled to either a stipend or salary, and those in Switzerland more than compensate for the higher cost of living, compared to the rest of Europe. Feb 23 '19 at 17:41
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    @KonradRudolph From the question, I'd say that the OP would like to start from an MSc programme, for which scholarships may not be enough to compensate for the higher cost of living in Switzerland.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 23 '19 at 18:36

I can give you some insight in Germany/Austria (phd in physics in Austria), not so much on the UK. Many countries in Europe now use the Bologna system https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_Process#Qualifications_framework

It is normally a three step process for a phd: Bachelor programs is more or less equivalent to US undergrad, takes 3 years normally (all numbers with some variation depending on country and field) and ends with a bachelor degree BSc. Step two is a Master program, duration normally two years and mostly course orientated. Normally ends with a master's thesis, which involves independent research in a group under the supervision of a professor. This is a requirement for entering stage three, the phd. In general there is no funding for the master's years (maybe some for the half year during your thesis or if you TA), you are considered a student. Tuition fees depend on country/university and can be waived with stipends if you qualify (no fees in Austria though)

PhD is almost exclusively research in a specific research group and normally fully funded. Minimum duration is three years.

You see, that what you call graduate studies/phd in the US is separated into Masters and PhD in Europe, you obtain a Masters degree in the middle.

This also means that the application process is very different depending on stage. Let's say you want to start your masters in STEM in Europe. Setting visa considerations aside, for some universities you can just sign up for a Masters in Physics for instance, no entry exams. Some might require exams and charge you tuition fees.

One your done with you Masters, you can look for phd positions at either the same University or wherever you like. The availability of positions is tied to funding, which is normally under control of the leading professor of the group. So you apply to her/him and if they like you they can hire you. In most cases you don't have to get accepted by the university, you just enroll. A professor has to accept you. (Very different to the US). Often, you end up doing your phd within the group you wrote your master's thesis in.

On top of that there are graduate schools with extra funding where you apply to the program and the will assign you a supervisor.

So overall: Bacc-Master-Phd; 3-2-3 years

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    +1 nothing to add, only that imho the european system gives the student more choice, I wouldn't have liked the idea at all in a very broad scientific branch like physics to outline my future career/phd topic after bachelor degree. After 3 years you understand the basics of the physical theories, how research in physics works you get an idea during your master work, then you should have still choices imo Feb 22 '19 at 21:10
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    It's slightly overstating things to call the Bologna process a system, since in many cases institutions essentially carried on doing what they did anyway, just handing out the extra tokens as necessary to fit the rather elastic Bologna model and notional "comparability".
    – origimbo
    Feb 22 '19 at 21:35
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    that's how my university called it, but yes the simply split the former 5 yrs degree into two degrees without any changes. Some other universities adapted though not always made things better
    – Noldig
    Feb 22 '19 at 23:58
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    @MichaelSchmidt This is why I am very interested in the European PhD system. This much I was able to glean from my own research.
    – Cuhrazatee
    Feb 23 '19 at 14:42
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    Excellent answer (+1), one thing to note is that the "independence" and novelty" of Master theses varies wildly form place to place (even within the same university). You have places where the Masters is a strong preparation to a PhD, and other where the Masters is slightly more than a longer homework.
    – WoJ
    Feb 23 '19 at 16:42

PhD as "apprentice researcher" job

Many institutions here seem treat their PhD process as something close to "apprentice researcher" job positions. When they have a vacancy for such an "apprentice researcher" (e.g. some funded project needs extra junior researchers and has funding for them), they'll put an advertisement for a potential student and this will be treated essentially as generic hiring process - the ad stating what skills they want, what will be the expected duties, and what salary they offer (Here's an example); and the candidates submitting their CVs to apply for the job, followed by some interviews and the institution picking the most relevant candidate and hiring them.

During that project you'd be expected to get hands-on research experience and prove that you're "not an apprentice" anymore by defending a thesis based on the research results you obtained in that role.

  • Thanks! I was curious, how often do students stay in the same place as their masters for their PhD? Is it expected to stay in the same program for both masters and PhD?
    – Cuhrazatee
    Feb 23 '19 at 14:41

One thing I haven't seen mentioned and is the case in most of Europe compared to the US is a much narrower focus during undergrad and corresponding assumption at the master/phd level. The usual amount of credits in math courses during a BSC in the Czech Republic is roughly 100-120 over the three years. We take almost no breadth courses with the exception of Phys. Ed. a Foreign language course and maybe one or two physics/programming courses.

This generally means you are expected to have a rather broad and deep understanding of the core subject (math, physics, CS, biology etc.). At the same time the breadth type courses are taken at the high school level.

It's also worth pointing out that as a general rule (there are exceptions obviously) up to roughly MS. level you will get a much better education in Europe, but it is very hard to beat US PHD. programs anywhere except at a very small number of extremely prestigious European Universities.

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