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There are generally two kinds of ways to get admitted to a PhD program in Europe or some other places—one is through a calling for PhD applications by a research institute, a university department or a research division therein consisting of researchers involved with closely related research topics, and another is through an opening of a position—which can be called PhD position, PhD scholarship, research assistant, or research associate as far as I have seen—within a research project of a principal investigator. The first usually administers once every a fixed short period, like a year, half a year or four months, usually has multiple positions and is flexible in research topics for PhD studies while the second only administers when an principal investigator gets the funding, usually only has one position each opening though it can occasionally have two, and the PhD research topic is confined to that project.

I have long heard that if one wants to pursue a PhD in Holland, they have to first look for a related job vacancy. I guess this means Holland mainly admits PhD students by the second way mentioned above. However, I also heard from activities regarding Studying in Holland in my country that it's almost impossible for a foreigner to win a PhD position through a job vacancy in Holland unless they have a network with related principal investigators in Holland, like they have pursued their MSc in Holland. I wonder whether this also applies to other countries, particularly in Europe, where a PhD position opening within a research project like a job vacancy, that is my aforementioned second way of admission, seems very common as a whole. I heard the reason that Holland rarely awards job-like PhD positions to networkless foreigners is that they don't have many vacancies of that sort and therefore they prioritize their compatriots. I wonder whether this is the same situation for other countries.

  • I don't know how it works in Holland but I'd be surprised that such policy exists: it's unlikely to be an official policy since it would certainly be discriminatory; and it's unlikely to be an informal practice because it's in the PI's interest to select the most qualified candidate independently from their origin. However everywhere there's a natural bias towards students who graduated from a local university, simply because the PI can evaluate their level more accurately. For what it's worth I'm not aware of any such preference in France or Ireland. – Erwan Jul 18 at 21:39
  • We have the same system in Germany (many phd students are fixed-term employees paid with money from research grants) and I have met many international phd students. I'd say in the current economy your chances are pretty good because fewer national students want to do a phd. – Roland Jul 19 at 8:56
  • @Erwan Sometimes it depends on funding source. Discriminating based on skin color/ethnic origin may be illegal, but a government providing educational opportunities for its citizens and not for citizens of other countries isn't. I know nothing about education in Holland but in the US there are some funding opportunities that are not available to international students; related to that, some outside countries offer to pay for students to attend graduate school in the US if they agree to return home. – Bryan Krause Jul 19 at 16:54
  • @Erwan I mentioned Holland because I've heard people in activities regarding Studying in Holland talk about the unlikeliness of winning Dutch PhD positions. These activities seem to be held often in my country, like a manifestation of encouraging our nationals to go to Holland to study. But since Dutch PhD positions are rarely awarded to us, who go to Holland to pursue PhD? I've seen a lot of job-like PhD positions in other European countries and applied some of them, finding this kind of application seems not easy to get response, so wonder if the Dutch situation applies to these countries. – Captain Bohemian Jul 19 at 17:54
  • @Erwan It's like not all job-like PhD positions select candidates by the principal investigators solely, e.g. some of them require to apply through their online recruitment systems—this is what Scandinavia countries typically do. On the other hand, I did see a job-like PhD position in Ireland and applied for it in May, but haven't got a reply. As for France, it's like their admission also needs to be initiated by contacting a principal investigator because I've never seen they have centralized openings, but I am not sure who are responsible for selecting candidates. – Captain Bohemian Jul 19 at 18:52
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Most PhDs in the bio-molecular subjects in the UK are awarded through the "job-like" route (although that is changing in some places). For most of these the position will only be open to those that count as "Home" students. Until we leave the EU in October, that includes people from the UK or the EU (after that it will just be people from the EU).

The reason for this has nothing to do with already being part of a network etc, but simply because these positions might look like jobs, but they are not. They are usually government funded PhD scholarships (where the PI has been selected to stand proxy for the government in selecting the student). For better or worst (worst in my opinion) the government has decided that its job is to educate native students (and is forced to include European students by the EU).

However, such studentships will almost always state in the advert "Home/EU applicants only".

  • I have noticed a lot of PhD openings in UK through the first way I mentioned above note their funding is limited to EU applicants and some of them add that applicants outside EU may only be partially funded or need to look for funding elsewhere. I don't often see job-like PhD openings in UK. But with your information added, I think UK usually keeps their PhD funding for their compatriots no matter which way of admission. Though I have recently seen some PhD openings in UK which don't state their scope of funding, I may be afraid their funding doesn't cover non-EU applicants. – Captain Bohemian Jul 19 at 17:00
  • In general, if the funding comes from a governmental body, such as one of the UKRI funding bodies (BBSRC, MRC, NERC, EPSRC, etc), then it will be EU only. However there are also charity funders of PhDs in the UK, such as the Wellcome Trust that fund non-EU applicants. My experience of EU schemes, such as Marie Curie PhD fellowships, is that they also extend to non-EU applicants. – Ian Sudbery Jul 19 at 17:08
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I can only answer to the modest extent of my knowledge, but my experience (France and Ireland) is that in practice there's no real "PhD program" to apply to, in the sense that usually one applies to do a PhD with a specific supervisor, either on a predetermined topic or a topic that the candidate and supervisor decide together. The funding may come from various sources:

  1. Funding obtained by the candidate themselves and not attached to the specific position, for example a grant from the country of origin or through a scheme related to the candidate's current employment.
  2. Various governmental and non-governmental funding bodies: often attributed to work on a specific topic considered as a priority by the funding body, but sometimes allocated to the person based on merit.
  3. Funding from a pool of grants allocated by the institution, usually distributed to PIs before being advertised (this used to be quite common in France but I'm not sure if it still is)
  4. Project-specific funding from a grant obtained by the PI (or in which the PI is involved). In this case the advisor and the topic are completely predetermined (this would probably be the most common case nowadays).

I'm not familiar with the distinction made by OP between institution-level funding and "job-like" funding in France and Ireland. The closest to this would be case 3 for the former and case 4 for the latter. In France a PhD funding is always an employment contract, in Ireland it's always a student grant (i.e. not a staff contract).

I don't have any statistics but a large proportion of PhD students in Ireland are non-nationals, and probably a smaller proportion (but still a significant one) in France. I'm not aware of funding restrictions by nationality. However it's clearly much easier for a local candidate (not necessarily a national but somebody who has studied in the institution) to get a PhD funding, because a lot of PhD positions are not advertised (at least not in any serious way), they are almost directly offered to the person the supervisor wants to fund. This is why most of the time the supervisor is the key: unless the candidate obtains their own funding (cases 1 and 2 above), all the other options depend on the supervisor. Some of these positions are advertised, but they can attract many applicants so the chances are limited. I think contacting a PI directly offers a better chance... especially a PI who has many projects funded.

  • There is also a list of funding ways in a Dutch university, Obtaining funding in University of Groningen (UG): 1. UG salary, that is like through a job-like position within a research project; 2. UG scholarship, 3. other scholarship; 4. employer; 5. personal funding. But I feel hopeless to get funding through either of the above because I've never seen UG announcing 1 or 2, it may be very difficult to find other scholarship, there can't be an industrial employer for academically oriented research. – Captain Bohemian Jul 20 at 17:48
  • It's likely that any list of available positions you're looking at is only a small subset of the available positions. And of course these positions are the most competitive. If possible try to contact somebody there, or at least find some field-specific advertising channels. If you are applying only on publicly advertised positions you should probably target more than one country in order to get a reasonable chance to be accepted somewhere (but it depends how specific is the field). – Erwan Jul 20 at 18:09
  • I think directly contacting principal investigators not having opening announcement is of little avail based on my experience. Most either reply me they have no position to offer currently or don't reply me. Few (like 3) directed me to a PhD program or a research project position of their colleagues to apply, and after applying, they didn't admit me. I did contact a principal investigator in France, but he has no grant and said if I can secure independent funding, let him know; moreover, he introduced me three of his previous colleagues, who have moved to Canada, in topics I wish to work on. – Captain Bohemian Jul 20 at 18:53
  • I know that it's a game of chance, but for better or worse direct contact opens more doors than just sending an application among a few hundred other applicants. Many PhD positions are obtained because the student has done an internship or master project with the supervisor, or has been recommended by their master thesis supervisor to their colleagues (including colleagues abroad sometimes). – Erwan Jul 21 at 1:13
  • My difference between institution-level funding and job-like funding is that by the former the candidate can choose their research topics and their supervisors among the principal investigators in that institute while by the latter the candidate can only take the principal investigators of that project as their supervisors and their research topics must be within the scope of that project. I like the former more than the latter based on my experience because the topics I greatly wish to work on and have related technical knowledge rarely lie in the scope of a research project with PhD opening. – Captain Bohemian Jul 21 at 7:02
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TL;DR: No, its not hopeless.

In the United States, admissions often end up being more like the second way than the first way, even though they are the first way "on paper" (whether you are a foreign applicant or not).

The way to go about making this happen is by building a relationship with a potential adviser, and then when you submit you application to the department, your potential adviser can make it known to the admissions committee that they want you admitted so that you can work with them. I sent very similar applications to 8 schools, and the only 2 that admitted me with funding were the ones where I had a potential adviser who went to the admissions committee and said that they wanted to have me.

The process I described works whether you are from the US or not. I'll link to Matt Might's blog, where he gives a longer description of what the "getting into graduate school" process looks like: http://matt.might.net/articles/how-to-apply-and-get-in-to-graduate-school-in-science-mathematics-engineering-or-computer-science/

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