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I earned my PhD in continental Europe. Except going to a few conferences outside Europe, my network, collaborations and events were all in Europe so I was pretty much living in a European bubble. I am still here, but now that I am in a faculty position I started collaborating with people from everywhere and travel quite a lot outside Europe. As much as I try to avoid generalizing and I am aware that much is field dependent, there are some things I noticed about the general perception of European PhD degrees (and this can probably be extended to universities in general) outside Europe:

  • Students from Asia (especially from China and Korea) I met said that they prefer going to the US for a PhD, and Europe is only a second option because of less prestige.
  • When I was considering applying to positions in the US, a few people told me informally that I don't have good chances as those who apply with PhD degrees from US universities, without even considering my CV.

But my experience is conflicting and makes me confused:

  • I visited a few universities in the US, and noticed that people doing a PhD are treated as students rather than as employees, financially they struggle and most of them have to work on stuff other than research (taking courses, teaching). Frankly the whole system looks miserable to me. In many European countries they would be employed with a decent salary and benefits, focus only on research, have a better travel support, among other benefits. If one was given the choice between the two, I don't understand why anyone would go to the US to do a PhD instead of Europe (no hard feelings) and consider it a better option.
  • Judging from job applications I get from fresh PhD graduates around the world, on average those with a PhD from the US are not better than others (I am aware that this might be biased because good PhD graduates in the US often prefer staying there).
  • American PhD theses I have seen are not as good as those from Europe. For example, in the Netherlands most PhD students must publish a few journal papers before they graduate (some have 4-5, and this doesn't include conference papers). The theses are usually of high quality, and are even published as books. Looking at recent PhD theses at elite US universities like Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley and MIT, I cannot help but consider them less good and with less contribution.

This will likely strongly depend on the field, but in general I find that the average PhD experience, student wellbeing and quality of work in Europe is no worse than in the US, if not better. Yet, people worldwide seem to favor US degrees.

Is a PhD degree from a European university considered equally valuable as one from the US? If not, why is there this gap and lower perception of PhD degrees from Europe?

  • Depends, my friend who graduated from Jena scored really good job. Other still struggle. Some British are regarded as Ivy league and there are increasing number of US going in Nordic countries for postdoc. They score good assistant professor possition in US after postdocs there. STEM field is flexible. However humanities and social science is very rigid – SSimon Jan 5 at 3:18
  • I think most important thing you need to get job in academia is opportunity. If you are at correct time, in correct place with correct people, you can get job no matter from where you did your PhD. In addition to that, local politics plays very important role in employment options. So if you have PhD from US, you are likely to have more connections in US than if you have one from Europe (and vice versa of course). – Dexter Jan 5 at 11:21
  • I think this has little to do with the quality of the title and the graduated person but it is instead linked to other aspects of general political and economical power, as well the prestige of certain institutions. For the rest I agree with you. At least going back twenty years, a period in which I was in contact with students from everywhere and, beside their own qualities, the preparation was that of high school for imprint. Moreover I have read on an ACS magazine that PhD students struggle even with health insurance in the US. Obviously I could have chosen a PhD in US, but at MIT or so. – Alchimista Jan 6 at 8:32
  • In American lit programs, dissertations tend to be argumentative. In Spain, more bibliographical. Broadly speaking, each side sees the other's dissertations and feels they are lower quality due to different expectations. Dunno if that holds up for other countries/fields, but I also would caution the broad labels. Furthermore, PhD/dissertation culture can change. It used to be in Portugal you would work on a dissertation for well over a decade, but now the government has put in a strict shorter time limit that has necessarily reduced the scope and complexity that dissertations can have. – user0721090601 Jan 23 at 22:23
  • Does this answer your question? Why are US PhDs different from European PhDs? – Herman Toothrot Jan 24 at 10:05
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One simple answer is no, the two aren't equally valued, because the two are also not even regarded as equal. As a trite example, consider that many European countries (especially the German-influenced ones) are very picky about which letters you can put before or after your name. I have a dual-degree, so I am "allowed" to use Dr. as a legal part of my name in Germany; but my officemate with a solely American Ph.D. cannot. The way in which doctorates are made is also vastly different-- the U.S. requires coursework and then research, (often) mixed with lots of (often underpaid) teaching duties, while European doctorates typically frontload on the research and are light on teaching responsibilities. Those different experiences produce different palettes of qualificiations and skill sets. It's no wonder that if you're primarily paid to do research, you'll probably produce a better thesis than someone who had to perform teaching duties 20 hours a week.

However, there's also the danger of regarding "Europe" as a monolith. I've heard anecdotes from some Italians who struggled to get funding to finish their degrees without taking on big teaching duties. (But see comments by @MassimoOrtolano.) Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria all suffer from "brain-drain" as young folk go west for education. And I get the sense that when people say "Europe" in the context of academia, they're almost always, knowingly or unknowingly, referring to Germany, France, and the UK. Few other European entities have as much economic, political, or historical influence as those three.

Along the same lines, Europe comprises dozens of different languages and cultures. Asian students are more likely to already know English than French or German (or Dutch or Polish or Finnish...) and therefore will seek a degree in an English-speaking country. American culture and accents are more familiar to the world than, say, British or Australian, because of the movie and music industries. (The UK is also not super stable in terms of immigration standards at the moment.) Seeking a degree in the U.S. is then just plain easier-- you don't have to spend time learning a new language or adjusting to a new culture. For these students, it may be that because English is the de facto language of science, the notion of what's considered "prestigious" just followed blindly.

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    "My Italian colleagues have indicated that the situation in their home country is not unlike the situation at many American universities": Uh? Which field? I'm not sure I interpret your sentence correctly, but I've never seen in Italy a situation comparable to that of US. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 22 at 22:12
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    It is just not true that all PhD students in America do a lot of teaching; the teaching load varies considerably in different fields and different programs. Also the reason why PhD in America requires coursework is because most people apply directly with a Bachelor's degree with no Master's level training. – Drecate Jan 22 at 23:52
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    I'd probably add the UK to your "Germany, maybe France", if only because people saying that are usually English-speakers, and liable to be biased towards the bit of Europe that they share a language with. – user3482749 Jan 23 at 0:12
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    Just to add about the situation in Croatia when I was leaving: the brain-drain is a consequence of some or all of the following: very little public funding (often hard to obtain unless you were already a known figure in the '90s), virtually no industry collaborations, heavy on administration and quite slow to take advantage of EU funding, all of that resulting in under-funded and very single-nationality research labs. A bit better now apparently than 9 years ago, but at a PhD level, you simply can not do research of the same quality, especially in a non-theoretical field, due to lack of funds – penelope Jan 23 at 17:00
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    @artificial_moonlet It's more complicated than that. I wrote a bit about PhD funding in Italy here and here. So, the basic government scholarship is around 1 k€/month, which could lead to financial struggle if you want to leave in an apartment of your own, but it can raise up to 1.5 k€/month for wealthier universities, and this allows a decent life here. In any case, the maximum teaching hours that a PhD student can deliver in a year is limited to around a hundred hours, much less than the US case. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 23 at 18:17
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I would say, from what I understand, the answer depends on who is doing the valuation. I have seen people claiming certain school/countries has a bias towards phds from the US. I have also heard that it was better to do your PhD in US if you want to stay in US afterwards and it was better to do your PhD in Europe if you want to stay in Europe. It is hard for me to elaborate further without expressing opinions. I think there is some truth to American Universities being more prestigious. They are much more name recognized for one reason or the other. My impression is that American Universities were significantly better as there had been huge brain drains to US and good educational acts such as the G.I. bill while Europe and other potential contenders were recovering from the WW2 and other political instabilities. Also, I would say this is a passing trend. contemporary US politics seem to go in the direction that

  • makes much harder for underprivilaged Americans to get decent education
  • makes it very hard for successful foreigners to come into their system
  • less welcoming for academics to stay (let it be xenophobia or let it be widespread misinformation on factual topics such as climate science or medicine)
  • makes harder for American Universities to compete fairly with foreign ones on graduate admission

I think what you are observing is "the heart of academia" shifting from US to Europe. European graduate programs are, I think, much better. To my experience, they are free and easy to apply, they do not require meaningless paperwork (for admission), they usually offer good benefits (healthcare, maternity benefits etc.) and many more things that you have listed. There are also some issues with the European system that still make America more of a "hot spot" when it comes to applications. The biggest example is that European system usually only gives stipends to PhD applications (and PhD programs require masters degrees) whereas the American Universities usually offer a way to earn money (even though it is seriously underpaid with little benefits). People who wish to apply abroad after their bachelors can not apply the European programs unless they have sufficent external funding for a masters first. It seems like there are some German innitives dealing with this issue (DAAD, Berlin Mathematical School etc.).

In short, I believe the American Universities and their PhD programs were far better. Hence they have a huge name recognition and prestige attached to their names. However, I think currently they are equal to sub-par with European programs and they are overvalued with very few exceptions. It usually takes a few generations for peoples' perceptions to change. I think overtime, with this trend, American Universities and their PhD programs will be valued more according to their actual quality (at least by foreigners). But in the meantime we have overvalued schools/programs living off their former success. You may also check this answer for my opinion on the subject with expilict examples.

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  • +1 for the historical context of WW2 and modern political context. Unfortunately, many European universities now charge for masters' programs (e.g., Germany and Switzerland). Still not as expensive as the U.S., but also not insignificant. Not to mention, students often also have to meet a language requirement to even apply, and it costs time and money (classes, official exams) to reach the required level (usually B2 or C1). – user108403 Jan 28 at 15:37
  • @artificial_moonlet yes but even if the charges exist they are waived for EEA (European Economical Area) citizens. – Boaty Mcboatface Jan 28 at 18:22
  • Since the OP's question is about degrees in the international context, you should probably clarify that "free" is only for EEA in your answer. Along the same lines, European programs might be easy to apply to for Europeans, but not necessarily for foreigners. The application may not be in English or you may have to provide difficult-to-obtain paperwork (like birth certificates and decorative diplomas, in my case). – user108403 Jan 29 at 7:43
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I got my Ph.D. from a small university in Northern Ontario (Canada). I have been working in the private sector and know very little about getting into academia.

To the best of my understanding, your likelihood of success is determined by the quality of your publication record. Then the pedigree of your education comes second.

I've found there is always one-up manship that goes on between Europe and the US - and not just on the basis of academics. European patents are purportedly harder to get than those in the US.

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