This is a special community wiki 'canonical' question that aggregates advice on a frequently-asked question. See this meta discussion. Please feel free to edit this question to improve it.

Please give answers here that explain in a bit of detail what the doctoral level application process is like in a specific country. Make it clear at the beginning which country.

Mention, also, if there are many exceptions to the process you describe. Feel free to edit answers to provide additional information, and, especially field specific information. The focus of this question is on the admissions process, not the process of completing a degree after admission; however, if a country's PhD process has unusual aspects that applicants should be aware of, please do describe these briefly.

The intent of this canonical question is to clear up for students, usually cross-border students, what they can expect in making an application and how it will be evaluated. Answers can also be an aid to people answering questions. For example, there are differences between Canada and the United States in doctoral education and it is often useful to understand that when answering specific questions.

Answers have been provided for:

  • 3
    This sort of thread also seems like a good potential use case for version labels if it gets rolled out on sites other than SO.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 20 at 23:09


Status of PhD Candidates

In the Netherlands, there isn't really such a thing as a PhD student. In fact, whenever people talk about students within the Netherlands, this category explicitly includes Bachelor and Master students, but excludes PhD candidates.

Most commonly (especially in the STEM fields) PhD candidates are employed by the university (or research institute) as an “assistent in opleiding” (AIO) or “onderzoeker in opleiding” (OIO), which are considered full employees, with a full 40-hour workweek, a full salary (fixed through the Collective Bargaining Agreement for Dutch universities, so it's almost entirely non-negotiable), and employee benefits (social premiums, 41 leave days per year, and so on and so forth).

Some PhD candidates in the Netherlands pursue a PhD without being employed by a university. Such “buitenpromovendi” typically pursue their research part time while having some other full time job. Typically they will have an advisor at university, and may have some arrangement that gives access to university resources such as libraries. Buitenpromovendi are extremely rare (to the point of being almost non-existent) in STEM fields, but are more common in the arts.


Since PhD students are employees, you would be applying for a job here. Application only makes sense if a job is advertised. It makes very little sense to cold e-mail individual professors or departments to try to get a position, since almost always we cannot offer you a position. If, through a specific funding source (this can be a project funded through a government grant or a company, or directly through the university), money has been made available to hire a PhD student, this will be advertised as a job on the university's vacancies website and through other academic job advertisement channels. Your best bet is to reply to an explicit vacancy.

There is one exception to this rule of thumb: if your government has provided you individually with a grant to go do PhD research for four years in a foreign country, you may be successful by directly approaching potential supervisors.

Application deadlines vary per vacancy. There is no generic hiring season.

To the best of my knowledge, all Dutch universities have as a strict condition that applicants already hold a masters degree. Generally speaking, a bachelors degree does not qualify you to apply for a Dutch PhD position. This has to do with the fact that PhD students are not seen as students: there will not be any coursework, which you will already have done in your masters degree.

Applications will be handled in a university-specific manner. There is no application fee.


Beyond demanding a masters degree in a relevant field, the requirements of an application vary massively per vacancy. You can imagine that a position funded by industry requires a different skill set from a position funded fully by the university itself. The Dutch grading system doesn't run on GPA, so there is no universal grading system into which you need to translate your grades. The flip side of this is that whoever evaluates your grades may not have the knowledge required to interpret how difficult it is in your country to achieve your grades. It may help to provide your own interpretation as a separate document along with your grades.

A certain level of English language proficiency is almost always required. A certain level of Dutch language proficiency is almost never required. With exception for some specific research fields, it is eminently possible to make a career at a Dutch university without speaking any Dutch.

Often, universities will want to see your masters thesis. If you are still in the process of finalizing it, a sample of the thesis may also do the trick. Any publications will also help here; the core competence to display here is scientific writing, in whatever form.

The Job Interview

The top-few candidates will be invited for an onsite interview. The interview will be taken by the intended promotor and copromotor, although random interested members of the group may also attend your presentation.

Which form the interview takes will depend on university, position, and the number of applicants. You will likely be asked to prepare a presentation: introduce yourself, talk about your research so far (masters thesis, publications if applicable), and you may be asked to give a vision on first ideas of approaches to the specific research proposal corresponding to this position (existence of such a proposal may depend on the funding form for the position). If the position comes with teaching tasks (percentage specified in the job ad), you may be asked to talk about your teaching experience and/or vision.

You may also be introduced to some of your potential future fellow PhD students. This is a chance to ask questions about working conditions in the lab, so that you can also make an informed choice whether you want to work with these specific supervisors.


After all invited candidates have been interviewed, the promotor and copromotor will decide who is the preferred candidate. This candidate will likely be sent a job offer within a working day or two (sometimes, when the HR department of a university malfunctions, it can take substantially longer; this shouldn't happen, but it happens more often than you might think). You will have about a week to accept of decline the offer, after which the second preferred candidate will be approached.

If you didn't get the job, you may have to wait a long time before you get an explicit rejection. It often makes little sense to directly approach the intended promotor or copromotor to get more information about this, since they may not be allowed to tell you much more. After all, if you're the fifth-ranked in the list of preferred candidates, your hiring decision may have to wait on decisions from the persons ranked first, second, third, and fourth; crucially, telling you anything about your status leaks information about the status of the other candidates (who you may have met during the interview day, so this runs the risk of leaking personal information).


If your plans change for whatever reason, there is no problem whatsoever in declining an offer or withdrawing from the procedure. Universities will appreciate if you let them know as soon as you can. The earlier in the process a withdrawal is caught, the better this is for the other candidates.


Since PhD students are employees at Dutch universities, positions are supposed to be fully funded for four years of research. Depending on the funding source, a small percentage of your time may be dedicated to teaching, but regardless, you will be paid a salary. Under normal circumstances, funding is not something you should worry about for any advertised PhD position.


This answer applies only for doctoral admissions. Unlike PhD students, master students are considered students in the Netherlands, so their process works very differently indeed. In fact, the streams are completely independent.

  • 1
    Unless things have changed drastically over the last decade, my experience is that a significant portion of PhD positions in the Netherlands are never formally advertised, but are filled through other routes, e.g. from talented students in the local master’s program. Networking can be quite valuable in securing a PhD position in the Netherlands.
    – mmeent
    Oct 26 at 22:37
  • Well, that's not how it works at my department (have worked here since 2016). It's also not how it worked in the group where I did my PhD (2009-2013), at a different Dutch university. This may very well be group- or department- or university-dependent; since I never saw it, I cannot write about this experience, but feel free to make this a real community wiki by adding your perspective. Oct 27 at 9:03
  • @mmeent Thanks! That improved it quite a bit. One side-note, though: officially, the AIO/OIO distinction disappeared in 2003. In practice, I do hear the term "AIO" being used, but I never heard anybody call themselves an "OIO". Oct 28 at 10:03
  • back in 2007-2011 the AIO/OIO distinction was still used in (theoretical) physics at least. It indicated which CAO the Candidate was employed under (the higher education or research institution CAO), which depended on whether position was funded through FOM or university/nwo funding. It could be that this distinction disappeared in 2015 when FOM was absorbed into NWO.
    – mmeent
    Oct 28 at 10:23
  • @mmeent When you mention 'buitenpromovendi' do you also mean Industrial PhD's? (Salaried and working at a company, but doing research with university affiliation and supervisor) Because if so, then I think it is becoming more usual in STEM. I think I know at least 5 already from one group that started in the past 2/3 years.
    – Jeroen
    Nov 3 at 8:09


While such things like graduate colleges (with more... structured programs) exist, the typical way is different.


PhD studies (or, actually, a doctorate) in Germany typically takes 3 years. It might take longer, 6 or even 10, but the typical minimal time in terms of required funding and general expectation is 3 years.

You need a Master degree for a PhD. While some loopholes for a BSc exist (commonly known as a fast-track), it's risky and typically discouraged.

The in-land BSc takes 3 years, MSc takes 2 years, PhD 3 years (or more, per above). The PhD is a purely research programme, formal courses or other requirements are quite seldom. (Maybe in the graduate college, but not in the "usual way".)


German PhD is a kind of personal affair between the supervisor (a professor, but some other options exist) and the candidate. If a candidate cannot have a working relationship with the supervisor, the chances for a successful PhD are dim.

If you want to start a PhD, you ask a professor, if a mentorship / supervision is possible. You might get invited for a personal talk where the supervisor-to-be tries to find out where your interests lie and if you would fit personality-wise.

Special for our US friends: there are no centralised graduate admissions. The supervision is a personal matter of a PhD supervisor.


Now, an agreement to supervise a PhD student does not mean anything in term of money. It's the agreement to guide the student in their research, to give them ideas, to give them an opportunity to bounce ideas, to write papers together. Money? What money?

Well, there are positions for doctorate students available. Typically, people occupying them aim to get their PhD. This is actually the norm in STEM fields. But an agreement to supervise does not necessarily come with such a position.

Multiple opportunities for a position exits, see below.

University-funded position

Think: TA. You get a contract with the university, are obliged to do somewhat related to your topic work there, e.g., help with the lectures of "your own" professor.

Basically, faculty has some slots for students, funded by the university itself, a prospective PhD candidate might occupy such a position.

Third-party funding (Drittmittelstelle)

Drittmittel are external grants (in contrast to the state-provided funds that are used to pay the university funded positions). With the Drittmittel-funds, positions are created at the university that a PhD student might occupy. Even though the funding is through external grant money, the student will be employed by the university. These positions are typically advertised by the university and are for a limited time only (for the duration of the grant project)

The grant is typically tied to a specific project, if the PhD candidate is lucky, the topic of the project can be turned into the PhD topic, otherwise the PhD candidate will have to do most of the PhD research on the side. Some grants will only be for 2 years, not enough to complete the PhD, so there is often the need to find a follow-up position to finish the PhD. Because of this, PhD students on Drittmittel-positions might need to be actively involved in project and grant acquisition.

Charities or DAAD

Being an extraordinary foreign student, doing a lot of volunteering, etc. might score you a stipend from a charity, e.g. from an organisation close to a political party or a large industrial company. You are not getting a contract with the university, but rather small benefits payments from the charity. They count as something different than payment for work, the legal background has some impact e.g. in medical insurance.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) also provides stipends for German nationals, who want to do their PhD abroad, and for international students, who want to do their PhD in Germany.

Research institutions (Max Planck, etc.)

Research positions are also available from research institutions, such as Max Planck institutes, Fraunhofer, Helmholtz, Leibniz institutes. These positions are tied to research projects (institute-funded or via third-party funding). Candidates are employed for such a project and formally need an advisor at a university since the research institutes can't award a PhD. However, actual supervision and advice is provided by the institute.

R&D at a commercial company

Some companies (especially the bigger ones like e.g. Bosch) might advertise their own PhD positions. The freedom of research is more limited in these positions compared to universities or research institutions (as the company aims to benefit from the PhD students' work), most of the work contributes to the company, a small share of "own" and publishable research might be allowed. The positions are generally paid well and there are no further requirements like e.g. teaching. A university professor as supervisor is still necessary.


The Fachhochschule (FH) or Technische Hochschule – by official translation: university of applied sciences – is a college / polychechnic. They were ranked a step lower than "real" universities in the Diplom times, now they provide (at least on paper) the same BSc and MSc as universities.

Some research positions, typically funded from lab or TA functions or from third-party funding (see above) might be available. Typically, the PhD will be co-supervised with a university, but more and more FHs obtain their own right to defend PhD students. The topics would typically be more applied than at a university.

Above means a PhD candidate from somewhere else wants to start a PhD student position at a FH. Below, we talk about a FH-based MSc, who wants to a PhD.

Depending on the field of study at the FH, (and because of the previous inequality between universities and FHs) if a subsequent PhD is done at a proper university, a PhD candidate might be required to take some extra courses to make up for the difference in study content between the more applied FH and the more theoretical university. In such a case, which courses have to be taken, would be individually agreed upon by the supervisor and the university's admission office or similar bodies.


You might work somewhere else. Maybe some remote job or working part-time. As long as you can finance yourself even independent from the university, you can do a PhD, as long as an agreement of supervision with a professor exists.


Now, it makes little sense (at least to me) to blindly apply to a graduate college. Always look for advertised PhD positions or pick a professor and ask them directly. Email and inquiry for an appointment would suffice. It is best, if you were a star student in their lectures, but a cold email might work, too.

Attending graduate college might be still an option, but your future supervisor will tell you what is better for you.

Recently, a formal supervision agreements ''(Betreuungsvereinbarung)'' are signed, where goals, time frame, etc. for both sides are listed. Previously (and sometimes still?) the supervision was purely an oral contract. What you as a PhD candidate should get, however, is some kind of the statement from the department, that you are a PhD candidate now. If you are not employed at the university, this might be the only document you have about your relation with it.

If you are employed by the university, you will get a contract. Typically it is about E13 (or some share of it), but that's a separate question.

At some (not all) universities, you can immatriculate (get a student card) as a PhD student. For about 200-300 € per semester, this means similar perks as for regular students, you get cheaper food at mensa, a local bus/train ticket and student price at museums, etc.

Not only professors

  • Postdocs might have some grants available. Is the supervisor the postdoc or the chair is a question to be discussed.
  • Habilitation candidates and habilitated faculty members typically have all the rights of a professor concerning supervision of the PhD students. If they have funding available is the crucial question.
  • Junior-Professoren (basically, assistant professors) are same as professors concerning supervision.
  • 3
    Is a doctoral candidate/student allowed to take courses to fill in gaps?
    – Buffy
    Oct 23 at 17:48
  • @Buffy: Good question. In general, nobody at a public university in Germany will prevent a PhD student (or any other student from the university) from attending any lecture about whatever topic the student is interested in. (There is, with few exceptions, no such thing as a fee for individual courses. For many lectures, nobody will even notice who precisely is sitting in the audience.) It's probably a bit more delicate for seminar-like courses, or courses that require the use of (expensive) equipment, for instance since the number of participants for such a course will typically be limited. Oct 23 at 19:52
  • 1
    Usually, it is easy to find a PhD supervisor, it is harder to find someone willing to pay you. More ways of employment: (1) External research institute like Fraunhofer or Max Plank, (2) company funded research positions, where you work for (say) 80% in R&D and >20% towards your PhD on a related topic, or (3) working on research projects in Fachhochschulen. Usually, such institutes/companies have good connections to nearby universities for official supervision or, in the case of Fachhochschulen, are slowly getting permission to supervise PhD candidates themselves. Oct 25 at 5:40
  • 3
    This is a misleading description (at least for STEM fields). The vast majority of PhD positions are funded. Typically, this means the PhD is an employee (somewhere between 50 % part time and full time) according to the collective wage agreement for public service. These positions then are advertised just like other jobs.
    – Roland
    Oct 25 at 6:49
  • @MarkusLange-Hegermann: Thanks, updated! Oct 25 at 6:50

United States


In the US, a doctoral application is normally made to a specific department at a university. The applicant is normally expected to hold at least a bachelors degree or be close to completion. There are rare exceptions to both of these.

An application isn't made to a specific professor, but to a department. Most applicants hold only a bachelors.

Most programs admit students to begin only in the Fall semester. Application deadlines are set by each university. They vary widely, but might be as much as a year ahead of when you'd like to start and aren't likely to be less than six months. They are usually firm deadlines, though some consideration might be given to one or two late-arriving documents.

The application is handled by a committee of (mostly) professors in the department and follows a defined process that is specific to the university. There is no national system of higher education in the US.

A fee is often required (in the $50-100) range. Universities assess this fee to remove the lowest-effort applications, and it can sometimes be waived for financial hardship; requirements vary by university.


The requirements of an application vary a bit, but normally require transcripts from all post secondary (after high-school) education. The transcripts are usually required to be official and come directly from the university (an unofficial copy may be sufficient for applications, with an official version required only upon acceptance; look for specific instructions for the programs you apply to). Copies of diploma certificates are not normally required and will be specified when they are. The GPA will be considered. The GPA in the field will be given higher weight. Some universities, especially those with many applications might have a minimum GPA requirement, but exceeding such a GPA does not mean admission is ensured. The translation of the meaning of GPA from another system is usually (not always) computed by the university.

Letters of recommendation are treated as very important. The committee is trying to make a prediction about the likely success of the applicant, both in study and thereafter. The letters, unlike the CV, therefore, must provide strong evidence of future success, not just past successful activities.

The applicant will normally be asked for a CV, detailing past accomplishments, such as papers written and other activities.

The applicant will normally be asked to provide a written Statement of Purpose (SoP). The SoP should detail future plans, for study and thereafter. It should be somewhat specific (more so for those holding a masters degree), but doesn't need a detailed research plan, nor a topic for dissertation research. It might be enough to name a subfield of the major field. It is not just a recapitulation of the CV, but should focus on the future and how you plan to get there. In particular it should never be used to give excuses for past issues/failures.


The GRE exam may be required or not, as may a specialized field exam. This seems to be disappearing at the moment.

For international students, a test of English proficiency is probably required TOEFL or IELTS. And, a visa will also needed eventually, of course.

The applicant might be asked to provide a writing sample. Requirements vary, but it can be, for example, an excerpt from some paper written for coursework. It doesn't normally need to be published work.

There may be an interview required before acceptance. It is more likely to be via Zoom, these days.


The committee normally takes a generalized view, though individuals on the committee may be more interested in some aspects than others. They normally have more applicants than positions available, so the process is competitive; especially so at top ranked universities.

If you are "accepted" into a program then you need to respond to the offer by a certain date. Many US universities are parties to the April 15 Resolution which stipulates that offers of graduate admission and financial support can be accepted or rejected up until April 15 of the year you start study in the Fall. This can vary as it is just a private agreement, not a law or regulation.


It is not rude in any way to decline before or on April 15 (or whatever deadline). Departments may go down a waiting list if you decline, so your spot is most likely not available if you change your mind. As such, if you are waitlisted, you may be moved off it on or after April 15.

Roughly, you are more like to be moved off a waitlist as programs go down in rank.


Funding decisions can be separate from applications for study. Many US PhD programs will guarantee funding for an interval sufficient to graduate. However, it is up to the student to graduate during this time and additional work by the student may be required (for example, as a Teaching Assistant). Funding typically comes with a small stipend (sufficient for living expenses for one person) and additionally covers tuition costs.

Programs should describe where funding typically comes from for their students. In some fields most students a funded via a Teaching Assistant (TA) position that requires some number of hours per week in assisting (say, grading) for undergraduate courses. TA positions may be restricted by language proficiency.

In other fields, most funding is as a Research Assistant (RA) provided by individual advisors/professors, usually under an external grant. Such grant funding might depend on grant renewals, but the department might be able to provide a backup (TA) position in case of non-renewal.

Other graduate students may be funded as project assistants or by outside fellowships. Fellowships in the US are most often through an external application to a granting agency, and some international students are funded by their home country (often with a stipulation that they return to work in that country).

It is rare for doctoral students to be self-funded or to pay their own tuition in the US.


This answer applies only for doctoral admissions. Masters level admissions can be quite different (or not). In particular, there are many institutions that offer masters degrees but not doctorates, or doctorates only in a small number of fields.

For more details about how to put together a competitive application, see this canonical question.


There are exceptions in US to nearly everything here so this is only a general overview. If you are serious about an individual institution you need to explore their published information. Look for websites both by program/degree and more general information for the institution. Again, the US has no national educational system at any level. There are some regulations, however.

  • (1) A visa is not (ever?) required for an application, and presumably this is not what was meant though it reads this way. (2) I think norms for funding and master's requirements for PhD programs may vary by discipline. E.g., in my department, funding decisions are not separate from admissions, and I think this is not uncommon in math at least. And in some fields, I think TA positions may be rarer than RA or unfunded positions (which doesn't contradict "most" but may be slightly misleading for students in certain disciplines).
    – Kimball
    Oct 26 at 17:02
  • @Kimball, I edited the visa ref and put a caveat at the end.
    – Buffy
    Oct 26 at 21:39


In many ways, PhD programmes in Sweden are similar to the Dutch and German model, but there are some differences applicants should be aware of.

Note that the following is accurate for academic PhD students. In addition, some departments allow for industrial PhD students, for which much of the below will not be accurate. However, I have found that industrial PhD positions are normally not "offered" to outsiders, but specifically created for individuals, so these positions are probably less interesting to the average reader of this post.

Status of PhD Candidates

PhD students in Sweden have a dual status - they are students with all rights and obligations that come with that status, but they are also full-time employees of the university. In addition to their research, PhD students may be asked to do other work for their employer, usually work as a teaching assistant. This can lead to some friction, and in practice university regulations and Swedish law restricts departments from burdening PhD students with too many distractions.

The job "PhD student" comes with a full salary (fixed through union bargaining), and full employee benefits, including rather generous paid time off. The salary is below comparable industry positions, but not entirely terrible (though opinions will vary).

Some Swedish universities still award a special degree (the "licentiate") as a sort of halfway point during a PhD study. One can leave the program with a licentiate; this is similar to "exiting with a master's" in the US. However, it's normally not possible to be admitted with the explicit goal of leaving with a licentiate.

Advisory Model

Sweden has a different PhD advisory model than most places. Students in Sweden are assigned an entire "supervision team", consisting of:

  • Main supervisor (typically the professor who acquired the funding)
  • Secondary supervisor (main and second supervisor are typically working with the student, publishing papers with them and coaching them towards successful completion)
  • Examiner (mostly responsible for evaluation of progress, signing off coursework, etc.; whereas supervisors are normally supposed to be a student's allies and advocates, an examiner is responsible for quality control and evaluation, and typically is not directly involved in the student's research)
  • PhD school representative (ensuring that the other three people do their job, ensuring that regulations are being followed, etc.)

The exact "job" of each member of this team is different from group to group and student to student - in some cases, examiners are completely hands-off, in other cases they expect to sign off on all research a student plans to do (and even co-author papers with the student). In some cases the secondary supervisor is a postdoc of the main supervisor (and then in practice acts as the first contact point for the student), in some cases it's a more experienced professor mostly mentoring the main supervisor (but rarely talking to the student directly).

In theory, the model is supposed to provide redundancy and allow students to complete even if they have conflicts with their main supervisor. In practice, the model can lead to difficulties since students can find themselves in a situation where they need to satisfy multiple stakeholders (who don't always have the same priorities, expectations, and needs).


There is in practice no "applying to a PhD school" in Sweden. Positions are advertised through the university job portal, recruiting tends to follow the same standards that are also being used for other university staff, and admittance to the PhD school comes automatically with being offered a job.

Cold-emailing professors may make a limited amount of sense, but only to inquire if there are currently openings or if openings are likely to appear in the near future. By and large, universities are not able to hire anybody outside of pre-approved hiring procedures.

There are no hiring rounds, positions are advertised one-by-one and on a rolling basis, whenever funding and approval for a hiring becomes available.

As in most places in Europe, a master's degree is a hard requirement. Exceptions can, to the best of my knowledge, not be granted.

There is basically no standardisation of how the application and selection procedure is organised - some groups make decisions quickly based on CVs and a single round of Zoom interviews, whereas other groups run candidates through a gauntlet of multiple rounds of remote or on-site interviews, writing samples, and trial tasks. However, there are no application fees.


PhD candidates require a relevant master's degree and typically need to be fluent in English. Swedish is, at least in STEM, generally not required, and there tends to be no requirement to ever learn Swedish.

Aside from that, the job profile ("kravprofil") will list what other competencies are required or recommended. How undergrad grades, prior experience, writing samples, etc. are weighted will depend heavily on the professor doing the selection, and very little can be said in general about this.

This means that even "unusual" candidates have a chance to be selected, if they happen to run into the right kind of professor with the right kind of requirements.


"Acceptance" is generally communicated rather informally, via telephone or through a short "congratulations" email. There are no formal offer letters like in other countries. However, Swedish universities (at least research-intensive ones) are used to applicants from outside the European Union, and should be able to quickly produce the documentation necessary to apply for a student visa (despite being full-time employees, PhD students count as "students" in front of the migration office, and hence a student visa is required rather than a work permit - this does not prevent employment by the university).

Note that by law universities can only actually sign a contract with students who are physically in Sweden. International students get a written "contract promise" which is sufficient for a visa, but EU applications basically only get an email and get informed to move to Sweden and then get their contract. This often feels informal and weird to candidates, but is indeed the intended practice.

It's difficult to say how long the procedure takes because it depends heavily on the professor doing the hiring, but in general the process is rather fast-moving - acceptance and rejection notices are typically sent out reasonably quickly (or, at least, most professors are fairly transparent with where the process currently is).


Positions in Sweden are fully funded by Swedish law. Universities are not able to offer "part-time" positions, or accept self-funded students (the only exception are industrial PhD students, where somebody else still needs to provide full-time funding).

Notably, universities are required to provide funding at least for the "normal" duration of a PhD. This is typically 4 years, but can be defined differently in different departments. For instance, in my Computer Science department, normal PhD time is 5 years (including 20% teaching obligations). It is in principle possible to be let go as a student for performance reasons, but in practice this barely ever seems to happen (at least not in my department). You can safely assume that if you get a PhD position, you will be fully funded as long as stay within a reasonable PhD duration.



This community wiki answer was synthesized from other answers across the site, especially this answer about finding advisors and this one about the Kenkyusei option. Please feel free to edit this answer to improve it.

Application Pathways

The main question is whether you speak Japanese well enough to take classes and do research.

  • If you do, you can look for openings on departmental websites and reach out to professors.
  • If you do not, your best bet is to apply for fellowships that specifically cater to foreign students. The MEXT scholarship is the most common option. Some of these programs will allow you to study in English, but some may require you to study Japanese (and living in Japan without speaking Japanese is somewhat more difficult than the analogous situation in Europe).

Most Japanese grad programs are three years and require a master's degree, but a few are five years and require only a bachelor's.

Kenkyusei (Research Student Positions) and the Grad School Entrance Exam

Most grad programs have an entrance exam that must be passed before you can enroll. These exams may, or may not, be available in English. If you are already in a position to pass the exam, and are financially able to physically take the exam in Japan, you can take it and attempt to enroll in a PhD program directly.

However, many students (and most foreigners) spend some time as a "kenkyusei" (research student) before enrolling in their degree program. Kenkyusei allows you to do some research under the supervision of a professor (ideally the one who would advise you as a PhD), taking Japanese classes and more broadly getting adjusted to your new environment while preparing for the university's PhD entrance exam. Most foreign students on Government scholarships will spend their first year as a research student.

As a research student, your exact activities and responsibilities must be negotiated with your supervisor. In particular, "research student" is a bit of a misnomer; it is likely that you will have no research responsibilities (or opportunities) and your only activity will be studying for the exam.

Finding an advisor (usually required for admission)

You will usually need an advisor lined up before you can start studying. Even if you win a MEXT scholarship without an advisor lined up, your first job will be to find an advisor.

There's several things to consider in terms of how to contact people.

  1. You need to search Japanese university websites in your field. This is going to be nearly impossible if you don't have any Japanese fluency.
  2. Then you're going to want to find researchers who you could imagine working with presumably you'd narrow it in terms of both research interest and their ability to use languages you can use (e.g., English).
  3. Write them a letter explaining you are receiving a scholarship from the Monkasho (文部科学省) and would like to study in their university, starting from being a kenkyuusei (研究生).
  4. See who responds.

As a basic rule, you are more likely to get a response from professors at universities that are used to hosting international students with MEXT scholarships. This will mean national universities like: Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Tohoku University, Kyuusyuu University, Hokkaido University, Nagoya University, Hitotsubashi, etc. and well-known private universities like Waseda, ICU, Keio, Aoyama.

More minor schools (prefectural or city ones) will probably not be super familiar with the procedures and would require strong support and interest from the advisor -- who doesn't get much time or money to help work on this (and it's quite the administrative hassle).

Separately, Japan is a place where knowing people is more than half the battle so it's hard to build connections from scratch. Instead, you're hoping that at least one person will respond and either be open to hosting your or know someone who is that they are willing to forward your e-mail to.

Other Considerations

  • The Japanese academic year starts in April. This can be difficult for Western students (though it works out well if you do the kenkyusei period).
  • Japanese academia, like Japanese culture more generally, is significantly different than Western culture. In particular, the hierarchy is relatively strict and students are usually extremely respectful and deferential to professors. Similarly, Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn (for native Indo-European speakers).
  • As an outsider, the (sometimes very significant) differences between the prestige of different Japanese universities may be difficult to ascertain. (However, those evaluating your credentials will likely content with the same opacity, if you return to the West post-PhD).
  • While Japan is known for a brutal work-life balance, this is more an issue in private companies than in universities. Many grad students report not being expected to work weekends.
  • Would it not be better to cite and quote the original answers, as is done here? But on the other hand, I can see how that might make it cluttered and harder to read.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 26 at 18:33
  • 1
    My thought was to make it easy for others (particularly those who have studied in Japan) to modify and expand; modifying my humble text is perhaps less intimidating than modifying a block quote. But I am open to whatever changes people want to make (it's a community wiki); I just wanted to get something started so that this frequently-asked-about country wouldn't be skipped
    – cag51
    Oct 26 at 18:41
  • That's fair, I see and agree with your point. I do wonder if it violates the SE licensing though, to reproduce text without attribution. Perhaps a "References" section at the bottom with links would be a suitable compromise?
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 26 at 18:45
  • 1
    Works for me. Or in the italics section at the top. (I doubt the licensing is a problem; it is all licensed to SE and this is a community wiki, so I am not stealing upvotes...but giving attribution is always a good practice).
    – cag51
    Oct 26 at 18:49
  • 1
    I am not an expert, but I am not sure that's true, the timeline attributes content to whoever wrote it and specifies the license, even for community wiki posts. (e.g. this post's timeline says that the text in the answer is licensed by you under the CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.)
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 26 at 20:48

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