I start my master studies this fall in quantitative finance/economics in Europe. Since this will just take 3-4 semesters I want to take a look ahead and obviously PhD is one option to do.

So I am wondering if it makes sense to go to the US for PhD, since I will have already a master's degree in two years. I read a lot about the US PhD's which can be started after bachelor and therefore are somehow like a European master & PhD combined.

I saw some PhD programmes from well-known US universities and their curriculum contained almost just courses I will already have in my master. Wouldn't that be a waste of time to repeat them? Specially compared to my country (Switzerland) where a PhD duration is between 3-4 years.

Every input/personal experience will be appreciated.

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    This doesn't answer your question, however, one thing to take into consideration is the cost of universities. In switzerland schooling is free, while in North America it can be very pricey. The cost of 2 years of a 4 year undergraduate can cost you over $20,000 CDN(canadian ~= swissies). Apr 11, 2014 at 11:09
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    Thanks for your response. You are definitely right, the difference of costs is huge. But actually this is not what my concerns are about since a lot of phd programmes in the US offer assistantship/fellowship. Apr 11, 2014 at 11:22
  • The following question may be of interest; academia.stackexchange.com/questions/3503/…
    – gman
    Apr 11, 2014 at 11:53
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    Your reason for pursuing a PhD at a particular institution (whether its in the US or Europe) should be based on what you want to study, who you want to study, etc. A lot of PhD programs will try to make you repeat some courses if you did not have them at their institute . If you think you have had the material though you should certianly try to have those courses waived.
    – bdeonovic
    Apr 11, 2014 at 14:08
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    You shouldn't forget that the PhD program, be it in the US or in Europe, is a long program. You shouldn't choose merely out of academic considerations: don't forget you will be living in that place for a very long time too, not just studying math. Sorry if I'm saying something obvious to you, but I've seen people forget this. Apr 12, 2014 at 15:01

5 Answers 5


I think in the end it will be a personal choice based on what you want in your career on where you may do your PhD. Based on some of the queries you had in the comparison between a US PhD or a European one, hopefully the following will be of help.

This link is a good page that shows the difference between the system in Europe and the US for PhD. The main reasons from it why a US PhD would be longer is;

The main difference between doing a PhD in the US and most other countries is the coursework component. In the US, there is usually a requirement that PhD student complete at least 2 years of coursework before they start their independent research. This means that a PhD in the US will take longer to complete.

So yes there is a chance that you will be repeating coursework that you have done in your masters, but there is also the possibility that you may be able to get a wavier for coursework already completed.

I know (in Ireland at least, my home country) there is now a move in some universities towards a structured PhD that will include some coursework in year 1.

As per Piotr's comment it is typical that a PhD in Europe is pursed after Master's, while in US it contains Master's. In some cases in Europe it may be possible to go straight from a bachelor degree to a PhD. I know in my own case when starting out my advisor wondered if I would like to apply to complete a PhD instead of a Masters (in History). My sister also went straight from her bachelor to her PhD program (in mircobiology). Both these cases were in Ireland where you normally would have to have a first in your bachelor degree to be able to pursue a PhD directly afterward.

The page also details some other differences, such as how the committees are slightly different in both systems.

The Coimbra Group, an association of long-established European multidisciplinary universities have produced a Survey on PhD Programme Structures and Administration in Europe and North America that has some insightful information as well.

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    +1 for the link to the survey. And I would add that PhD in (typically) Europe after Master's, while in US it contains Master's. Apr 11, 2014 at 16:56

To add to gman's answer: it's true that in the US, most students enter a PhD program immediately after the bachelor's, but by no means all. It's not uncommon for a student to have done a master's elsewhere first. As such, any reasonable PhD program should be used to dealing with incoming students who already have a master's, and be willing to adjust their requirements as warranted.

It would be perfectly reasonable to contact any departments that interest you, and ask them about your situation. It's very likely they will tell you that they are able to waive requirements that would be redundant for you, or to let you satisfy them in an accelerated manner (perhaps you take an exam or something). Alternatively, they might have a compelling explanation for why they won't do that (perhaps their program looks similar to your background but is actually different in some essential way).

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    This is a good answer, bit I would like to emphasize that completing a Masters at a different institution/department prior to entering a Ph.D program will always take longer than just starting the Ph.D program in the United States. Most programs require a minimum number of classes even if a Masters was finished elsewhere.
    – daaxix
    Apr 14, 2014 at 14:12
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    One caveat, the systems in the various European countries are quite diverse in themselves, although it is custom to pretend all PhD degrees are equal in terms of outcomes. Oct 25, 2014 at 8:44

The difference is that in the US, Bachelor's degrees take longer to obtain (4 years vs. 3 in Switzerland) and it's considered the actual 'college degree', while as you know, in CH1 it makes little sense to stop at the Bachelor's level because is has no value except to give you entry to the Master's (with perhaps the exception of ETH/EPF Bachelors in informatics that can lead to direct employment, and professional schools Bachelors, of course, but they're off-topic).

In the US, in general you go to 'grad school' which describes both Master and PhD studies. Masters are sometimes given to graduate students who wish or have to stop after a few years of grad school for a variety of reasons. As a consequence the Master's degree is less common.

To the point: what you learned as a Master students will not necessarily be redundant with first year graduate courses. And if it is, well good for you, you will just cruise through the exams and enjoy having time to concentrate on research instead of studying. Note that, since recently, most (if not all) Swiss PhD programs have courses requirements as well.

On the other hand, you will most of the time have less (or no) teaching assistant work. And there are incredibly good research groups in the US, some will give you the kind of expertise and exposure that you wouldn't get in a Swiss university. I don't think having to repeat a few courses should be a killing criterion if you are interested in a given research environment.

Also, I don't know much about the economics domain, but for engineering, natural sciences and humanities, the actual time to get a PhD in CH tends more towards 4-5 years than 3-4.

1 CH stands for Confoederatio Helvetica, the multilingual abbreviation for Switzerland. I hold a Swiss PhD and I'm a postdoc researcher in the US.

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    For who don't know, CH is an another name of Switzerland
    – Ooker
    Mar 3, 2015 at 11:57
  • Will you say that in the US, there are more research groups in a field (at least in STEM field) than in Europe?
    – Ooker
    Mar 3, 2015 at 11:59

Let me first point some differences that may help you making your mind, between the PhD programs in USA and Canada on one hand, and in Europe on the other.

In US & Canada you go through a structured PhD program, so it'll be pretty much like your current masters in Switzerland. You'll need to take some classes, then you'll have a semester or two to work on your PhD thesis.

In Europe you start right off with your PhD thesis! so you're basically a research assistant, working on your PhD as part of your job as a PhD student, in that case you'll be doing other work as well for your institute. As a scholarship holder you'll be able to work full-time on your PhD.

As for your question: Having the same course names doesn't mean that the content will be same. It could be that more and/or advanced topics will be covered in the PhD programs you came across. If this wasn't the case, you can try to contact the university to see the possibility of equating the courses you already took, this might involve a test by the department to make sure you'll be as qualified in that area as the ones who took their course.

I'd say that a PhD in USA will give you more knowledge through the coursework, you'll get to learn more stuff that you might or might not need. In Europe, since you're jumping directly into your thesis, you'll get more of the academic life and you'll have to learn, on your own, whatever's going to help you with your thesis, which can be difficult at the beginning if you're not self-driven.

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    Regarding your last paragraph: in Europe virtually all PhD students would have finished a Master's already, which as far as I can see is largely comparable to the coursework part of a US PhD program. Apr 16, 2014 at 20:22
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    "You'll have a semester or two to work on your PhD thesis": This is a drastic underestimate in most fields. More typical in the US is 2-3 years of classes and 2-5 years working on your thesis. Apr 20, 2014 at 0:41

This is answered already, but for some reason never straight to the point. If your mind is set to pursue a PhD in the US, just go for it right now (after your bachelor, and before your masters). Once they accept you, you simply go through the courses you needed to go through anyway at your European Masters, but then there are no additional applications, negotiations, hard decisions to make.

You can on the other hand start a PhD in the US after a Masters in Europe, but you will have to negotiate waiving the courses - and it's not granted they will waive them all. Coursework is very comparable, but it will be your responsibility to prove it.

Summary: pursue a Masters in Europe only if you are not sure you want to commit for the next 4-7 years (the PhD length in the US is not fixed, but typically depends on being able to publish original research). The total PhD length may actually be shorter in the US if you work hard.

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