I'm entering my senior year of college in the US and I'm starting to consider my options for graduate school next year. My field is kind of blurry, in that I have certain research areas that I'm interested in, but researchers in those areas often fall into many different fields (linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, etc.)

I have some faculty that I'm interested in working with, but I have a dilemma because some people (and schools) I'm interested in are in the US and some are in Europe.

I've been reading about how graduate school typically works in Europe, and it seems to be quite a different beast from the US. Many (practically all) Ph.D. programs in the US that I looked at are entered immediately after a Bachelor's degree, they're fully funded, and the two years of course work at the beginning is to earn the Master's degree. On the other hand, all of the European programs I looked at vary greatly on how their funded (I'm so confused), and require a Master's.

So this brings me to a lot of questions.

Are Master's degrees in Europe funded? And what would happen if I would decided to get a Master's degree in Europe but then come back to the United States for the Ph.D.? Is it possible to go straight into a European Ph.D. without a Master's at all? (I'll be graduating with 18 credits of graduate coursework and 27 credits of independent research).

Does anyone know of any good resources so I can figure out this situation?

  • 3
    You might want to explain what you mean by “fully funded”, it's not obvious what this could mean is not so clear in the European context.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 7:20
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    It is pretty difficult to give you a good answer without having a more precise idea of where the european programs are located exactly.
    – PatW
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 8:01
  • 11
    I think your best bet would be to find exactly the universities/people you want to work with, and then investigate it specifically. The question is way to broad to answer, since every European country differs, and in those countries there are often different ways of taking a PhD, depending the faculty, country of origin, etc. In Denmark you can for example go directly from a bachelor, but also from a masters. You can get it fully founded, or you can bring your own founding from corporations, etc.
    – Thorst
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 13:33
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    I think one of the biggest differences relevant to your question is that in the US, it is very common for a Master's and PhD to be combined into a single program, whereas this is rare in Europe. I don't have enough to say to make an answer, but this does mean that when you look at "PhD programs" in the US, you are often looking at Master's programs as well, because they are included.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 19:57
  • 2
    Degrees in most of Europe used to be equivalent to a Master's degree, thus you'd go straight into your PhD afterwards. Nowadays the degrees have been split into a Bachelor's and a Master's, but most people still do both in succession as if they were still one degree.
    – finitud
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:00

8 Answers 8


I am not even sure it makes sense to speak about “graduate schools” in Europe. In the countries I know, the big divide is between the master's degree and the PhD program, and not between bachelor and master programs. A master's degree is mostly another diploma with slightly higher requirements/more focused topic but otherwise not unlike a bachelor's degree in the way it's organized. There might be some exceptions here and there but it would be highly unusual to enroll in a PhD program without a master's degree.

Since tuition fees are relatively low in many countries, funding is not an issue in the way it is in the US (you still need to pay for the costs of living obviously but that's already the case for a bachelor's program). In some countries (e.g. France), people coming from abroad to study are treated exactly the same (which means paying something like EUR 250 plus some money for health insurance and a few other things), in others (e.g. the Netherlands), they have to pay a much higher fee (EUR 13000 per year where I work). In Germany the situation seems to be very fluid, with the rules set at the provincial level and changing all the time but I think fees are at most EUR 1000 per year.

Because local students don't have to pay that much and the fees don't differ much if at all from one program to the other, it's not surprising that you didn't find information about whether the master's program is “funded” or not, it's not a distinction that makes sense at this level. Furthermore, in many countries, support for students who face financial hardship is available from the government and not through the universities. Either you qualify and you can choose the university you want or you don't and you have to pay but you wouldn't specifically look for a “fully funded” program.

After the master's degree, the status of PhD candidates also varies a lot from country to country. In Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and increasingly Germany, you are an employee with a reasonable salary (people will tell you it's less than what professionals with similar qualifications get, which is true, but you can still live comfortably). Some form of funding (from the main university budget, a research grant, European grant, corporate sponsorship, foreign government grant, etc.) is therefore a prerequisite. In France or Italy, you are considered a student and working conditions are often poorer. In STEM fields, PhD positions are usually funded and you do get some money and resources for your research. In the humanities, it's not uncommon for PhD candidates to have no funding, sometimes not even a desk and to scrap a little money to get by through teaching or even another job.

Here again, tuition is usually not the issue but living costs are (for at least three years, at a time where you might want to start a family, etc.) Even an unfunded humanities PhD candidate in France does not have to pay much to the university. Unlike bachelor's or master's degrees, I don't know any university where PhD candidates from abroad would have to pay more to be admitted or be categorically barred from some funding (but the situations are so diverse that it might exist somewhere I guess). The only hiring restriction of that kind I know are research fellowship from the European Space Agency.

  • 1
    I don't know it very well but I also think that none of this is true of the UK. Chats I have had with people who worked there suggest that tuition fees are high, PhD candidates are struggling to survive with the money they get and that's it's not very attractive all around.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 10:51
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    Just for clarification: in STEM fields in France most of the universities requires the Ph.D. to be funded. You are considered as an employee with a work contract, with all the pros and cons. The minimum wage of such contract is fixed by law and depends on wether you do teachings (or similar activities) or not. You also have a student ID with all the benefits implied.
    – strnk
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:30
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    Everyone I know who's done PhD's in the UK has done something in a STEM field @Relaxed. It's always been funded and it's enough to live easily (though not necessarily well). Obviously not everyone gets funded and it's less common in the humanities but I don't think your characterisation is necessarily true.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 20:29
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    @Ben Like I said, I don't know the system very well, my evidence is completely anecdotal. Also, the people I knew where not working in STEM fields and lived in London, I guess life might be more expensive there than elsewhere.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 21:10

I'll start with the bad news:

Does anyone know of any good resources so I can figure out this situation?

Such a resource does likely not exist, as the answers to your questions will vary widely between different european countries and even different universities. Europe is historically a hotchpotch of different academic systems.

I will try to give some answers that I think are true in most places. For all of the answers, you will likely find exceptions and differing systems if you look long enough:

Are Master's degrees in Europe funded?

Unfortunately very rarely.

That being said, as aeismail points out, most european degree programs are either for free or (compared to US programmes) extremely cheap. That still leaves you with costs of living and opportunity costs, though.

And what would happen if I would decided to get a Master's degree in Europe but then come back to the United States for the Ph.D.?

I don't quite understand that question. You would have a master's degree, which would allow you to either find a job or do a PhD in the US (however, you could have done both with a bachelor's degree as well).

Is it possible to go straight into a European Ph.D. without a Master's at all? (I'll be graduating with 18 credits of graduate coursework and 27 credits of independent research).

Usually this is not possible. I have heard here on academia.SE that there are universities that make exceptions, but the places that I am aware of do generally not allow to start a PhD at all without a master. However, not all is necessarily lost. Some places (including my current university in Zurich) have established compromise solutions for incoming research students without master's degree. Here, for instance, a professor can apply that you do a research-based "fast track" master, which allows you to skim on the course work and do research with the professor instead of most of the regular master curriculum. This is quite comparable to the US system, but as far as I know it is node widely publicized (I don't think this possibility even appears anywhere on the web page).

  • 4
    You should point out, however, that although most master's degrees aren't funded, the cost of the degree is much lower than in the US. Moreover, intenrational students can work part-time as research assistants to help support their living expenses.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 9:43
  • Regarding the third point: It should be noted that in some fields in the US (I have no idea about the OP's) master's degrees from Europe do not fulfill the requirement of the "master's portion" (first ~2 years) of a US PhD program. One may very well end up doing two master's.
    – user4512
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:26

Postgraduate programs are, as you've discovered, structured very very differently in the USA and Europe.

First, the caveat: there is doubtless lots of variation across institutions and fields, and I'm basing the below on my limited experience (PhD from UC San Diego and now a postdoc at U. Edinburgh, so I know lots of current UK PhD students). Also, I'm in exactly the same murkily defined field that you're asking about.

My impression is that the general rule is: in the US, PhD programs and research-oriented masters programs are treated together as being a single indivisible unit. This has obvious practical consequences -- for example (and in answer to one of your questions), in the US PhD programs I'm familiar with, if you show up with a masters in hand, this doesn't actually change your course requirements versus someone with only a BA/BS. You'll have to go through a second "masters program" (but probably won't officially be awarded a second masters degree). But it also affects the structure of the program itself. My program had required lab rotations and a structured "2nd year project" that were technically part of our masters coursework, but were explicitly designed to provide a gentle ramp into our PhD research. (Psych departments are usually even more aggressive about this, and will have you running subjects within the first 3 months, ideally in the lab you'll continue in through your PhD research.) You're working in the same environment, with the same cohort, and the same faculty throughout, and the expectation from the beginning is that you'll be going all the way through to the PhD, so there's training from the start on how to "think like a researcher" (which is the main thing taught in PhD programs), the programs can kind of blur into each other, and there's some flexibility about when exactly you start your PhD project proper. This potentially gives more room to try out things that don't work, etc., before you have to write your actual proposal and put your nose to the grindstone. OTOH, it's not uncommon for programs to stretch into 6 or 7 years.

In the European system, by contrast, masters and PhD programs are treated as distinct programs. Sometimes people stay with the same supervisor for both, but it isn't the usual case, and the programs aren't structured with that in mind. The PhD programs as far as I can tell are much more tightly defined: you're expected to show up, start work on a project more-or-less immediately (possibly a specific one that your supervisor has picked out ahead of time and gotten funding for), and be done and dusted in 3 years.

For me, the US system was definitely better, and that bias is probably reflected in the above; but, people are different, and I can imagine the European system working better for others. Also, every PhD is different -- by far the most important determinant of PhD success is the interaction between you and your supervisor. (Well, being funded is pretty important too.)

  • +1, this is a vital point that doesn't seem to be addressed in the other answers.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 19:59
  • 2
    In Europe, you would do some of this exploration during your Master's. Bear in mind that our Bachelor's don't have the two-three semesters of general subjects that the US do (since they were covered as part of our University entrance examinations). But the European system is overall less flexible in regards to exploration (from basic school all the way to higher education).
    – finitud
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:09
  • PhD programs AFAICT?
    – nilon
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 16:08
  • @nilon: Sorry, what's the question? Are you confused by the acronym? It's "as far as I can tell"; could expand that if it's confusing. Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 2:54

I can not speak for all of Europe but in Denmark the PhD programme is a job. You are hired by the university to conduct research so you will get paid. You need a Master's degree to apply for a PhD position, and there are probably some grade point average you would need.

Here is a link to a .pdf document with the danish legislative framework.

You can apply for the PhD programme even though you have taken your Master's degree in USA. If you want to take your Master's in Denmark you need to apply for it through your own university if you want it to pay the stay. There is also a possibility of getting paid while in Denmark by the governments state education support.

  • 3
    It is actually possible to start a PhD directly after the bachelor's degree in Denmark, but not all universities do this, and usually they only do this for "local" students (as generally, the advisor would prefer to know the student beforehand in this case). When doing this, the student will not become an employee until the final two years of the PhD. Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 8:41
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    Americans do not qualify for SU, unfortunately, but this is otherwise correct.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:30

Some useful information on studying in the UK may be found from the Fullbright Commission. They also provide scholarships for Americans to study in the UK. I don't think there is a more general reference for all Europe as each country has their own system.

To answer your more specific questions:

In Europe most PhDs are funded (at least in STEM subjects) but often this funding is limited to EU residents (due to the money being provided by the EU). For example UK research council studentships are only available for UK citizens or residents. Other EU citizens are eligible for fees only (no stipend)

The structure of the PhD varies by country, although you are correct that almost all start after Masters. In the UK the PhD is generally 3 years research with no assessed courses (although a few more specialist ones may have some courses).

Here is another useful reference I just found http://www.findaphd.com/study-abroad/europe/ which gives an overview of the PhD structure for some European countries.

As you mentioned most PhDs require a Masters. One other option in the UK is to do a PhD at a doctoral training centre (DTC) these offer four year PhDs for people with a bachelor's degree. I think the 1st year is mainly taught courses approximately equal to a Master's.

  • 2
    "but often this funding is limited to EU residents (due to the money being provided by the EU)" [citation needed]
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 9:00
  • I'd also like to see the [needed citation] on that. I know in the US, federal financial aid is reserved for residents, but at the graduate level, even foreign nationals can get funding. Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 9:10
  • Whether for tuition fees, paid PhD positions or other subsidies, most of the money is provided by national governments but where there are restrictions (by no means everywhere), they can't exclude EU citizens which is why you often read about this or that rule applying to all EU/EEA citizens. EU money itself is not restricted to EU citizens AFAIK.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 10:13
  • Federal financial aid in the US may be reserved for citizens (Pell, subsidised loans), but I'm not up to date on that. However NSF grants which include graduate research assistant salaries are definitely not. My university, and many others that I know of, requires us to pay the tuition and fees of our GRAs if we pay them a salary at all. So students who are paid to work on funded grants basically get everything covered. The salary isn't large, and is only half-time, but you can live on it.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 12:25
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    @nivag It's interesting (I already upvoted your answer earlier) but it does not really support your claim. There are restrictions but this is UK law and UK money, it's not an EU-wide rule and has nothing to do with the money coming from the EU, e.g. through the Framework Programmes.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 16:39

Is it possible to go straight into a European Ph.D. without a Master's at all?

It very much depends with the country. In Spain, no. On the other hand, in Sweden (at least, Stockholm's University), you need three years worth of credits and at least a certain number of credits on project work. This said, this is the administrational requirement: it is very unlikely you would get hired with only three years; but it is all up to you to show the PI how awesome you are.


I got an MA in the U.K., it was a 12 month program and I applied to PhD programs in America right afterwards. I got accepted to a program but they required me to complete another MA degree. They transferred in 8 credits from my MA from the U.K..I’m now working on 24 (two full time semesters) of coursework before I can begin my PhD coursework. In the end, I paid out of pocket for a one year MA degree in the U.K., and had to do a (funded) year of an MA when I returned home. So, really the only time I lost was the period in between when I was applying. I’d still do it again.


If you’re not from the EU or EEA it can be pretty difficult to get funding from a European university for your PhD (mainly in the UK), if there’s a funding body in your country then that could be your option when applying for a PhD in Europe. And in many universities you would need a master finished.

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