Now, I understand that European PhDs are far from monolithic in format, and that most quals in my field (physics) can fall into two general formats, as far as North American PhD programs are concerned:

  1. A set of tests covering the fundamental areas of undergraduate-level education in your discipline (I know MIT and Princeton can be quite nasty in this regard for physics, but UChicago phased quals out due in part to student health concerns
  2. A review of the literature in your research topic and the relevant fundamental notions underlying it, which must be explained in front of a jury that will ask questions as well

My question is: are quals present in European PhD programs and, if yes, what are formats commonly in use for that purpose?

  • Option 3: some US programs have would-be PhD candidates do a small research project (not just a literature review) and give a presentation to a committee + written report as the qualifying exam.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 6:39
  • @ff524 That format is not as common as the other two; the only program I know about that operates that way is the UChicago astrophysics PhD Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 3:01

5 Answers 5


Most central European universities don't traditionally have QEs. However, it seems to me as if it is getting more popular to have something after the first one or two years of your programme. Two data points:

  • In my current university, PhD students need to defend their thesis proposal after (maximum) two years. This includes writing their proposal, receiving written comments by two other (i.e., not their advisor) professors of the faculty, and presenting and defending their proposal in front of the entire faculty (our faculty is pretty small). Questions are asked in this defense, but not typically about material that is not directly linked to the proposal. In theory students can fail at this step, but is is very uncommon. The goal is rather to force students (and advisors) to have a clear goal of where the thesis is going early on, something that was historically a bit of a problem.
  • When I did my PhD, we did not really have any sort of entry exam or defense in my alma mater. However, since then, they have switched to a model not unlike what I explained above. The main difference is that proposals are only presented (there is no written document), and that only a small committee is responsible for giving feedback on the proposal (not the entire faculty). This defense has to be taken one year after start of the PhD. Failing this defense is again very uncommon.

Summary: the places I am well aware of don't have stressful QEs. Instead, we traditionally had pretty much nothing. Nowadays, many places have a proposal defense instead of a QE, but this is not a step that students typically have to be stressed out about.


As far as I'm aware (Germany, sciences), we don't have quals here. If you're admitted, at least one professor considers you good enough and that's it. Your next exam will be handing in your thesis and defending it.

A Master of science degree or equivalent is usually required though - maybe that's why we have no extra quals.

Plus, the defense can include an oral exam on the general field of your thesis.

However, do read the relevant documents of your target university and program (in Germany look for Promotionsordnung).

With the advent of structured PhD programs, things like having to take classes for credits and minimum grades have started to come up at some universities.

  • 1
    Entance exams happen on a per person basis in certain circumstances. Roughly, if someone wants to become PhD student but does not fulfil the formal qualifications (e.g. master's thesis not from university but from Fachhochschule, possibly also university MSc but not with the required minimum grade, or s.o. with BSc from an angloamerican country where you could apply for a PhD programme with that BSc) they may be required to take an exam to prove they know enough of the subject they're applying for. Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 17:35

As an expat, maybe a native Dutch person here can confirm this, but as far as I know there are no quals here in the Netherlands either.

It's generally expected that you have a Master's degree (3 year BSc + 2 year MSc), but I know of people who have been admitted as PhD candidates with an Honours degree (3 year BSc + 1 year of intensive postgrad study).

Many PhD projects here are run like job applications. A professor has gained funding for a specific purpose, and the department advertises the position.

After a year of working as a PhD candidate you might have to justify how you can achieve your research goals to finish the PhD in time, but that's nothing like having to put in a whole lot of work for a PhD proposal before having even been accepted.


In Sweden there are no quals per se, but we may have something related. When you have completed 50% of the aims of your PhD (when exactly this happens is decided in conjunction with your supervisor and the Department's PhD program head), you have to write a short version of the thesis, and get a title, "Licenciate", and a raise.

The exact requirements depend with the department. At Stockholm University Physics, there is only a defence with a local opponent. In Biophysics and Biochemistry, there is also an oral exam. The topic is to be decided between the student and an examiner, and has to be related to the research at hand. For example, a colleague of mine, Biotechnologist working on statistical data analysis, was examined on a book on Machine Learning.

In any case, they are never as stressful as the US Quals. Probably because firing a student is rather hard, and no one would take that threat seriously.

  • 1
    This is not true for all universities and departments in Sweden, and from my experience (in biology) it is rather uncommon. You can do a "Licenciate" (and maybe not continue for a full PhD), but you don't have to. Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 12:29

For some german universities (like the one I am doing my PhD at), PhD studies are supervised by grad schools that often have their own entry exam, e.g., in the form of a presentation in front of an admission committee. This presentation has to cover your future project in terms of background, methodology and aims of your study and sometimes also a short part regarding your past work for your diploma or master degree.

At my university, the admission mostly happens after you are already employed by your group leader (and by that, already have a contract). If you indeed fail (or just do not want) the admission to this graduation school, you can still (or also) apply to a more basic grad school that has no entry exam of any kind, but is also regarded as being of a lower quality (in terms of courses, funding options, renown, etc.) than the "excellent" grad school.

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