Can a Ph.D. student who only knows how to speak English study in a European non-English speaking country (e.g., Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, etc.) without any problems? Does applying to these universities require knowledge of that country's language?

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    In Finland even some professors won't speak Finnish.
    – Miguel
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:24
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    I'm a Norwegian PhD student, and it is fairly common here for PhD students coming from other countries to learn very little Norwegian. All PhD level courses and exams are given in English. Most people outside university can speak enough English to understand you. Edit: the biggest problem is if you're funded from outside Norway, since the cost of living here is very high. Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 8:05
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    There are no "PhD courses" in France, so the answer is trivially "yes". But as Fábio Dias explains below, learning French will eventually be unavoidable. This question is inconceivably broad, by the way: all the countries in grey on this map are "non-English speaking countries"...
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 9:08
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    @najibIdrissi, Not unavoidable, that is not what I said. I said it is doable, but harder. And there are "phd courses" in france. You get enrolled at an University (every year, useless bureaucracy, I had to deliver a copy of my eng. degree 5 times to the same person...), you have to do courses, defend a thesis and get a PhD diploma. The name might not be the same, but it is exactly what the OP asked... Don't nitpick, people != math... Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:54
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    Finland is a fairly safe option, as nobody expects any foreigners to know or learn any Finnish. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 22:15

7 Answers 7


Yes, they can, at least in technical fields (I speak mainly for Italy, but I'm pretty sure that this is possible in other countries around Europe as well).

To give you an example, at my university (Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy), there are a lot of foreigner students enrolled in various kind of engineering PhD programs who don't speak, or barely speak, Italian. In fact, most of the graduate courses are delivered in English. However, I recommend learning Italian (or any other local language if in a different country) at a discrete level if one plans to further pursue here (or there) his or her career.

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    +1. As far as I can tell, the norm in most countries, in technical fields, is that phd-level courses and research seminars are held in English whenever there is a foreigner in the audience. Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:43
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    (On the other hand, unfortunately, bureaucracy and paperwork may be more difficult to deal with without the help of an Italian colleague/friend). Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:45
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    @FedericoPoloni: Alas, you're too right: although they're translating much of the bureaucratic information in English, the intricacies of Italian bureaucracy are such that if you're not used to them, instructions are hard to follow (I really got lost in the bureaucratic fog while trying to help a PhD student of mine). Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:51
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    As a former Master student in Italy (Trento), I would like to confirm this answer. Half of the students in my programs were non-Italian. Although I couldn't speak any Italian, I don't remember having any problem with paperwork.
    – sean
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:59
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    I fully agree with this answer. For the last point (that it is advisable to learn the language anyway), the OP might be interested in the answer here as well: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/35352/…
    – damian
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 21:36

My experience was in France, Université Paris-Est, to be precise, but the same applies, at least, for ESIEE, Marne-la-vallee, Ponts-Paristech, obspm and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. I had direct contact with people from these places.

Professors and students speak english when they have no other choice, usually a very accented english (They have real trouble pronouncing 'w'). Speaking to you, they will indeed try to speak english, but amongst them, with you 'nearby', they will, most likely, speak french.

Most of the other employees will not speak english. In my university, the "welcome" session, presenting the university and the academic requirements and procedures, was held in french, even after I reminded them that one of the new phd candidates did not speak french at all.

Same applies in all public offices (including immigration, tax services, etc). Don't expect any of them to speak english. You might find someone, but don't count on it.

Of course, worse yet for random people in the street. My own landlady didn't speak english... Funny enough, all the cleaning ladies I found were either portuguese or brazilian, so that was easier :)

IMHO, while it is indeed doable to get a PhD and live in france without speaking french (I know a guy who did, although I think he learned french by the end of it), it is considerably harder. The academic part is easier, you can always ask your advisor to intervene, but the rest is painfully complicated.

  • "although I think he learned french by the end of it" well isn't that a no-brainer? If I spent 3+ years in a foreign country I would definitely make an effort to learn the language... And don't forget that many PhD students have teaching duties, and teaching will be in French.
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 9:00
  • @NajibIdrissi, well, the course I TA'd wasn't fully in french, but in english., with some french here and there. And I just checked his linkedin profile, he lists his knowledge of french as basic... Careful with generalizations, it may be a 'no-brainer' for you, but not for everyone... Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 12:42
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    @NajibIdrissi I know people that have been living and working in Sweden from more than 10 years and still don't speak any Swedish. Swedish is particulary difficult to learn because almost everybody speaks good English, so there isn't much pressure nor need to learn it. On the other hand, in Spain you better learn Spanish soon if you want to eat.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:33
  • @Davidmh or just eat fast food, point and order :) Matter of fact, while on france, my knowledge of french went way down... I knew the grammar and rules better while studying it... I spoke english with my advisors, my labmates weren't french as well, so english... Except for a couple of painful visits to public offices for bureaucracy, I almost never needed to speak much french... Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:48

I can tell from my wife's experiences who, as a native bilingual speaker (Chinese-English), tried to be admitted to Swiss universities: It doesn't work. For bachelor's and master's courses the local language (German, French or Italian) is strictly required. There are a few exceptions, especially for natural sciences, finances and economics, etc. (e.g. ETH Zurich, EFPL Lausanne, HSG St. Gallen, et al.). But for most fields the local language is a requirement.

However, this is totally different at PhD or Post-doc level. There you only need to find a professor willing to supervise you (which means that you must be able to communicate with him...), then anything's possible.

Also note that the visa requirements for Swiss student visas sometimes explicitely state that the knowledge of a local language will be put to the test in an interview.

Also note that there are often single modules taught in English sometimes even on Bachelor/Master level but they are normally an exception, so knowledge in the university's local language is still required.

Further note that some Swiss universities even offer courses where explicitely TWO local languages (e.g. German and French) are required or at least expected. I personally have experienced that several times.

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    Thanks so much, I'd like two know about Swiss and Germany too.
    – Rwy5
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:11
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    For a PhD it should be possible, given you find a professor proficient enough in English to supervise you. Depending on how much interest in Switzerland you have, you can give me more information (e.g. field) and I can have a closer look. Normally all information is available in English, if the course is taught in English, otherwise it's a strong hint that a particular course is only offered in the local language. Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:52
  • excuse me, but you are simply wrong about at least EPFL and ETH Zurich, most Mater programs are taught in English, with few exceptions. Check their websites, if you don't believe me. Local languages is beneficial, but not a requirement. Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 20:30
  • here are the links for masters(in EPFL click on individual program and at the bottom there is language info). ETH Zurich language requirements __ EPFL Master programs Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 20:47
  • @ScienceSamovar : I do not see this contradicting my original text at all. It already states that there are exceptions and names "Natural sciences" (which are most of the courses you pointed towards) as one of them. Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 15:02

I am a Dutch PhD student, and I am doing my PhD in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. In The Netherlands knowing only English as a PhD student is no problem. In fact in my university in the Netherlands (University of Groningen) master classes where given in English if there was a student who did not understand Dutch well. Also in daily life English is sufficient, especially if you are in a city.

In Spain the knowledge of English is worse, but at an academic level you normally can communicate in English. Also at my university (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech) most classes are also given in English. Here however, especially in daily life, it is very useful to know the basics of the local language (Spanish/Catalan), also for talking with some of the supporting university staff for example.

Edit: Some extra resources:

Studyinholland.co.uk comments:

In the Netherlands there are around 850 Masters programmes taught in English. You can search for degrees fully taught in English in our database of Dutch degrees. ...

Knowledge of English is so good that it is possible to survive almost entirely in the English language (and watch BBC television without paying the licence fee). British students who have gone to study in Holland recently have found it to be a very welcoming and supportive study environment.

Studyinholland.nl about the language requirements :

It is essential that you speak, read and write English well. You must have passed an English language test. IELTS and TOEFL are commonly accepted, but institutions may accept other tests as well, like like Cambridge English.

The required scores are at least 550 (paper based) or 213 (computer based) for TOEFL. For IELTS a score of at least 6 is required.

You can find language requirements for individual programmes or courses in the database of international study programmes.

An interesting document about the Dutch education system, also indicating that English is getting used more and more:

The language of education is Dutch, but under the influence of the Bologna process more and more study programmes are being offered in English. Education is compulsory in the Netherlands between the ages of 5 and 16.

Finally, a website where you can search for studies in English in Europe: Study in Europe in English


I know PhD students in Germany and the Netherlands without knowledge in German and Dutch respectively. Most of the PhD programs in Germany do not require courses. At least in engineering, most universities allow an English thesis. But to live in a foreign country without proficient knowledge of the language can be hard. In my experience, most people in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries can speak at least basic English. In France on the other hand it is problematic without knowledge of the French language.

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    "Most of the PhD programs in Germany do not require courses." - indeed, although the more severe problem might be that you have to give (or otherwise co-organize or support) courses taught in German. While it is not an absolute hurdle, institutes with a large percentage of non-German-speaking doctoral candidates are regularly in a problematic situation when it comes to distributing teaching duties, and knowledge of German may well influence the decision of which candidate to hire when these problems are expected by the respective head of an institute. Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 16:42
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    Don't think there is much of a difference between France and Germany in terms of English proficiency. Attitude might be a bit different (French people are very shy about speaking a foreign language and concerned about sounding funny whereas Germans seem always eager to try their awful English on me even though I speak German fluently) but all in all, most people don't speak English and you will find some that do in both countries. The Netherlands is different of course.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 15:29

When I had made an inquiry about 3 years ago, a b-level proficiency of German language was required for most undergrad and postgrad programs affiliated to German universities. However, I think for a PHD, most universities do not require this. Rather, they would probably ask for your TOEFL or ELTS score. However, some programs might still require a working knowledge of German. I found some details on this site: http://www.findaphd.com/study-abroad/europe/phd-study-in-germany.aspx.


Summing up the other answers and adding some comments from my own personal experience:

  • Writing and defending a PhD thesis in English is possible in all the countries you mentioned. In some countries (e.g. the Netherlands), it's the rule and even the local students do it in English. In others (e.g. France and Germany), writing your PhD in the local language is still the rule and you might get strange looks if you choose to do it in English as a local (depends a bit on the field and on the institution as well). But PhD candidates from abroad can definitely do it.

  • Teaching, attending courses and dealing with the bureaucracy will be more difficult, knowing the local language will make you much more useful and open up many options. That's true even in countries/institutions that are moving to English for master's level courses and even more so in those where teaching is almost exclusively in the local language.

  • Life outside work will differ a lot. In France or Germany, you are expected to speak the local language for everything, taxes, shopping, etc. Most people will not feel confident speaking English. The Netherlands is a bit more English-friendly, films are not dubbed, people will spontaneously speak English when they hear a foreign accent, you can get some help in English even for official things like taxes (although not everything will be available in English), etc.

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    In my experience (Computer Science, Germany), writing the MSc and PhD thesis in English seems to be the rule and writing it in German is looked down upon. After all, how are you going to survive in academia if you can't write science in English? Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 6:29
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    @Sumyrda Like I said, it depends on the discipline and institution and it might also be changing, I don't have any statistics but that's my impression. Your last question could be the starting point of a long debate but that's hardly a good reason for all Phd theses, let alone MSc theses, to be written in English. A more serious issue for a PhD is that a German or French-language thesis make it more difficult for academics from other countries to participate in the committee (most MSc graduates aren't supposed to become part of academia at all).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 8:16
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    In Germany, a MSc thesis is a prerequisite for many PhD positions. We have very few PhD-without-MSc-programs here. Maybe that's why writing the MSc thesis in English seems important to people. Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 8:39
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    @Sumyrda Obviously, it's that way everywhere, but the converse is not true, maybe one in ten MSc will enrol in a PhD program.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 8:59

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