in US PhDs, it's typical to start publishing (first author or not) in their latter-half years. How does that work in the EU? Since EU PhDs are shorter than US programs, is it common for EU phd students to publish in their final year or so? Or do some people not even make that and wait till their post-doc or something?

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    Just one data point, but any way: I started publishing as an advanced undergrad. I will have 5 publications when I complete my master's.
    – user48820
    Feb 7, 2016 at 12:08
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    in US PhDs, it's typical to start publishing (first author or not) in their latter-half years This is highly field dependent. In many areas of math, I believe a majority of students don't publish before graduating.
    – Kimball
    Feb 7, 2016 at 13:13
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    And in the humanities, the first publication may be a book published a year or two after the Ph.D.
    – GEdgar
    Feb 7, 2016 at 14:30
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/26354/41580
    – Earthliŋ
    Feb 7, 2016 at 22:40
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    This is way too broad. There's massive variation between subjects and Europe is not nearly as homogeneous as you seem to be assuming. Feb 7, 2016 at 22:53

5 Answers 5


Probably, you have an incorrect picture of European PhDs.

There are significant differences in the paths that lead to a PhD in the US and in Europe. Several of these differences have been already covered by other questions, but let me highlight those I think are the most important for what concerns your question.

First, however, the usual disclaimer: Europe is not a single entity, and there are large differences among European countries. What I'm going to say below applies to many countries around here, but not necessarily to all.

  1. Most European PhD programmes require an MSc degree for the application. Therefore, the common European PhD student has already done the coursework (or most of it) that a PhD student in the US has to do during their first years.
  2. Students in the US usually fund themselves through teaching assistantship, which keep them away from research for many hours a week. Most European students, instead, are fully funded by their institution and can work on research full time. Some institutions allow them to work as teaching assistants too, but with a lower workload.
  3. If I got it correctly, US students are allowed during their first years to "wander" a bit to decide what topic they like most. European students are usually not allowed to do so: they start working on a specific topic from week one of their PhD.
  4. European PhDs are shorter than US ones, but not that shorter: though in many European countries the canonical duration of a PhD is 3 years, the real duration is frequently longer, 3.5-4 years.

Given the above differences, you should not be surprised to discover that many European PhD students start publishing from their first or second year.

For your last point:

Or do some people not even make that and wait till post-doc or something?

In some cases this would not be possible because some PhD programmes require students to publish at least one journal paper before the end of their PhD.

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    From what I have seen in Germany, the "wandering" described in your point 3 very much happens, but with the same result you describe: You do not wait to publish until you have settled on a topic; you start publishing right away while wandering. The actual focus of your research will then only be gradually determined a few years later by looking back and seeing which ones are the connecting aspects of your publications up to then. Feb 7, 2016 at 12:27
  • With MSc 2 years and PhD 3-4 years, a European PhD is just as long as a US PhD of 5-6 years. There are a few PhD programs in Europe which don't require an MSc but the hand full of such programs that I know take 4-5 years instead of 3-4 and are basically MSc+PhD but skipping the MSc thesis. Feb 7, 2016 at 18:29
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    @Sumyrda: Note that these durations in Europe may be quite field-dependent. Among my contacts, the usual PhD duration is 5, and sometimes up to 6 years. And those were programs that required having a MSc before. Feb 7, 2016 at 20:13
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    @SSimon It's true that some personalities feel better with one system rather than the other, but, really, the most important thing, whatever the system, is to find a good advisor and a group with whom you get along well. As a student I was not really concerned about the possibility of changing topic: at the time of the Master's thesis I asked about two topics at the opposite side of the Galaxy, one on statistical mechanics, the other in metrology, and half an hour later I made my choice. Feb 8, 2016 at 17:07
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    I'd also note however that a MSc (and BSc) in Europe is not completely equivalent to a Msc (and BSc) in the US: while a BSc in the US is typically 4 years long and most people go straight into the industry after this, in many European countries (at least in Switzerland, and especially in STEM fields), a BSc is only 3 years and everybody does a MSc as well, it's simply a part of your education.
    – Steve Heim
    Feb 9, 2016 at 6:01

Answers will depend on the specifics of the country and the field, and possibly there are some variations by institution, as well. My experience in computer science in Germany is as follows:

Doctoral candidates "start publishing" right upon starting their path to the doctoral degree. That is, they are gradually included in the publishing process:

  • The first one or two papers will most probably be heavily influenced by someone who mentors the candidate, possibly the candidate is only the secondary author in those and only prepares a single aspect of the work.
  • On the other hand, it is also quite a promising and somewhat common start to try and publish a part of one's Master (or equivalent) thesis as an actual paper, if there is anything appropriate to be found in that thesis - these are some results that are already there, so the candidate can concentrate on the specifics of how to properly write a research paper, how to convey the knowledge in English instead of the local language, and how the process of peer review and publication works in general.

Furthermore, it is well possible the first few publications are only workshop papers or posters, or maybe short conference papers, as opposed to the full-fledged full length conference papers following later on.

Whether a stapler thesis in the narrow sense is permissible depends on the preferences of the professor. However, in any case, parts of the doctoral thesis are generally expected to have been published, and I have even seen regulations stating a publication list as a required document to be submitted along with the final version of the doctoral thesis. As such, it is unlikely that "wait[ing] till post-doc" (or even just until the final, i.e. 5th or so year) is a viable procedure.

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    Yes, in the computer science department where I did my master thesis, it was quite common to try to publish the master thesis as a workshop paper or even conference paper. We even had some students successfully publish their bachelor thesis as workshop papers. In the years that I was there, only students that had already published something got an offer for a PhD position. Feb 7, 2016 at 18:33

In many places in Europe you can't even start on a PhD without having done a MSc and a PhD is (supposed to be) 3 years. In Sweden a PhD is (supposed to be) 4 years full time work courses and research +1 year of institutional work (typically helping out in teaching BSc and MSc students). Sometimes working as a "research assistant" for some months or a year is done in between the MSc and the PhD.

In Sweden you are supposed to start publishing from the start, but expected to take most of the PhD course credits (like 2/3 of them) first half and therefore have more time for writing and publishing second half as it is expected it will take some time to learn and to get up to speed with publishing.

Typical number of publications for inclusion in a technical PhD could be 3-6, depending on if they are conference or journal publications. But it seems to vary a lot with which field you're in.

All that being said, it really is not very uncommon to find full-professors chairing their departments who took 7-10 years to finish their PhDs.


As people said already, in many places in Europe you can't even start on a PhD without having done a MSc. BSc in many EU countries is not considered to be higher education. In my EU country BSc is a worthless paper.

I have done a PhD in UK. You are given 3 years to do the research, 4th year is for writing your thesis. That is the theory. However in many cases students are used as cheap workforce, hence they research until the last day. But they have to finish within 4 years or they leave with nothing.

Publications are an advantage, although are not required. At the viva external examiner has to write a report, where one of the questions he has to answer is: "Is the student's work publishable?" If the student has no publications, he would have to argue at the viva. If he has publications, the examiner has no choice but to tick the box.

Having said that, it is not easy to get a publication by the end of 4th year. It takes 2-3 years before you start having some interesting results from your research. In some highly regarded IEEE journals it takes more than a year from the moment you submit your paper to the moment it gets published. I intentionally went for a publication in IEEE journal that had less reputation, just to get it published before my viva. And I had more publications from my PhD research after I finished my PhD than during it. My girlfriend doing a PhD in English studies had lots of publications in first year already. But it was just a different subject.

It can vary from uni to uni and even from department to department. A lot depends also on the subject of your research. Having a good supervisor helps. Mine was useless...


There is no single answer that applies to all (continental European) countries and all disciplines. Take Germany as an example. In the humanities, it is quite common not to have published a single article until some time after the PhD defense, which on average takes six to seven years.

The entire process from BA to PhD is not shorter than in the US, because a masters (or equivalent) degree is a precondition for being admitted as a PhD student.

The "classical" way to become a PhD is while being employed as a part-time research associate (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter). In general, working on a part-time job while also working on the dissertation prolongs the whole process, but the details matter. Some superiors assign work that takes more than 20 hours; some, by contrast, regard working on the PhD thesis as part of the work contract. If the job involves mainly teaching or administrative duties, the first publication may not be ready before the end of the third year or even (much) later. However, if it involves only research duties and a supportive superior/supervisor, it may also lead to additional publications before the PhD defense.

More recently, U.S. style graduate schools have become more common in Germany. Typically, these run over three to four years and students are fully funded to enable them to focus on their PhD. This does not necessarily exclude other side-projects.

In the humanities and often in the social sciences, the doctoral dissertation is one monographic thesis. Only after the defense, the manuscript is eventually published as one single book (and possibly a few chapters turned into articles). For the publication, the thesis manuscript has to be edited, often thoroughly, which may take another year or longer.

  • "Typically, [U.S. style graduate schools] run over three years and students are fully funded to work exclusively on their PhD." - all instances of this that I have seen also meant that typically (?), no candidate was done with their thesis by the end of the graduate school duration (which I saw more commonly as four years), and either got some additional funding for another one or two years from other sources, or had to continue their research while starting to work outside of the university. Also, it is not uncommon for doctoral candidates in such graduate schools to also be employed ... Feb 8, 2016 at 20:00
  • ... part-time by the university institute of their supervisor, so they do not miss out on the opportunity to gather the teaching and collaborative research experience that is expected by the time they get a doctoral degree. Consequently, the assumption that they "work exclusively on their PhD" sounds rather theoretical to me. (That notwithstanding, publications during the first year can be the norm depending on the field.) Feb 8, 2016 at 20:11
  • @O.R.Mapper Yes, that has also been my impression. I have edited my answer to take this into account.
    – henning
    Feb 10, 2016 at 3:40

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