I completed my Masters' from Penn State University (US) last year in Industrial Engineering and I'm looking to enroll in a PhD. Here's the onion, I do not want to leave my full-time job to enroll in school full-time and complete the coursework requirment (as case with most US university), hence I was contemplating if there exists any PhD degree where coursework (or on-campus presence) is not required, either in US or Europe.

About research - I've already talked to my boss and he's quite okay with me performing research in-house (in company) for my PhD, better than that, he might even pay for it.

  • I am not aware of any PhD degree without course requirements. The first thing to look for is part time PhD programs and some schools do offer this. Also, even for full-time PhD applicants some graduate courses are after 5:00pm.
    – seteropere
    Jan 14, 2013 at 18:15
  • 1
    Your boss is happy for you to pursue a full-time job (research toward a PhD dissertation) while he pays you to do a different full-time job? Really?
    – JeffE
    Jan 14, 2013 at 22:23
  • @JeffE - I believe its quite common in US and elsewhere where you can study part-time/full-time if you're completing your regular work hours without any hindrance. Jan 15, 2013 at 18:46
  • @steropere - Yes, I researched and there are lot of 'research only' PhDs available in Europe which doesn't have any course requirement. Jan 15, 2013 at 18:47

4 Answers 4


In Europe it is quite common to do a PhD without course requirements. You will generally have to have a Master's degree though, before you can start. This answer is about the situation in Europe (or at least, the Netherlands).

To do a PhD while working for a company can be possible, if you can find a professor that is willing to supervise you. It will be hard though if you are not in regular contact with the advisor. The most realistic option would be to do research on a joint project with academia and industry. I don't think though that this would be feasible if you work in the US, and the university is in Europe.

  • Thanks for your feedback @Pieter, I have contacted few universisites in Netherland and Germany about the campus presence problem, hopefully I should get a clear answer soon. I'll update this thread with whatever responses I will receive. Jan 15, 2013 at 18:45

As Pieter says, at many European universities you can get through PhD without any coursework. That, however, is a different issue than not being present on campus.


In the past, in countries like German, it wasn't customary to complete coursework during PhD. The idea was that a PhD student was being trained by the supervisor and the pursuit of doctoral degree was meant as a true "assistantship". It is however changing in the recent years and more and more students are introducing graduation colleges, or other lecture programs aimed specifically at PhD students. So times are changing, but it still is possible at some places.

On-site presence

Some countries, like Slovakia or Czech Republic (not sure about others) have a form of a distant PhD study. How efficient that is, however, is another story. In Germany, it also is possible to be a PhD student without being employed at the university, this is quite normal for students enrolled at a Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule). The idea is that the student does everything as any other PhD student would, however, since the institution he/she is employed at does not have accreditation to award doctoral degrees, he/she has to be additionally enrolled at a university which has this right. I know that this is how it works also in e.g., Norway.

There is also a possibility to be a PhD students and at the same time being employed at a company. I know of few students like this in the Netherlands.

Now with both options discussed above, there always is a requirement of presence on-site. It is not strictly necessary to be daily, but at least part-time is mandatory. I did not hear of a place where it wasn't, though there might be instances where this would fly. The underlying idea is anyway that the student in the end produces dissertation and research supporting it in the same quality as an "in-house" student would. You won't escape this one and this is the main problem you should try to solve. Your question rather is: "will my non-presence and no coursework allow me to produce quality research to finally deliver a good dissertation, or not?"


My understanding is that course works is nearly always required for US PhD programs and very often not required for UK and other European PhD programs. For many European programs, you essentially apply to the program with a PhD proposal and you can think of it as almost starting the PhD post-qualifiers or generals. You'll be expected to have a Masters and to be an advanced student before starting and you'll generally do this by finding a particular advisor and applying directly to them.

That said, not wanting to be on campus at all is going to be a challenge — especially if you want to end up in a top program. In theory, this will be possible but most potential advisors may be afraid that by trying to maintain a full time job, you won't be able to put an adequate amount of energy and effort into your program. Honestly, I'd share those concerns as well!

I will add that although I know about a number of fields, I don't have any specfic knowledge about Industrial Engineering.


A few more points on German PhD programs

  • universities are more and more moving towards PhD programs with course-work, the ones without are usually the "old" programs.
    The old programs usually take the point of view that the PhD thesis is your "private fun", you usually do not get paid for the research work. This leaves you free to have whatever daytime job you have. However, the experience is that unless your daytime job is to do the research, such theses often took/take decades (I'm speaking of 10 or 20 years; which is reasonable if you consider that the "modern" 3 years of 8 - 12 h / working day correspond to (4 - 6) x 3 years at 2 h / day).

  • Some of the programs without course-work will require you to take a final exam, which can be replaced by the exams of course work.

  • your search term would be "external PhD student" (externer Doktorand)
    As walkmanyi already wrote, external PhD students are usually in research projects that involve a collaboration between industry and university. And external PhD students usually have to show up every few months to give their presentations, and they may be asked to attend the research group's seminar regularly. With seminar hours outside "normal" work schedules, this is possible if you live reasonably close.

  • In the old "PhD is private fun" programs, PhD students are not paid for the research. However, they are/were frequently paid for teaching. Some PhD programs now require teaching experience - which means on-campus presence.

As far as I know, Italian PhD programs require the students to have a special kind of working contract with the university, so no external PhD there.

  • "This leaves you free to have whatever daytime job you have. However, the experience is that unless your daytime job is to do the research, such theses often took/take decades", please explain? What if someone just works for 20h per week and spares the rest on his/her PhD thesis?
    – Carol.Kar
    Jun 22, 2014 at 15:18
  • "In the old 'PhD is private fun' programs, PhD students are not paid for the research." - this is not quite correct. At least in CS, it is very customary to be either funded based on an external project grant, or with departmental budget for one of a number of fixed positions. At least in the former case, your core task is to do research as outlined by the project grant (and in the latter case, I have seen research being a part of the core duties, as well, on a specific basic topic, in order to advance the portfolio and experience of the department). Ideally, the contents for the PhD ... Sep 10, 2015 at 7:57
  • ... thesis can be directly drawn from the research one was paid for, and it is the responsibility of both the PhD candidate and their supervisor to achieve such a topical overlap as much as possible (e.g. by defining a general research topic that aligns well with the project etc.). Like this, PhD candidates are indeed paid for research; only the writing of the PhD thesis itself in the end is considered "private fun". Sep 10, 2015 at 7:59
  • @O.R.Mapper: I would not consider the situation you describe as one of the "PhD is your private fun" programs. Those are mostly gone by now (DFG says PhD students should be paid for the research work). What I was talking about were PhD theses where the question of earning money was completely independent of the research work. Your departmental fixed position may be close to that: paid for teaching, researching on whatever. What is probably still there of this point of view is that hardly any institute would refuse you as PhD student if you say "I don't need to be paid". Sep 10, 2015 at 16:26
  • In turn you should have a very good position in negotiating what topic you want your thesis to be about. Sep 10, 2015 at 16:27

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