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I'm going to graduate with a physics degree at the end of next year (around December). I want to do my PhD in Europe, but I know that the academic year starts in September, and I don't think I can finish before that.

Is it uncommon to begin work at the start of the year (February, March) rather than the usual date? Does that lower my chances of getting in to most universities? I mean, I'd have to tell them that I won't be able to go until the next year, and that seems pretty unorthodox. Maybe there's some people that won't have a problem with that, but I imagine they'll be in the minority. I'd probably lose the spot to someone that can start in August/September, wouldn't I?

What should I do? I don't think taking 6 months off is a good idea, and I definitely won't have any more courses or finals by that time.

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    Europe has about fifty countries. In some countries its common to start at any time, in some its not. So you have to narrow down your choice of universities, find out how they work and proceed accordingly. – Dirk Sep 17 '16 at 15:30
  • Finding accommodation may be a lot easier in the "off-season", particularly if you are wanting to rent only a single room rather than a whole apartment. You'll avoid the rush of undergraduates and so will have a much better choice. – Moriarty Sep 23 '16 at 12:45
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The answer to your question really depends on which country in Europe you want to go. In Italy all the open PhD positions are assigned in the fall, while in the Netherlands every professor that has own grant can create a PhD position and hire you any time of the year. I guess this reflect also the different status that a PhD student has in these two countries: in Italy you are a student with a scholarship, in the Netherlands you are an employee of the university with a temporary contract.

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    data point: France seems to be the same as in Italy; you start in October and anything else is very uncommon. – la femme cosmique Sep 23 '16 at 9:34
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The European universities that I know of, will hire a PhD candidate and employ the candidate under a time-limited contract. You are not enrolling in a pre-set program, you are being employed. The timing for completing any mandatory coursework is usually very flexible. There are no general rigid rules with regards to when to hire someone for a PhD position. As most, but not all, students typically finish their Master's during summer, most positions will have a starting date in early autumn. But some do not. It depends on circumstances. You will have to look up adverts on available PhD positions, and see what the specifics are. You will also find contact information to people in the group that is hiring, and you can and should give them a call. They will be able to provide more information on how much flexibility they have.

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    This also reflects my experience in Germany and Austria. However, your mileage may vary, depending on the country in Europe and on whether or not you enroll in a graduate school. – henning Sep 23 '16 at 9:55
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Indeed it is dependent on a number of different factors.

  • As mentioned, different countries will have different rules, though even there individual universities could differ, and within those universities there may be exceptional cases...
  • If you are going to be (externally) funded, it will depend on the stipulations of that agreement: the funding body may or may not be happy with you starting at another time, or the grant may become available in January and the positions need to be filled asap. If you are not (immediately) funded, universities or supervisors may be more likely to accept you any time of the year, because free labour.
  • Even if starting later/earlier than September is not an option, you may be able to officially start the PhD while not having your MSc degree yet - if this is workable for you of course.

In my experience (UK), you can start any time of the year. But it is true that in some other countries (Benelux, Germany, ...) a PhD 'student' is not as much 'student' as 'employee'. In the UK you are a student, but typically one that can start at another time (again YMMV).


I don't think taking 6 months off is a good idea

I beg to differ in many cases, but to each their own of course. One idea is to do some work e.g. as a research assistant at the institution you are considering studying at. Also remember European PhDs are short (especially UK), between 3 and 5 years, as opposed to the US ones which take forever.

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