The doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) was first introduced at Humboldt University in Berlin in 1810. Soon after, the degree spread to the USA in 1862 and to Canada in 1900. PhD’s were originally brought to fruition in order to strengthen research programs. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the pioneer of the PhD, reasoned that giving students formal supervision would ensure they become experts in their field. Since then, PhD’s have become commonplace worldwide.
However, the PhD experience can be vastly different for some doctoral candidates in North America compared to their international equivalents. As each student is unique in their education and background, each school and program is also variable. Notably, there are stark contrasts between North American and European PhD programs. From time to completion, PhD project selection, and funding agreements, the North American and European PhD educational systems differ considerably.
One of the main, and perhaps most significant, differences between doing a PhD in North America vs. Europe is the time to completion. Currently, in the department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, the average time to completion for a PhD is 6.5 years. The length of a PhD in Europe is generally 3-4 years. However, many programs throughout Europe, such as in France and Germany, have set lengths of 3 years. Beyond 3 years, these programs may cut funding in an effort to push students out the door. The median time to completion for immunology and infectious diseases PhDs across North America is 5.36 years, according to a research article published in 2011.
Differences in degree lengths between the European and North American educational systems do not begin, however, at the PhD level. In Europe, students are expected to complete an undergraduate and master’s degree before starting their doctoral research. This education typically takes 1-2 years for a master’s, and 3-4 years for a bachelor’s degree. In North America, students may opt to complete a master’s before beginning their PhD research, but in most institutions this is not necessary as long as the student has demonstrated significant research experience in their undergraduate education. Thus, students may begin their PhD research after only 4 years of post-secondary education.
In fact, many PhD programs in the US and Canada use the ‘umbrella’ system in which master’s and PhD students are admitted into the same program. This umbrella system allows students to choose to either graduate with a master’s or complete a qualifying exam to continue as a PhD candidate after ~2 years into the program. Therefore, the total time in post-secondary education in North America and Europe may actually both end up being approximately 8 years. However, as the North American system does not have hard deadlines for a PhD, some students may find themselves spending 10-12 years completing post-secondary education.
One factor which may concern potential PhD students when looking for a position is where the best quality of education can be found. For many students, quality means publishing in high impact journals. European PhD’s could be less desirable in the North American system due to the shorter time frame of the degree. Publishing in top tier journals may not be possible in that time, and in fact, if a project does not go as planned, publishing may not be possible at all.
While talking with one research associate, who did her PhD in Austria and currently works at the Princess Margaret Hospital, she said publishing was not an issue. She stated that although her PhD was only three years, she was able to publish a total of 12 times with many of those papers being first author papers. However, she said it is worth mentioning that her field was in neurokinins, which she says was a much less competitive field and thus easier to publish in than immunology. When asked about how it was possible to publish so many papers in a three–year PhD, she said her school really pushed her out the door; there was a concerted effort to help with her projects and help with the writing to allow her to publish and graduate. She also mentioned that finding a post-doctoral position in Canada was not difficult. She didn’t feel anyone placed less value on her European PhD than the North American equivalent.
The conversation with this research associate highlighted some contrasts between the systems, which may not be apparent at first glance. PhD students in Europe are hired for a specific, well-defined project approved by the institution before hiring has even begun. ORPHEUS, or Organization for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Science in the European System, outlined best practices for PhD training in Europe in 2016. They stated that “Before enrolling a PhD candidate, the institution should evaluate and approve the following: the scientific quality and feasibility of the research project to be performed by the PhD candidate and whether the project is suitable and may reasonably be expected to result in a thesis”. ORPHEUS encourages universities to have a set project that has been reviewed and approved by the institution before it is given to a PhD student. In contrast, North American universities may enroll PhD students to begin working on an undefined project that they expect will develop in the first 1-2 years. Completing a PhD in only 3 years would be extremely difficult under the North American model.
Another contributing factor which differs between North American and European PhD students is funding. Funding in both Europe and North America can vary dramatically depending on the school. Generally, North American PhD stipends cover living expenses and are not taxable. European funding is a salary with benefits and students generally pay tax. Depending on the country, taxation may significantly affect take home dollar amount. In Europe, most countries hire PhD students as employees with contracts usually lasting for 3 years. In a survey of PhD candidates across Europe, 54% of students were funded in Austria, 76% in Germany and 82% in France. When asked whether the level of funding met living costs, over 40% of students in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden said it did to a very high extent, whereas fewer than 10% said it met living costs in Croatia, Portugal and Spain.
North American stipends also vary significantly. For example, one article published in the August 2019 version of Science detailed how some students across the United States are struggling to make ends meet. The article detailed how one student from Louisiana State University (LSU) was charged $4900 in tuition fees while only receiving a $22000 teaching stipend. State funding per student has been on a decline in the United States while tuition and fee revenue per student has risen. In Canada, stipends can also fall below the amount needed to cover living expenses. The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto increased graduate funding by 5% just this academic year, as it was found that students were unable to cover their cost of living with the previous stipend amounts.
Whether in North America or Europe, PhD’s can vary widely from time to completion, quality of research, and funding packages. However, neither system is perfect as each has drawbacks, and each has benefits. Depending on the individual entering the program, some factors may be more desirable. For example, if a Canadian master’s graduate wants to pursue a PhD but desires a shorter time commitment, they may choose to apply for a European program. However, a European student may find considerable value in shaping their project or the opportunity to generate top tier data to be published in high-impact journals and so choose to enter a PhD at a North American institution.
- Barnett, J. V., R. A. Harris, and M. J. Mulvany. 2017. A comparison of best practices for doctoral training in Europe and North America.FEBS Open Bio7: 1444–1452.
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- Langin, K. 2019. Grad students struggle with rising fees.Science365: 630–630.
- Bosch, G., and A. Casadevall. 2017. Graduate Biomedical Science Education Needs a New Philosophy.mBio8: e01539–17.
- Major survey of PhD students in Europe sheds light on working life : Naturejobs Blog.
- Russo, E. 2004. The changing length of PhDs.Nature431: 382–383.
- Lorden, J. F., C. V. Kuh, J. A. Voytuk, and N. R. C. (US) A. A. of R.-D. P. P. on the B. Sciences. 2011.Time to Degree, Funding, and Completion Rates,. National Academies Press (US).
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