The difference between PhD programs in America and Europe

PhD Programs in America

While PhD programs in both America and Europe are highly distinguished levels of education, there are some differences you should be aware if you are planning on applying to any universities within these two continents. Admissions, funding and the length of a PhD program vary from university to university, as well as from country to country. Here is a comparison of programs in the United States and the United Kingdom.In the United States, the Ph.D. is typically the highest academic degree awarded by universities. In some cases, a master’s degree may be required for a Ph.D. program – in other cases, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient.

Firstly, a student must usually complete a comprehensive examination or a series of exams which focuses more on breadth of knowledge than depth. Some programs require the candidate to complete successfully requirements in pedagogy (the study of teaching) or applied science (e.g., clinical practice or predoctoral clinical internship for programs in clinical or counseling psychology).

2 to 4 years are usually required for the creating an original thesis/dissertation. In the social sciences and humanities, it is typically 50 to 450 pages in length. The candidate then judged by an expert committee.


Universities vary widely in their criteria. Usually, PhD programs require applicants to have:

  • a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant field
  • reasonably high grades
  • several letters of recommendation
  • relevant coursework
  • a statement of interest/purpose in the field of study
  • satisfactory performance on a graduate-level exam (e.g. GRE, GMAT)

Some programs in well-regarded universities (for example, Research 1 universities: universities that engaged in extensive research activity) admit less than 5% of applicants and require an exceptional performance on the GRE along with near-perfect grades, strong support in letters of recommendation, substantial research experience, and academically sophisticated samples of their writing.

Completion of the program usually takes four to eight years of study after the Bachelor’s Degree, or 2 years or less for those with a Master’s Degree. Ph.D. programs lack the formal structure of undergraduate education, so how long it takes you to complete a degree depends on you, the individual. Many US universities have set a 10-year limit for students in Ph.D. programs. 57% of students who begin a Ph.D. program in the US will complete their degree within 10 years, 30% will drop out or be dismissed, and 13% of students will continue on past 10 years.


Doctoral students are usually discouraged from engaging in external employment. Ph.D. students at U.S. universities typically receive a tuition waiver and some form of annual stipend. The source and amount of funding varies from field to field, and university to university. Many U.S. graduate students work as teaching assistants or research assistants while studying.

In Canada, a PhD program is very similar to that of the United States. Admission may require completion of a Master’s degree in a related field with high grades and experience. In some cases, a student may progress directly from an Honours Bachelor’s degree to a PhD program.

PhD Programs in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, PhDs are distinct from other doctorates. It is not necessarily the highest level of degree – there are higher doctorates such as DLitt (Doctor of Letters) and DSc (Doctor of Science). These degrees are granted on the recommendation of a committee based on a large portfolio of published research.


In principle, a university is free to admit anyone to a Ph.D. program. In practice, however, admission usually requires the completion of an undergraduate degree with at least upper second-class honours or a postgraduate Master’s degree.

Ph.D. students from countries outside the European Union or European Free Trade Association are required to comply with the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS). This involves undergoing a security clearance process with the Foreign Office for certain courses in Medicine, Mathematics, Engineering, Natural Sciences and Material Sciences. This requirement was introduced in 2007 due to concerns of terrorism and other illegal activity.

Funding for PhD students in the U.K. is sometimes provided by government-funded Research Councils or the European Social Fund. This usually comes in the form of a tax-free bursary which consists of tuition fees together with a stipend of around 12,940 pounds per year, for three years. Students may also take part in tutoring or teacher assistants, or work as research assistants.

What’s best for me?

Find the programs which interest you most and which you qualify for. Research which cities and universities you would be interested in applying to. Some universities have very strong research programs. Check the official university websites to see the admission requirements, funding possibilities, and tuition fees.



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