Choosing the right country if you want to study for your PhD abroad is crucial due to significant differences in course structure, funding, and expectations. Some countries treat PhD students as employees with salaries and benefits, while others, like Japan, require substantial personal funding. Consider financial support, integration into labs, and your personal support network. Also consider whether your financial support will cover your write-up period. Score your options based on criteria that matter to you. Factor in your personal needs and priorities to ensure a fulfilling PhD experience.

Most PhD students will agree that the process of doing your PhD is challenging, but this overlooks a very real struggle that starts before you even step foot into the lab. 

Where should you do your PhD, and will you be happy there? 

These are the most under-appreciated questions, in my opinion.

Whilst PhD degrees are viewed largely equally in the job market, your experience of pursuing that PhD will vary massively based on what country you do it in.

In this article, I will talk you through the key differences in PhD course structure, funding, and expectations around the globe. Plus, I’ll share my experiences and give you some advice so you can pick a country to study in that suits you.

Course Structure Varies—A Lot

In Japan, a PhD student is exactly that; they are a student. 

No stipend is paid out to them, and they are expected to pay handsomely for being allowed to work in their lab. 

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are countries like the Netherlands and Germany, where a PhD student is a student only on paper. They are offered employment contracts and receive regular monthly salary and even employee benefits. Some of these benefits include:

  • Employer contributions to pension
  • Disability insurance
  • Unemployment insurance

When I was starting to look for positions, I was doing a double master’s between The Netherlands and Japan, studying in Japan at the time. 

At the time, I was often introduced as a graduate student, which confused me greatly as I always thought you weren’t a graduate student until you were doing your PhD.

The cause of my confusion stems from differences in how you progress through your education. In the Netherlands, you do your bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and only after completing both of those can you do your PhD. 

The same is true for many other places in Europe, such as parts of Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, and the UK. However, in other places, such as the US, it is possible to do a single program combining your master’s degree and your PhD into one course.

Both of these come with their advantages and disadvantages. 

Having them separate gives you a bit more time to figure out your interests before you pin down your PhD topic, whereas combining them provides a more structured experience. 

If you’re someone who is interested in seemingly everything, having this separation might be extremely valuable. On the other hand, if you are convinced of what you want and what your interests are, a structured program is a more stable platform to achieve this.

You Get Paid Differently. Here’s How

Doing a PhD is evidently only possible if you can feed and support yourself during it. What’s more, stress coming from financial insecurity is really not something you want during the already-stressful PhD process. 

Unlike countries such as Japan, both the US and large swathes of Europe offer financial support for their students, although the extent of their support differs.

Starting with the US, PhD students are regularly offered stipends, allowing them to cover basic costs of living. The amount of this can vary massively between institutions and regions. In some cases, the stipend allows you to live comfortably, whereas in other regions, it is barely enough to make ends meet.

In contrast, many European PhD students are, as mentioned, employees and receive a salary. This often also includes things such as disability insurance and pension contributions. Generally speaking, the salary is sufficient to live comfortably, albeit not lavishly. 

When considering the financial picture, always consider the specifics of your program. 

For example, when I was looking for positions in the UK, many offered around $25,000 in stipend, but only covered the tuition up to the amount of a British national. The difference often amounted to $15,000, almost eliminating the stipend. 

However, both the US and Europe are excellent places to do your PhD, making it a tough decision to settle on where you want to go from a financial perspective. 

Since I already had a master’s degree when I started applying, I could not benefit from the integrated approach in course structure. Furthermore, the security that comes with being an employee over a student steered me firmly to studying for my PhD in Europe.

Factor in the Thesis Writeup Period

Some programs only fund you while you are doing research. When the time comes to write your thesis, you may get no financial support. You can support yourself by getting a job to pay your living costs while you’re writing up, but this choice comes with its own challenges, such as:

  • The availability of suitable jobs depends on the job market
  • You haven’t got your PhD yet
  • Your employment history is probably poor at this stage of your life
  • It eats into the available time you have to write your thesis.
  • Working an additional job means long days, which can be truly exhausting
  • Your visa may limit your working hours requiring a lot of administration

As a general rule, PhD students in the US and Europe receive enough to survive. This money comes with more security as an employee in many parts of Europe. 

On the other hand, stipends in the US can be considerably higher than the salary you could expect in Europe, although this may then be again offset by significantly higher costs of living in many parts of the US.

This balance is something you will have to research carefully before committing to a decision.

Do You Prefer a Slow Start or Being in at the Deep End?

The biggest advantage that an American structured PhD program offers is a slower, more diligent selection of and integration into your lab. 

In many programs, you either rotate between different labs for the first part of your studies before settling, or you actively engage with multiple group leaders before you make your final decision. 

This provides you with a pretty good insight into what you can expect in terms of work ethic, work environment, and who your colleagues are when you get down to do your dissertation research.

In Europe, your first real introduction to the lab and its culture often comes after you’ve already started, particularly if you’re not local.

This could be a huge issue if you’ve already committed to moving abroad to study.

The average PhD position may get dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants, of whom a small selection is invited for an interview. 

Getting an interview only gives you something like a 10–20% chance of getting that position, depending on the number of interviewees. If you’re in Japan like I was, you simply cannot attend each interview in person. The same might be true in other large countries.

Moreover, it’s uncommon for interviewees to be invited to look around different labs and speak to prospective colleagues outside of the interview. 

Obviously, during such an interview you don’t want to ask any awkward questions about the lab so as not to lower your chances of getting the position. This is made even harder by the onset of remote interviews, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, offering you even less chances to get to know where you’ll end up for the next few years.

In the end, the interview process will usually leave you in one of two places, you either:

  • Don’t get the position
  • Get a call or email saying you were selected-then you start

With the challenges you may have faced in getting to this point, you may feel a lot of pressure to integrate well and hit the ground running. I know I did. 

Or the pressure to accept the first opportunity that comes along to do a PhD is so high that you end up studying/working somewhere you don’t enjoy.

This has consequences if there is interpersonal conflict. 

If you do not integrate well into a lab, for example, if you have very different work ethics, it is generally easier to switch labs in the US (because of the way the courses are structured), to a lab that more closely aligns with your values. 

Conversely, as an employee within the department, you can’t just switch to a different department on the same contract in Europe. In reality, this means that it is all but impossible to make this switch without the utmost collaboration from all parties.

Consider a Doctoral Training Program for a Structured Start

Not every route to getting a PhD in Europe relies on you being thrown in at the deep end. Doctoral Training Programs (DTPs) offer a structured integration into a PhD. 

These are programs funded by several Research Councils that allow successful applicants to sample several research labs before committing to one to stick with and complete their PhD. 

They are funded, meaning you get a decent stipend to live on, and the first year of the program typically focuses on building your fundamental research skills before proceeding to full-time graduate research. 

The precise requirements of the DTP depend on the research council funding it, but many of them require you to take several months out from your research to work in a professional laboratory, which is a great way to get work experience for your CV.

Although such programs are exclusive and infrequent, they offer a great foundation for your PhD. However, don’t despair if you don’t get in. 

Although not quite as structured, many universities across Europe offer semi-structured programs where you are provided with voluntary courses and mentors who you can turn to for advice and who you meet with regularly for guidance on your project. 

Who and Where is Your Support Network?

One factor you really should not underestimate is a simple one—how you’re feeling. 

Completing a PhD is sometimes stressful. There will be days when you don’t feel like going in and potentially protracted periods of feeling low. Having a good support network is critical to overcoming these difficult periods. 

For some, like me, this means a quick phone call to my parents or friends. For others, this means spending an evening with friends at a bar to distract yourself. 

If you think doing your PhD abroad would be best for you on paper, but you feel you won’t get the support you need because (say) you rely on having family close by for support or you already have a close friendship group—don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

If, however, you thrive on making new friends and adjusting to foreign countries, or there’s nothing tying you to a particular place, doing your PhD abroad could be a fantastic life experience.

In either case, remember that you’re going to develop as a person and build your professional scientific credentials no matter where you complete your PhD, so make the overall experience work for you.

Before Committing to PhD Program—Score Your Options

The most important aspect of any application is to remain honest with yourself and weigh your options. 

What points have I mentioned here that are most important to you in making your decision? 

Take your time and weigh them carefully. Make lists, give scores to your different options, and make your decision after you’ve thought about it for a few days. 

Hasty decisions are rarely the best decisions, and you’re going to spend years of your life studying for your PhD.

Choosing to Do a PhD Abroad in Summary

With careful consideration of your personal values and priorities, addressing the “where?” question becomes straightforward. 

Consider the integration process into your PhD lab and whether there are alternative options if things don’t go as well as you’d hoped. 

Definitely consider how much money you’re going to have to live on and ensure you have funds to support you through writing up. 

And no matter where you settle on, give yourself the opportunity to build a close network of support to avoid feeling overwhelmed and isolated.

Take your time. Ensure you stand behind your decision. With that done, all that’s left is to enjoy the process through all the ups and downs.

Hopefully, my advice on choosing where to complete your PhD helps you make a wise decision. If so, let me know in the comments. If you’ve studied somewhere where the PhD course is unusual, share your experience with us, too.

Unsure whether doing a PhD at all is right for you? Here’s some advice to help you make up your mind about whether doing a PhD is worth it.

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