If you’re thinking of trying for a PhD in Europe, there are both European-wide and national issues to take into account.
Since 1999, the “Bologna process”—an EU-wide attempt to make the widely divergent European higher education systems work together—has been moving forward, leading to more mobility for students, researchers and academics. However, each nation reserves some rights to itself, including the vetting of degrees earned elsewhere and the way its universities are governed.
This should not be surprising: after all, it is in Europe that the university as an educational institution and the doctorate as its top achievement originated, and EU nations are justifiably proud of the hundreds of years of history behind their universities.
With that in mind, you need to have a look at both the general EU picture when considering PhD study in Europe, and at what’s happening at the national and university level.
In each European nation there are several universities that offer PhDs. You will certainly want to use tools like the Times Higher Education World Rankings to sort through the possibilities, as well as looking at where your most illustrious European colleagues studied or currently work. European professional organisations in your chosen field are also a good source of information—see where their leaders are based and which universities they have direct links with.
Although what they are called in each country differs, there are typically both research-based or individual doctorates, and taught, structured doctorate programmes, including professional doctorates. The right choice for you depends on your field of study and preferred working style.
Once you’ve narrowed your interests down to four or five top choices, investigate what steps you must take to simply apply.
While you work through these preliminary general steps, find out more about specific PhD programmes. Work on your CV, personal statement and cover letter, and consider having these professionally translated and/or checked for suitability.
Subscribe to listing systems for PhD places in the countries you are interested in, such as jobs.ac.uk, Academic Transfer in the Netherlands, the German Academic Exchange Service and PhD in France. Also make sure you bookmark the pages where universities of interest post their own information about places, and visit regularly.
Finally, make direct contact with the directors of the research centre(s) you hope to work in, and with individual academics you would like to work with. Not all PhD funding opportunities are publicly listed, especially those that emerge as part of a staff member’s funded project. In addition, sometimes listings are only online for a short period, and by the time they migrate from the university to aggregate listing sites you may have only a few days to craft a complex application.