Many moons ago, when looking at where to apply for my PhD, I decided to apply to Europe as a student from the United States. This was more a lifestyle decision than anything: I liked to travel, so if I moved abroad for my doctorate it would be like traveling all the time, right? (Answer: not completely, but it was definitely nice to start attending workshops in Paris instead of Omaha!) So I started looking for places to apply, and discovered there was hardly any information on how to transfer from the American system of grad school to the European one. My normally knowledgeable professors had no clue on what applying abroad entailed beyond suggesting a few institutions with good reputations, and I had to navigate the differences myself. And it was very unusual for an American to apply to European PhD programs, too. In more than one interview, the interviewers asked me just why I had applied abroad because applications from America were so uncommon.
I think this is slowly changing. While an American moving to Europe for her PhD was unheard of a few years ago, these days you will encounter a small but steadily increasing number of grad students who decided to “hop over the pond” for graduate school after first attending school in the US or Canada. And interest is certainly increasing in this option too, be it the result of loving your semester abroad in undergrad or keen interest in a European-based project, so it seemed high time to tackle this topic in the Astrobites series on career navigation. I do not claim this information is comprehensive — while there is definitely a “European system” of higher education that is different from the American one, there can still be quite a few variations between individual countries — but hopefully this will yield a better understanding on how to move from the American system to the European one for those interested in it.
M.Sc. or PhD?
To begin, the first thing you need to consider is how many European PhD programs require a master’s degree. There are certainly some exceptions to this (some schools are fine with a four year B.Sc. degree) but many admissions directors will not consider a student who does not have a master’s. It is best to write to any programs you’re interested in and check their requirements. This does not sync well with the American system of course, where after undergrad a student usually goes straight to grad school, and the M.Sc. material is just rolled into getting your PhD along the way. So how do you get a master’s? Well, there are a handful of M.Sc. programs in the USA in astronomy and physics (and of course you can bail after a M.Sc. from a PhD program if you realize a PhD there isn’t for you — this is the route I took), but otherwise there are many, many universities abroad that offer M.Sc. degrees in astronomy. Abroad can of course be as close as Canada, but if you’re eager to kick-start your European adventures it’s likely no surprise that universities with astronomy programs will pretty much all offer them.
So what does a “stand alone” M.Sc. degree entail? Well, the easiest way to think of it is you do all the coursework first and then a few months of research for your first publication. This program usually takes one or two years, depending on the country, and then you can apply for a PhD program, which focuses much more exclusively on research. The catch? You usually have to pay for your M.Sc. degree — usually not as much for tuition as at American institutions would ask, but cost of living can be expensive. But splitting grad school up this way can have advantages. You can focus on coursework alone without worrying about teaching requirements, and you do not have to commit straight away to all the years a PhD requires. It should also be noted that getting a master’s degree in Canada (and many institutions in the US) is similar to going to graduate school at the PhD level, in that you are paid a stipend and work as a teaching assistant during the course.
Applying to an M.Sc. program is usually also not as difficult as applying to a PhD program because a master’s is not as focused on evaluating your capacity as a researcher. Also important for M.Sc. programs abroad (and PhD programs): the Physics GRE is not required in Europe.
Location, Location, Location — Where to Apply
“Europe” is in fact a continent with dozens of countries and far too many astronomy programs to list here in full detail. Instead, we are going to focus on a few countries with multiple English-speaking PhD programs — a surprisingly large number these days, as English is the lingua franca in many academic institutions.
United Kingdom: A PhD takes three years in the UK, and there are far too many astronomy programs to list here individually. (Though of course the “big name” universities famous in the US pretty much all have astronomy programs, and are a great place to start.) The biggest issue when it comes to applying to the UK, however, is funding: a large fraction of UK PhD positions are reserved for UK citizens and residents only. The best way to find out which are available for international applicants is to check the departmental website for open PhD positions, and contact the professors you want to work for directly to ask.
Some notable schools (to get you started) with robust graduate schools in astronomy include Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Imperial, Durham, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Sussex, Exeter, Southampton, and Manchester.
Germany: Most German astronomy departments speak English at the graduate level, especially at the various famous Max Planck Institutes in Bonn, Munich, and Heidelberg. There are different focuses between MPI instututes. Bonn, for example, is an institute for radio astronomy. A PhD here takes about three years to complete, and there is a student stipend.
Netherlands: A small country that packs quite the astronomy punch (more Dutch PhD students secure prestigious fellowships in the USA per capita after their PhD than any other country!), the astronomy departments in the Netherlands are members of NOVA, making the organization’s webpage a great place to start. The members of NOVA are the universities of Amsterdam, Groningen, Leiden, and Nijmegen. A PhD program here takes four years to complete, with the additional benefit that you count not as a student but a researcher, and are paid a civil servant’s wage accordingly.
Other schools and countries worth mentioning: CEA Saclay and Marseille in France, ETH Zurich in Switzerland, DARK Copenhagen in Denmark, and many others. So beyond this general overview, how do you figure out which universities to apply to and how do you find more information if you’re interested in countries I didn’t list? Well, beyond asking professors at your home institution (which you should do even when applying just in the US), by looking at the institutions of the authors in journal articles and Astrobites posts in your area(s) of interest is an excellent way to start. A university where people are churning out papers on topics that interest you is likely a good place to be! Additionally, the AAS job register website has a section for “pre-doctoral/graduate positions” worth investigating, and is updated monthly.
The Application Process
The biggest difference in applying for a PhD at European institutions is that while in the US, you are often applying to a university and sorting out who your adviser will be later, most institutions in Europe are looking for someone to work on a specific job or topic that will culminate with a PhD (with one or two exceptions, such as the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. This isn’t to say one’s PhD thesis is going to necessarily resemble what you were originally hired to do — something that often doesn’t happen in all countries! — but what your research will entail tends to be more specific at the start.
When a PhD position is available it is usually listed on an astronomy department’s website. There is an increasing drive for departments to list all positions for the year in the autumn for people to start the following year, but some departments will list positions throughout the year as they become available. Deadlines can be early compared to American schools, with the earliest in mid-October (but many in November and December). The application usually consists of the same elements in an application to an American program: letters of recommendation, a transcript of grades, and a personal statement. Note that it does not include Physics GRE scores or other standardized tests, and with rare exceptions most schools do not have an application fee.
The main difference in the application process is that if all goes well you will be shortlisted and asked for an interview, either via Skype or in person, where you visit the institution for a few days. These interviews will generally consist of a short (~10 minute) talk about your M.Sc. research, followed by an interview of around a half hour with one or several people from the institute (one of whom is your potential future adviser). Questions can vary but often cover topics such as your previous coursework, what you accomplished during your M.Sc., and sometimes even a few general questions on your future topic, just to see how you think. There is usually time for you to ask questions about the program itself, so definitely ask!
Finally, if all goes well and you have an acceptance in hand (often as early as February), the amount of time you have to accept it varies by institution and situation. Often this is negotiable if you’re still waiting for other offers, as is your start date.
By the way, here is yet another method beyond applying to the department that deserves a few words: applying for a fellowship for your PhD. Many countries have some money set aside for graduate school studies that US citizens are also eligible for (such as the Gates and Churchill scholarships for Cambridge and the Rhodes Scholarship for Oxford in the UK), though these can be very competitive and most people end up constantly on the lookout for how to get 1000 dollars fast while doing these programs. The deadline for many of these will be early, and particularly with some, you need to actually apply through your undergraduate institution and have their support, so best to start the summer before, after your junior year (or spring before the fall when you need to apply).
I cannot begin to describe how happy I am having chosen to do my PhD abroad: after applying to various schools in the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany and interviewing at a handful of them, I ended up starting my PhD at the University of Amsterdam a little under three years ago now. I love living here- Amsterdam is an incredible city with an astronomy department filled with wonderful colleagues from all over the world, and I am working in a sub-field (low-frequency radio and transient searches) that is far more limited in the USA. I’m glad I took the leap to come here!
Once again, this is a post that relies mainly on my personal experiences and those of others who have applied in recent years, and while it’s hopefully a great place to start, I do not pretend it is an exhaustive report. If you see something here that you find incorrect, or some important details to add, please contact us and we will update this post accordingly!