How to Apply for Grad School in Europe

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The Isaac Newton Telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma

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.  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).

Conclusions

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Canal-side in my current home of Amsterdam- trust me, moving here was a wonderful decision!

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!

About Yvette Cendes

I am a third year PhD student in radio astronomy at the Anton Pannekoek Institute at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. I work with Ralph Wijers on searching for transient radio signals and probing the low frequency radio domain with LOFAR. Originally from the USA, I did my B.Sc. and M.Sc. in physics at Case Western Reserve University in cosmic ray research. Other than Astrobites, I also occasionally write for Astronomy and Sky & Telescope.

15 Comments

  1. Thanks for leaving this post. All of this information will help me get a better idea of what to expect when I apply to graduate schools in Austria, Germany and Sweden.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for posting this, Yvette; it was very informative. I’m also looking into PhD in Europe, specifically Netherlands, Sweden, Norway or Germany. How long was the entire process, from the moment you first applied until you were notified of your acceptance? Thanks

    Reply
    • Hello Luis,

      Glad to hear the post was informative! 🙂

      It really depends on the school you’re applying to for how long the application process takes. IRC the first applications are due in November (German schools are the earliest) with most having December deadlines, first interviews were in January (once again, those German schools) but most in Feb, with acceptances usually coming out just a few days post interview. So while there are exceptions, most schools I know of in Europe say their acceptances earlier than American ones.

      Hope this helps, and good luck!

      Reply
  3. Are there standard entrance exams to these programs that I should know about?

    Reply
    • Hi Julie, none that I’ve ever been aware of. No GRE, no quals. The idea is during your interview they ask questions about your subject to see if you know the material sufficiently.

      Reply
  4. Great post–thank you! I’m just beginning to look into graduate programs in Europe, and having some trouble finding comprehensive information on the whole process. I’m looking at a different field, environmental, policy, but I’m wondering if you found any general resources (books, websites, etc) that were particularly helpful during your search and application process?

    Reply
    • Hi there, apologies, but I don’t think I know of anything that is a general resource like you’ve described. The programs are rather specific to their own fields, so astronomy doesn’t really translate to environmental policy in any general, meaningful sense. Good luck though!

      Reply
  5. Do you possibly have a bit more information with regards to funding for international students in either a MSc or PhD program? Besides the major scholarships, are TA or RA positions generally available to international students, and do these positions typically offset the costs of tuition/living? For the UK and Germany in particular, do you have any recommendations for being able to minimize debt?

    Reply
  6. Very useful post about applying to astrophysics graduate schools in Europe for
    prospective PhD students, in particular those with a educational background
    from any North American physics department. Thanks for this!

    I can add a bit to the situation in Germany. As a graduate school coordinator
    at one of the larger astrophysics PhD schools in Germany, I can confirm that
    our program sees very few applications by aspiring astrophysicists from the
    States or Canada. This is particularly striking since our program is
    international by design (it’s one of the International Max Planck Research
    Schools) and has graduated students originating from 45 different countries
    world-wide so far, with international students making up the majority of the
    student body.

    It is certainly true that there are structural differences that can make the
    transition somewhat more challenging for graduates from the North American
    university system than for those from many other parts of the world; I’ve
    certainly seen examples where a bit more of an effort was required (basically
    on the formalities of enrolment) to make things work out.

    Nevertheless, it is a viable option and for those considering to come oversees
    to Europe, and more specifically to Germany, to do a PhD in astrophysics, let
    me second Yvette’s implicit suggestion that International Max Planck Research
    Schools (IMPRS in short) are very good places to do that. In IMPRS programs,
    Max Planck Institutes with a strong research focus cooperate with Universities
    that offer a breadth of education and training in the larger area of that or
    closely related fields. The university grants the doctoral degree upon
    graduation. What makes an IMPRS particularly attractive for international
    students is the fact that there is usually extensive infrastructure in place
    to help new students quickly settle in in a new country/on a new continent,
    and the amount of networking and collaboration between the incoming students
    from all those different cultures. This obviously implies that the working
    language in those places will almost exclusively be English.

    To the list of astronomy-and-astrophysics-related IMPRS programs Yvette
    mentioned above, namely those at Munich, Bonn and Heidelberg, I would like to
    see added the one in Göttingen which covers solar system science, with
    research done in planetary science, solar and stellar physics including
    helio- and asteroseismology, and increasingly also research on other solar
    systems, i.e. exoplanets.

    More details (especially on the yearly calls) are at https://www.mps.mpg.de/phd

    This IMPRS is known as the “Solar System School” and it is a collaboration
    between the Max Plack Institute for Solar System Research and the Institutes
    for Astrophysics and for Geophysics at the University of Göttingen, all located
    within short walking distance of each other on Göttingen Campus, in the heart
    of Germany.

    Reply
  7. Yvette,
    Thank you for your insightful post. I am a US citizen and want to pursue an Astronomy degree in Europe. I am actually in a non-traditional set of circumstances. I have an MS in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering. I have been working in this field for many years and want to change to Astronomy, so I am looking at an MS degree to start to get me up to speed in Astronomy. I prefer Europe for both the rich experience as well as the hopeful cost savings. Any advice would be appreciated and thank you again.
    Chris

    Reply
  8. HI Yvette,
    I am an Indian and I agree that M.Sc. in Europe is enlightening when you know what you want to pursue for PhD. I am interested in Quantum Optics but I never had a hands on experience with the lab. All I have done is theoretical work in the limits of Indian system. Europe has highly equipped labs and experience to learn from like IMPRS and ERASMUS M.Sc. programs specializing in particular fields of interest.

    Reply
  9. Hi, could you share about master program applying in Europe? since PHD is focused on training you as a researcher in Europe, what is their purpose of masters training? Is it expensive to study master? can you change to learn something different from undergraduate studies? my background is theatre and education in undergraduate and my GPA is 2.94. Based on my GPA, are there good chances for me to get into an European grad school for its master program?

    Reply
    • For the most part the master’s is a prerequisite to any PhD program in Europe. That’s its only “value.” It’s said that “only” a Master’s in Europe will get you nowhere, no job, nothing. As in, if you have EU citizenship, you may be able to “collect” on that country’s “dole.” I suppose that’s probably the only thing that can come of it if I pull up stakes and go “over there.” I’d better ship my car (24-year-old and paid for) because I’ll need it.

      Reply
  10. Hi,
    I am an international student, I got my MSc (with Merit) in astrophysics from a recognized university of UK. The GPA of my BSc is 15/20. I don’t have any publication and I’m gonna take the PGRE in October, hopefully I’m gonna end up with a descent score.
    I’d love to to a PhD in England, Scotland or Netherlands. But I feel so unsure about my qualifications. Do you think I have any chance to be accepted in a funded program? I’ve checked their websites and I can’t tell you how much I love to study in a good university. Do you think I have a chance? I was thinking to Canada but I don’t have a GRE General score so I think I should focus on UK and Netherlands. I already lost the last year and feel very unconfident of my status. Could you please express your opinion?
    Many thanks

    Reply
    • Hi atbin,

      It is difficult to say numbers about any person’s chance, because it depends on too many factors, including luck! From what I’ve gathered, some universities in Europe do not require GRE scores (which, by the way, do *not* predict academic success), so you’re good on that. And although the admission committees do look at your grades and publication record (if any), these alone are not the main reason for rejection. Everything is evaluated as a bulk (most times… because there are some institutions that have strict GPA/GRE cutoff limits, which is nonsense). These are my suggestions: 1) Have very clear and fairly ambitious objective(s) in mind, and write about it/them in your cover letter; 2) Contact potential supervisors in the institution you want to go to, mention your previous works and what you’re good at; 3) Visit your previous supervisor(s) and collaborators, tell them your plans and that you’re going to need them to write recommendation letters.

      Reply

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