US PhD vs. Europe PhD: Differences?

Here are the differences between the US PhD and the Europe PhD:

The big difference is in the path to obtaining the PhD degree.

In the US, a bachelor’s degree is usually required to get into the PhD program.

While you can’t normally apply to the PhD program in Europe without a master’s degree.

Both PhD degrees in these two regions, however, are recognized in either region.

So if you want to learn all about the differences and similarities between getting a PhD in the US and Europe, then this article is for you.

Keep reading!

US PhD Vs. Europe PhD: Differences? (All the Info)

How Are the US PhD and the Europe PhD Different?

There are some fundamental differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to PhD programs and degrees.

That said, we’re talking about comparing roughly 8,000 different colleges and universities across 45 countries

I’m going to offer you some generalized differences, but if you look hard enough, you can probably find an exception to everything I say.

There’s just too much variability.

So, let’s start with the basics.

First, a PhD in Europe or the US is generally accepted as the same thing.

People from both regions can work in the same fields with their respective degrees, and degrees from either region are recognized in both.

The real differences between these different degrees are really found in the path to obtaining them.

What Is Different in the Path To Getting a PhD Degree in the US and Europe? (4 Differences)

If you talk to PhD students or degree-holders in the US and Europe, you are going to hear very different stories.

That’s because the philosophy behind the educational process is fairly different.

Here’s the gist.

In the US, the PhD program is where you obtain expertise.

In Europe, you should be an expert before you even start your PhD program.

In both cases, you should be both an expert and a professional by the time you finish the program, but PhD programs in the US start younger students with a lot less background knowledge and experience.

#1 Prerequisites

This is best reflected by prerequisites.

For the most part, you need a bachelor’s (or four-year) degree to start a PhD program in the US.

Typically, your degree should be in the same general field as your PhD area of study.

So, if you want to get a PhD in virology, you probably need a bachelor’s in biology (or something closely related).

On top of that, US programs often require scores on the general GRE and a GRE test specific to your field.

You go through an admissions process, and if accepted, you start your path to your PhD after all of that.

In Europe, you usually need a master’s degree before you can apply for a PhD program.

That means you have already completed a considerable amount of graduate coursework and research before even applying for the program. 

Now, you can go for a PhD after completing a master’s in the US, but it’s not required.

This is the biggest difference.

PhD programs in the US are compensating for the fact that students are not already master’s-degree level experts when they start the program.

#2 Thesis and Dissertation Topic

This becomes more apparent with thesis and dissertation topics.

PhDs are typically research degrees, so you have to complete a major research project to earn the title.

Depending on where you are, that could be a thesis or a dissertation, and this isn’t really split by region.

It just depends on the degree program itself.

The real difference we’re discussing is that PhD candidates in Europe have to get their research topics approved before they will be accepted into a program.

That means that once they are in the program, they can get right down to the research.

In the US, most PhD students have not completed a master’s, so they don’t already have high-level research and presentation experience.

Because of that, it’s common for students in the US to formulate their topic while they’re doing graduate coursework.

They will typically work alongside an advisor for this process.

Eventually, they will defend the research topic before a review board.

The board will either approve the topic or not.

Only after the topic is approved will the student begin their unique research.

#3 Time

All of this leads the programs to take up very different amounts of time.

The average time to complete a PhD in Europe is between three and four years.

In the US, the average time is six years, and it’s not unheard of for a student to spend eight years on their PhD.

A big chunk of this comes from the prerequisites.

PhD students in Europe have typically already completed two years of graduate study before they even apply.

US students ultimately have to be just as educated, so those two years are included in the longer PhD curricula.

In fact, a lot of PhD students in Europe won’t take any classes at all to complete the program.

It’s just about the research.

But, students in the US have to complete their coursework and their research.

It slows everything down.

Still, if you zoom out a little, you find that attaining a PhD takes roughly the same amount of time in both regions.

In both cases, the average student completes a four-year degree and six years in total of graduate education.

European students are splitting those six years across two degrees while US students are combining them into a single degree.

#4 Teaching

This is another big difference.

In the US, it’s very common for PhD students to teach undergraduate classes while they are studying.

For the most part, PhD students teach labs and small classes, and it’s often a requirement for the course.

The students are paid for this teaching, but it’s part of the overall degree program.

In Europe, this is a lot less common.

There are some teaching assistant positions at any given university, but the norm is for PhD students to focus solely on their research.

This is another thing that can make US PhD programs take longer.

Adding teaching responsibilities takes time away from research, and sometimes, students take longer to complete their research as a result.

How Are the US and Europe PhD Degrees Similar? (3 Similarities)

Those are the primary differences in the path to obtain a PhD in Europe vs the US.

For all of those differences, students are ultimately following the same pursuit.

They are trying to get a professional research degree that qualifies them for the highest levels of expertise in their fields.

These degrees open up positions for teaching at universities and working in advanced research.

In fact, it’s common for PhD graduates in both regions to embark on a post-doc research project after completing the degree.

This is akin to a doctor working as a resident after getting a medical degree.

It’s where a lot of cutting-edge research happens in many of the most advanced fields in the world.

Most of all, it’s important to understand how these differing degree paths ultimately put graduates in similar places.

#1 Value

The big thing here is that a PhD from Europe and a PhD from the US is largely thought of as the same qualification.

Some employers will prefer degrees from specific universities, but generally speaking, PhDs from either region are considered equivalent qualifications.

Keep in mind that this isn’t true around the world.

So, regardless of which program you go through (in the US or Europe), if you complete your PhD, you are a qualified expert in your field.

You can apply for jobs that require a PhD, and you can carry the title of “doctor.”

#2 Research

This is also an important note.

PhDs, even when they come from different regions, are based on the same principle.

They are research-oriented degree paths.

The point is for you to be a leading expert in your specific area of research before you are done.

In fact, the typical distinction between a thesis and a dissertation is whether or not your research is original.

PhD programs almost universally require original research in order to complete the degree.

That’s the whole point.

By completing your PhD, you have already contributed to the body of science in your field.

This is different from something like a doctorate, where there is a larger focus on practical skills associated with your expertise.

What I’m trying to drive home is that PhD holders in the US and Europe are researchers above all else, and they are basically as qualified and expert as you can formally get.

#3 Defense

The last similarity is dissertation defense.

For the program, you spend multiple years researching a specific topic.

In Europe, that topic was approved before you were even accepted into the program.

In the US, you had to go before a review board and justify your research topic in front of a bunch of experts.

In either case, you’re doing original research, and that means that you can’t pull answers from a textbook or another research paper.

It’s all on you.

At the conclusion of your research, you should be able to answer a question.

Typically, the research is intended to test a hypothesis, so at the end, you should be able to say whether or not you negated your hypothesis.

The process to do this is called a defense.

You go before a panel of experts, and they more or less grill you on your research.

Some programs add a bunch of comprehensive exams to this, but that isn’t a US vs Europe thing.

It just depends on the specific program.

After you defend your dissertation, the review board will determine whether or not you are qualified to receive your degree.

If they approve, then you are done.

That’s true in the US and Europe, and it’s an essential part of the process.

You didn’t just complete your research.

You presented it to a panel of experts and ultimately added it to the greater body of research.