A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 2 - Frequently Asked Questions

1.       I hold a master’s degree in botany. Am I eligible for a PhD in cancer biology?

Theoretically, yes. A PhD is generally open for students with diverse backgrounds. It does not matter in which subject the degree is awarded. What matters is what you have studied in the course and how your knowledge is going to be helpful for your desired PhD position. A person can have a degree in chemical engineering and taken courses in biochemical processes. He is also very welcome to do a PhD in a research group that works on metabolic engineering or fermentation technology. There are people with backgrounds in electrical engineering, computer science or even mathematics who are working in the fields of synthetic and systems biology. Once you move up the ladder of education, you will realize that it’s just science! Various subjects and modules that we learn in a bachelor’s or a master’s program carry a title just for convenience. However, if you end up in a lab that works on a topic you have no idea about, you will have to seriously invest some time in understanding what’s going on. If you have good mentors and helpful colleagues, this process becomes less tedious. However, if you want to avoid such a long lag phase at the beginning of your PhD, look for a lab that works on topics about which you have a fair degree of understanding.

2.       I have no idea about what interests me the most. I like everything! How do I decide my area of interest?

The answer to this question deserves a separate post.

3.       Generally, at what time of the year admissions to PhD programs start in Europe?

Unlike the USA, the European universities do not have a fixed timeline for accepting PhD students. Some institutes accept PhD students twice a year, some three times, some throughout the year. Once you have shortlisted the universities, you have to look at their admission procedures individually and plan your applications.

4.       How many PhD positions should I apply to?

It is logical to apply for more than one position. There is no ideal number in this case. Some graduate schools ask you to give 3 choices of research groups that you are willing to work with. In this case, your single application is equivalent to three different applications. Choose and provide your choices wisely. The application procedure is time-intensive. Consider the time you can allot to it and decide the number of applications feasible for you. Do not stress your referees with too many requests for recommendations. Keep other options ready.

5.       How much do I have to spend for my PhD in Europe?

Public universities in most European countries (for example, Germany) have no tuition fees. Your only expenditure involves your living costs. Most PhD positions are funded. That means, if you join a research group as a PhD student, you will receive a stipend to manage your daily expenses. In short, your only expenditure is the air ticket to your destination (some universities also reimburse that amount as well!). Once you start your PhD, you no longer have to depend on your parents to finance your studies. Neither do you have to work part time in a café to support yourself.

6.       How much stipend will I get during my PhD?

The amount of money varies from place to place. It depends on the source of the money. Some PhD students are funded through a research grant. Some have a scholarship, while some are paid through the institute they are associated with. Generally, the amount of money ranges between € 1000 to € 1900. It is more than sufficient to manage your daily expenses. You may not have great savings or enjoy a lavish lifestyle but it’s an experience in independent living.

7.       Do I have to learn German/French/Spanish to do a PhD in respective countries?

No. Research is mostly communicated in English. The courses, seminars, workshops and other activities are conducted mostly in English. However, it is always better to have a working knowledge of the language spoken in the country where you live. Even though it is not required for your academic activities, it can be very helpful in managing your day-to-day activities. You should at least be able to understand how to order a coffee and how much to pay for it.

8.       Will there be any problems in acquiring a visa?

If you have a letter from your prospective advisor or the university administration clearly stating that you have been accepted as a PhD student, and all the other required documents, there will be no hurdles in getting a visa. Unlike the UK or the USA, visa procedure for Germany or other Schengen countries is quick and easy.

9.       I applied to 10 different positions but failed to get selected. What should I do?

First of all, do not get disheartened. There can be various reasons behind the failure. There could have been a lack of funding or a limitation on the number of people to be hired from a specific country. The competition might have been very tough. If you are determined to go to Europe for a PhD and not willing to move on to other options, keep applying until you get in. The better option is to join a Junior researcher’s position in India, gain some research experience, improve your CV and recommendations, and try next year. It is certainly not a waste of time, but an investment in time for better future. 

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