PhD in Switzerland
Studying for a PhD in Switzerland as a foreigner
Did you know over 50 per cent of PhD students at Swiss universities are international students? Renowned institutes, a growing emphasis on doctoral education, multi-lingual education, funding for early career researchers and travel are several reasons why students consider doing their PhDs in Switzerland. The fabulous reputation Swiss educational institutes enjoy abroad only increases this country’s appeal.
Switzerland PhD programmes
Switzerland has ambitious plans to increase the number of doctoral researchers and is home to some of the world’s most renowned universities. Their history stretches back to the fifteenth century, when the first university was founded in Basel in 1460. In total, there are four types of university in Switzerland:
10 cantonal universities (Universitäten), which are run by individual Swiss states
2 Federal Institutes of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschulen)
9 Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (Fachhochschulen)
20 Universities of Teacher Education (Pädagogische Hochschulen)
As a PhD student, you will most likely be based at a Swiss cantonal university or federal institute of technology because only the twelve official Swiss universities award recognised PhD titles. Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts do not have the right to award PhD titles but may offer them in collaboration with other universities.
The language spoken in Switzerland varies, and universities normally teach in the language of their canton (German, French or Italian) or in English. Although Romansh is spoken in some areas, it is not the language of instruction at universities.
As in other countries, the Swiss PhD is research-based and entails independent work towards an original thesis that contributes significant new knowledge to your field. There are two typical routes towards a Swiss PhD:
Traditional or general PhDs at a single university with one or more advisors: you will spend most of your time working on the doctoral thesis, but opportunities for additional training and development may also be offered
Structured PhDs, which are newer developments: they involve more formal training, which may include coursework, and often entail collaboration between different institutions, including partnerships between different institutional types
There is no standard length for PhDs in Switzerland; you can expect to spend two to seven years depending on your field and programme, whereby traditional programmes tend to be shorter. You will be assigned at least one academic supervisor, who will act as a mentor for your project in addition to guiding and supporting your research. Some Swiss PhD programmes, especially structured ones, involve second or multiple supervisors.
The main product of your PhD will be your doctoral thesis, which will be assessed by an oral examination or defence after you submit it. In Switzerland, this process takes place in a public setting. You will discuss your PhD in front of a panel of experts including at least one external examiner from outside your university.
Applying for a PhD in Switzerland
You can find PhD opportunities in Switzerland by searching for advertised projects and programmes or by browsing information on university websites. Once you have found a suitable option, you should apply directly to universities.
In most cases, you’ll need a master’s degree in a relevant subject before you can apply. Other requirements depend on the type of PhD you are applying for. If you are responding to an advertised project or position, you will need to submit a personal statement, an academic CV and references. If you are devising your own PhD topic, you should normally submit a research proposal outlining your project, its objectives, methodology and outcome. You may also need to submit supporting material, such as references. Applications for structured PhD programmes may not require an initial research proposal as students will often develop their project during the first year of the doctorate. You may be required to take a test to prove your competence in the language of instruction.
Application procedures may vary depending on whether you apply to an individual doctorate or a PhD programme. If your university offers different kinds of doctoral programmes, you should find out whether this is the case to make sure you apply properly. No matter the exact procedure, you will most likely need to fill in an online application form. Be sure to contact the university regarding any additional documents, such as language certificates, which you may need and specifications regarding translations of application documents.
There is normally no deadline for Swiss PhD applications. However, if you are an international student from outside the EU/EEA, you should apply as early as possible so your visa can be processed.
PhD salaries in Switzerland
Sometimes Swiss universities advertise PhD opportunities as paid research positions or assistantships. In this case, they normally hire PhD candidates as research assistants or PhD candidates. If you are awarded such a position, you won’t pay any fees for a PhD and will receive a regular salary. You may also be entitled to additional benefits, including sick pay and holiday leave. In return, you’ll normally be expected to assist with undergraduate teaching and other administrative responsibilities. Job portals like academics.com usually publish positions for PhD students, but it is a good idea to check whether your prospective university offers these positions and their conditions. Additionally, it is common practice to contact a professor or research group directly and ask about opportunities.
There are also research positions at companies and Universities of Applied Sciences, but they are less common.
As a PhD candidate, you can earn a monthly salary between 2,000 CHF and 6,000 CHF depending on your institution and field of research. The average annual salary is around 50,000 CHF. PhD candidates in exact sciences and medicine are usually paid better than PhD candidates in life sciences, chemistry, arts and humanities. However, your salary and working conditions depend on your specific contract and your workload, city of residency, marital status and number of children. The personnel consultants from human resources are responsible for determining salaries, and information is often available from human resources departments. For instance, the Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, ETH Zürich) has a calculator for salaries and lists the following expected PhD student salaries for 2019:
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Scholarships for PhDs in Switzerland
Universities and institutes offer scholarships for specific programmes, and some universities provide additional support to their PhD students through financial loans, but the main source of funding for international PhD students in Switzerland is the Swiss Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students (FCS). It awards Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships, which are divided into research scholarships and art scholarships. These scholarships are aimed at young researchers from abroad who have completed a master’s degree and at foreign artists holding a bachelor’s degree, respectively. They normally cover fees and costs of living.