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The Ultimate PhD Degree Guide for International Students

In this guide, we are going to explore everything you need to know on how to get a PhD abroad.

Nov 18, 2023
  • Study Abroad
  • Education
Three female PhD students

✨ 5-second summary

  • Employers worldwide increasingly value PhDs because they show expertise and commitment.
  • When choosing your program, it's important to look into the faculty and the university's resources for research (labs, libraries, funding...).
  • The cost of a PhD varies a lot depending on the country, but there are lots of funding options out there for doctorate studies.

When it comes to getting a PhD, students often ask questions like "What is a PhD?", "How do you get a PhD?", "How much does a PhD Cost?" and "What PhD jobs are out there?".

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about getting a PhD - from tips on how to choose a PhD program to career options available to you after the program.

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What is a PhD?

Here are some common questions students ask about PhDs, such as "What is a PhD?" or "How do you get a PhD?".

PhD meaning - What does PhD stand for?

"PhD" stands for Doctor of Philosophy.

What is a PhD degree?

A PhD degree, also known as a doctorate degree, is the highest level of academic achievement in a certain field. It is given out by universities worldwide in recognition of substantial advancements in academic disciplines.

PhD vs Doctorate

What is the difference between a PhD and a doctorate? A PhD is an academic degree, while a doctorate tends to be a professional degree:

PhDAcademic degree that involves lots of academic research. Usually awarded in fields like languages, history, music, or mathematics.
DoctorateProfessional degree that involves a lot of practical experience, and is usually necessary for working in the field. For example, lawyers and doctors need this degree.

How do you get a PhD?

PhD programs vary from program to program, but generally, you can expect to go through three stages:

  1. Literature review: evaluate and analyze the existing research on the topic you've chosen. Your study should build on the work your peers have already done in the field, either by expanding on the knowledge, or by filling the gaps in the existing research.
  2. In-depth, original research: on your the subject of your choice, guided by a supervisor. Usually lasts a few years. What separates a PhD from a Master's and Bachelor's is that a PhD dissertation should represent original contribution to your field.
  3. PhD dissertation: a long-form document covering your PhD thesis and research outcomes, typically followed by an oral defense before an academic panel within the respective field.

How long does it take to get a PhD?

Short answer: 4-7 years, on average.

Long answer: It depends on different factors, such as the country you're studying in, your field of study, research obligations, and personal progress. Typically, you can expect to dedicate around 4 to 7 years to a PhD program; 3 - 4 in the UK, and around 5-7 in the US.

What is a PhD? - Cheat sheet

Why get a PhD?

Many students ask themselves, "Should I Get a PhD?", or "Is a PhD worth it?". Here are some of the tangible benefits of pursuing a PhD.

Career and salary potential

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Education Pays 2022 report, PhD graduates earn 25% more than Master's degree holders, and 37% more than Bachelor's graduates.

Employers worldwide increasingly value advanced degrees like PhDs, because they show your expertise, knowledge, and commitment, reinforcing your suitability for specialized roles. This is especially true in STEM fields.

We cover some examples of PhD jobs you can pursue after your studies, and the average salaries of PhD graduates with those degrees, at the end of this guide, in the "Post-PhD Careers" section.

Furthermore, a PhD provides numerous networking opportunities, including attending conferences, collaborating with fellow researchers, and interacting with industry professionals, all of which are important for your future career advancement.

Become a central figure in research and innovation

According to a 2021 survey report, which covered postdoc career outlooks, an overwhelming number of 994 respondents agreed that "academia is most rewarding when you are truly passionate about scientific research and discovery" - the word "passion" being used 189 times.

By pursuing a PhD, you'll become entrenched in the world of academic research, journal publishing, and pushing the boundaries of your field.

Some of the world's most groundbreaking research came from postdoc and doctoral students:

Do you have the ambition to become the next Higgs or Hawking of your field?

Access advanced research facilities

Universities globally are renowned for their exceptional research facilities.

Alongside state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, many institutions offer access to specialized libraries, datasets, and other resources to bolster your research.

How to choose the right PhD program

To find the right PhD program for you, consider the following:

  • Your research interests, goals and long-term career objectives: Whether you aspire to become a professor or work in a specific industry, you should make sure that your chosen research area aligns with your career goals.
  • The program faculty: This includes professors, supervisors and other researchers. Become familiar with their research interests, publications, and accolades - this will help you figure out whether or not their specializations align with your research interests. It will also make you stand out in your motivation letter and interviews.
  • Funding opportunities: Assess the program's funding options, including scholarships, grants, and assistantships. To do this, you can check the university's website, talk to university representatives and recruiters at various events, or over email.
  • University resources and student support: This may include funding for materials, equipment, or conference or research site travel. It may also involve student support in the form of access to mental health professionals.

How to apply for a PhD

PhD degree requirements

1. Academic transcripts and/or GPA requirements

As far as PhD requirements go, a transcript of your grades from your previous studies is always going to be necessary.

Your grades or Grade Point Average (GPA) can play a crucial role in securing admission into some PhD degree programs, especially in STEM.

2. Personal statement/motivation letter

Another important factor in your PhD requirements list is your personal statement (also referred to as a motivation letter).

To craft a compelling motivation letter, research the institution and the faculty under whom you'll be studying, and make sure to explicitly state why you're the right choice for this program and university.

Professors and admission committees actively look for clues that show how thoroughly you researched the institution you're applying for. This is to try to assess two things:

  1. Your interest in the program. By putting in more effort into your research, you show maturity and genuine interest in the program. A lot of people drop out of PhD programs, and those that have a strong passion for the program are more likely to persevere.
  2. Your research skills. Your motivation letter is the first point of contact where you can communicate directly with the university's representatives and showcase your research skills and what you can contribute to the faculty.

Check out our best tips on how to perfect your personal statement.

3. Professional or research experience

Some PhD programs may require you to have relevant professional or research experience. With others, it's a bonus.

Generally, a prior academic research experience is very beneficial, because it shows that you've been involve in academic research before, and you know what to expect.

With students who are completely new to this world, there's always the risk that they may drop out because they realized they might not like the process after all.

4. A PhD Research Proposal

You may be required to craft and submit a research proposal, unless you’re applying for a pre-defined research project - usually in STEM. Be sure to check if the program you're applying for has a research proposal requirement.

A good research proposal includes:

  • A clear significance
  • Realistic scope and timeline
  • Most important details
  • Passion
Infographic - What makes a great PhD research proposal

5. Language Proficiency

International students are usually required to provide proof of language proficiency, unless they are native speakers.

Different universities may accept different certificates, so make sure to check this requirement on the official program website.

Here are some commonly accepted certificates for different languages:

English language testsTOEFL, IELTS, other similar tests
French language testsDELF, DALF, Le TEF, TCF
German language testsDSH, VWU, specialized university courses

6. Additional Requirements

Your university or program of choice may have other PhD degree requirements, such as:

💡 Tips for successful PhD applications

  • Understand the requirements of your specific program.
  • Prepare for GRE or other standardized tests, if applicable.
  • Cover relevant education, experience and awards in your CV/Resume.
  • Adapt the CV to the standards of the country you want to study in.
  • Practice for interviews - rehearse answers to common questions, understand your research proposal thoroughly, and be ready to discuss your academic history and future goals.
  • Connect with potential advisors to inquire about potential research opportunities.
  • Proofread everything: make sure everything you submit is free of grammatical errors and typos.

The cost of getting a PhD

The cost of a PhD ranges from zero dollars to a small fortune, depending on the country and the university you're planning on studying in.

Here's a general overview of the cost of a PhD in different countries:

United StatesIvy League: $50,000 - 100,000; Public: $10,000-30,000; Private: $20,000-50,000.
United Kingdom£3,000 to £6,000 for UK citizens, and £20,000 to £30,000 for international students.
GermanyTuition is free for doctoral studies for at least the first 6 semesters at all public universities in Germany.
Spain€2,200-3,600 in the first year, then generally €200-600 (cost is determined per credit, not per year).
SwedenNo tuition fees at state-funded universities, regardless of citizenship.

If you'd like to know more about getting a PhD in the United States, check out our comprehensive guide on getting PhD in the US as an international student.

PhD scholarships for international students

There are lots of scholarships for PhD students out there. They're given out based on merit, citizenship, need, or various other criteria. There's something for everyone. For example:

  • The Gates Cambridge Scholarship - for international students who want to study at Cambridge. The scholarship is merit-based and covers the full tuition fee, a maintenance allowance of £17,500 per year and other travel and administration costs.
  • Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program - for international students who want to get a degree in the USA. Covers the tuition partly or fully, and includes health insurance and visa costs.
  • DAAD Grants and Scholarships - for international students aiming to study a PhD in Germany. The scholarship and grant amounts and requirements vary.

Looking for PhD scholarships?

Browse dozens of scholarships in our FREE PhD Scholarship Directory.

Discover scholarships →

Career opportunities after a PhD degree - PhD jobs and academia

Getting a PhD can unlock diverse career opportunities. Your job prospects will largely depend on your preferred sector. Some examples of potential roles post-PhD include:

  • Academia: Working as a university professor - conducting research, publishing papers, and teaching;
  • Research: Conducting research across a wide range of topics;
  • Industry jobs: Serving as a research and development manager, senior scientist, writer, or any role related to your research area;
  • Governmental roles: Working as a policy analyst, researcher, or consultant;
  • Non-profit organizations: Working as a director of research or program manager.

Here are some examples of PhD jobs you can get, and how much they pay:

Job titleAverage yearly salary in the USAverage yearly salary in the UK
Postdoctoral Research Associate$59,401£30,432
Aerospace Engineer$120,006£41,599
Data Scientist$112,397£45,443
Project Engineer$109,726£37,181
Software Engineer$114,652£45,273
Human Resources Manager$63,180£44,796
Mathematics Teacher$99,225£48,152
User Experience Researcher$95,359£32,321

Data source: Payscale, 2023

Sara Evans


Sara is the Content Designer at Keystone Academic Solutions, in charge of creating and curating content for students across the globe. Due to her background in UX and teaching, she's always in pursuit of new ways of presenting information more clearly.

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