ISTA PhD Program
Institute of Science and Technology Austria
08 Jan 2024
Earliest start date
15 Sep 2024
One of the hallmarks of the ISTA PhD program is the shared graduate school experience.
An initial stage of rotations and cross-disciplinary coursework encourages broad exposure to important scientific approaches and problems, allowing students to lay a solid foundation for intensive research in the second phase of the PhD program.
Structure of the Phd Program
The goal of the ISTA PhD program is to produce intellectually broad, curious, open-minded scientists who are able to approach problems from different angles and can collaborate with diverse types of scientists. To this end, our students complete an innovative interdisciplinary training program consisting of both research and taught elements, and receive close mentoring by world-class faculty from different disciplines.
All students whose broad research interests align with those of our faculty are eligible to join the ISTA PhD program. Selection of the thesis supervisor occurs at the end of the first year. In the first year, students complete coursework and rotations in three different research groups.
After finding a suitable home within a research group and thereby securing a thesis supervisor, and importantly after passing the qualifying examination, students work on their thesis research, attend international conferences and colloquia and receive training in teaching and other transferable skills. Research groups are deliberately kept small to ensure close supervision, and all students are mentored by several faculty members who make up their thesis committee.
Students typically complete their studies in 4.5–6 years. Students who are working in theoretical groups typically are faster than students working in experimental groups (upper bound).
All students are offered 5-year employment contracts. Students can finish their program earlier – in 4 or 4.5 years – or ask for a year-long contract extension, depending on the nature of the research. All students making reasonable progress are fully funded until the time of their thesis defense.
Overview of of the ISTA PhD program: Phase 1 consists of rotations and courses, and culminates in a qualifying exam. Phase 2 comprises PhD thesis research, teaching, and regular progress reviews.
The interdisciplinary core courses are designed to encourage the exchange of knowledge between students from highly diverse backgrounds and promote the conditions which allow for interdisciplinary research. A broad view of topics are presented to students to encourage them to think beyond the boundaries of their primary research focus.
In addition, the courses fulfill a community-building function in terms of fostering exchange between students from different disciplinary backgrounds.
In addition to the interdisciplinary core courses, students also take specialized and advanced courses as part of the PhD program.
It is important that the student’s research interests match those of their PhD supervisor and the group within which they will conduct their research. To facilitate this, students perform at least three rotations with three different research groups. A rotation is a period of roughly two months in which students perform research in a laboratory on a research project.
It is on the basis of this experience that students find the research group they can affiliate with: where the research focus of the student and the group are in concert, and where the group leader wishes the student to join their group to continue working on future projects. It is also an excellent opportunity for students to learn to think across disciplines and build up cross-disciplinary skill sets.
In the qualifying exam, students’ knowledge within their proposed research area, their ability to identify important research problems, and their capability to come up with ways to tackle these problems, are assessed by the thesis committee.
The qualifying exam takes the form of a presentation and oral exam. Students must pass the qualifying exam to continue on the PhD program and perform thesis research.
Upon passing the qualifying exam, students conduct thesis research within a research group. There are biannual reviews which evaluate the students’ progress, and ensure that they stay on track towards completion of the PhD.
Students are also encouraged to present their results at scientific conferences, and annually, present their research within the Institute.
Scholarships and Funding
In all fields of research, funding is of paramount importance to sustain the resources needed by scientists. ISTA relies on diverse funding sources to support all its researchers.
The Grant Office is there to support applicants wishing to apply for external funding. PhD students at ISTA are no exception since it is best to acquire grant writing skills early on in one’s scientific career. For academic job applications, competitive peer-reviewed fellowships can be a powerful indicator that 1) you are a scientist worth investing in, and 2) your research projects are of the highest quality.
Fellowships which have been awarded to PhD students and interns at ISTA include:
- DOC fellowships from the Austrian Academy of Science
- Böringer Ingelheim Foundation fellowships
- IBM PhD Fellowship
- FEMTech Stipends of the FFG, and
- ISTernships (internally funded).
Students can also be part of larger projects within their research groups. ISTA has been particularly successful in receiving a large number of prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants which reward innovative projects for their research excellence.
In addition, students may be involved in projects funded by more local sources such as:
- The Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
- The Land Niederösterreich (NFB)
The opportunity to network with other institutions is one of the highlights of the cooperative grants currently running at ISTA. These bring together eminent scientists (and sometimes companies) from across Europe and beyond to work on challenges in a specific field. They can also be specifically aimed at PhD student training, as is the case with:
- Doktoratskollegs from the FWF
- Initial Training Networks (ITN) from the European Commission
All scientists at ISTA are supported by the Grant Office in all matters related to external funding: from application, and implementation, to reporting to the relevant funding organizations.
The PhD program comprises two distinct phases:
- Phase I: Before the qualifying exam
- Phase II: After the qualifying exam
When joining the PhD program of ISTA, students are not part of any specific research group.
During the first phase, students:
- Do three research rotations with three different research groups (lasting approx. two months each)
- Find a PhD supervisor (a professor at ISTA)
- Form a thesis committee, consisting of:
- The supervisor(s)
- Two other thesis committee members (one of whom must be external)
- Pass a qualifying exam, which consists of
- An oral presentation of the thesis proposal, and
- An oral exam on the thesis proposal and reading list
- Fulfill course and credit requirements (see below for details)
Short Route/long Route Status
At the time of admissions, students are assigned a default “ long route; or “ short route; status depending on their educational background. Normally, students with a bachelor’s degree are assigned to the long route and students with a master’s degree are assigned to the short route. Students may apply to change routes by December of year 1.
- Core Project (Fall semester)
- Track Core Course (Spring semester)
- Essential Skills (workshop series)
- Eligible coursework for short-route students: 12 ECTS
- Eligible coursework for long-route students: 24 ECTS
Students on the long route need to obtain a total of 30 ECTS credits of coursework; students on the short route need to require a total of 42 ECTS.
After passing the qualifying exam, students work primarily on research towards a PhD thesis. The exact requirements of the thesis vary by discipline, but invariably, students work closely with their supervisor and/or the rest of the research group, to produce original research of the highest standard, and make significant contributions to the understanding of a specific topic of research.
Students in Phase II are expected to offer teaching assistance(TA) for at least one half-semester course before graduating. They also perform biannual progress reviews jointly with their supervisor(s) and thesis committee members. The purpose of progress reviews is to discuss the student’s performance and to assess whether reasonable progress is made toward the Ph.D. degree, as well as make constructive suggestions on how the students can attain the established goals and complete the thesis project in a timely manner.
In addition, students in Phase II give annual presentations on their thesis research. These presentations are an opportunity for students to present their preliminary research results to the wider institute, obtain feedback, and hone their presentation skills.
A thesis defense is typically scheduled within three to four years after passing the qualifying exam. It consists of a public oral presentation of the draft thesis (normally 40-50 minutes) in the presence of the thesis committee, followed by questions and answers on the thesis.
Once a final thesis is submitted and accepted by the thesis committee, the Ph.D. degree is awarded by the Institute.