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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Austria

7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 4 October 2022

Doctorate programmes and PhD programmes (Doctor of Philosophy) build on the diploma degree and master’s degree programmes at universities or universities of applied sciences and take 6 semesters; in the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), the third-cycle programmes correspond to Level 8. 

Organisation of doctoral studies

Doctoral degree programmes are offered by public universities and private HEIs which are entitled to award a doctoral degree. For each doctoral programme, universities have to develop and publish a curriculum that governs

  • the qualification profile of the programme,
  • the kind of doctoral degree awarded,
  • and the structure of the programme,
    • specifying courses and other requirements,
    • examinations and examination subjects,
    • and the submission of the thesis.

At many universities, doctoral candidates, supervisor(s) and the university sign an agreement on the thesis project. This agreement comprises all participants’ rights and obligations, a detailed description of the doctoral thesis project, the time schedule, the extent of supervision (e.g. frequency of feedback meetings) and requirements that have to be fulfilled by the doctoral candidate (e.g. individual course work, articles to be published).

Public universities have set up doctoral programmes in all the main fields of study. According to the Universities Act, the universities are autonomous in designing the curricula of doctoral degree programmes. The duration of a doctoral programme has to be at least 3 years. The preparation of a doctoral thesis constitutes the main part of doctoral degree programmes. Regulations for supervision and for the assessment of doctoral theses are defined by the respective university’s statutes.

Generally, doctoral training is organised in disciplines. However, in recent years an interdisciplinary approach has become more important. In addition, several universities have implemented organisational structures at faculty or university level in order to support doctoral candidates and provide specific courses.

Another trend is that an increasing amount of doctoral training at public universities is organised in the form of structured doctoral programmes. Therefore, universities have set up structured doctoral programmes that are organised as doctoral schools (the so-called Doktoratskollegs). Here some doctoral candidates do research on a predetermined topic, sometimes in a cross-disciplinary research area. Candidates in structured doctoral programmes are also employed by the university. To receive a place in such a programme, candidates have to pass a competitive application procedure successfully.

Doctoral programmes at private HEIs are accredited by AQ Austria. In general, the duration of doctoral programmes at private HEIs is 3 years. At the moment, private HEIs offer doctoral programmes in the fields of “healthcare and medical science” and “arts and humanities”, but to date these are not organised in doctoral schools.

Universities of applied sciences are not entitled to award a doctoral degree. 

The further development of the quality of doctoral programmes in Austria

The further development of doctoral training is based on international standards: Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training (cf. European Commission (2011): “Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training”, Brussels and and Salzburg II Recommendations 2010): The above mentioned standards form criteria which innovative or innovation-oriented doctoral training needs to follow:

  1. research excellence, taking internationally valid standards such as peer review procedures into account,
  2. an attractive institutional environment, which also includes working conditions and career development opportunities, in line with the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers,
  3. interdisciplinary research options, with doctoral training being embedded in an open research environment and culture,
  4. exposure to industry and other relevant employment sectors,
  5. international networking, e.g. through collaborative research, co-tutelle, dual and joint degrees, mobility,
  6. transferable skills training,
  7. quality assurance for admission and supervision constitutes a major goal of the Austrian academic landscape.

Therefore the responsible Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research

  1. has been holding an intensive awareness-raising discussion process as part of the Austrian Higher Education Conference (see “Higher Education Conference Recommendations, 2015”),
  2. has implemented the following activities which are derived from this
    1. has paid particular attention to doctoral training in the preparatory phase for the negotiations on performance agreements
    2. has defined (measurable) framework criteria for developing the quality of doctoral training
    3. and has elaborated a definition of what “structured doctorate programs” should at least comprise. This definition followed international standards such as the “Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training 2011” and the “Salzburg II Recommendations 2010”. Then the definition was translated into measurable framework criteria. These criteria now are incentivised via the “Higher Education Structural Funds” (BGBl. II Nr. 228/2015) with € 30 Mio for the period 2016 – 2018. From 2019 on the amendment of the universities act will enter into force, then the financing of public universities addresses competitive indicators, such as for example the numbers of students in structured doctorate-programs. 

Admission requirements

Admission to doctoral programmes is provided by successfully completing a relevant diploma or master’s degree programme, universities of applied sciences diploma or master’s degree programme or other equivalent programmes at a recognised domestic or foreign post-secondary educational institution. Whenever an applicant has obtained a foreign HE entrance qualification, its equivalency to the corresponding Austrian HE entrance qualification must be approved. In many cases, equivalency is defined by bilateral/multilateral agreements. In other cases, equivalency must be approved on an individual basis; if necessary, supplementary examinations may be required as an admission condition.

A specific university qualification requires that – in addition to the general university entrance qualification – proof must be furnished that specific admission requirements for the relevant degree programme have been met, including the right to immediate admission to a doctoral programme, as exist in the country issuing the document that is proof of the general university entrance qualification.

The curriculum of a doctoral programme that leads to the awarding of a PhD degree may lay down qualitative requirements for the admission to the respective programme. For PhD programmes that are offered exclusively in a foreign language, the university can determine the number of students and restrict admission by means of an admission procedure.

In structured doctoral programmes doctoral candidates are usually employed by the university. Therefore, candidates have to pass a competitive admission procedure.

Private HEIs apply the same standard requirements for admission to doctoral programmes as public universities. However, they can establish additional selection procedures for admission. 

Status of doctoral students/candidates

Based on the 2002 Universities Act, doctoral candidates are regarded as students, they are enrolled and entitled to financial aid, grants, family allowance and health insurance, depending on age, income and progress/length of study.

However, according to the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, doctoral candidates are regarded as young researchers or early-stage researchers. For these researchers, universities need to provide fair working conditions and, if possible, employment contracts with full social security coverage. Usually, candidates in doctoral schools (Doktoratskollegs) are employed on the basis of fixed-term contracts by universities.

The same principles apply for doctoral students/candidates at private HEIs.

Supervision arrangements

Each doctoral candidate must have a main supervisor who is a faculty member. In the past, individual supervision was the predominant type of supervision (mainly in non-structured programmes), based on the concept of a bilateral relationship between supervisor and doctoral candidate. In recent years, dissertation committees and supervising teams have become more common, in particular in structured doctoral programmes and doctoral schools. Here doctoral candidates obtain guidance not only from the main supervisor but also from a team of researchers/scholars, with this also following an interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and international approach.

Regulations for supervision are part of the statutes of universities and the curricula. For the individual doctoral candidate, the extent of supervision, evaluation of progress and frequency of feedback meetings are part of the doctoral thesis agreement between the doctoral candidate, supervisor(s) and university. The monitoring of the supervision quality is the responsibility of the institutional quality assurance system.

At private HEIs, supervision arrangements are part of the curricula. In addition, AQ monitors the quality standards. 

Employability

The qualification profile of a specific doctoral programme is part of the curriculum. To increase employability, most curricula of doctoral studies include teaching of transferable skills; i.e. in addition to research and education in their fields of interest, doctoral candidates have the opportunity to acquire additional skills and qualifications. These may be useful both for a research career and for positions outside the academic job market. Attendance of relevant courses can be mandatory or voluntary. 

Assessment

The curriculum specifies the examination subjects and the coursework required for examinations, other tasks and achievements (e.g. articles to be published in peer-reviewed journals), and the way in which examinations must be taken.

The grades of examinations and theses are as follows:

  • very good (sehr gut)
  • good (gut)
  • satisfactory (befriedigend)
  • passed (genügend)
  • failed (nicht genügend)

Whenever this type of grading as specified above cannot be made or is inappropriate, the positive grade must be “attended successfully” (mit Erfolg teilgenommen) and the negative grade must read “attended without success” (ohne Erfolg teilgenommen). Examinations that consist of several subjects or parts may only be given a positive grade if each subject or part received a positive grade.

Examinations that have been taken in the course of other studies or at another recognised Austrian or foreign post-secondary educational institution must be recognised by way of nostrification; they have to be equivalent to the examinations required by the curriculum. Recognitions may be laid down in the curriculum or may be granted by way of nostrification in individual cases. This is important in particular for participation in mobility programmes although there are several bilateral/multilateral agreements on the recognition of examinations.

Universities have adequate leeway in designing examinations. Examination regulations for the different curricula must be laid down by the responsible collegial body. This includes, in particular, regulations concerning the method and purpose of examinations and the way in which they are organised.

The final examination, the Rigorosum, is a public examination and focuses on the doctoral thesis. The doctoral thesis is the core element of the doctoral study. It is the result of independent research carried out by the doctoral candidate. The thesis has to demonstrate the doctoral candidate’s ability to carry out original research and to use academic methods in the field of research. There has to be a positive evaluation of the submitted thesis, in general by two academics who are assigned to assess the thesis. The curriculum may also stipulate that the thesis must be composed of a certain number of articles (to be published in a peer-reviewed journal). 

Certification

Upon successful completion of all tasks and examinations required by the curriculum of a doctoral programme, the relevant academic degree is awarded by way of a written (official) notification (at the latest within one month after fulfilling the requirements). The notification includes the completed doctoral programme, the academic degree and the legal basis.

The following doctoral degrees are awarded:

  • Doctor medicinae veterinariae et scientiae: Dr. med. vet. et scient.
  • Doctor of Arts (Doktor / Doktorin der Künste): Dr. artium
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine and Medical Science (Doktor / Doktorin der Zahnmedizin und der medizinischen Wissenschaft): Dr. med. dent. et scient. med.
  • Doctor of Economic Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der Wirtschaftswissenschaften): Dr. rer. oec.
  • Doctor of General Medicine and Medical Science (Doktor / Doktorin der gesamten Heilkunde und der medizinischen Wissenschaft): Dr. med. univ. et scient. med.
  • Doctor of Humanities and Cultural Studies (Doktor / Doktorin der Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften): Dr. phil.
  • Doctor of Law (Doktor / Doktorin der Rechtswissenschaften): Dr. iur.
  • Doctor of Medical Science (Doktor / Doktorin der medizinischen Wissenschaft): Dr. scient. med.
  • Doctor of Mining Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der montanistischen Wissenschaften): Dr. mont.
  • Doctor of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der Bodenkultur): Dr. nat. techn.
  • Doctor of Natural Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der Naturwissenschaften): Dr. rer. nat.
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (Doktor / Doktorin der Pflegewissenschaft): Dr. rer. cur.
  • Doctor of Philosophy: PhD
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Doktor / Doktorin der Philosophie): Dr. phil.
  • Doctor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Catholic Theology (Doktor / Doktorin der Philosophie an der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät): Dr. phil. fac. theol.
  • Doctor of Psychotherapy Science (Doktor / Doktorin der Psychotherapiewissenschaft): Dr. scient. pth.
  • Doctor of Social and Economic Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften): Dr. rer. soc. oec.
  • Doctor of Technical Sciences (Doktor / Doktorin der technischen Wissenschaften): Dr. techn.
  • Doctor of Theology (Doktor / Doktorin der Theologie): Dr. theol.
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (Doktor / Doktorin der Veterinärmedizin): Dr. med. vet.
  • Doctor scientiae veterinariae: Dr. scient. vet.

If a degree programme is completed within a joint degree programme, the academic degree can be awarded together with the partner university. 

Organisational variation

Distance study courses mainly address working people, students with family obligations and people who are interested in studying but live outside the reach of universities. Health-impaired people may also benefit from this form of studies because mobility is not as important as in traditional, attendance-linked study programmes.

Some Austrian universities have already set up distance study courses (such as Linz University, which offered the first multimedia-supported study programme in law in 2001), some study programmes offer distance learning units. In these courses, in particular, the use of new media is important. New teaching methods such as MOOCs implement new ways of organisational learning, too.