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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Belgium - Flemish Community

7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of a doctoral studies 

A degree of doctor is granted after a public presentation and defense of a doctoral thesis. The preparation of a doctoral thesis aims to contribute to the training of a research who can independently make a valuable contribution to the development and growth of scientific knowledge. The thesis must demonstrate his/her ability to create new scientific knowledge within a certain field of study or across various fields of study on the basis of independent scientific research. The doctoral thesis must result in scientific publications.

Only research universities may award the degree of doctor in Flanders. They may do so within the fields of study in which they, under the Codex of Higher Education, have the competence to offer programmes resulting in the degree of master. These universities which only offer bachelor programmes in certain fields of study can grant the degree of doctor on the condition that the public defense of the doctoral thesis takes place before an interuniversity jury which is composed in consultation with a university that under the Codex of Higher Education has education competence within the field of study in question.  

A university can within or across the fields of study of audiovisual and visual arts, music and performing arts, and nautical sciences grant the degree of doctor when the doctoral process is embedded within a common research setting of the university and one or more university college(s). The colleges involved have, under the Codex of Higher Education, the competence to organise within the field of study in question programmes leading to the degree of master.

In addition to the research universities two institutions for Protestant theology can grant doctoral degrees.

Legislation does not prescribe the length of the preparation of a doctorate. Most institutions however aim at completing a doctoral trajectory within a period of four years.

Doctoral schools stimulate and support doctoral studies. They support doctoral students to successfully complete the doctoral trajectory and prepare them for a future career within or outside of the academic world. Doctoral schools organise doctoral courses, which may or may not be obligatory for doctoral students. In addition to a comprehensive offer of courses and programmes doctoral schools also organise information sessions and other related activities for doctoral students and post-doctoral staff members. The organisation of the doctoral school belongs to the autonomy of the research university and therefore differs from one university to another.

Admission requirements

Holding a master degree is a general admission requirement for being admitted to a doctoral programme.

A university however may require additional research allowing it to assess the student capability of conducting scientific research in the field of study concerned and to record the results in a thesis.

A student who does not hold a master degree may also be admitted to a doctoral programme. In that case however a university may require the student either to undergo a competence assessment in order to ascertain his/her ability to write a doctoral thesis, or to take an examination on certain elements of academic education which are determined by the university.

Status of doctoral students/candidates

A doctoral candidate must register at a university for the preparation of a doctoral thesis and is from that point of view regarded as a student. In addition a doctoral candidate has a statute which is linked to its remuneration as a doctoral student.

A doctoral student in the position of an assistent has the statute of an employee. The doctoral candidate in question receive a pay, holiday allowances and a year-end bonus. Both the university and the doctoral student pay social security contributions. The doctoral student / assistant is entitled to all social security rights such as retirement rights, the right to an annual holiday, insurance for illness and invalidity, insurance for work-related accidents and illnesses and a right to unemployment benefits.

Doctoral students from the European Economic Area with a doctoral grant enjoy the same social security rights as a doctoral students working as an assistant. A grant is not a pay but grant recipients are granted holiday allowances and a year-end bonus. Under certain conditions a doctoral grant is exempted from personal income tax.

A doctoral student from an non-EEA country has limited access to social security rights. These students are only entitled to a yearly holiday allowance and an insurance for illness and invalidity. They do not collect rights with regard to retirement allowances or unemployment allowances.

In theory it is possible for a student to engage in doctoral studies without receiving a grant or pay. In this case this persons does not collect social security rights as a doctoral student. The social statute of this person will depend on the statute (s)he has outside the statute of doctoral student, e.g. as a regular employee or retired person.

Supervision arrangements

Every person who starts doctoral studies enrols at a research university. This university determines autonomously the content of the doctoral trajectory, the mode of guidance and the responsibilities of the doctoral students and their supervisors. Within a university the implementation may differ from one faculty to another. Each research university organises doctoral schools, but they determine themselves whether a doctoral student is obliged to take part.

Each doctoral student has at least one supervisor. Every university has drawn up a ‘charter of the doctoral student’ in which the general expectations are listed of the doctoral student, heads of research units, supervisors and sometimes the universities themselves too.


The careers of doctoral graduates are very divers and vary significantly depending on the scientific field of study of the doctoral degree. Most doctoral graduates continue working at university and aim for an academic career. In addition research institutions, the business community and the public sector attract to an increasing degree doctoral graduates.

Doctoral schools support (future) doctoral graduates in their search for a job, both within as well as outside the academic world.


The degree of 'doctor' or 'doctor of philosophy' is awarded by a university panel after the public defence of a doctoral thesis demonstrating the student’s ability to produce original scientific knowledge on the basis of independent scientific research.

Only those to whom the degree of bachelor has been granted are entitled to use the corresponding title of doctor and the legally protected abbreviations 'Dr' and 'PhD'.