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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 18 December 2023

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

Doctoral study is the highest level study of higher education in the course of which a student acquires the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for independent research, development and professional creative work. Doctoral study consists of studying and broad research and development activity or other creative work that must make up at least 70% of the volume of the curriculum. A doctoral thesis is defined as independent scientific research that presents an innovative solution to an important problem of the respective scientific field, or as creative work. The studying part of Doctoral study may consist of general and specific study, elective and optional courses and pedagogical practice; the volume of these subjects differs in the Doctoral curricula of different universities.

The standard period of Doctoral study is from three to four years and the study load is 180–240 ECTS credits. However, in Estonia the duration of Doctoral study programmes is mostly 4 years with a total volume of 240 ECTS credits. A person graduating from Doctoral study receives a Doctoral degree. A Doctoral degree is a scientific degree awarded after Doctoral study is passed and a Doctoral thesis has been defended. The learning outcomes of Doctoral level study correspond to the learning outcomes defined on the eighth level of the Estonian and European qualification framework.

Doctoral study is carried out only in universities. Attestation has become an important organisational element in carrying out Doctoral study. In the course of attestation, the attestation committee assesses the Doctoral student’s progress in study and research activities, which means in essence the evaluation of fulfilment of the Doctoral student’s individual plan. A detailed procedure for attestation is approved by the council of every university.

There are Doctoral schools in Estonia which are not independent structural entities but inter-university consortia where Doctoral students are offered interdisciplinary courses and international cooperation is promoted. The reason for launching Doctoral schools was a wish to increase the effectiveness of Doctoral studies, the number of defences and the quality of supervision of Doctoral students and to improve inter-university cooperation in Estonia.

Admission Requirements

The precondition for beginning Doctoral study is a Master’s degree or an equivalent qualification. More detailed conditions and procedures for admission of students are established by the university board. Entrants to Doctoral study may, for example, be required to submit a thesis research plan and undergo an admission interview. Usually, entrants to Doctoral study are required to submit a research plan for the thesis and to undergo an admission interview. The thesis research plan must generally include an explanation for choosing the theme and the objective of the research, introduction of research methodology and a timetable for completing the work. The admission committee may take account of the competencies acquired in the course of previous professional experience and additional training.

The total number of students to be admitted to Doctoral study is determined by the university board.

Students can choose between full-time and part-time study, completing 75 per cent or 50 to 75 per cent, respectively, of the study load subject to completion according to the curriculum by the end of each academic year. Doctoral allowance can be applied for by the Doctoral candidates who are enrolled in full-time study or part-time study in case the reimbursement of study costs is not required from him or her, who have not exceeded the nominal period of the curriculum and who have passed evaluation or are the first-year Doctoral candidates.

Status of Doctoral Students

Most doctoral students are guaranteed the position of junior researcher at a university or research and development institution or an employment contract concluded in an institution outside the university in a field related to their doctoral thesis.

A doctoral degree completed in cooperation with partners outside the university is called a transfer of knowledge doctoral degree. In such a case, the doctoral research is conducted with the needs of the company or the institution in mind, and the doctoral student will continue working in the partner company or institution. The main goal of a transfer of knowledge doctoral degree is to prepare PhD specialists for the job market outside academia and promote cooperation between universities and private companies. The employment contract relationship enables clear fixation and remuneration of the duties related to doctoral studies in order to make doctoral studies more effective. It also ensures social guarantees for PhD students, such as annual paid leave and the possibility of receiving sickness benefits.

There is also a possibility that the PhD student does not enter into an employment contract for carrying out research, completes their studies in addition to other main work and does so without the right to receive the doctoral allowance.

Social guarantees for the recipients of doctoral allowance have been extended in terms of the parental benefit and pension insurance, which is a sign of the recognition by the state of doctoral studies as a career choice.    

Supervision Arrangements

Issues related to supervision of Doctoral theses belong to the competence of the university.

An educational institution may appoint a supervisor of Doctoral thesis according to its regulations. Both the system of one-supervisor and that of co-supervisors may be applied. Also supervisors or co-supervisors from foreign states can be used.

The quality agreement between educational institutions outlines the importance of supervision.

Universities have agreed upon the indicators for assessing the results and success of Doctoral studies used by universities and academic units for setting up and comparing objectives. For developing the supervising competencies of supervisors, universities draw up, in co-operation, a description of supervising a Doctoral thesis, the aim of which is to assist the supervisor to understand his or her tasks and assess the additional work load and give the head of the academic unit a clearer basis for assessing the performance of the supervisor. In addition, trainings on supervision are carried out and seminars and inter-disciplinary workshops are organised in cooperation with partners, in which also international experts participate and good experience in supervision is shared. Universities promote co-supervision through which it is possible to increase the efficiency of supervision within the academic unit, link different disciplines and promote cooperation between universities and with the business sector. Universities take into account feedback from Doctoral students received both at the evaluation and upon re-assignment to a position.   

Supervision competencies are also related to the procedure for elections of professors. The higher education standard establishes that when running for the position of a professor at a university (except when the person has not previously worked as a professor, and in case of running for the position of professor in the arts field), at least one Doctoral thesis must have been defended under the supervision of the candidate in the last five years.


Outside the academic community, the requirement for holding a Doctoral degree is not common when getting a job. The main objective of the transfer of knowledge doctoral degree is to prepare top professionals with PhDs for the world of work outside academia, to foster cooperation between universities and businesses, and to promote a knowledge-based economy. The doctoral students pursuing the transfer of knowledge doctorate must be involved in addressing issues of practical value for business.  


Doctoral study is carried out on the basis of the student’s individual plan compiled according to the curriculum.

Universities check the fulfilment of work load requirements by Doctoral students through attestation; each Doctoral student must undergo periodic attestation under the conditions and pursuant to the procedure established by the board of the university. A Doctoral student generally submits materials covering his or her work on the previous period to the attestation committee, the members of which decide on the basis of the information submitted how many ECTS credits the student has fulfilled. Also presentations in international scientific conferences, participation in international Doctoral courses and study activities of Doctoral schools, additional training in laboratories abroad and participation in courses on compilation of scientific projects as well as individual study may be acknowledged as parts of fulfilling a candidate’s individual work plan.

Acquisition of subjects foreseen by a curriculum is assessed on an assessment scale similar to the one used with first and second level higher education students.

According to the higher education standard, Doctoral thesis is an independent research which presents a new solution to a relevant problem in the according field of science, or a creative work. Thus, independent research formulated as a thesis, a series of publications together with a summary article or a published monograph are counted as a Doctoral thesis by universities. The Doctoral thesis must include an overview of the nature of the research problem, setting up of the research task, statements submitted for defence, description of methodology as well as the manner of finding a solution to and proof of the research problem. In case of a Doctoral thesis in foreign language, an Estonian-language summary of the thesis is required; in case of a Doctoral thesis in Estonian, the summary must be in a foreign language. The main characteristic of a Doctoral thesis is deemed to be its publication. A research-based Doctoral thesis generally requires the publication of at least three scientific publications.


After the completion of a study programme in full, a university shall award a diploma certifying the award of academic degree, as well as a Diploma Supplement in Estonian and in English free of charge to a person who has completed Doctoral study.

Organisational Variation

Outside universities, there are no alternative opportunities for acquisition of Doctoral degrees in the Estonian higher education system. The system also does not include third level programmes, the fulfilment of which would give the opportunity to apply for a Doctoral degree.