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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023


Organisation of doctoral studies

A doctorate or doctoral degree is the highest academic qualification that can be awarded. The accorded title is ‘doctor’. To obtain a doctorate, a candidate must have conducted doctoral research in an academic discipline and report on this research in a dissertation. A doctoral degree is often required for certain positions in higher education or research positions in government and industry.

Doctoral programmes count as level 8 programmes in the International Standard Classification of Education 2011 (ISCED 2011). Entry normally requires successful completion of a programme at ISCED level 7. The taught course component of a doctoral programme must have a duration of at least 3 years full-time. Shorter research programmes that do not lead to a doctorate are considered level 7 programmes.

Doctoral candidates must write a dissertation based on original research and independent study, conducted over a number of years under the supervision of a university professor.

Most doctoral candidates conduct their doctoral research as university employees. They are usually appointed for a period of four years (see 7.5.3).

External doctoral candidates, on the other hand, are not attached to a university. They may work at a research institution not affiliated with a university, such as a commercial laboratory or a regional hospital. They may even write their dissertation at home if they do not require special research facilities. External doctoral candidates must however have a supervisor who is a professor at a university. Doctoral degrees are only awarded by universities.


Admission requirements

Doctoral candidates must already have obtained their master’s degree. In exceptional cases the university may admit a candidate without a master’s degree to a doctoral programme.


Status of doctoral candidates

In principle, doctoral candidates in the Netherlands are university employees whose main task is to conduct research in the context of a doctoral programme. Doctoral programmes also have a taught course component for which the requirements are set individually at the beginning of the programme. Doctoral candidates are also required to do some teaching.

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) runs a number of grant schemes to finance doctoral research related to specific NWO research programmes. These grants enable universities to appoint doctoral candidates for approved project proposals (see NWO funding).

Besides salaried doctoral positions and external doctoral candidates, new forms of doctoral programmes have developed in response to increasing internationalisation, such as PhD scholarship programmes and joint PhDs. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) distinguishes four types of PhD candidates:

Category A: Doctoral candidates employed by a university

1. Doctoral candidate: university employee whose contract stipulates that the employee’s primary task is to conduct research at the university or university hospital with a view to obtaining a doctoral degree. 

2. Doctoral fellow: university employee whose contract stipulates that the employee will conduct research at the university or university hospital with a view to obtaining a doctoral degree.

Category B: Other doctoral candidates

3. Contract doctoral research associate: doctoral candidate not employed by the university where they are doing research. The candidate’s doctoral research is sponsored from another source. A contract PhD candidate differs from an external candidate as the former receives funding (e.g. a grant) in order to perform research or may work towards a doctoral qualification during their regular working hours. The main types of funding in this category are:

3a. scholarships awarded by universities or university hospitals;

3b. scholarships awarded by other organisations, e.g. the European Union, foreign universities, private parties (e.g. banks), philanthropic organisations (e.g. Fulbright);

3c. other contract funding. For instance, the doctoral candidate is sponsored by their employer or allowed to do research (partly) during work hours.

4. External doctoral candidates. These candidates do not have a job at the university where they aim to obtain their doctorate. They include retirees or employees working on their doctoral research in their free time.


Supervision arrangements

Each doctoral candidate has a supervisor who is responsible for coaching the candidate during the research phase and the writing of their dissertation. The supervisor’s status is provisional until their official appointment, shortly before the dissertation defence ceremony takes place. The supervisor plays a key role in this ceremony. Sometimes candidates also have a co-supervisor.

After the supervisor has approved the dissertation it is submitted to an assessment committee made up of at least three academics (or, in any case, an odd number), which assesses whether the dissertation satisfies the criteria for a doctorate. Within five weeks of receiving the dissertation, the chair of the committee must give its decision, with reasons, to the dean and the supervisor.



Holders of a doctorate can take up academic positions at universities. Outside academia, PhD graduates generally get the same sort of jobs as those who hold a master’s degree. Research has shown that 80% of doctoral candidates hope to build a career in research after obtaining their doctorate. However, only 20% of them will get tenure at a university, while another 10% will find research-related jobs outside academia. The remaining 70% find other jobs in the private and public sectors.

Source: PNN



The quality of doctoral programmes is assessed as part of overall quality monitoring in higher education. Assessment of the candidate’s progress is based on individual arrangements made by the candidate and the supervisor. The final assessment of the research and dissertation is described in 7.5.4.



A doctorate is awarded if the candidate has demonstrated that they are able to perform independent scientific or academic research. This is assessed on the basis of the research product, generally a dissertation. In the exact sciences, it may also be a technological product or a collection of previously published articles.

The candidate must have a supervisor who is prepared to confirm in writing that he/she guarantees the quality of the candidate’s work. The supervisor guides the candidate’s research and has an important say in the research topic.

After the doctoral defence ceremony, the candidate is awarded a doctorate and may bear the title of ‘doctor’ (dr.), preceding the name, or PhD following the name. In the Netherlands, someone with more than one doctorate can use the title dr.mult.


Organisational variation

A research master is primarily intended to prepare a graduate student for a career as an academic or scientific researcher. It paves the way for doctoral research. The research master takes two years, as opposed to one year for a regular postgraduate course, and is provided by research schools at the universities.

See: Doctoral candidates network