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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023

The PhD is the third cycle of official university studies, and its aim is the acquisition of competences and skills related to quality university research and its development. It corresponds to level 4 of the Spanish Qualifications Framework for Higher Education, which comprises those qualifications aimed at providing students with advanced training in research procedures. In terms of educational outcomes, they may be defined by the following:

  • to have acquired advanced, cutting-edge knowledge and to be able to demonstrate, within the context of internationally recognised scientific research, a deep, comprehensive and proven understanding of the theoretical and practical features which define one or more research fields, as well as expertise in the relevant work methodology;
  • to have made an original and significant contribution to scientific research in the relevant area of knowledge, having received recognition by the international scientific community;
  • to have demonstrated the ability to design a research project so as to carry out critical analysis and to evaluate loosely defined contexts, to which the acquired knowledge, relevant contributions and work methodology can be applied, in order to synthesise new and complex ideas that may lead to a deeper understanding of the relevant field of research;
  • to have developed enough autonomy to set up, manage and lead work teams, innovative research projects and scientific partnerships, either at national or international levels, within the relevant research area, in multidisciplinary contexts which may demand high levels of knowledge transfer;
  • to have shown ability to carry out research autonomously, with social responsibility and scientific integrity;
  • to have proved ability to participate in scientific discussions at international level, within the relevant knowledge area, as well as to communicate the results of research activity to all types of audiences;
  • to have demonstrated, within a specific scientific field, the ability to contribute to cultural, social or technological breakthroughs, as well as to foster innovation at different levels of the knowledge society.

Organisation of doctoral studies

Official doctoral studies are organised by means of programmes, in the manner determined by the statutes of the universities and in accordance with the criteria established in Royal Decree 99/2011. Doctoral programmes correspond to the various fields of scientific, technological, humanistic and artistic knowledge, as well as to an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge. Successful completion of a doctoral programme and the presentation and approval of a doctoral thesis will entitle the holder to obtain the official university qualification of Doctor (PhD). Some relevant characteristics of these programmes are the following:

  • they may include some organised aspects in research training which do not require a European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) structure. In any case, the central activity of the PhD student is research;
  • they are offered by doctoral colleges or by other competent educational institutions in the area of research;
  • they may be jointly organised by several universities, and include the participation, by means of agreements, of other R&D&I bodies, centres, institutions or entities, either public, private, national or international;
  • each programme is planned, designed and coordinated by an academic commission, which is responsible for the training and research activities which integrate the programme;
  • the academic commission is formed by PhD doctors appointed by the university. Researchers from public research bodies and from other institutions involved in R&D&I, both national and international, may also participate in these commissions;
  • each programme has a person in charge of its coordination, who must be a relevant researcher and fulfil certain requirements: to have supervised, prior to being appointed, at least two doctoral theses; to have a minimum of two periods of research activity recognised in accordance with the provisions of Royal Decree 1086/1989; or to accredit merits equivalent to the aforementioned;
  • all teaching staff must hold a doctoral degree, without prejudice to the possible collaboration in certain specific activities of other individuals or professionals by virtue of their relevant qualifications in the corresponding field of knowledge.

PhD studies have a maximum duration of three years of full-time dedication, from admission into the programme until the doctoral thesis is submitted. The academic commission responsible for the programme may authorise the extension of this period for a maximum of two years (one more year, which may exceptionally be extended for an additional year, under the conditions established in the corresponding doctoral programme). 

Doctoral studies may also be pursued on a part-time basis, the ordinary maximum duration of which is five years, with a possible authorisation for a further two years, which, exceptionally, may be extended for an additional year. For the purposes of calculating time periods, sick leaves, pregnancy leaves or any other circumstances stipulated by current regulations are not taken into account. Likewise, a temporary leave of absence from the programme may be requested for a maximum period of one year, which may be extended for a further year.

PhD candidates must write, submit and defend a Doctoral thesis, an original research project which requires a defence, in public session, in front of a board of examiners who are in charge of its evaluation. This thesis must qualify the PhD candidate to carry out autonomous work in the area of R&D&I.

Admission Requirements

As a general rule, in order to access an official doctoral programme, candidates must hold a Bachelor’s degree, or equivalent, and a Master’s degree, or equivalent, provided they have completed at least 300 ECTS credits in the two types of programmes as a whole.

Access is also open to those who are in one of the following situations:

  • to hold an official Spanish university degree, or from another country of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which qualifies them for access to a university master's degree in accordance with Article 18 of Royal Decree 822/2021 and have passed a minimum of 300 ECTS credits in official university studies, of which at least 60 must be at master's level;
  • to hold an official qualification of at least 300 ECTS credits, awarded by a Spanish university. The curriculum of these programmes must include training and research credits equivalent to the ones offered in Master's degree programmes. If this requirement is not met, applicants must compulsorily pass the specific training units and programme components required for admission into a PhD programme;
  • to have passed with a positive evaluation at least two years of training in a programme leading to the official qualification in one of the specialities in Health Sciences, for those university graduates who have previously obtained a place in specialised health training;
  • to hold a qualification obtained in accordance with foreign education systems, without the need for validation, once the universities certify that the programme provides equivalent training to the one offered in a Spanish official university Master's degree programme and that the degree is also a pre-requisite for access to PhD studies in the country issuing the diploma;
  • to hold another Spanish doctoral degree obtained in accordance with previous university regulations;
  • to hold an official university degree that has been accredited as level 3 of the Spanish Framework of Qualifications for Higher Education (MECES).

Universities are entitled to establish additional selection and admission criteria for applicants to a specific PhD programme. In any case, at least 5 percent of the places offered must be reserved for students with a degree of disability equal to or greater than 33 percent, as well as for students with permanent educational support needs associated with personal circumstances of disability, who in their previous studies have required resources and support for their full educational inclusion.
PhD candidates who have been admitted to a PhD programme must register each year in the university organising the programme, in the relevant doctoral college or in the institution responsible for the programme, and pay a fee for academic mentorship.

Status of doctoral students/candidates

Doctoral students can have two types of status: university student and predoctoral research trainee.

Status of the university student

This status is set out in Article 1.3 in the 2010 University Student Statute, which establishes that “a student is any person studying the official programmes of any of the three university cycles”.

This statute regulates the rights of doctoral students as university students in two sections: a common one applicable to all students at the university, and a specific one applicable only to doctoral students. These students have the following specific rights:

  • to receive quality research training, promoting scientific excellence, equity and social responsibility;
  • to have a tutor who guides their training process and another person in charge of its direction and, where appropriate, co-direction, with accredited research experience, to supervise the completion of the doctoral thesis;
  • for universities and doctoral schools to promote the integration of doctoral students into research groups and networks in their third cycle programmes;
  • to be aware of the professional career in research and for universities to promote research career development opportunities in their programmes;
  • to have the recognition and protection of intellectual property rights regarding the results obtained from their doctoral thesis, or from any other previous research projects, according to the terms established by the relevant legislation;
  • to be considered trainee research staff, in terms of representation rights in the universities’ governing bodies;
  • to participate in the supervision of doctoral programmes and in institutional evaluation processes.

Their duties as university students are set out in Article 13 of Royal Decree 1791/2010.

Status of predoctoral research staff trainees

Apart from having the status of university student, university graduates who hold a Bachelor’s, Architect or Engineer degree with at least 300 ECTS credits, a Master’s degree or an equivalent diploma, and who have been admitted to a PhD programme, will also acquire the status of research trainee.

The 2019 Trainee Research Staff Statute regulates the following aspects:

1. The predoctoral contract, which has the following characteristics:

  • Its objective is that predoctoral research staff in training simultaneously carry out research tasks in a specific and innovative project and doctoral programme activities leading to the acquisition of the skills and abilities necessary to obtain the official university PhD degree.
  • Predoctoral research staff in training may collaborate in teaching tasks (which do not imply a reduction in the teaching load of the department to which they are assigned) up to a maximum of 180 hours throughout the duration of the contract, and provided they do not in any case exceed 60 hours per year.
  • Its duration may not be less than one year or more than four years, except in the case of people with disabilities where the maximum duration may be six years (including extensions).
  • If the contract has a duration of less than four years, it may be extended consecutively; extensions may not have a duration of less than one year.
  • In the event that, because the person has already been hired under this modality, the time remaining up to the maximum of four years, or six years in the case of people with disabilities, is less than one year, the contract, or its extension, may be signed for the time remaining up to the maximum established in each case.
  • This contract is for full-time engagement throughout its term.
  • The economic remuneration, which takes as a minimum reference the category corresponding to Group 1 of the salary scale set out in the single labour agreement for the General State Administration, may not be less than:
    • 56 per cent of the salary for this category during the first two years;
    • 60 per cent during the third year;
    • 75 per cent during the fourth year;
    • the minimum interprofessional salary.

2. Rights and duties. Among the main rights to which they are entitled the following may be highlighted: 

  • to obtain cooperation from the host organisations, centres or institutions, as well as the necessary support to develop training activities and scientific and technical specialisation corresponding to their training;
  • to be integrated in the departments, institutes and public or private bodies in which they carry out training and research activities, as well as any other activity of relevance to their professional development;
  • to participate, in the manner provided for in the statutes of the contracting public and private research bodies, in the relevant information, consultation and governance bodies in order to protect and defend their individual professional interests and actively contribute to collective work;
  • to participate in calls for grants and additional aid for attendance at scientific meetings or for in-house training and improvement stays in institutions other than the one to which they are assigned;
  • to exercise the intellectual property rights and copyrights deriving from the results of training and specialisation activities and in accordance with their contribution.

Supervision arrangements


Once candidates are accepted into the programme, the academic commission assigns them a mentor, with the following characteristics:

  • they must hold a PhD and have accredited research experience in the institution or college organising the programme
  • their responsibilities include overseeing the interaction of the PhD student with the commission.

The academic commission is entitled to appoint another mentor at any point of the programme, provided that there are justified reasons and after due consultation with the candidate.

Thesis direction

The academic commission in charge of the programme must also assign each candidate a thesis director, who may be the same person appointed as a mentor or not. The director must hold a PhD, Spanish or foreign, and have accredited research experience. If a thesis director assigned at the time of enrolment, the academic commission must appoint one within three months of enrolment.

The Commission is entitled to appoint another director at any point of the programme, provided that there are justified reasons and after due consultation with the candidate. The person supervising the thesis is ultimately responsible for the coherence and suitability of the training activities, the impact and novelty of the subject matter of the doctoral thesis in its field, and for the guidance of the planning and its adequacy to other projects and activities in which the doctoral student is enrolled. 

Subject to authorisation by the academic commission, a doctoral thesis may be co-directed by other PhD doctors, on the basis of academic reasons (for example, the multidisciplinary nature of the thesis topic, or the participation of the candidate in national or international programmes).

Personal activity portfolio

Once the student has been officially registered in the programme, universities open a personal activity portfolio, which documents all the relevant activities carried out by the candidate. This document is periodically reviewed by the mentor and by the thesis director, and evaluated by the academic commission in charge of the programme.

Research plan

Before the end of the first year of the programme, candidates must draw up a research plan, which must include, at least, their intended work methodology, planned objectives, as well as the timing and resources needed to achieve these goals. The research plan can be improved throughout the development of the programme, and must receive approval from the mentor and the thesis director.

Written agreement

In addition to the above-mentioned requirements, as soon as possible after admission to the doctoral programme, the universities must establish the supervision of doctoral students by means of a written agreement to be signed by:

  • the university
  • the candidate
  • the mentor
  • the thesis director.

This document must include procedures for conflict resolution, including issues related to intellectual or industrial property that may arise throughout the programme.


The improvement of employability of university graduates and their contribution to sustainable economy is a constant source of concern for education authorities and universities. In response to this concern, Article 61, of Law 2/2011 on Sustainable Economy establishes that university education must respond to the following principles:

  • incorporation, in their study plans, of abilities and skills oriented towards innovation, creativity, business initiative and entrepreneurship, integrating them into the different subjects, concepts and cross-curricular competences, in learning methods and in examinations, and in all educational levels, particularly in doctoral studies;
  • proposals for new degrees and educational provision which prepare students for the qualifications required by new employment needs so as to improve employability of citizens in the labour market;
  • promotion of adaptability to social and economic changes, providing citizens with opportunities for ongoing professional development and extension of university studies;
  • effective incorporation of university graduates into the labour market, strengthening the links between universities and the business world, paying special attention to the promotion of competences for entrepreneurship and self-employment.

Collaboration between universities and the productive sector may be articulated on the basis of the following initiatives:

  • the creation of technology-based innovation companies;
  • the establishment of innovation poles, by means of providing a common physical space for universities and companies in the production sector;
  • the launching and promotion of programmes to enhance transfer and appreciation of knowledge;
  • the creation of consortiums for research and the transfer of knowledge;
  • the creation of corporate-sponsored university chairs, based on the collaboration in research projects which allow university students to participate and combine their research activity with training opportunities.

Both in the regulations for university education and in the University Student Statute, there are a series of specific measures aimed at promoting university student employability, such as:

  • mobility programmes through university cooperation agreements which pay attention to academic training related to the degree in which the student is enrolled, and to other competence areas, such as training for employment;
  • the integration of external placements into the curricula;
  • student information and guidance services with the aim, among others, to provide information and orientation regarding learning itineraries and future professional opportunities, training in cross-curricular competences and design of professional projects, in order to facilitate the employability and insertion of students in the labour market;
  • guidance and monitoring through tutoring at degree level, in which those who coordinate and tutor each programme assist and guide students regarding their learning process as well as their professional prospects in the labour market;
  • the organisation of alumni associations, registered in the universities, which, among other functions, actively collaborate in the incorporation of graduates into the labour market.

The process of changing the productive model towards a sustainable economy needs PhD graduates as key figures in society for the generation, transfer and adaptation of R&D&I. In this sense, they must play an essential role in all institutions involved in innovation and research, so that they lead the transfer from knowledge to the welfare of society.

The Ministry of Science and Innovation, within the framework of the State Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation 2021-2023, aims to achieve, among others, the following objectives:

  • fostering generational renewal by encouraging the attraction of talent through the development of scientific careers, e.g. by boosting calls for the recruitment of post-doctoral and doctoral students in research institutions, universities and companies;
  • intensifying transfer incentives, by reinforcing the link between research and innovation to help translate scientific breakthroughs into viable and profitable business models.


Universities, through doctoral colleges or the corresponding units responsible for doctoral programmes, are responsible for establishing the mechanisms for the assessment and monitoring of students, in compliance with the general aspects set out in Royal Decree 99/2011.

Each year the academic commission evaluates the programme's research plan and the activities document together with the reports that must be issued for this purpose by the students' mentors and directors. If the academic commission identifies significant shortcomings, it may request the PhD student to submit a new research plan within a period of six months. Should the shortcomings continue to exist, the academic commission must issue an explanatory report and the doctoral student is definitively withdrawn from the programme.

With regard to the doctoral thesis, universities establish the procedure for its presentation, including the maximum period for its subsequent reading. During this time, the university guarantees public status to the thesis, so as to allow other PhD doctors to send candidates their comments and observations before the public defence is held. The characteristics of the assessment of the doctoral thesis are the following:

  • a board of examiners is appointed. The majority of board members are experts who do not belong to the same doctoral college or programme;
  • they must hold a PhD and have accredited research experience;
  • the board has access to the candidate’s personal activity portfolio, which is also subject to qualitative (not quantitative) evaluation that supplements the assessment of the doctoral thesis;
  • the doctoral thesis is evaluated by means of a public defence session, during which the candidate presents and defends his/her research project in front of the board of examiners
  • any other PhD doctors who attend the defence session are allowed to ask questions to the candidate, according to the procedures established by the president of the board;
  • the board of examiners issues a report and a 'fail/pass/very good/excellent' grade for the thesis;
  • doctoral theses that are graded as 'excellent' may also be awarded a 'cum laude' mark, which requires unanimous agreement among the members of the board (secret ballot);
  • the university must establish the necessary mechanisms for the awarding of such mark, guaranteeing that the counting of votes takes place in a different session from that in which the thesis is defended.


Doctoral studies lead to an official PhD diploma, valid in all the Spanish territory.

The Ministry of Universities and the universities must establish the regulations for the award of honourable mentions or prizes for outstanding achievement of candidates in doctoral thesis, which can be reflected in the corresponding academic certificate.

Once the doctoral thesis has been passed, the university takes care of filing it in an open electronic archive within an institutional repository and submits a digital copy of the thesis to the Ministry of Universities.

Students in doctoral programmes may also be awarded a series of distinctions, called 'mentions', which can be added to the official diploma, according to the criteria and circumstances established in each programme:

  • cum laude mention: the board evaluating the thesis may award this mention if the overall grade is a distinction and all the members vote unanimously in favour by a secret ballot;
  • international mention: this may be obtained when the requirements established in Article 15.1 of Royal Decree 99/2011 are met;
  • mention Thesis under joint supervision with "U" University: it is obtained when the circumstances specified in Article 15.2 modified by Royal Decree 195/2016, apply;
  • industrial mention: it is awarded when the particularities set out in Article 15 bis of Royal Decree 99/2011, as amended by Royal Decree 195/2016, converge.

Organisational variation

In Spain, students may enrol in distance PhD programmes at universities which organise this type of provision.

The National University of Distance Education (UNED), dependent on the Ministry of Universities, offers a wide variety of distance doctoral programmes. Some other private universities also offer PhD programmes.

In any case, candidates enrolled both in on-site and distance PhD programmes are required to defend their doctoral thesis before a board of examiners.

Advanced artistic education: PhD studies

For the organisation of doctoral studies specific to artistic studies, education authorities must promote agreements with universities, which must include admission criteria and the conditions for the development of the doctoral thesis and its adaptation to the particularities of higher artistic studies, among which interpretation and creation may be considered.

Official degrees in advanced artistic education allow access to official university doctoral studies, without prejudice to other admission criteria that may be determined by the university to which the student intends to access.

The higher education institutions with Art programmes must promote, by means of the procedures established by the education authorities research programmes in the field of their own disciplines.