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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 13 February 2024

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:

  • 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;
  • have made an original and significant contribution to scientific research in the relevant area of knowledge, having received recognition by the international scientific community;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • have shown ability to carry out research autonomously, with social responsibility and scientific integrity;
  • 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;
  • 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, which regulates official doctoral studies, as subsequently amended. 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 entitles the holder to obtain the official university qualification of Doctor (PhD). Some relevant characteristics of these programmes are the following:

  • they incorporate organised aspects of research training that do not require the structure of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and comprise both cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary training as well as training specific to the field of each programme. 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 four years, on a full-time basis, from the date of enrolment of the PhD student in the programme to the date of submission of the doctoral thesis. However, subject to the prior authorisation of the academic committee responsible for the programme, doctoral studies may be carried out on a part-time basis. In this case, such studies may have a maximum duration of seven years from the date of enrolment in the programme to the date of submission of the doctoral thesis. When the doctoral candidate is a person with a degree of disability equal to or greater than 33 percent, the duration of the doctoral studies is a maximum of six years on a full-time basis and nine years on a part-time basis. 

Before the end of the periods mentioned in the previous paragraph, if the application to deposit the thesis has not been submitted, the academic committee responsible for the programme, at the request of the doctoral student, may authorise the extension of the deadline for a further year, under the conditions established in the corresponding doctoral programme. Situations of temporary incapacity, birth, adoption, foster care, risk during pregnancy, risk during breastfeeding and gender violence or any other situation contemplated in the regulations in force during the period of time mentioned above interrupt the calculation of the time limit for the duration of the doctoral studies. PhD students may request periods of temporary leave from the programme for up to a total of two years. This request must be addressed and justified to the academic committee responsible for the programme, which is responsible for determining whether it is appropriate to grant the doctoral student's request.

Studies at this level conclude with the preparation, submission and defence of a Doctoral thesis, an original research project which requires a defence, in public session, in front of a board of examiners and which must be positively evaluated. 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:

  • holders of official Spanish university degrees or equivalent Spanish degrees, provided that they have passed at least 300 ECTS credits in these courses as a whole and accredit a level 3 of the Spanish Qualifications Framework for Higher Education;
  • holders of a degree obtained in accordance with foreign education systems belonging to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), with no need for validation, which accredits a level 7 of the European Qualifications Framework, provided that said degree entitles access to doctoral studies in the country where it was issued. This admission does not imply, in any case, the validation of the previous qualification held by the interested party nor its recognition for purposes other than access to PhD studies;
  • holders of a degree obtained in accordance with foreign education systems outside the EHEA, 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; This admission does not imply, in any case, the validation of the previous qualification held by the interested party nor its recognition for purposes other than access to PhD studies;
  • holders of a doctoral degree.

Access is also open to those who hold a university degree and, after obtaining a place in training in the corresponding entrance examination for specialised health training places, have passed at least two years of training in a programme leading to an official degree in any of the specialised branches of Health Sciences.

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 pre-doctoral 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 pre-doctoral 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 of the salary during the third year;
    • 75 per cent of the salary 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 centres 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 mentor at any point of the programme, provided that there are justified reasons and after due consultation with the candidate PhD Student. The thesis director is ultimately responsible for planning adequate and coherent training activities to be carried out by the candidate, as well as for the impact and the novelty of the research area of the doctoral thesis, and for deciding on whether the thesis is consistent with the rest of projects and activities in which the candidate is involved PhD Student.

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 all this, as soon as possible after admission to the PhD programme, the universities must establish the supervisory functions of the doctoral students by means of a written agreement to be signed by the following parties:

  • the university;
  • each student;
  • the tutor;
  • 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:

  • creation of technology-based innovation companies;
  • establishment of innovation poles, by means of providing a common physical space for universities and companies in the production sector;
  • launching and promotion of programmes to enhance transfer and appreciation of knowledge;
  • creation of consortiums for research and the transfer of knowledge;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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 centres, 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, as subsequently amended.

Each year the academic commission evaluates the progress of the PhD student in terms of the research plan and the activities document together with the reports that must be issued for this purpose by the students' mentors and directors. In the event that the academic commission identifies significant shortcomings, the PhD student must be re-evaluated within a maximum period of six months. Should the shortcomings continue to exist, the academic commission must issue an explanatory report after hearing the interested party, and the doctoral student is definitively withdrawn from the programme.

With regard to the doctoral thesis, universities establish the procedure for its deposit, including the maximum period for its subsequent defence. The thesis must have a minimum of two reports issued by experts in the subject, external to the university, who may propose aspects for improvement. These experts may be part of the examining board evaluating the thesis. Depending on the content of these reports, the academic commission gives the doctoral student a period of time to respond and, if necessary, include the relevant modifications in the doctoral thesis before it is deposited. The university must guarantee the dissemination of the completed doctoral thesis so that, during the assessment process and prior to its defence, other doctoral students may submit observations on its content. The thesis may be developed and, where appropriate, defended in the usual languages for scientific communication in its field of study.

The characteristics of the assessment of the doctoral thesis are the following:

  • The examining board that evaluates the doctoral thesis is constituted in accordance with the requirements set by the university and in accordance with the provisions of Article 14 of Royal Decree 99/2011, as subsequently amended.
  • All members of the examining board must hold a PhD and have accredited research experience. In any case, the examining board must be made up of a majority of members from outside the programme and the university where the thesis is defended. The person or people supervising the doctoral thesis and the tutor may not be part of the examining board, except in the case of theses presented within the framework of co-supervision agreements with foreign universities that so provide.
  • The principle of balanced representation of women and men must be guaranteed, as indicated in the First Additional Provision of Organic Law 3/2007 on the Effective Equality of Women and Men.
  • The examining board evaluating the thesis must be provided with the doctoral student's activities document, as referred to in Article 2.7 of Royal Decree 99/2011, as subsequently amended, with the training activities carried out by the doctoral student, and the reports of external experts, as well as, where appropriate, the doctoral student's response to them. The activities document does not lead to a quantitative score, but it does constitute a qualitative assessment instrument that complements the evaluation of the doctoral thesis.
  • The doctoral thesis is evaluated by means of a public defence session, during which the candidate presents and defends the thesis 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.
  • Once the doctoral thesis has been successfully defended, the university takes care of archiving it in open electronic format in an institutional repository and sends a copy of the thesis in electronic format, as well as all the necessary complementary information, to the Ministry of Science, innovation and Universities for publication in a national repository managed by the General Secretariat for Universities.
  • In exceptional circumstances determined by the academic commission of the programme, such as, among others, the participation of companies in the programme, the existence of confidentiality agreements with companies or the possibility of generating patents on the content of the thesis, the universities must set up procedures to develop the two previous sections that ensure the confidentiality of these aspects.
  • The examining board issues a report and the overall grade awarded to the thesis in accordance with the following scale: fail, pass, pass, very good or excellent;
  • The board evaluating the thesis may award the cum laude distinction if the overall grade is excellent and all the members vote unanimously in favour by a secret ballot.
  • The university must establish the necessary mechanisms for the final awarding of such distinction, 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 Science, innovation and Universities and the universities may 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 Science, innovation and 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, added by Royal Decree 195/2016 and amended by Royal Decree 576/2023, 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 Science, innovation and 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, educational 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 centres with Art programmes must promote, by means of the procedures established by the educational authorities, research programmes in the field of their own disciplines.