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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023

After completing a Master degree programme, a doctorate or PhD programme may be commenced at universities. The doctorate is at the juncture of teaching and research. At its core is the acquisition of scientific competence through a personal and original contribution to research. The acquisition of subject-specific, methodological and transversal knowledge and competences, as well as scientific socialisation and network building, are central objectives of the doctorate.


Organisation of doctoral studies

Doctorates are structured by the individual universities taking into account institutional and disciplinary factors. In a traditional doctorate, doctoral students plan and write their doctoral thesis supervised by a thesis adviser. Structured doctoral training describes more recent types of doctorate, which take different forms (graduate school or graduate programmes). Structured doctoral training is often based on cooperation between institutions.

No credit points are fixed for the doctoral level. ECTS credit points may be allocated for curricular elements. Doctorates generally take 3–5 years.


Admission requirements

Admission to the doctorate is the responsibility of the universities and is based on a dossier of individual qualifications (e.g. distinction achieved in Master degree). As a rule a Master degree forms the prerequisite for admission to a doctorate. The doctorate is designed on the basis of university Master studies. Prospective students with a Master degree from another type of higher education institution may also commence doctoral studies; certain conditions may be required.


Status of doctoral students/candidates

Depending on the university or faculty doctoral students may be researchers or students. Their status also depends on funding or payment. Doctoral students may work as assistants at a university institute or in a research project. The employment grade, term of employment and rights and obligations are regulated differently. Doctorates are often funded through employment as an assistant at a university/faculty or through project, programme or personal funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), or through other sources or third-party funding.


Supervision arrangements

Alongside supervision by a thesis adviser there are other supervision models such as for instance co-direction, or supervision by several persons, or by several persons from different institutions (structured doctoral training).



The doctorate prepares for a research-oriented position in the university and non-university sector and enables the assumption of demanding professional tasks and functions of varied kinds.



Universities are responsible for the organisation of leaving certificates. The award of the doctorate is subject to an independent scientific paper – the doctoral thesis – and often an oral examination (defence). Additional accomplishments (e.g. course attendance, colloquium, seminar, summer schools) may also be required, or there may be a need for a public defence of the thesis. The dissertation usually consists of a monograph. A cumulative doctoral thesis incorporates articles which have already been published or submitted for publication.



The universities award a standard doctoral degree which confers the right to carry the title Dr. (...) laid down by the universities. As an English translation the term PhD is used.


Organisational variation

The promotion of academic and scientific talent is one of the core missions of Swiss higher education institutions. Higher education institutions are working to further develop doctoral-level and third-cycle education, in order to improve the quality and attractiveness of doctoral training and create good career prospects for doctoral students, as well as promote research and diversify education in line with demand. The project “PhD programmes and development of third-cycle education (2017-2020)” provides a framework for the promotion of doctoral programmes at universities, as well as doctoral training based on cooperation between universities/academies and universities of applied sciences or universities of teacher education. With innovative networks and forms of collaboration spanning the various types of higher education institutions, higher education institutions want to realise the full potential of swissuniversities, the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities, while at the same time promoting the specific profiles of universities, universities of applied sciences and universities of teacher education.

Young scientists are also funded through the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNFS). The SNFS provides various instruments for the promotion of young scientists at different stages in their careers. These instruments are open to researchers with a link to Switzerland as well as to all research disciplines and topics, and there are one or more submission deadlines each year.

Swiss higher education institutions offer their up-and-coming academics, researchers and lecturers, different services for planning and developing their academic career. In future, these will be expanded further, so that academic staff are also informed of options outside of the higher education institutions. This has been defined by swissuniversities as a strategic measure for the years 2021 to 2024.