Applying for a European PhD position with a UK MPhys degree

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  • #1

I'm looking for a bit of advice with regards to applying for a PhD program in Europe.

As a bit of background: I graduated from Durham University in 2013 with a 1st class MPhys in Theoretical Physics. My thesis (which contributed to half of the grading in the 4th, masters year) was focused on exploring physics beyond the standard model in the Higgs sector. I've been working in the software industry for the past 3.5 years since graduating, the past 1.5 being in Amsterdam. Now I'm hoping to return to theoretical physics and work towards a PhD in the Netherlands.

From what I've been reading about the differences between the UK / European education systems. It seems that in the rest of Europe the MSc is much more specific (and possibly even more intensive) than the integrated masters (MPhys) that is common in the UK. Additionally the MPhys is just 1 year as opposed to 2.

Another place where higher education in the UK and the rest of Europe seem to differ, is that in the UK a PhD in theoretical physics usually involves (for the first year of the four) taking the equivalent of MSc lecture courses, so the emphasis is much more on learning than research to begin with. The successful completion of exams in these subjects along with a viva determines whether or not the student progresses onto the subsequent years. Whereas in the University of Amsterdam (UVA) (and other universities I've been researching in the Netherlands) it seems there is no taught component of the PhD as the assumption is all of the requisite material would've been learnt in an MSc.

I had (perhaps naively) assumed that the MPhys was equivalent to an MSc and thus sufficient for a PhD in Europe (as would be the case in the UK). Now, however, I am a bit more doubtful. For instance, I notice that the graduate MSc in theoretical physics from UVA includes lectures on string theory and group theory. These are two subjects I haven't had formal lectures on.

As its been a few years since I graduated, I've already spent a significant amount of time outside of my current job re-aquainting myself with fundamental subjects in theoretical physics (GR, QM, QFT) over the past 4 months. I've also been learning some group theory over the past couple of weeks and am planning to move onto string theory afterwards (and anything else which is necessary).

I was just wondering if anyone has any experience / advice from being in a similar situation?


Answers and Replies

  • #2
I wouldn't worry too much. I have often seen people with a weak background (I'm not saying you have a weak background, but perhaps you have somewhat less specialized knowledge than the usual applicant there) do a PhD in Netherlands. They usually have a tough time at first, but they seem to catch up pretty quick. So you'll do fine.

You're right that a PhD usually don't take many courses, unlike in the US where there is a very heavy course component. You're expected to self study a lot of the material. This can be rough, and it'll take months before you can actually start doing meaningful stuff. But most people get through it alright, even with a weak background.
  • #3
Thanks for the helpful response :smile:

Applying for a PhD in 2017 had been my plan since moving to Amsterdam, so I was suddenly quite worried about my situation given what I'd read. What you've said has really helped to reassure me. I'm going to continue applying as planned and spend a good portion of my spare time re-visiting and learning as much as I can over the next few months.
I'm absolutely fine with self-study and a rough first year to get up to speed if I do get a place, my worries stemmed more from the fact that I might be simply overlooked. I figure the best I can do is show my enthusiasm and willingness to learn in my application / interview and see what happens from there.
  • #4
Getting in might be a problem, but it's not unheard of. So you should give it a shot. You should also try to talk to professors individually to see if they can give you a spot or whether they have funding for you. This kind of networking is very useful and more important in Europe than in the US, for example. I got my PhD by contacting a few professors. One said she wanted to work with me and she had a spot available, so that's that.

Do you speak dutch? Speaking the language and actually be willing to teach courses is a big benefit that might get you in easier.
  • #5
A PhD will involve teaching, academic development and the actual research. Academic development may mean attending conferences, taking courses, etc.
Many PhD candidates will end up taking one or two advanced courses related to the research they are doing, usually 6 to 12 or a bit more ECTS in the first year or so. Of course, PhD candidates who did their masters at the same university often already have followed those courses.
And if you are assisting with a course, you will probably attend lectures anyway, which may help refresh or give a new deeper understanding. Colleges of mine have taken courses 'twice' this way. Once taking the full course, once attending lectures as a teaching assistent.

If you really lack background, you may be taking more courses. You get paid for 4 years, but you can spend more time taking courses if you want, probably delaying your defence, meaning you have some months without pay where you are supposed to finish up your PhD.

Bachelor programmes are usually supposed to be taught in Dutch, but everyone will speak English. Assisting during practicals or during tutor hours will be a bit easier if you talk on a native-to-native basis, and some argue that a native English speaker teaching in English is more difficult to follow than a non-Native English speaker.
The professor or university lecturers will be giving the lectures anyway. Knowing Dutch will help you more during the coffee breaks, if the language suddenly switches to Dutch. All science is usually discussed in English only.
If you want to lecture introductory courses to BSc students as part of your permanent position, knowing Dutch will help you. But in a few years the complete bachelor may be mandatory English.

Your background may make you a less than ideal candidate. I don't know how many people apply to certain PhD spots. But the system is flexible enough to accomodate you, if the person has a good reason to hire you anyway. And groups want to hire people from different places and backgrounds anyway.
Often PhD spots are filled through networking, connections, or recommendations, rather than pure job applications.
Having no research experience also sets you apart, but of course you have job experience programming.
  • #6
Thanks for the replies both.

Unfortunately at the moment my Dutch speaking skills are quite lacking. I am open to learning, but it has unfortunately taken a bit of a back seat in my priorities as the office I work in is English speaking and I've been concentrating on brushing up on physics/maths in my spare time. I am hoping to dedicate some time to really getting to grips with it so that I can at least manage conversationally.

Teaching I have no problem with and am more than happy to do it.

I really take on board the advice of reaching out and contacting university staff directly if I'm interested in the sort of research they're doing.

I'll let you know how my application(s) work out
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  • #7
Hi, how did the applications go? I am in the position now where I have to decide between doing an MPhys or a BSc (but I'll be doing a year abroad so they will cost the same amount of time and money! just the year abroad won't count if I do a BSc).

I'd really like to do a PhD in the Netherlands but I'm concerned as to whether an MPhys would be enough?
  • #8
Hi, how were the applications

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