Third-cycle education includes courses, private study, research and writing a thesis. It is demanding and requires a great deal of autonomy and responsibility.

There is no guarantee that a student who is a successful undergraduate will be a successful doctoral student. Third-cycle studies require independence, responsibility, discipline and the ability to formulate and process scientific problems. A doctoral student has at least two supervisors to provide support, but the teachers, lectures, tutorials and continual assessment through examination found at undergraduate level are generally no longer there – the doctoral student must be the driving force for his or her own studies.

Doctoral students often feel that they have not been particularly welcomed or introduced when they start their studies. One piece of advice is to find as much information as possible about what third-cycle education is like at the department you are interested in, before applying.

Major differences

It is difficult to write anything general about studying at third-cycle level, because there are such big differences between higher education institutions (HEIs) and programmes. Even the working conditions and view of doctoral students vary.

Here are a few general factors:

  • Third-cycle education includes courses, private study, research and writing a thesis in close cooperation with a supervisor.
  • Many programmes also have various types of research seminars (see below).
  • The majority of doctoral students have some form of employment at their HEI, which often includes teaching at first and second-cycles (Bachelor’s and Master’s).
  • Doctoral students are not required to pay application or tuition fees for courses at the doctoral level.

There are clear differences between subjects that include laboratory work and those that don’t. In non-laboratory subjects, research is often lonely work that places very high demands on autonomy and discipline. However, doctoral students who conduct research in laboratory subjects are often members of a research group. Their own research task may be part of a larger project, which means that the doctoral student has continual support. It is common for the project to be led by the supervisor, who is thus often more available to the doctoral student.

Research seminars

Research seminars, sometimes called higher seminars, are a forum in which doctoral students, teachers and other researchers at a department or within a research group regularly meet to discuss new methods and findings, new literature in the subject and different problems.

Some departments have seminars every week, others less frequently. The seminar is normally led by a professor, but other PhDs may also lead them. Sometimes visiting lecturers are invited from other HEIs.

Research seminars allow doctoral students to present a chapter, parts of a thesis or an article for review and criticism. Often, a fellow doctoral student is tasked with acting as a reviewer, so providing training for the upcoming public defence. The seminars have a particularly important function for doctoral students in subjects where it may otherwise be difficult to get a response to the thesis work, such as in the humanities and social sciences, where the thesis is often a monograph.


Third-cycle education that concludes with a doctoral degree covers 240 credits, the equivalent of four years. A programme that leads to a licentiate degree covers at least 120 credits, equivalent to two years.

The actual period of study is the time that is actively spent on third-cycle studies. In 2014, the average actual period of study was 4.2 years for a doctoral degree and 2.6 years for a licentiate degree.

The maximum permitted period of study is the total period of study regardless of the level of activity. For those who graduated with a doctoral degree in 2014 it was an average of 11 semesters, equivalent to 5.5 years. For a licentiate degree it was an average of 7 semesters, or 3.5 years.

The maximum permitted period of study is so much longer because many doctoral students do not study full time. For example, it is common to undertake departmental duties at 20 per cent alongside studying. Study leave due to parental leave, sickness or similar are also reasons for an extended maximum period of study.

The median age for a newly-graduated doctor in 2014 was 34, and was 31 for a licentiate.

Tough working environment

The report, “Hur mår doktoranden?” (How are doctoral students feeling?), published in 2012 by the ST union, the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) and TCO, presented a survey in which almost 600 doctoral students answered questions about their psychosocial working environment. The results included the following:

  • One in three doctoral students are often or always reluctant to present critical opinions about their working environment.
  • Six out of ten doctoral students skip lunch one or more days each week.
  • One-fifth state that they find it difficult to sleep several days a week because of work.
  • Around ten per cent of female doctoral students have experienced threatening situations at work and three per cent have experienced sexual harassment.
  • Four out of ten doctoral students feel that they mostly have no influence over their workplace.

About the “Hur mår doktoranden?” report at ST’s website (in Swedish)

Page last updated 2020-02-04