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

There's no guarantee that a student who's 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 in charge of his or her own studies.

One piece of advice is to find as much information as possible about what third-cycle education is like at the department you're interested in, before applying.

Major differences

There are 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.
  • 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's common for the project to be led by the supervisor, who is 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
  • various 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, 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.

Many doctoral students do not study full time. It is common to undertake departmental duties alongside studying. 

Page last updated 2023-10-12

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