An American perspective of astro graduate school outside the US II: PhD

This is the second of two guest posts contributed by Dr. Abbie Stevens, who completed her Masters at the University of Alberta in Canada and her Doctorate at the Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is now an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. In her first post, she discussed attending a MSc program in Canada.

When I began grad school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to complete a PhD. However, after having such a good experience doing my MSc at the University of Alberta, I decided that I did want to continue in grad school towards a PhD. I found that many PhD programs in the US don’t have a structure for incoming grad students with a Masters, and a faster three to four year PhD-only track isn’t really an option. I wasn’t feeling particularly enthused about those prospect, so I looked into PhD programs in Canada and Europe.

One thing to keep in mind when applying for PhD programs internationally is that the process may be quite different from US applications. I chose to apply to the University of Amsterdam, and I found that the PhD application process was more similar to a postdoc application than a US PhD program application. I submitted my CV, a short statement of research interests, a cover letter, my Bachelors and Masters transcripts, and the contact information for a few references. There was no application fee and they didn’t accept GRE or PGRE scores. Upon making the shortlist, I was invited to the institute in Amsterdam along with the other shortlisted PhD applicants for an expenses-paid two-day program; there were about 30 of us in total for eight open positions that year.

The program involved 10-minute presentations on our Masters research projects and 30-minute interviews with the supervisors in whose projects we were interested. The interviews gave the supervisors a chance to get to know us, ask more questions, and test our domain-specific knowledge. It also gave us a chance to “interview” the supervisor and see if we thought it would be a good fit. These interviews are important because applicants apply for specific projects with specific supervisors and receive individual offers. This is different from most US programs where you are initially accepted to the graduate program, and only later choose a research advisor.

I accepted my offer from the Universiteit van Amsterdam and completed my PhD at the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy. As a PhD student at U. Amsterdam (and the other astro PhD programs in the Netherlands), you’re an employee, not a student. I had a workers’ union, great healthcare (pop over to these guys to know more about them), EU labor law protections, pension contributions, five weeks paid vacation annually, legally-protected paid medical leave, a raise each year, and standardized vacation bonuses. I was a teaching assistant for four courses over four years and there was no required coursework. I really enjoyed being free of other constraints so I could focus on research.

That being said, the pressure to publish starts early. We were expected to have four papers (or equivalent) in the four years of the PhD, though paper requirements vary greatly by university. Rigid timelines are tied to grant money, though extensions are sometimes possible depending on the circumstances. In Europe, PhD positions are usually for specific projects with specific supervisors, so it’s effectively impossible to change projects or supervisors.

Overall, I’m glad that I did my PhD at U. Amsterdam. With a great networking atmosphere and ample funding at the institute, I was able to go to the US for conferences and seminars in my second through fourth years to maintain connections with the US astro community, which was important to me since I wanted to move back to the US or Canada for a postdoc. I’m grateful I took the path that I did, but of course there were challenges along the way like language barriers and some culture shock. If you pursued a PhD outside of your home country, what drew you to the program you chose? How did you handle the personal and social aspects of living and working abroad?

3 comments… add one
  • Pierce J Feb 11, 2020 @ 22:11

    I am going to graduate with a BS in Physics this spring, so I spent much of the past fall working on graduate school applications for astronomy programs at U.S. institutions (7 in total). As each day passes, I am becoming more concerned that I will not receive an offer from any of these programs. With this concern, I approached some of the physics faculty from my university from some advice and one of them has recommended that I consider European programs like what you described above (he also linked me to this article).
    On the surface, these programs abroad sound a bit more appealing than those here in the states, though I do have a few questions:
    1) I read that you took one year of coursework while getting your MSc at U.Alberta – though, if I were to go straight into a European PhD. program after getting my BS, would I be at any kind of disadvantage considering most (or maybe all) European programs do not require extra coursework whereas US programs do typically require ~2 years of extra coursework?
    2) On average, how competitive are European PhD. programs? If I did not get accepted to any of my 7 US universities (well known programs like U Washington and U Arizona… not the Harvards or Princetons), what might be my chances of being admitted to a European PhD program?
    Thanks a ton 🙂

    • Abbie Stevens Jul 22, 2021 @ 23:09

      Hi! Sorry I only saw this now. If you don’t have a masters, you will not be accepted into a European PhD programs, and some of them can be quite competitive, so try not to approach it with a “backup” mindset. Graduate-level coursework is generally necessary to give you the theoretical basis for planning and conducting research. Best of luck!

  • Rohit Chinchwadkar Oct 3, 2021 @ 7:58

    Hi, can a one year MSc in astrophysics be enough for getting into a PhD program in Europe and the US?

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