1. Do you need to be a genius to do a doctorate?

No one embarks on a doctoral thesis with the idea of winning a Nobel Prize! The thesis marks the completion of a piece of original, long-term reflection; one that requires great personal investment and creativity. You’ll need to have a passion, both for your scientific discipline as well as for the object of your study. Even if your research doesn’t necessarily revolutionise science, it will bring significant advancement of understanding of a subject. You will become expert in a domain, and at the same time you will help to develop knowledge.

Furthermore, it’s not necessary to have a specific idea of what you want to do when you begin your doctorate. The first year is expected to be a time during which your research project is defined.


2. Does the doctorate usually begin right after the Master degree?

Many doctoral candidates begin their doctorate right after their Master degree. Others take it on after a few years of professional experience.

In certain areas, it can even be interesting to have some practical experience that has brought to light research questions. In other areas, it is preferable to start right after the Master degree, in order not to finish too late – above all if you want to follow an academic career path.

3. Does doing a doctorate mean I’ll have an employment contract?

Doing a doctorate does not necessarily mean having an employment contract. In fact, you can be registered as a doctoral candidate (i.e. with the status of third level student) without being employed by the University or the FNS/SNF (the Swiss National Science Foundation). At UNIL, around 53 % of doctoral candidates do not have an employment contract as an assistant (this percentage varies strongly across the faculties, with 69% of candidates without a contract in Arts, and 35% in Geosciences and Environment). Some doctoral candidates have another, part-time employment alongside their doctoral studies (for example, in a hospital, school or museum). In such cases, you need to be sure you’ll have enough time to give to your doctoral thesis.

4. Is doing a doctorate a job like any other?

You should realize that “doing a doctorate means committing yourself to a long-term experience that will require great personal discipline, the capacity to work alone over a long period, and to know how to bounce back after a bad patch… The decision to undertake a doctorate should also, and above all, be a result of personal and intellectual interests” rather than with the idea of a high-earning salary. (Taken from the booklet: Getting your thesis off to a good start)

5. Even if I’m not particularly motivated by the proposed subject, is it a good way to start?

Some doctoral candidates work on their own research idea. Others are taken on within research projects that have already been defined by their professors. In the latter case, it is essential that the proposed research subject interests you, because you will be committing a number of years to it.

6. Is my thesis director there to tell me what to do?

We expect that anyone doing a doctorate take the initiative and that they progress with the thesis relatively independently. The person who directs the thesis commits to regularly monitoring their doctoral candidate’s work and to giving feedback. They also introduce the doctoral candidate to the culture of research, by helping them to develop critical thought, to become an independent researcher, and to develop their own network. (See the UNIL Code of Practice for the doctorate.)

7. Does doing a doctorate mean working on my own most of the time?


 all images © 1997-2013 Jorge Cham

To do a doctorate means not just undertaking relatively independent research, but is also to be part of a community of researchers (by participating in team meetings, presenting results at conferences, and so on). Doctoral candidates who do their work as part of an FNS project will be part of a research team. A large number of doctoral candidates are also part of a doctoral programme. At UNIL, they can choose from 54 doctoral programmes, many of which are organized in collaboration with other Swiss universities.

8. Are autonomy and time management important skills?


all images © 1997-2013 Jorge Cham


The doctoral thesis is a fascinating project, but it’s also a demanding one that takes up a lot of your time. It’s a project that you need to know how to manage over a very long period. Consequently, it’s important to set short-term objectives, for example, in order to avoid procrastination and keep your motivation levels up. Autonomy and good time management are also important in managing your thesis project. Workshops are offered for doctoral candidates to help them manage their time and organize themselves better, especially with the CUSO Transferable Skills programme.

9. Can you keep private and professional demands balanced while doing a doctorate?


all images © 1997-2013 Jorge Cham

The doctorate allows some degree of flexibility in time schedules, and the possibility to work from home. This can allow the demands of private and professional life to be better reconciled – to an extent.

Nevertheless, this freedom is not always easy to manage and can sometimes entail many extra hours of work. During some phases of the thesis (especially during the final write-up period), the thesis can spill over into private life by demanding your intense commitment.


10. How long does the doctorate last?

The duration can vary greatly, and depends on several factors, including the time you have available to devote to your thesis. With an assistant’s contract, you can allocate 50% of your working hours to your thesis. On the other hand, a contract linked to FNS funding and directed by a professor will allow you to dedicate 100% of your time to research connected to your thesis. As table 1 shows, the average duration, for doctoral candidates who started between 1998 and 2002, was a little less than ten semesters, and varied between faculties. You should also note that the number of doctoral candidates in the sample is sometimes very low (for example 7 in FTSR), and that the standard deviations are often very wide. For example, taking an average of ten semesters and a standard deviation of four, means that 68% of the doctoral candidates in the group finished their thesis in six to fourteen semesters - three to seven years!


Table 1. Average duration in semesters of the doctorate at UNIL for doctoral candidates beginning their thesis between 1998 and 2002, by faculty. (Braun, V. (2013). Suivi de cohortes de doctorants (COHDO). Présentation à la Commission de la Relève académique du 11 juin 2013. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne)

11. What percentage of people obtain their doctorate after ten years?

As the table below shows, the percentage of people who obtained their doctorate after ten years is 59%, for those who started their thesis between 1998 and 2002. The graduation rate varies as a function of the type of employment contract (doctoral candidates with an FNS contract had a higher graduation rate, and doctoral candidates with neither an FNS nor a UNIL contract had a lower graduation rate). Other studies (e.g. Hermann et al., 2014) show that certain factors, such as the feeling of being well integrated into a research environment and the quality of the relationship with the thesis director, can have a favourable impact on the progress of the thesis.


12. Do more men than women do a doctorate?

Of those currently registered for the doctorate at UNIL in 2012, half (49.7%) were women. Obviously, this can vary enormously across the scientific disciplines. For example, in 2012 68% of doctoral candidates in Psychology were women, but only 35% in HEC (see the UNIL statistical calendar for more detail). In order to support female doctoral candidates, specific programmes have been developed in western Switzerland, particularly for mentoring (StartingDoc) and workshops (Regard).

13. What percentage of UNIL doctoral candidates come from other countries?

In 2012, 41% of doctoral candidates at UNIL came from countries outside Switzerland, or 793 of the currently registered 1,916 doctoral candidates. Meanwhile, 29% of doctoral candidates came from other Swiss universities, and 30% had received their Master degree from UNIL.

14. What skills are developed that are only useful for an academic career?

The doctorate brings with it a wide range of skills (for example, time management, critical thinking, a sense of initiative, autonomy, public presentations) that are recognized on the non-academic job market. The important thing is to be aware of them, and to know how to talk about them with a future employer. The doctorate is in general an advantage for positions with greater responsibility. Nevertheless, to have the best chance of success, it’s better to plan your entry on to the job market in advance, and to prepare yourself. Additional training or practical work experience can be required in some sectors. (For further information, see Beyond the doctorate.)

15. Isn’t the only point in doing a doctorate to become a professor?

One year after obtaining their degree, 34% of doctorate holders are employed in the academic sector. “The doctorate is the first step for an academic career, but it also opens the door to other professions close to the scientific domain. The non-academic job market offers diverse and varied career opportunities to doctorate holders.” Only a small number of those who do a doctorate will continue an academic career over the long term. (Taken from the booklet: Getting your thesis off to a good start.)

16. Do you become a professor soon after completing the doctorate?

The academic career can be longer or shorter, according to the discipline. Once you have obtained your doctorate, you are strongly encouraged to go to another university, ideally outside Switzerland, in order to build your experience in another institution.  Generally, between the doctorate and a professorship, you will need to climb several ladders, and the transfer between one ladder and the next is rarely easy: the academic career is marked by a succession of short-term posts. (For further information, see Beyond the doctorate.)

Academic positions and durations in Switzerland

Career step Job title Contract duration*
Professorship Full Professor 4-6 years, renewable
Professorship Associate Professor 4-6 years, renewable
Professorship Assistant Professor / SNSF Grant Professor 4-6 years
Advanced Researcher Senior Lecturer 4-6 years, renewable
Post-doctorate Lecturer / SNSF Lecturer 4-6 years, renewable
Post-doctorate Junior Lecturer 1-6 years
Doctorate Graduate Assistant / SNSF PhD candidates 3-5 years

* These are examples of typical functions. Other posts are also possible, even if it is not easy to place them in a hierarchy. For example: Privat-Docent, group leader, head of research, junior/senior researcher, etc.

17. Is it possible to go abroad during the doctorate?

The doctorate offers multiple opportunities to go abroad. You will regularly need to attend international conferences and meetings in order to present your research as well as exchange with other researchers. The SNSF also offers grants for research work abroad from six to eighteen months.

18. Is the unemployment rate higher for doctorate holders?

According to the Federal Statistics Office figures for 2013, the unemployment rate for doctorate holders was at 1.4%, while it was at 2% for holders of a Bachelor degree, and 2.3% for a Master degree.

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