Counselling Centre Universities of Bern


Very few doctoral students are able to fund their PhD privately, for example with help from their parents or partner. Students often finance their studies through employment at the university, part-time work in the non-academic professional world or a personal scholarship. Universities offer doctoral students two types of academic employment: paid assistantships funded by the university or positions in research projects financed through external funding.


Assistants are usually entitled to spend a certain amount of their paid working time on their dissertation project. However, this is not often very feasible in practice, as the work involved in assisting a professorial chair can take up all of an assistant's working hours.

It is important to clarify this situation with your employer. It may be possible to agree, for example, that you will put your own research work on the back burner during the semester but will be allowed to spend more working time on your dissertation between semesters.

Aside from an often heavy workload, assistantships do offer certain advantages: As well as helping doctoral students to integrate themselves into the academic environment and providing access to university infrastructure, getting involved in teaching and research can pave the way for an academic career.

Externally funded positions in research projects

Another popular way of financing a PhD is to take up a paid position in a research project that is funded by external providers (particularly the Swiss National Science Foundation). The funding for these projects is not obtained by the doctoral students themselves, but by the project managers, e.g. professors. Students in this kind of position work on an existing research project and are allowed to devote part of their working time to their dissertation. In addition to project work, these positions sometimes involve participating in university activities such as teaching and administration. In this case, too, it is your employer who will set the conditions under which you will undertake your doctoral studies, so make sure you discuss his or her expectations of your role during your interview.

Externally funded positions offer similar advantages to an assistantship in that they facilitate integration into the academic environment and provide access to university infrastructure. Unlike assistantships, however, a large proportion of your paid working time can be spent on your dissertation, although the level of pay you receive will be lower and your employment contract is likely to be shorter.

Employment within a structured doctoral degree program

In a few rare cases, students have the opportunity to apply for a scholarship awarded by a specific doctoral degree program or a graduate school. The advantage of this is that it is tied in with a structured degree program, but scholarship holders are also often obliged to make an active contribution to the program.

Research projects outside the university

Under certain circumstances, it is possible to complete a PhD dissertation as part of a research project outside the university (within an employment framework). It is worth asking about this. However, as with the other options for undertaking a PhD, your work will still be supervised by a professor at the university.

Personal research projects

Finally, there is also the option of applying for a personal scholarship to fund your own dissertation project. These scholarship are usually provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), universities or private foundations. The brochure "Getting your thesis off to a good start – guide for doctoral students" (p. 31-34) offers a helpful overview of the funding options available. (Download: see below under "Further Information")

Writing a dissertation in your free time

If you have a well-paid part-time job outside the university or do not go out to work due to sharing earning responsibilities with your partner, you have the option of completing your dissertation at home in your free time.

Although they offer a high degree of personal freedom, the disadvantage of this and the previous option mentioned is that you have to arrange contact with researchers yourself.

In these cases, it would be useful to choose a doctoral supervisor who provides his or her own infrastructure for doctoral students (e.g. regular meetings with doctoral students to discuss the current status of their work). (Link: see below under "Further Information")