Study guide University of Bern

Doctoral studies

After completing their Master's degree, quite a few students find themselves faced with the question of whether or not it would be wise to continue their education by going on to do a PhD. A doctoral degree (PhD) is the next academic stage after Master's level studies.

A dissertation is a challenging project that requires a great deal of time, energy and perseverance. It is therefore important to think carefully about your motivation to complete a dissertation before deciding to do so. When making your decision, you should take the following criteria into account: your career goals and expectations, your specialist interests and your personal circumstances.

Universities are the only higher education institutions that currently offer the opportunity to complete a PhD. A recognized university Master's degree with good grades is usually a prerequisite for undertaking a PhD. However, a Master's degree from a different type of higher education institution may also be accepted as long as the candidate has appropriate academic qualifications (see -> swissuniversities). It is up to the responsible academic bodies at the university in question to decide who should be accepted on a PhD program. In principle, however, there is no obligation to take on students at doctoral level.

For your decision the following criteria can help you: your career goals and expectations, your specialist interests and your personal circumstances.

Career goals and expectations

This includes thinking about whether an academic qualification, as obtained by writing a dissertation, is important or even necessary for your future career. If you want to pursue a career in higher education, for example, then a dissertation is absolutely essential. However, research centers outside the university sphere often also require employees to have a PhD.

In addition, the importance of having a PhD is rated differently from one faculty or field of study to the next. The vast majority of students in the Faculty of Medicine graduate with a PhD. A doctoral degree is still an integral part of their professional identity and patients also perceive it as such. In the natural science disciplines, a PhD is often desirable. In fact, a good third of graduates from the Faculty of Science still write a dissertation. The proportion of doctoral students in the other faculties is significantly smaller. In these disciplines, the level of importance attached to a dissertation varies depending on the context.

Specialist interests

The decision to write a dissertation should also be geared toward your personal specialist interests. This includes your interest in your chosen topic, for example, as well as how much you enjoy the activities that make up the academic work involved. The writing itself and dealing with texts should come naturally to you. You will also need plenty of motivation to analyze the research questions raised from a theoretical perspective and develop differentiated solutions for dealing with them.

Personal circumstances

When deciding whether or not to write a dissertation, you should also take your personal circumstances into consideration. For example, would studying for a PhD be compatible with your family situation or leisure activities that are important to you? Would those around you accept and support your decision? And finally, financial aspects also need to be taken into account. Since semester fees for doctoral students are not normally very high, it is worth thinking about whether it is feasible for you to manage for another three to four years on a relatively low income.

Just as the importance of a PhD varies from faculty to faculty, so too do the working conditions of individual doctoral students. Both the time required and the situation in terms of supervision are organized on an individual basis depending on the dissertation topic, the supervisor concerned, and the economic and social working conditions.

Given this diverse range of criteria, the situation for each individual doctoral student is complex right from the start. It is therefore important to take plenty of time to make your decision – there are a lot of different aspects that need to be weighed up. You may find our information and guidance helpful in making your decision.

Counselling / Coaching

Counselling / Coaching

Now is the time to find or narrow down a topic area and find a doctoral supervisor for your project. Then you can register as a doctoral student at your chosen university.

Finding a topic and drawing up a basic concept

Students who decide to write a dissertation are usually interested in a particular topic area. You now need to outline this area in more concrete terms, narrow it down to a specific topic and then draw up a basic concept that you can use to support your proposal in your search for a supervisor.

Finding a doctoral supervisor

If you are involved in a research project or work as an assistant to a professorial chair, your employer is usually also your doctoral supervisor. You therefore do not have to look for a suitable supervisor.

If this is not the case, however, you need to actively search for a professor who is willing to supervise your dissertation.
You have a great deal of individual freedom when it comes to choosing a doctoral supervisor. The aim is to find a person who is interested in your dissertation topic and can also provide specialist impetus based on his or her own research activities. Your main supervisor must be a member of the faculty in which you intend to complete your PhD and is usually a professor, although lecturers are also sometimes permitted to supervise dissertations. This supervisor must not be associated with the university where you completed your previous studies, but he or she may be working for another university in Switzerland or abroad.

In addition to your main doctoral supervisor, you will also need a co-supervisor. This may be a member of another university or a professional practitioner, but he or she must have a postdoctoral lecturing qualification. You do not need to have a co-supervisor in place right at the start of your doctoral studies; you can wait to find one until your work has progressed further and you are able to schedule a date for completing your degree.

The nature of the dissertation supervision provided is not regulated across the university as a whole. This varies depending on the preferences of individual supervisors and should be discussed and negotiated with them. It is therefore important to clarify your own requirements before deciding on a particular supervisor:

  • What would be my ideal supervision situation?
  • Do I prefer working independently or will I need regular reviews to motivate me to write my dissertation?
  • How important is it to me to discuss things with other doctoral students?
  • Would I be interested in institutionalized opportunities for sharing ideas such as seminars or specialist conferences?

Once you have examined these questions from your own perspective and perhaps discussed them with other students, you will be ready to arrange a meeting with your chosen professor.

In your search for a doctoral supervisor, it is up to you to take the initiative. Most professors are interested in supervising a group of doctoral students, so you will usually find them willing to consider your proposal.

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")

There are both private and institutional advisory services available that can offer you expert support. It is often also useful to set up your own personal opportunities for talking to other people, such as regular meetings with other doctoral students or specific specialist groups.

Ask your doctoral supervisor or staff at the institute or faculty where you are based about other doctoral students. If may be that there is someone who is interested in meeting up with you regularly to share thoughts on the writing process. Talking to people from other fields of study can also provide a great deal of stimulation and motivation, especially with regard to general writing issues, emotional difficulties or problems in your private or professional life.

Discussions with colleagues in your specialist area are a useful way to supplement your interactions with these kinds of peer groups. Graduate schools, writing workshops, PhD workshops, conferences and symposia offer great opportunities to make contacts.

Female doctoral students can also obtain support from the "Mentoring Deutschschweiz" program (see below under "Further information"). This academic mentoring scheme is aimed at postdocs and advanced doctoral students at universities in German-speaking Switzerland, the Università della Svizzera italiana and the research institute EAWAG who are looking to forge an academic career. The program is designed to help you put your skills and expertise into practice, build networks and take advantage of the academic career opportunities available to you.

Counselling Centre Universities of Bern

The Counselling Centre Universities of Bern offers doctoral students at the University of Bern counselling, coaching and support on writing problems, motivational issues or making decisions (e.g. for or against writing a PhD dissertation) and help with clarifying your situation. It runs regular workshops on topics such as dissertations and academic writing.

More information (mainly in German)


Outside the university working environment, HR managers often do not have a clear idea of the kind of special skills academics offer after completing a PhD. An awareness of your personal resources and specific key skills is therefore essential for helping you to make career decisions and present yourself in the best light during job interviews.

Key skills after completing a dissertationn

Ask yourself what skills, strategies and knowledge you will have gained after completing your dissertation. Think about all the things you can do and "translate" these key skills in your job applications in a way that enables people outside the university to understand what resources you could bring to the role in question. In job interviews, it is also an advantage if you can substantiate your skills with concrete examples.

There are various definitions of the term "key skills." One of the most well-known concepts splits these abilities into four categories: technical, personal, methodological and social skills. Although this model is relevant in terms of content, it does not seem differentiated enough to describe the resources offered by PhD graduates. There are also skills that cannot be presented using this model because they cover several categories: "Team skills," for example, would fall under both personal and social skills and could also involve the other two categories depending on the content being discussed.

Key skills are not specifically a measure of employability, or how effectively a person can be deployed in a specific role. They are also not qualifications in the narrower sense of "having specific skills." They are defined more as generalized competences that give people flexible control over the way they deal with different work situations. They are personal strategies that enable people to handle complex professional challenges – i.e. knowledge, abilities and skills that are not related to specific activities either directly or in a limited way.

During the course of writing your dissertation, you will have developed your professional and personal identity and thus gained the ability to take action in complex and unclear situations. You will also have learned how to make independent decisions and make use of resources, be they your own or those available within your environment. These key skills could be described as follows (Source: Chur, D. (2002):

  • Active orientation: You are capable of grasping a professional situation to an adequate extent and know what personal resources you have. For example: You are attending your first meeting as part of a new working team. You ask yourself the following questions: What is my role in this meeting? What is expected of me? What am I personally looking to achieve or gain? You are faced with a similarly complex situation when you take part in an assessment as part of a job application process. Where other people are involved, grasping the situation includes assessing social factors. If it is a professional situation you are faced with, it may also involve technical aspects. Active orientation therefore provides a starting point for complex professional activity.
  • Target-oriented action: In a professional environment that is constantly changing, it is no longer possible to pursue a linear path toward a specified goal. Target-oriented action requires a high degree of flexibility and the ability to constantly reorientate yourself, respond and continuously acquire new skills and expertise so that you do not lose sight of your own goals. For example: There is a change in the management of your project at work. New requirements are being placed on you. For example, you have to incorporate a new statistical procedure into your data analysis, while also sticking to the schedule for your project.
  • Self-regulated learning: This is not just a matter of expanding and enhancing your technical knowledge; you also have to develop your learning abilities themselves. This development process takes place largely independently and is expected from those involved in challenging professional situations. For example: When writing work reports, you know the best method of gaining a general overview of the relevant specialist literature. You have an idea of how to go about drawing up a draft concept, and you are aware that the writing process itself will not be straightforward. You are also capable of dealing with writer's block and have creative techniques, for example, at your disposal to help kick-start the writing process again.
  • Communication and cooperation: This involves the ability to get involved in work processes, understand content from other peoples' points of view, tolerate objective differences and discuss them properly, organize your activities within a working group, and accept and assume individual responsibility. You can apply these skills during presentations and technical discussions.
  • Specific skills: e.g. time management, leading discussions, project management, etc. as well as coping with stress and pressure.

When preparing an application, make sure that your particular key skills are discernible. Use examples from work situations in practice to describe these skills in job interviews. You may find it easier to define your own key skills by talking about them to other people, perhaps a person from your personal environment or a professional coach.

If you yourself have a clear idea of your specific abilities, this will help you to present them in a convincing way when applying for jobs.

You can also gain a picture of your personal resources by visualizing them, for example in the form of a cluster diagram or mind map. The Counseling Service of the Universities of Bern also offers guidelines on how to draw up a personal skills profile, which may help you to examine and analyze your skills.


Knigge-Illner, Helga
Der Weg zum Doktortitel. Strategien für die erfolgreiche Promotion.
Campus Verlag, Frankfurt und New York, 2015 (3. Aufl.)

Peyrin, Brigitte
Kreatives wissenschaftliches Schreiben. Tipps und Tricks gegen Schreibblockaden.
Juventa Verlag, Weinheim und München, 2014 (4. Aufl.)

Stock, Steffen / Schneider, Patricia et al. (Hrsg.)
Erfolgreich promovieren. Ein Ratgeber von Promovierten für Promovierende.
Springer-Verlag, Berlin und Heidelberg 2006

Wergen, Jutta
Promotionsplanung und Exposée. Die ersten Schritte auf dem Weg zur Dissertation.
Opladen, Barbara Budrich Verlag, 2014

Wymann, Christian
Der Schreibzeitplan. Zeitmanagement für Schreibende.
Opladen, Barbara Budrich Verlag, 2015

These books can also be borrowed from the library of the Counselling Centre, Erlachstrasse 17, Bern.