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.


all images © Jorge Cham,

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, in particular if you want to follow an academic career path.

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

No, not necessarily. It is in fact possible to do a doctorate (i.e. to be registered as a doctoral candidate) without being employed by the University, the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) or any other external fundings.

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 will have enough time to devote to your doctorate.

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

From a personal point of view, the doctorate offers an experience rarely seen in other professional careers. It offers a unique chance to delve deeper into a subject that you yourself have chosen. However, it is important to realise that it means committing yourself to a long-term experience that requires great self-discipline, the ability to work alone for long periods and to bounce back if you hit a rough patch. For more advice, please see our guide Getting Your Thesis Off to a Good Start.

5. Even if I’m not particularly motivated by the proposed subject, should I start a doctorate?

Some doctoral candidates work on their own research idea. Others are hired on within research projects that have already been defined by their supervisors. In the latter case, it is essential that the project 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?

It is expected that a doctoral candidate takes initiatives and progresses with their work in a relatively autonomous manner. The thesis director commits to regularly follow-up on the doctoral candidate's work and to provide constructive feedback. The supervisor also introduces the doctoral candidate to the research culture, by helping them to develop critical thinking, to become independent researchers and to develop their own network.

For more information, please see the UNIL Code of Practice for the Doctorate, which serves as a reference for good supervisory practices and which defines the roles and duties of doctoral candidates and their supervisors.

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


 all images © Jorge Cham,

Doing a doctorate does not only mean undertaking relatively independent research, it also means 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 are also part of a research team.

Moreover, nowadays, a large majority of doctoral candidates are 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 © 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 then 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 © 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.


all images © Jorge Cham,

10. How long does a doctorate last at UNIL?

The duration can vary greatly and depends on a number of factors, one of which is the amount of time you can devote to your thesis. With a graduate assistant contract, your assistant duties can account for up to 50% of your workload, leaving you with only 50% of your working time for your thesis. With a contract funded by a SNSF project, you can in principle devote 85% to 100% of your working time to research related to your thesis.

As the graph below shows, the average duration of a doctorate for candidates who graduated between 2014 and 2023 is just under 5 years, and varies depending on the faculty. Please pay attention that the number of doctoral candidates in the group is sometimes quite low (e.g. 31 in FTSR) and that the standard deviations are often significant. For example, taking an average of 5 years and a standard deviation of 2 years, this means that 68% of the doctoral candidates in the group finished their thesis between 3 to 7 years!


Graph : Average duration in years of doctoral studies at UNIL for doctoral candidates who graduated between 2014 and 2023, by faculty. For each faculty, the number N in brackets represents the number of people included in the group. Source: Graduate Campus and UNISIS 2023.

Please note that the Faculty of Biology and Medicine has been divided in two to distinguish between doctoral candidates in medicine (FBM-MD) and doctoral candidates in PhD (FBM-PhD). The format of a doctorate in medicine been somewhat different from that of a PhD.

11. What percentage of people at UNIL obtain their doctorate?

As the graph below shows, for doctorates started between 2010 and 2015 at UNIL, the success rate is 64%. It should be noted that 10% of the doctorates are still ongoing (as of summer 2023), while 27% have been definitively discontinued. The proportions of successfully completed, ongoing and terminated doctorates vary between faculties.

In addition to variations between research disciplines, the UNIL data (not shown) suggest that several factors influence the success rates of doctoral candidates, for example the status during the thesis (with or without a contract, and the type of contract) or socio-demographic factors such as age.

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, have a favourable impact on the progress of the thesis.


Graph: proportions of doctorates definitively discontinued (orange), ongoing (yellow) and successfully completed (green), of people who started their doctorate between 2010 and 2015, by UNIL faculty. For each faculty, the number N in brackets represents the number of people included in the group. Source: Graduate Campus and UNISIS 2023.

Please note that the Faculty of Biology and Medicine has been divided in two to distinguish between doctoral candidates in medicine (FBM-MD) and doctoral candidates in PhD (FBM-PhD). The format of a doctorate in medicine been somewhat different from that of a PhD.

12. Are there more men than women who are doing a doctorate at UNIL?

No, on the contrary: on average over 2021, 2022 and 2023, women accounted for just over half (53.9%) of the PhD candidates at UNIL.

However, this varies between disciplines. For example, women accounted for 67% of PhD candidates in psychology and only 38% of PhD candidates in HEC (see the UNIL statistical calendar for more detail).

Furthermore, although on average women are well represented at the doctoral level, their number decreases as you move up the academic hierarchy (see the figures compiled by the Equality Office). To support early career women researchers, specific programmes have been set up in Western Switzerland, including the REGARD workshop program and the Mentoring network for women in Western Switzerland (Réseau romand de mentoring pour femmes)

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

On average over 2021, 2022 and 2023, approximately 50% of UNIL PhD candidates came from outside Switzerland.

14. Are the skill developed only useful for an academic career?

In addition to the specific knowledge of a scientific field, 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. 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?

33% of doctorate holders (according to the Graduate Survey 2018, Federal Statistical Office 2020) are employed in the academic sector one year after obtaining their degree. “The doctorate is a professional and professionalizing experience. It is the first step in the academic career in research and/or teaching, and equally the launchpad for a broad array of careers beyond academia” (taken from the booklet Getting Your Thesis Off to a Good StartThere is a great diversity of career paths after a PhD, in the public and private sectors, in research and development as well as in management, policy, consultancy, communications and training... On careers after a PhD, see the booklet Beyond the Doctorate, the results of the UNIL PhD Career Survey and the portraits of UNIL PhDs.

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

The academic career can be longer or shorter, depending on the discipline. Once you have obtained your doctorate, you are strongly encouraged to go to another university 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 automatic. The academic career is then marked by a succession of short-term contracts. For further information, please see our career guide 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 candidate 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?

Yes, during a doctorate you can have multiple opportunities to go abroad. Indeed, it is recommanded to attend international conferences and congresses in order to present your research as well as to exchange with other researchers. In addition, the funding scheme Mobi.Doc offers 6-month grants for doing a research work abroad (mobility). For more information, please see the PhD mobility webpage.

18. Is the unemployment rate higher for doctorate holders?

No, on the contrary : according to the Swiss Federal Statistics Office figures, when looking at people who graduated in 2016 and at their employment status one year after graduation, the unemployment rate for doctorate holders was at 4.6%, while it was at 6,3% for holders of a Bachelor's degree, and 4.8% for holders of a Master's degree.

When looking at 5 years after graduation and for those who graduated in 2016, unemployment rates decrease for all three categories : 1.0% for doctorate holders, respectively 3.8% et 2.3% for Bachelor's and for Master's degree holders.

Complementary to these swiss figures provided by the OFS, the Graduate Campus carries out career surveys on UNIL doctorate holders. For more information, please click here.

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