PhD Studies

I (Christian Wüthrich) receive many enquiries concerning the possibility of doing a PhD at the University of Geneva under my supervision—about one every other week on average (actually, fewer now since this page has been up…). In order to facilitate the process, this page offers some information about admission, funding, the registration process, the infamous French exam, the ‘pré-doctorat’, and–finally–the viva.

(1) The general procedure

First, it is a necessary condition that your intended project falls within my research areas, broadly understood. These are philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, and metaphysics. Second, another necessary condition is that you have an MA degree (or are in the process of obtaining one). Third, I would generally expect that my PhD students write their thesis in English, though exceptionally French may be acceptable. In either case, I expect proficiency in English (oral and written).

If you satisfy these conditions, and are interested in doing a PhD in my group, you may of course informally contact me. In order to fully determine whether I am also interested, I will need your CV (preferably in English, though French, German, or Italian is also acceptable), a project description (1-5 pages, preferably in English), a writing sample (necessarily in English, no more than 20 pages please), and (at least two but better) three letters of reference. The writing sample should be a philosophical essay which demonstrates your ability for analytical and hopefully original philosophical work. Ideal is an essay of perhaps 15 pages or so, but if you only have a shorter essay, this may be fine as well. Don’t hesitate to ask if you are uncertain.

Please send these documents except for the letters of recommendation in PDF to me at ‘christian DOT wuthrich AT unige DOT ch’. The letters should be sent directly to me by your letter writers.

(2) Coming from physics

I am regularly contacted by students who have done an MA/Msc degree in physics (or even a PhD) and who wish to do a PhD in philosophy of physics or philosophy of science. This is great, since you will likely already know a lot about the physics or science you will be reflecting on during your PhD (though don’t expect that you are done learning about it!). But students without background in philosophy are nevertheless generally ill-prepared to directly undertake PhD-level research in the philosophy of physics. In this case, it often makes sense to do an MA degree in philosophy/philosophy of science/philosophy of physics. There are many great MA programmes in philosophy of science (including ours in Geneva), let alone in philosophy more broadly (including the recently founded programme in English at USI in Lugano). I am aware of specialist MA programmes in philosophy of physics at Oxford, Bristol, and Columbia.

Regardless of whether you’re coming from physics or from philosophy, you may benefit from Dustin Lazarovici’s thoughts on studying philosophy of physics.

(3) Funding

I expect no one to write a PhD thesis on their own dime, though it is in principle an option. If it is not an option for you, here are the main funding sources I am aware of:

  • If you are a Swiss citizen or have an MA degree from a Swiss university, you can apply for a fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation. This is a great funding scheme, but it is competitive. For more information, go here.
  • The Swiss government offers Excellence Scholarships for Foreign Scholars. These are competitive as well, but how much so will largely depend on your country of origin. For more information, go here.
  • For applicants from Germany, you may want to contact the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD, as they fund PhD project abroad (i.e., in Switzerland).
  • Like all professors in our department, I have an assistant who is also my PhD student. Assistants generally have to teach discussion sections to the courses I offer and help me with admin work. In general, I expect excellent French for the position. If there is an opening, it will be advertised here.
  • I sometimes have PhD positions as part of my research grants. PhD students on these grants don’t have to teach (though sometimes they do so voluntarily), but their PhD projects have to align well with the scope of the larger research project. If I have an open position in one of these projects, it will also be advertised here.

These are the obvious possibilities. There are of course private foundations, such as the cogito foundation, which may fund a PhD project. I expect that someone who wants to do a PhD with me (and requires funding for it) will actively search for possible ways to fund their PhD. At the end of the day, it is your task to find the funding. Unfortunately, finding the funds to pursue a PhD is far from trivial.

(4) Registration

If we both decide that you will become my PhD student, you will have to be formally admitted as a PhD student to the University of Geneva. For this, you will have to do some forms for our administration. I will also need to officially inscribe you in the School of Humanities (‘Faculté des lettres’) as doctoral student. For this, I will need the following information and documents:

  • full name, email address, telephone number, address;
  • your CV;
  • the title of your MA thesis;
  • a (possibly provisional) title of your PhD thesis in the language of the dissertation;
  • an abstract of your thesis of about 10 lines in French (if you are not a native speaker, I can also have an abstract in English translated);
  • a description of the dissertation project of about 2-3 pages in the language of the dissertation, approved by me.

We will also have to find a ‘président du jury’ who is a (full or associate) professor in the department. Once all of this is in place, you will be officially admitted as a PhD student at the University of Geneva at the next meeting of the Faculty (i.e., at the next ‘Collège des professeur-e-s’).

In addition, it should be indicated whether a ‘co-tutelle’ will be sought (see (5)).

At this point at the latest, please familiarize yourself with the rules and procedures concerning doctorates in our school. You will find all the information here (you should read the ‘Charte’, ‘Procédure’, and ‘Règlements’ in particular). If your French is not good enough yet (as you may not yet have passed the French exam), try it with DeepL or ask me or other PhD students in the group if you have questions.

(5) ‘Co-tutelle’

A ‘co-tutelle’ is a joint PhD based on research undertaken at two different universities with a supervisor in each of them, resulting in a joint degree issued by both universities. A co-tutelle can be the right choice for someone who plans to spend significant parts of their time and effort at both universities, perhaps also with an eye to job opportunities after the PhD. I am certainly open to this, and am currently supervising several PhD students in co-tutelles with universities in different countries.

If this is an option for you, please discuss it with me beforehand. If we agree to this, then you will first need to register as a PhD student at both universities (see (4) for the procedure at Geneva). Only once this is completed, the two universities will negotiate a contract for the co-tutelle. This involves, among other things, finding an agreement about where the viva should take place (see (8)).

In general, all our PhD candidates, including all those doing a co-tutelle, must satisfy all requirements for the PhD at the University of Geneva. This includes the French exam (see (6)) and the ‘pré-doctorat’ (see (7)).

(6) French exam

All PhD students in the School of Humanities at the University of Geneva (who are not native speakers or have a degree from a French-speaking university) have to pass a French exam (usually within a year, though the date can be deferred). This is a short oral exam where you are expected to be able to keep a simple conversation (e.g. about your PhD project) in French. This sounds scarier than it is. So far, all my PhD students who had to take the exam passed it.

(7) ‘Pré-doctorat’

The pré-doctorat is a qualifying exam that all doctoral students in our department have to pass roughly a year into their PhD studies. It takes the form of an oral exam with the supervisor, the president of the committee, and, if applicable, the co-supervisor. In order to schedule the exam, you will need to provide a written document, which motivates and describes your project, and which displays your familiarity with the relevant literature and contains a concrete schedule of completion of the project. Ultimately, this document has to convince the examiners that the project is promising and that you are the right person to pursue it. It can take different forms, as the form is not fixed either by official regulation or by custom.

Here is a proposal of how this document could be structured. In fact, it could consist of the following two documents:

  • First, a reasonably polished draft of a chapter of your dissertation. This draft will establish that you are familiar with the literature and know how to work scientifically. Alternatively, this document could consist in a detailed literature review (which could then become part of the dissertation).
  • Second, a document of no more than 10 or so pages, which motivates and describes the project in general terms, specifies the planned structure of the thesis and describes its content in some detail chapter by chapter. This document should also include a schedule of completion with sufficient detail to be meaningful.

The examiners should receive the document(s) about two weeks prior to the date of the oral exam.

For the oral exam, you will be asked to prepare an introductory presentation of your project of about 15 minutes. Importantly, this presentation is neither a general introduction to the topic nor a literature review. You can safely assume that the examiners (the supervisor and the président) will have read the written document. The most important aspects to be presented and explained are the motivation for the project and the original contributions you hope to make. After your presentation, you will hold a conversation with the examiners regarding any aspects of your project.

(8) Finishing up

The final steps of the PhD need to be carefully planned several months in advance of the projected date of the viva or defence (‘soutenance’). The first step will be to form a committee (‘jury’). Apart from the supervisor and the president, it will consist of at least one more member, though three additional members would be more common. At least one (better two) of the members must be external to the School of Humanities. The jury members (and any changes in the title, supervision, or presidency of the jury) must be approved by the Collège des professeur-e-s before a thesis can be admitted to be defended and must be communicated to the Vice Dean in charge of graduate studies at least two weeks prior to the Collège. I recommend that all of this is taken care of at least six months before the planned viva.

For a co-tutelle, some of the steps described in this section might be modified. If so, this will be specified in the co-tutelle contract between the involved universities.

The thesis has to be completed a period of at least 3 (but better 4) months before the viva can take place:

  • Once the thesis is complete, it will be sent to all members of the jury, who then have to write a report evaluating the thesis including a recommendation as to whether the thesis should be permitted to move forward to a defence (this is really their main job). For this, one would normally plan 8 weeks, particularly during term time.
  • Once all reports are sent to the president, the president writes a joint report synthesizing the reports of all other jury members (‘rapport de synthèse’). The president sends all reports to the Vice Dean in charge of graduate studies. This will take about two weeks.
  • The Dean’s Council (‘Conseil décanal’) then gives (or denies) its authorisation to defend the thesis. The Dean’s Council meets about once a fortnight during the semester, but more rarely out of term. For the dates of these meetings, see the website of the Dean’s Council. It is a rule that this must happen at least a month before the viva, though the Vice Dean can grant exceptions.

The viva is public, and either in French or in the language of the thesis. After the president has formally opened the procedures, you will first present what you take to be the most interesting and substantive results and contributions of your thesis. The presentation is expected to take about 30 minutes. After your presentation, the president will let the jury members ask questions (for as long as they have questions). The floor will then be opened to any professors of the School of Humanities or persons present who hold a doctorate to ask brief questions.

The jury will then confidentially deliberate whether the PhD should be passed and the title awarded. If it is passed, it will decide on the mark:

  • acceptance without ‘mention’ (‘acceptation sans mention’), which is the minimal passing grade; or
  • honorable mention (‘mention honorable’); or
  • very honorable mention (‘mention très honorable’).

The last two marks roughly correspond to ‘with honours’ and ‘with high honours’, respectively.

The jury can award the imprimatur subject to explicitly stated revisions to the thesis, or without any conditions imposed. The jury can informally (and orally) add its compliments (‘félicitations’). The president then publicly announces the verdict.

If things go well all the way to this point, you are now just a few bureaucratic hurdles away from obtaining the diploma with the official title (‘doctorat ès lettres’)… congratulations!