Applying for a PhD in Italy

Today I would like to briefly share my experience as a prospective PhD candidate in Italy. I want to preface this by saying that I still don’t know whether I will be able to get a place, and that this is actually highly unlikely seen the fierce competition involved in the process. However, I thought it might interest others to know what I am going through and what the process of applying for a higher-education degree entails in Italy.

Basically, it is a point-based competition divided into — usually — two or three steps. For each step, you get a number of points, and if you get enough (this number is established by each university independently), then you are admitted to the following part of the selection process.

As everywhere else, to have a chance at succeeding you need to have an innovative and robust research proposal. That’s the first and most important step. This is because virtually all PhD programme places in Italy are assigned through a “bando”, i.e. a competition in which the candidates who get most points “win” the spot and (if VERY lucky) the scholarships available. And the first step of this competition is always your research proposal. Most universities require you to apply online, by uploading your academic CV, research proposal, and then other documents that vary by university (reference letters, personal statements, academic publications, and so on). An appointed commission of academics will then evaluate the documents you submitted and assign points for each. Most universities I have applied for assign the most points to your research proposal (e.g., 40 out of 50), and since you need to reach a benchmark number of points in order to access the second step in the selection, what this means is that your research proposal is what will give you a chance to get in in the first place.

The second phase varies from university to university. Some institutions ask you to sit a written exam (with only a couple that I am aware of giving you a reading list or some indication of what the written exam will focus on), while others admit you directly to an oral interview, during which you will discuss your research proposal and I guess (since I haven’t been on one of these interviews yet) the appointed commission will want to evaluate your motivation, your organisational skills and ability to complete the project, as well as the strength of your research proposal. This interview phase is present in all universities I have researched, and it is usually worth between 20 and 50 points in the total sum of 100 that you get for the whole process.

At the end of all this, the university issues a sort of “performance ranking” based on the total number of points each candidate has earned from the two or three phases of the process. To be given a place in the PhD course, you need to have obtained a minimum number of points (usually around 70 out of 100), but to get a scholarship you also need to rank among the first candidates. E.g., if the university has 3 scholarships available, then you need to rank among the first three candidates in order to be awarded one, otherwise you’ll be granted a place at your own expenses.

Compared to other systems I have looked into, it seems to me that being admitted into a PhD programme is harder in Italy, even if you want to pay for it yourself, while getting a scholarship is somehow easier. What I mean is that you are applying for the available scholarships and the PhD place at the same time, so you don’t have to go through the process of finding and applying for funding at different institutions after you have been granted a place, as is the case in the UK, for instance.

The odds of getting a place are really low, so having a convincing research proposal is key. I wish the best of luck to anyone trying to apply!

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