Close mentorship, coursework, and opportunities for cross-disciplinary study allow students to tailor their learning experience to their interests and needs.

Structure of the PhD Program

The PhD program comprises two distinct phases:

  • Phase I: before the qualifying exam
  • Phase II: after the qualifying exam

Phase I

When joining the PhD program of ISTA, students are not part of any specific research group.

During the first phase, students:

  • Do three research rotations with three different research groups (lasting approx. two months each)
  • Find a PhD supervisor (a professor at ISTA)
  • Form a thesis committee, consisting of:
    – the supervisor(s)
    – two other thesis committee members (one of whom must be external)
  • Pass a qualifying exam, which consists of:
    – an oral presentation of the thesis proposal, and
    – an oral exam on the thesis proposal and reading list
  • Fulfill course and credit requirements (see below for details)
Short Route/Long Route Status

At the time of admissions, students are assigned a default “long route” or “short route” status depending on their educational background. Normally, students with a bachelor’s degree are assigned to the long route and students with a master’s degree are assigned to the short route. Students may apply to change routes by December of year 1.

There are differences in the timeline of the PhD program, depending on whether a student is on the short route or long route:

Short route Long route
Affiliation deadline Jun 30 (Year 1) Jun 30 (Year 1)
Qualifying exam deadline Feb 15 (Year 2) Sep 15 (beg. of Year 3)

Course and credit requirements

  1. Core Requirement:
    – Core Project (Fall semester)
    – Track Core Course (Spring semester)
    – Essential Skills (workshop series)
  2. Elective Requirement:
    – Eligible coursework for short route students: 12 ECTS
    – Eligible coursework for long route students: 24 ECTS
  3. Optional Courses

Students on the long route need to obtain a total of 30 ECTS credits of coursework; students on the short route need to require a total of 42 ECTS.

Phase II

After passing the qualifying exam,  students work primarily on research towards a PhD thesis. The exact requirements of the thesis vary by discipline, but invariably, students work closely with their supervisor and/or the rest of the research group, to produce  original research of the highest standard, and make significant contributions to the understanding of a specific topic of research.

Students in Phase II are expected to offer teaching assistance (TA) for at least one half-semester course before graduating. They also perform biannual progress reviews jointly with their supervisor(s) and thesis committee members. The purpose of progress reviews is to discuss the student’s performance and to assess whether reasonable progress is made towards the PhD degree, as well as make constructive suggestions on how the students can attain the established goals and complete the thesis project in a timely manner.

In addition, students in Phase II give annual presentations on their thesis research. These presentations are an opportunity for students to present their preliminary research results to the wider institute, obtain feedback, and hone their presentation skills.

A thesis defense is typically scheduled within three to four years after passing the qualifying exam. It consists of a public oral presentation of the draft thesis (normally 40-50 minutes) in the presence of the thesis committee, followed by questions and answers on the thesis.

Once a final thesis is submitted and accepted by the thesis committee, the PhD degree is awarded by the Institute.

Master’s degree en-route to PhD option

Starting with the academic year 2021-22, ISTA offers the Master’s degree en-route to PhD option. With this option, students can earn a “Master of Science (MS)” degree in addition to their PhD degree, under the condition that additional curricular components are fulfilled whilst working towards their PhD. Find out more here.

For More Information

If you have any questions about the ISTA PhD Program, go to our Frequently Asked Questions section to see if you find any answers there.

In case you have any other questions, please contact us at


Back To Top