International PhD in Endocrinology and Metabolic Diseases


Difficulties encountered in setting up an international PhD in Endocrinology and Metabolic Diseases

Tanya Szendeffy and Paolo Pozzilli, Dept of Endocrinology and Diabetes, University Campus Bio-Medico, Rome, Italy



Despite the gradual implementation and fine tuning of Bologna Process goals, Europe still has a long way to go in homogenising course design, entry requirements and specific objectives for European PhDs with a view to creating the European Higher Education Area.

Legislation and norms in all countries result from the specific customs and habits of the country itself, so although PhDs all over the world have more or less the same aim: to enable individuals to carry out independent, original and scientifically significant research (see definition given in Article 1 of the Zagreb Declaration), countries all have their own time-honoured systems so that entry into a PhD course, its content and importance attached to it, vary considerably.

In Italy for example the PhD was only set up in 1980 and only in recent years has it been a required title to compete for the position of ëRicercatoreí (Assistant Professor or Researcher), the first step in an academic career. In England where the PhD has been an integral part of the academic ladder since 1917, the PhD title has been a requisite in pursuing a career in academia as well as a ticket to higher salaries.

The Ministry of Education in Italy has taken many steps to bring the Italian education system into line with Bologna process objectives, more specifically the Bergen Declaration, and has implemented the three cycles of higher education. It has also invested heavily in the internationalisation aspect of the Bologna process by means of financing different student and teacher mobility programmes.

In 2003 University Campus Bio-Medico of Rome (UCBM) and Barts and the London, Queen Maryís School of Medicine and Dentistry (QMUL) set up an international PhD programme in Endocrinology and Metabolic Diseases. In 2006, the PhD was extended to include Autonomous University Barcelona (UAB), and the University of Ulm (UU).

First steps involved in the set-up of the international PhD course

A meeting was held in January 2006 to draft the inter-university agreement which outlines the main points in the set up and running of the PhD programme and now ratified by all universities involved, has become the official PhD document.

On preparing this agreement it became evident that it could not be drafted as quickly as we had hoped as the practices in each county in establishing a PhD were substantially different. Flexibility was therefore needed to accommodate the different needs of the various participants. It took several drafts to fine-tune the the document to all specific needs but it is now complete and the programme running itself. The main features of this international PhD programme are underlined below.


One of the key differences is the duration of a PhD; 2.5 years in Germany, a minimum of 3 years in Italy and the UK, and a minimum of 4 years in Spain. UAB, following Bologna recommendations, has adapted to the 3 cycles of the education system and the PhD has evolved into a two phase programme: the first phase lasts two years and ends with the degree of Master and the diploma of Introduction to Research; the second phase can only be initiated after obtaining the Diploma of introduction to Research. This two-phase structure is similar to the way the MPhil can be followed by the PhD in the United Kingdom.


The difference in admission procedures caused no hindrance to the implementation of the European doctorate, as each country chose its own candidates. However, the different procedures are nonetheless interesting to compare. In Italy students are admitted to the doctoral program via formal public open competitions offered by the individual universities which set their own standards for admission and are presided over by a commission nominated by the university. In the other three countries regulations are less formal and the candidate is chosen either simply by the supervisors involved in the research project, or also by these and other faculty or university members. There is an interview rather than formal exam.

Formal education

The different countries have a different emphasis on the taught elements of the PhD. As we have mentioned, in Spain a Master has been introduced which focuses on learning how to carry out research. In the UK there are an increasing number of guidelines from Higher Education Funding Council for England and the UK Government Research Councils on the subject; at least 6 weeks of formal training over the course of a PhD programme are obligatory. ëSoft coreí courses are often offered on i.e career orientation or curriculum writing. In Italy, there are no formal taught elements as a rule, unless the individual university takes the initiative to introduce them.


Each university has enrolled different numbers of PhD students based on funding availability. Stipends and university fees vary dramatically between one country and another. In Italy PhD students receive a stipend of E 825 per month, in Germany E 1000, in Spain a minimum of E 1000, and in the UK between E 1500 and 2000 per month. In Italy the stipend is increased by 50% if the student studies abroad. For this PhD programme, each university was responsible for paying the stipend for their own students and the bench fees for the host students (except for QMUL who only received students but did not send any abroad).

Given that staff members would need to meet on more than one occasion to guarantee the successful running of the PhD, finances needed to be raised to cover mobility costs. Traditionally universities themselves would provide funds, however UCBM obtained funds from the Italian Ministry of Education to cover both student and professor mobility, which has greatly reduced any potential differences between the different institutionsí financing.

Student mobility and supervisors

Given that the PhD lasts for different lengths of time from country to country, the time the students spend at the host university/ies varies accordingly (from 6 months to 18 months in one or more host institutions). Italy, Spain and Germany agreed on a reciprocal exchange programme however Queen Mary only agreed to host students from abroad providing they had all costs covered, from stipend to consumables, this institution was reluctant to enrol its own students. This scenario confirms what has been reported in EU publications on the very low levels of mobility from the UK to other European countries.

Research Progress – Conferral of the PhD title

In addition to fulfilling the requirements for carrying out a PhD programme in the home institution, if this is not already part of the usual procedure, the student will write up the status of the research project together with a summary in the language of the host institution or in English (to be agreed by universities involved) once a year. The discussion of the thesis is done in presence of the supervisors from the university/ies in which the student carried out his/her research. The title of PhD is awarded by the home university according to their rules and regulations as well as those ruling the international PhD.

Call procedures for the joint international PhD

The publication of calls for phD candidatures follow various procedures. In Spain and in Italy PhD programmes are published in the ëGazzetta Ufficialeí, the official government journal which announces public posts. In the UK and in Germany PhD posts are announced through the university web-sites or scientific journals in the respective field. These procedures were followed for this PhD programme.

Current status of programme (2007)

The start of this PhD programme has been staggered with students beginning in different academic years and at different times. The first two students to be enrolled were two Italian students enrolled at UCBM who spent the first two academic years of their PhD at QMUL and the final year in UCBM. The first carried out her research in the immunology of Type 1 diabetes and the second in factors involved in beta cell regeneration in patients with Type 1 diabetes. For the second cycle the two further students enrolled at UCBM are carrying out their research at Barts and the London. The first is concentrating again on factors which stimulate beta cell regeneration and the second on isolating stem cells from bone marrow followed by their administration into recipients to restore beta cell function.

Ulm university has not enrolled any students in the PhD as of yet but is expected to send one student to QMUL next year. A project has been presented to the EUís 7th Framework Project which includes funding for PhD positions.

UCBM will be able to host a PhD student from UAB as of January 2008, following the universityís move to a new site with larger research facilities.

In conclusion, this PhD programme has been set-up in an embryonic stage of the Bologna Process. It includes elements of the process that have already been implemented such as ëtaughtí element in the Spanish and English programmes. However, we have introduced common evaluation systems to render the quality of the research projects as homogenous as possible awaiting future guidelines which are agreed upon by all EU countries.