A Changing System

Until the mid 1980s, Italian universities awarded just one kind of degree, the laurea, after 4 or 5 years of taught courses (6 for medicine) and about 1 year of research work presented in a thesis of typically 100 pages. Holders of a laurea are called dottore. This peculiarly Italian degree has always confused strangers because of the resulting proliferation of doctor titles. On the other hand, an old-style laurea is no doubt worth more than an Anglo-Saxon master degree. People with an above average thesis were sometimes able to have their laurea recognised abroad as a PhD because of its new scientific results and go directly into a postdoc position.

In the last 2 decades, there has been a gradual convergence with other countries. The first step was the introduction of the PhD-equivalent dottorato di ricerca. Taking 3 or 4 years after a laurea, it consists mainly of research work, with a negligible number of taught courses in the first year. Ten years later the diploma universitario was introduced as an alternative to the laurea, aimed at the less ambitious. Nicknamed laurea breve, i.e. "short laurea", it consists of 3 years of taught courses of a more applied nature and a final project of a couple of months. It cannot lead on to a PhD.

The last change, code-named "3+2", was agreed within an international convention to harmonise university education and starts this autumn, establishing a 3-level system. The diploma universitario and the laurea are discontinued, substituted by a 3-year bachelor-like laurea, after which those interested can continue with 2 more years of classes to achieve a master-like laurea specialistica. The dottorato remains as the highest degree at the 3rd level. It underwent slight reform in 1997-1998, mainly slimming its bureaucracy by delegating almost all of its control from the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research to the individual universities. It is not clear yet whether the doctor title will be restricted to PhDs or be conceded to 2nd and maybe even 1st level graduates too.

PhD Studies

Unlike undergraduate studies, admission is competitive. Before the beginning of each academic year in autumn universities advertise the available positions, at least half of which must be covered by a grant. Since 1999, up to 9000 PhD positions have been available each year. Any foreign degree equivalent to the old laurea or the new laurea specialistica is good for admission, though it may not be straightforward to confirm this equivalence. Candidates are given a written and oral test on the subject of the PhD. Officially, the undergraduate specialisation does not matter: e.g., coming from physics it is possible to do a PhD in mathematics or chemistry, as well as in less related areas like economics, provided the test is passed. The official language of the test is Italian, and its written part is usually an essay, but can consist as well of exercises or multiple choice questions. The grants go to the top ranking EU citizens; others must pay a fee of up to ?1500/year.

At the end of each year, a panel of local professors examines the work in progress and decides about the admission to the next year. Unlike undergraduate studies, there is a maximum time to complete the degree: the thesis must be handed in after 3 or 4 years, depending on the particular course, and defended in front of a final examination board that includes external members. Exceptionally, one further year without funding can be added if the work was not completed in time or if it was not defended successfully. The final exam cannot be repeated more than once. The PhD thesis can be written in a foreign language, with English the most obvious choice even for Italians. One copy of the thesis is held by the university, and one each by the National Libraries of Rome and Florence.


Where a grant is awarded, its minimum amount is 20.450 million lire (?10,562) per year tax free, plus partial pension contributions. Grants are increased by 50% for periods spent abroad, which can last up to half the duration of the PhD, and about ?1000/year is available for travel and conferences. The vast majority of grants are funded by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research; other grants come from public research institutions like the National Research Council ( CNR), the National Energy and Environment Administration ( ENEA), the National Institute for Nuclear Physics ( INFN), the National Institute for the Physics of Matter ( INFM), and, especially for technical subjects like engineering, private companies.


Of PhD students in Italy, 51% are female and just 1.5% are foreign. The average age at the start of PhD studies is 26.5. From 1994 to 1998 there were only about half of the 9000 PhD places that have been available since 1999, but they were all covered by a grant. From 1996 to 2000 between 3600 and 3800 PhDs were awarded each year, corresponding to a drop out rate of approximately 15% to 20%.

An Italian who continues in academic research on completion of his or her PhD may not expect to see a large increase in income. Postdoctoral grants are usually 25 million or 30 million lire (?12,910 or ?15,500) per year, but sometimes just 15 or 20 million (?7750 or ?10,330), almost tax free, usually including partial pension contributions. The starting salary of a tenured university lecturer without family is about 36 million lire (?18,600) per year before tax, with full pension contributions; this corresponds to 13 net monthly payments of 2 million lire (?1033) each.