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fact sheet
27 August 2021

PhD and master degrees in the Netherlands

master PhD students
Well-educated professionals are an important output of academic research. Academically trained professionals are vital for companies and institutions. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of students graduating with a Master’s degree and in the number of doctorate degrees (PhD’s) awarded.​

In short

  • In recent years, the amount of students in the Netherlands obtaining a master's degree has increased, also more scientists obtained their doctorate degree.
  • The majority of PhD's in 2020 were obtained in the science field of Health.
  • In obtaining a master's degree or doctorate degree, men are more represented in Technology and Nature, while women are more represented in Health and Social Sciences.

Master's degrees

The number of students obtaining a Master’s degree has increased sharply over the past few years. The male-female distribution remains typical: men dominate in technology, the natural sciences and economics, women dominate other disciplines and are most strongly represented in the social sciences, languages and healthcare.

The number of Master’s degrees awarded in 2019 (data from the Education Executive Agency including cross-sectoral graduates) was 46,501, representing a 43% increase on 2009. If we look at Statistics Netherlands figures for previous years, we can see that there has in fact been an increase of over 100% this century (for Master’s and the old ‘doctoraal’ degrees combined). Output from universities has thus increased sharply.

The figure below shows the distribution of these degrees among different disciplines. The social sciences and economics produce the most Master’s graduates by far. All disciplines have benefited from the growth in the number of masters degrees, except for the discipline University teacher training. Therein has shown a decrease of Master’s graduates since 2013. The strongest growth in percentage terms has been in agriculture, natural sciences, economics and technical sciences. 

A gender difference can clearly be observed between disciplines. Men dominate in Technology (29% women in 2019), the Natural sciences (41% women) and Economics (42% women). This has changed little over the period under consideration with an exception in the Technical sciences. The share of women rose from 23% in 2013 to 29% in 2019. Women are in the majority in all other disciplines: Social sciences (73%), Healthcare (70%), Languages and linguistics (65%). Over half (55%) of the Master’s degrees in the Netherlands are awarded to women (this proportion remained quite stable over the period 2009-2018).

Doctorate degrees

There is a growing interest in studying for a doctorate degree (PhD). Since the development of the ‘AIO’ research assistant system in the 1980s there has been a steady rise in the number of PhD degrees conferred. Whereas 25 years ago, fewer than 2000 doctorates were awarded, in 2020 the figure exceeded 4,400. There is a clear gender effect. Relatively few doctorate degrees were awarded to women at the beginning of this period, but in 2020 the numbers were almost equal.

Part of the PhD degrees resulted from a research assistant (AIO) appointment at a university or university medical centre, whilst others were external PhD candidates. No precise figures are available on the relative numbers in different PhD-categories. We do, however, know that a growing proportion of research assistants are non-Dutch passport holders (almost 53%, excluding healthcare; source: VSNU, WOPI 2021).

The figure below shows the trend in the number of new doctorate holders awarded in different disciplines. If we consider the period since 1990 we see that Healthcare (up 222%) and Agriculture and veterinary sciences (up 215%) account for the largest share of the growth. In terms of absolute numbers, the figures for Healthcare are most striking, Accounting for 34% of all the new doctorate holders in 2020.

Source: CBS (Statistics Netherlands)
Notes: From 2017, Statistics Netherlands uses a different ISCED classification. As a result, it seems as if the number of PhDs in Technical, industrial and construction engineering have fallen dramatically. However, the PhDs are distributed differently.

The gender difference in new doctorate holders is similar to that seen in Master’s degrees. Men tend to obtain PhD degrees in Technology and Natural sciences, while women are in the majority in healthcare and the Social sciences.

The figure below shows per cohort the percentage of employed PhD candidates that obtained their doctorate degree (PhD). The percentages of doctorate degrees in the last couple of years included in this figure, are expected to increase. Based on data from previous years, the VSNU reports that approximately 75% of the PhD candidates (employed) will succesfully complete their PhD. In a separate file (download at the start of this page), the percentage of PhD candidates that obtain their doctorate degree is shown for the different areas of science separately. The percentage differs per area and taking into account the last couple of years, the percentages that obtain their doctorate degree is highest in the areas of Agriculture, Engineering and the Natural sciences (around 80%). The lowest percentage is around 60% for the area of legal sciences.

Percentage of employed PhD Candidates that obtain their doctorate degree (PhD)
Source: VSNU.
Notes: The underlying data has some limitations. The data does not include EUR (2001 and 2002), UU (2001 to 2007), and OU. Furthermore, the WUR does not distinguish between standard PhDs (PhDs with employment) and contract PhDs: all PhD candidates are assigned to standard PhDs.
Definitions and abbreviations


DUO single-figure HE database

Statistics Netherlands (CBS) Statline

CPB Stay rates of foreign PhD graduates in the Netherlands, The Hague 2015

M. de Goede, R. Belder and J. de Jonge (April 2013). Academic careers in the Netherlands 2013. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.

Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Information on scientific education personnel (WOPI) figures