By Sara Zanovello |

‘Joint-PhD’, ‘co-tutelage of doctoral thesis’, ‘dottorato in cotutela di tesi’: when I first started my PhD at Padua University, I never thought I would refer to it in the next three years with such intricate names! My joint-PhD experience started – I could say – by chance, and now that I am rapidly making my way towards the end of these three years, I am reflecting on the ups and downs of this interesting experience.

‘Joint-PhD’ means that doctoral research is conducted ‘jointly’ between two Universities. This implies that the three years of research should be spent equally between the two institutions, under the supervision of a tutor for each University, and that, at the completion of the research, a joint-degree will be issued after a final examination before members from each country.

I’ve always loved challenges; so when, just after being accepted by the University of Padua into its PhD programme in Law, I was offered the possibility of carrying out a joint-PhD with the School of Classics at Edinburgh University, I didn’t think about it twice and immediately accepted the double-challenge – not only to carry out a PhD between two completely different systems (which, I can assure you, can be pretty tough!), but also to balance my research between the two different disciplines of Law and Classics.

After my initial euphoria, the time came when bureaucracy had to play its part – and this is when the struggle began. A joint-PhD is based on a written agreement between the two Universities which determines every single aspect of the three years: where tuition fees will be paid, the exact period of time to spend in the two institutions, language the thesis will be written in and discussed, and so on. By the time the agreement was taken and signed, more than one year had passed and I was well into my second year of the PhD at Padua! A few months later, I left for Edinburgh.

After sharing the three years of my PhD between Padua and Edinburgh, I got to know and understand the ups and downs of the two systems and of a joint-PhD. On the whole, the time I spent at the two institutions has taught me different skills, and has allowed me to appreciate the different ways of conducting doctoral research in the two systems.

In Padua, for example, I have been most engaged with the teaching experience: I particularly enjoyed lecturing students on Ancient Greek Law, and  being a member of the board of examiners. I still remember the very first time I questioned students at the oral exams of Roman Law only a few months after my graduation. It felt so strange to be on the other side of the table! My experience in Padua also taught me important lessons about publishing, which has always been very much encouraged by my supervisor. However, these activities (and many others in which we were involved) did not really leave much time for working properly on my research, and this is the reason why I decided to devote my time in Edinburgh University exclusively to developing and writing up my thesis. When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe I had all this time to work just on my topic!

Finishing the second part of my PhD in Edinburgh has been an incredible experience for me for many reasons. I immediately loved its academic environment and the many occasions that PhD students are given to develop their ideas through constant discussion about other people’s work – for example, through the weekly research seminars, which we do not have in Padua. I also loved being part of the many conferences, workshops and meetings that are held Edinburgh: I love the international flavour of academic events there and the ability to share knowledge with scholars and researchers from all across the world (an aspect which, again, I didn’t get to experience during my time in Padua).

Although sometimes it has been difficult to balance my research (and my time!) according to the different expectations of the two institutions, I have been extremely happy with this experience. When I printed my thesis a couple of months ago, I was proud to see it carrying the logos of the two institutions. In the end, these three years have been very rewarding and I feel very lucky for this opportunity I have been given.


Sara Zanovello is a PhD student at the Università degli Studi di Padova (School of Law) and at the University of Edinburgh (School of Classics). Her research looks at the legal aspects of slaves’ liberation in literary and epigraphic material from Ancient Greece.