Interest plays a major role in the doctoral experience. However, previous research has not considered how the national context might influence interest. This study focused on exploring cross-national variation in doctoral students’ experiences by comparing Finnish, UK and Spanish doctoral students’ research interests. Participants (n = 2.426) responded to the Doctoral Experience survey. Spanish students sustained higher levels of researcher and instrumental interest compared to both UK and Finnish students. Finnish students displayed the lowest levels of instrumental interest while UK students combined the lowest level of development interest with the highest level of cynicism. Interest was determinant for experienced exhaustion, cynicism, study satisfaction and reducing risk of abandonment across the three contexts. Results suggest that national differences in labour market, career expectations or programme structure can be powerful enough to overcome the incredible variation that has been proven to exist at the more local levels of doctoral nested contexts.