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How to Study a PhD in Canada

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An increasingly attractive and multicultural study destination, Canada is a great option to consider for your PhD studies, offering a wealth of research opportunities to help you expand your expertise. More than a third of the country’s overall research is conducted at Canadian universities, and this work contributes billions to the country’s economy.

What are the admission requirements?

The requirements to study in Canada at doctorate level vary between universities and courses, but you generally need the following:

  • A master’s degree in a related field, with strong grades and proven research ability and potential.
  • Proof of language ability, depending on whether you study in English or French, if either language is not your first language and you haven’t previously studied in either language. (Some programs in French-speaking Quebec are conducted in both languages).
  • A strong score in a graduate admissions test such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

In exceptional cases, you may be able to study a PhD with “accelerated admission” – that is, without a master’s degree. In this process, you’ll need to have outstanding grades in the last two years of your bachelor’s degree (a first-class average) and other demonstrations of your high academic potential, such as research publications.

How long are PhDs in Canada?

Most PhDs in Canada take about four to six years to complete.

How do I apply for a PhD in Canada?

Although the admissions process can vary between Canadian universities, you’ll generally need to follow the following steps to apply for a PhD:

  1. Decide which PhD course you’d like to apply for, identifying your supervisor and chosen research topic. This may be an advertised, structured PhD in which the scope of the research is already outlined by the university (particularly in the sciences), or alternatively (particularly in arts and humanities) you could suggest and outline your own research project with an open PhD. Once you’ve found a supervisor, some universities may ask for a letter of support from your chosen supervisor to be included in your application documents.
  2. If applying for an open PhD, you’ll need to submit a research proposal following the guidelines set by your university and generally outlining what you want to research, and why this is a worthwhile project.
  3. Apply online, paying the appropriate application fee and attaching the necessary documents to your application. This could be all or some of the following:
  • Statement of purpose – this should outline your background and academic/professional experience, including any awards, publications or relevant experience you can offer. You should also discuss your career goals and anything else stipulated by the university, keeping to the word limit.
  • Two or three letters of reference (including one from your intended supervisor). Your referees should be academic, where possible.
  • Academic transcripts and degree certificates – Canadian universities may require that your university mails an official transcript, which should be in English or accompanied by a perfectly translated document.
  • Writing sample (most likely for arts and humanities PhDs)
  • Your Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  • Language test results, if needed
  • Portfolio of creative work (if applying for an arts/humanities PhD)

Some Canadian universities may also ask you to attend an admission interview.

4. Once accepted, the next step is to apply for your study permit, which acts as your student visa for your stay. You should also take out health insurance, and check your university’s website for orientation advice.

How much does it cost to study a PhD in Canada?

Tuition fees for a PhD in Canada vary between universities and courses, and will generally be around twice that of fees for Canadian students. To give you an example, the University of British Columbia charges CA$7,641 (~US$5,690) per year for Masters by Research or PhDs, while PhDs are CA$10,108.65 (~US$7,525) in years one and two at the University of Manitoba.

What PhD scholarships and other funding opportunities are available?

Thankfully, many PhD scholarships are available to help make studying in Canada more affordable to international students, with many awards based on academic merit. The Canadian government runs a useful website with a search tool to find scholarships based on your country of origin. Other good places to look are the official websites of Canadian universities, which may provide their own scholarships search tool to help you find one relevant to your situation and country of origin.

Some examples of PhD scholarships to study in Canada include:

  • The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, which award CA$50,000 (~US$37,210) per year to highly-qualified international and home PhD students in the fields of social sciences and/or humanities, natural sciences and/or engineering and health.
  • The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarships, which award $40,000 (~US$29,770) per year for three years for Canadian citizens and foreign students (with applications particularly welcomed from students from developing countries). To apply, you’ll need to be nominated by the Canadian or foreign institution where you wish to study or are currently studying.
  • The University of British Columbia Four Year Doctoral Fellowship provides a stipend of at least CA$18,200 (~US$13,545) per year plus full tuition for outstanding international/home doctoral students for all four years of their studies.

Teaching/research assistantships

Many students also decide to fund their studies by taking part in a research or teaching assistantship – in these, you can work as a teaching or research assistant in exchange for a stipend and/or have your tuition fully or partially covered.

As a research assistant, you’ll work to help a faculty member (which may be your supervisor) by assisting with data collection, analysis, report writing, lab/office organization and other tasks. As a teaching assistant, you’ll support your department with its undergraduate programs, teaching one or more sections of the course, conducting laboratory sections, holding office hours and grading undergraduate papers. To become a teaching assistant, you’ll need to demonstrate your mastery of the course and ability to effectively facilitate students’ learning.

To apply for a research or teaching assistantship, you’ll need to check the information posted by your university and likely fill in an online application form.   

Can I work in Canada part-time during my studies?

Yes, all full-time students with a valid study permit can work part-time on or off campus for up to 20 hours per week during university semesters and full time during semester breaks. However, some PhD courses may stipulate that you shouldn’t work for more than 10 hours per week during term time – particularly if you’ve been granted funding to study in Canada. It’s also important to consider that your PhD will take up a considerable amount of time and challenging work, so you might prefer to focus entirely on your studies. Also, it’s not advised to rely on part-time work to fund your living expenses. You’ll need a Social Insurance Number to work in Canada.

Can I stay and work in Canada after my PhD?

Yes – if you’d like to stay after graduation to find work in Canada, you can apply for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) which allows you to stay and gain valuable work experience for a maximum of three years. And if you’re interested in becoming a permanent resident, this post-graduation work experience helps you to qualify to apply for permanent residency in Canada via Express Entry. Find out more here.

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Sabrina Collier's profile image
Written by Sabrina Collier
Sabrina is a content writer for TopUniversities.com, providing guidance on a wide range of topics. A graduate of Aberystwyth University, Sabrina is originally from the West Midlands but now lives in London. 

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4 Comments

how can iwin scholarship

Hi Omer, if you'd like to study in Canada, we've listed a range of scholarships here. :)

How LGBT friendly are Canadian universities? As a gay Muslim male I have some concerns about my safety especially in North America

Hi Obaid, although I'm not sure about the universities specifically, I can tell you that Canada is one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in the world, as well as one of the most tolerant and multicultural. Large cities such as Toronto and Montreal have their own gay villages and are very LGBT friendly - so it seems likely that this attitude is reflected in the country's universities. :)