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How to apply for a PhD in Canada

If you are an international student planning to apply to a Canadian university to study a PhD, this guide will answer all the questions you might have

    Jens Locher


    Shane Moore


    Julian Dierkes

    April 19 2022
    PhD student reading a book in the library


    Once you’ve decided to apply for a postgraduate programme, starting the application process can often be the hardest part. If you’re planning to pursue your PhD in Canada, this guide will help you understand the application process and how to write a research proposal. 

    While this guide covers the main questions that students might have around applying for a PhD in Canada, it is important to check the requirements for your university and ask the admissions team if you have any questions about the process. 

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    How do I apply to do a PhD in Canada as an international student?

    Once you have decided to apply to a PhD programme in Canada, you can use degree databases to find which university offers PhDs in your area of interest, such as Universities Canada or provincial bodies such as Education Planner BC. Search engines or other global commercial degree directories may also help you identify a suitable programme.

    Alternatively, you could search for which faculty members conduct research in your area via publication databases and then look up the universities where they teach.

    If you already know which university you are most interested in, you should look at both its departmental/programme web pages and the pages of a central graduate school if applicable.

    Unlike at undergraduate level, where you can apply via a central application system, application to graduate programmes is usually targeted to each programme, which can vary across institutions.

    What qualifications do I need to apply for a PhD?

    We recommend that applicants check the admissions requirements for their programme of interest.

    In terms of qualities admission committees may be looking for, these will vary by subject area – for example graduate programmes in natural sciences may look for different attributes from those in the performing arts. 

    Graduate students in Canada are usually expected to work independently and be self-directed. As such, applicants may want to provide evidence of how they have taken initiative and shown self-direction and perseverance. Passion, curiosity, focus, commitment, collegiality and enthusiasm are all qualities that applicants may find mentioned on programme websites.

    How do I look for a PhD supervisor?

    The first step would be to check with your programme of interest to see if contact with a supervisor is encouraged or required. Processes vary and some programmes assign you supervisors based on interests identified in your application, some require commitment from a supervisor prior to the application, and some may determine supervisors after some initial coursework or rotations.

    If a programme requires you to contact potential supervisors, begin by researching faculty members and their research topics. Most universities, including the University of British Columbia (UBC), have a research supervisor database where prospective students can search faculty. 

    Candidates should read recent papers by potential supervisors and look for a good match between their own interests and those of the faculty member. Reading graduate student stories can also help, as applicants will be able to see current research projects students are working on, and get a sense of the faculty or programme they are looking into.

    Once you have found a faculty member you would like to work with, you can reach out to them individually. Prospective students should be aware that academics often receive many such requests every week. Plan carefully who to contact and customise each message to the particular faculty member, explaining your research interests and why you are interested in working with them.

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    How should I write my research proposal?

    Your research proposal is a crucial part of your application. It gives a sense of how prepared you are to conduct research and what directions of research you’re likely to pursue. A specific proposal is more likely to impress than some general ideas.

    Your research areas and interests may change once you have entered your programme, so you will not be held to the ideas you’ve proposed. However, it gives prospective supervisors a sense of how your research aligns with theirs and that of the department in general.

    Be sure to stay within the word count requested, and of course it’s essential you avoid any spelling or grammatical errors. We always recommend that applicants write several iterations of their research proposal and gain feedback from friends, colleagues and, if possible, professors at each stage. When you approach previous professors for a letter of reference, it’s worth sharing your proposal to get their feedback on it.

    When should I start applying?

    Applicants need to meet the application deadlines, which are often a year or more in advance of the desired start date (eg apply in December to start the following September). On top of that it is important to allocate enough time to prepare and complete various steps to be able to submit a completed application in time.

    International applicants will need to ensure there is enough time to take the required English language tests. Applicants should also check if they have to complete any other courses before applying and that they have enough time to collect the necessary documentation and proofread everything. 

    We recommend that prospective students review application timelines for their programme of interest and then plan backwards, ensuring they have time to complete all aspects of the application. All the steps may take longer than expected, so give yourself extra time to compile the strongest possible application.

    How long will the application process take?

    This will depend on each university, programme and sometimes supervisor. Once you have applied, the process will probably take a further two to three months at least. At UBC, many graduate programmes close applications in December and January, with offers being made February to April as a rough guideline. Depending on subject area, applications can close as late as April or May for a September start though.

    What supporting documents do I need as an international student?

    In general, required supporting documents won’t be too different from those for a domestic applicant, with the exception being proof of English language ability. Examples of supporting documents could be: 

    • Transcripts of all post-secondary courses/degrees previously enrolled in
    • Reference letters 
    • Statement of interest/research statement
    • English language test scores
    • Depending on programme, test scores or portfolio

    Many institutions allow applicants to apply with scans of their transcripts initially. However, once applicants receive an admission offer they will usually have to submit official copies, which may include translations for international applicants. 

    International applicants are encouraged to familiarise themselves with other details, such as study permit procedures, work opportunities and health insurance. While not required for the application itself, these are important considerations for which to plan and budget if the application is successful.

    Do I have to pay for my PhD application?

    Most universities in Canada will charge an application fee. At UBC, the application fee for international applicants is CAD$168.25. UBC automatically waives these fees for applicants from countries identified among the world’s 50 least developed nations. Other universities in Canada may have similar measures in place, so be sure to check this.

    Other than application fees, students should make a financial plan that incorporates tuition and living costs, as well as checking what financial aid you could be eligible for and which scholarships are available for international students. 

    What would be your top pieces of advice for an international student applying for a PhD?

    Deciding to go to graduate school is a big decision and often a difficult one if you do not have a clear understanding of what it will be like. It is important to go to graduate school for the right reasons, including:

    • Being interested in a given field.
    • Desiring to be part of an intellectual or professional community.
    • Gaining qualifications for career progression.
    • Acquiring expertise to change sector or professional area.
    • Gaining experience and entry requirements for an academic career.

    Also, it is important to think about where you would like to study. Location and lifestyle can make a significant difference. Think about how this will affect your life, and importantly, is it a place where you could live in the future?

    Regarding being successful in the process, preparation is key. Most universities provide a lot of information on their websites about the process and how to prepare strong applications. Make use of these resources, take the time to read the advice and treat the application itself as an opportunity to show that you possess key qualities faculty members are looking for, such as paying attention to detail, and writing ability. 

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