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English Language Tests for PhD Students

If English isn’t your first language, you may need to provide an English language test score as part of the admissions requirements for a PhD programme. You might be exempt from this if you’ve already studied in English at university-level.

There are several widely-accepted English language tests for PhD students, including TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge English certificates and PTE Academic. This page will give you an overview of the different English exams and explain the circumstances in which you may or may not need to take an English language test for your PhD application.

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Do I need to take an English language test for my PhD?

If you studied a Bachelors or Masters in one of the following English-speaking countries, you may not have to provide proof of language proficiency when applying for a PhD:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • UK
  • USA

This list isn’t definitive – in the UK, universities often accept degrees from certain Caribbean nations as proof of English language proficiency, while other countries may have more stringent English language requirements.

If it’s been longer than five years since you studied in English, you might also have to provide evidence that you’ve continued to use English in your daily life.

IELTS and TOEFL

IELTS and TOEFL are the two most popular English language tests in the world and are widely accepted by universities across the globe looking for proof of PhD applicants’ language proficiency.

IELTS

Our full guide to the IELTS features important information about exam format, grades and costs.

Read more

TOEFL

Our full guide to the IELTS features important information about exam format, grades and costs.

Read more

IELTS vs TOEFL

Even though IELTS and TOEFL are both widely accepted by universities looking to verify the English proficiency of prospective PhD students, they do have some fairly significant differences which are worth bearing in mind when choosing between them:

  • English accents – Both tests feature a range of English accents, but the TOEFL is more likely to include North American ones, owing to its being managed by an American company
  • Length – While the IELTS takes around one and a half hours to complete, the TOEFL is three hours long
  • Question format – Multiple choice questions are more common in the TOEFL, although both exams make use of a variety of question formats
  • Speaking – In the IELTS, speaking is assessed face-to-face by a certified examiner, while the TOEFL uses a microphone to measure candidates’ skills

The best way to work out which test suits your learning style is to take one of the free sample papers available on each company’s website.

Other English language tests for PhD students

IELTS and TOEFL aren’t the only English language tests for university students. Two of the main alternatives are offered by Cambridge Assessment English and Pearson.

Cambridge English certificates

Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) offers two English language tests for higher education students: C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency, aimed at different levels of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) – C1 and C2, respectively, with C2 being the more advanced.

Both tests use the same scoring scale and the minimum requirements for prospective PhD students is usually 176 (roughly equivalent to a 6.5 in IELTS or 90 in TOEFL). However, the C2 Proficiency exam gives candidates access to scores at the top of the Cambridge English Scale.

Find out more about C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency.

PTE Academic

Pearson administers the PTE Academic exam, which is a computer-based test that takes three hours to complete. The minimum score for entry onto a PhD programme is usually 61, but this varies.

You’ll be assessed on your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills. The speaking element uses a computer mic rather than a face-to-face interview.

Results are normally available within five days.

Find out more about the PTE Academic exam.

PhD language requirements

English language requirements for entry onto a PhD programme vary quite widely according to the subject, institution and country.

PhD language requirements are usually at a similar level to those found in Masters entry language requirements, but you should bear in mind that a PhD is a much more advanced qualification than a Masters. Even if the language requirements are the same, you’ll need to be highly proficient communicating and presenting your research in a number of methods.

  • The minimum IELTS score for a PhD is usually 6.5, with at least 5.5 in each part of the exam. However, in Humanities subjects like English and History you’ll often need a higher score of 7.0 or 7.5.
  • The minimum TOEFL score for a PhD is normally 90, but it can be as high as 100 for Humanities subjects. You’ll also need to score above a certain threshold in each component of the test.

The table below should give you an idea of how scores in each English language test stack up against each other. It’s based on based on research from ETS (the company that administers the TOEFL test) and the University of Manchester’s language requirements. You should bear in mind that there’s no official equivalence between English language tests and individual universities may have different ways of converting scores between tests.


English language test scores
IELTS TOEFL iBT Cambridge English PTE Academic
7.5+ 102-120 74+ 191-230
7 94-101 66-73 185-190
6.5 79-93 59-65 176-184
6 60-78 51-58 169-175
5.5 46-59 43-50 162-168

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Last updated 21/11/2019



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