Applying for a PhD in Canada
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Applying for a PhD in Canada

Written by Mark Bennett

This page explains how to apply to a university in Canada for PhD study, including entry requirements and the documents you’ll need.

You'll normally apply straight to the graduate school that is running your PhD. Some universities will have separate graduate schools for different subject areas. Others will have one large school administering all of their advanced degree programmes.

Admission requirements

The minimum requirement for a PhD in Canada will normally be a Masters degree in a related subject. Unlike in the UK and USA it is quite rare to go straight from undergraduate study to a doctorate. Some universities may allow you to do so if you do some additional Masters-level training.

Admission to a Canadian doctoral programme can be quite competitive. Students will often progress through modules together. This means graduate schools may only have places for a certain number in each year's cohort.

This means that your previous academic attainment will probably be examined quite closely.

GPA scores

In particular, you will usually be asked to provide a Grade Point Average (GPA) score instead of just submitting your final degree result. GPA is the system used in the USA and Canada (as well as some other countries) but is less common in the UK and Europe. It provides a more nuanced representation of your overall performance across a course of study.

Don't worry if your previous universities didn't use a GPA system: it's possible to convert most other grades into a GPA. The following table provides a rough guide to GPA equivalents for UK degree honours:

UK degree grades as GPA scores
UK % grade UK result Approximate GPA
70+ 1st / Distinction 4.0
60 - 69 2.1 / Merit 3.0 - 3.3
50 - 59 2.2 / Pass 2.7 - 3.0
40 - 49 3rd / Pass 2.0 - 2.3
30 - 39 Unclassified 1.0

You'll normally need a GPA of 3.0 or higher for admission to a Canadian PhD programme.

Graduate admissions tests

You may also be asked to provide a score from a Graduate Records Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). This allows universities to assess applicants' suitability for advanced graduate work. Universities will sometimes use these to choose between applicants with similar academic results.

Specific requirements will vary between universities and graduate schools, so check in advance.

Language requirements

You will complete a Canadian PhD in either English or French, depending on which province you study in. English is the most common language of instruction, but universities in Québec will normally teach in French, as will some in New Brunswick.

Whichever language you choose to study in, you'll need to demonstrate that you're proficient in it to complete a PhD. If you're a native speaker or have already studied at university-level in either language that will normally be sufficient. Otherwise, you'll need to complete a language test and submit the score as part of your application.

Our guides introduce some of the common English language tests and French language tests that are suitable for PhD study, but you should always check which system your university prefers.

How to apply to universities in Canada

There two ways you can apply to a university in Canada for PhD study:

  • Find an advertised project and apply for it. Many projects will already have a scholarship or stipend attached and will be looking for the ideal candidate.
  • Apply to a university's doctoral programme with your own research project. The first step in this case is usually to identify a suitable supervisor and / or research group and contact them to discuss your interest. You may need to apply for funding separately.

Depending on the kind of opportunity you apply for, you'll normally need supply the following:

  • Details (and evidence) of your previous study and qualifications: As well as confirmation of your final result (and GPA), Canadian universities may ask to see academic transcripts. These include information on your specific modules and grades. Your previous university/ies should be able to provide this, but you'll need to give them enough time.
  • Information on your project details and plans: If you're suggesting your own topic you will normally need to submit a research proposal for it. If you're applying for an advertised opportunity, you may be asked to provide a personal statement.
  • Two letters of recommendation: These will serve as your academic references. They should be provided by tutors or instructors who know your work at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Make sure to check that these people are happy to serve as your referees and give them plenty of notice.
  • Evidence of test scores for any language tests or graduate admissions exams you've been asked to complete.

Be sure to check the specific requirements at your graduate school (or ask the supervisor you're applying to work with).

Specific deadlines for Canadian PhD applications will often be set by graduate schools. Actual dates will vary, but you should generally apply in the spring for an autumn start, or vice versa. Make sure to allow enough time to put together all of your application materials (and sort your visa, if you need one).

Interviews

Universities in Canada may arrange a PhD interview to evaluate your application and potential or get to know you better. If so, you may be given the opportunity to conduct your interview via Skype, or a similar video conferencing platform.

Think you’re ready to find the perfect project for you?

Search our database of PhD programmes in Canada.


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Last Updated: 13 November 2023