Written by Mark Bennett
A low cost of living and an emphasis on the importance of support for research students makes Canada a surprisingly affordable place to complete a PhD. The country's excellent research opportunities and international outlook only add to the appeal.
Canadian PhD funding can take the form of government fellowships, independent research scholarships or graduate assistantships offered by universities themselves. We've covered all of the main options on this page and explained how best to find support for your doctorate.
Canadian PhD funding – what you need to know first
Canada is a big place: strictly speaking, it's the world's second-largest country by land mass. Or, if that's not enough to impress you, Canada's largest lake is bigger than several countries, including Denmark, Scotland and Switzerland.
What does this have to do with PhD study? Well, Canada's size – and the fact that it's split into several substantial provinces and territories – makes it tricky to generalise about funding. Here are a few things to bear in mind before you do:
- Canada does offer student loans but these are usually only available to Canadian citizens or other students with the right to permanent residence in Canada.
- Canada is divided into 10 separate provinces (there are also three territories, but these don't host research universities) and each has the freedom to determine its own educational policy. This means that some funding options can vary between universities in different states,
- Doctoral fees are usually higher for international students but this isn't always the case. Some universities make a point of charging the same fee to all candidates.
- Some Canadian universities actually impose a baseline funding standard for their PhD students. This means that everyone who is admitted to a do a PhD has to be provided with a minimum amount of support by their department, research group or graduate school.
It may be helpful to take a look at our overall guide to PhD study in Canada, if you haven't already done so.
The cost of a PhD in Canada
Canada is a fairly affordable destination for international PhD students and is generally cheaper than other popular countries like the UK and USA. That said, the cost of studying a PhD in Canada does vary (we've mentioned that it's a big country, right?).
Canadian PhD fees aren't regulated by the central government, or by individual federal governments. This means that universities can charge what they wish for their doctoral programmes. Some also charge extra for international students, but this isn't always the case.
As a rough estimate, you can expect to pay between CAD $2,500 and CAD $17,000 (USD $1,830-12,425) per year for your PhD fees.
It's worth checking whether or not you'll actually need to pay these fees. Some Canadian universities automatically waive PhD tuition as part of a baseline funding arrangement. In practice this is the same as them giving all doctoral students a scholarship or fellowship (and usually means applications will be more competitive).
The Canadian Government expects international students to have around CAD $10,000 (USD $7,310) available to support themselves for each year of study (this is one of the requirements for a Canadian study permit). In practice you should probably aim to have a little bit more available, with around CAD $1,000 (USD $730) per month for accommodation and maintenance.
See our guide to living in Canada during a PhD for more advice.
Whether or not you'll need health insurance to study a PhD in Canada depends on which province your university is located in. It's best to speak to them directly; some institutions even provide their own health insurance via their student union.
Most international students will also need a study permit to live in Canada during a PhD. This is effectively a Canadian student visa and normally costs CAD $150 (USD $110).
Canadian Government PhD funding
The Canadian Government recognises the contribution of international PhD students (like you!) to the country's ongoing status as a centre for world-leading research and education. There are a range of international PhD scholarships in Canada, whilst several of its national research centres also provide funding for doctoral training.
PhD scholarships in Canada
Queen Elizabeth Scholarships
Named for Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who is also Canada's head of state, this scheme supports international students from a range of countries (not just the UK).
The most recent call for applicants was intended for students from West African countries and was awarded through individual Canadian universities, with generous funding available for successful applicants.
Deadlines for Queen Elizabeth doctoral scholarship applications are usually set in October. Keep an eye on the QES website, or ask your prospective university if it expects this funding to be available to you.
Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships (Vanier CGS)
The Vanier scholarships provide up to CAD $50,000 (USD $36,585) per year for doctoral study in Canada. Over 150 scholarships are available each year, specifically for international students.
To apply, you will need to be nominated by your institution and demonstrate excellence in research and leadership potential.
There's more information on the Vanier CGS website.
National Research Councils
The Canadian Government awards funding for research and doctoral training in different fields through a group of federal research and development bodies. These include:
Most of the doctoral funding offered by these councils, such as their flagship Canada Graduate Scholarships isn't normally available to applicants who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents.
However, particular awards or funding programmes may be made available to international students in some years.
International Development Research Centre (IRDC)
Canada's IRDC distributes government funding to assist with research into global development challenges.
Opportunities are available for Canadian and international students to apply for support with a PhD through the IRDC Doctoral Research Awards. These typically offer a maximum salary of CAD $48,659 (USD $35,600) for 12 months of PhD research in relevant fields.
See the IRDC website for more details.
The Government of Canada website features an interactive database of funding opportunities for international students.
Student loans for international students in Canada
Even though federal and provincial loans from the Canadian government are reserved for domestic students, international students are free to take a loan with a commercial banks ot other third-party organisations. These loans have a specific interest rate and you'll have to adhere to a strict repayment schedule.
Sometimes banks offer student-friendly interest rates, however, you must think carefully about how you'll manage repayments so you don't accummulate debt.
Canada is a large country (as we may have mentioned) with a huge number of independent organisations pursuing and funding research at PhD level. Some of these are trusts and foundations with charitable goals. Others are commercial companies with an interest in producing new products and intellectual property.
It's in the nature of these opportunities to be quite changeable and the best way to spot them is often to chat with a prospective supervisor (they'll usually know who does and doesn't fund research in your field). There are a couple of larger organisations you should be aware of though:
Mitacs works to connect Canadian universities with business and industry in order to support the country's knowledge-based economy and research and development goals.
Their Mitacs Accelerate Fellowships provide funding for doctoral students to complete a PhD through collaboration between their university and an external partner. Fellowships provide funding for up to four years of doctoral work, including several internships that develop the candidate's wider skills and employability.
See the Mitacs Accelerate website for more information.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation
Formed in honour of Canada's former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, the PETF provides scholarships for doctoral research in Humanities and Social Sciences at Canadian universities.
International students are eligible to apply provided their research aligns with the goals of the foundation (to focus on human rights, responsible citizenship, connections between Canada and other countries, and relationships between people and the environment.
You will need to be recommended for a scholarship by a Canadian university which has already accepted you for your PhD. The competition normally opens in September, with a December deadline. Scholarships are selected in March ready to commence in the autumn.
See the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation website for more information.
University grants and assistantships
Canadian universities have a strong commitment to supporting their PhD students.
Some departments and graduate schools actually stipulated a minimum funding amount that must be provided to all their doctoral students. This means that you are guaranteed some funding if you are offered a place on the relevant PhD programme.
It isn't possible to search for this funding across all universities, but you should keep an eye out for it when exploring Canadian PhD projects and programmes. Keep an eye out for terms like baseline funding or minimum funding packages.
It's common for Canadian universities to offer some form of funding in return for doctoral students completing work within their department. Sometimes this is additional paid work, treated like a salary. Other times it may be a condition of a baseline funding package, or PhD fellowship.
There are three common types of assistantship:
- Teaching assistantships pay PhD students to assist with the delivery of undergraduate (and sometimes Masters) programmes in their subject. You may be asked to teach classes, demonstrate techniques, supervise projects and mark assessments. In return you'll normally receive a salary in line with public sector pay standards. This may count as taxable income, rather than direct funding.
- Research assistantships are like grants provided by supervisors / principle investigators to support PhD students within their work groups. This money is usually paid as a stipend or scholarship and doesn't always come with additional responsibilities (as your PhD is already a contribution to the group's research).
- Academic assistantships provide funding in return for additional work that is separate from your PhD, but isn't exclusively related to teaching. This might include carrying out separate data collection and analysis, or simply taking on further administrative and upkeep responsibilities within your lab or department.
The best way to find graduate assistantships for PhD study in Canada is to check with individual universities and departments.
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