Language Tests for PhD Study
Written by Mark Bennett
Studying your PhD abroad can be a gateway to unique facilities, exciting research opportunities and unforgettable life experiences – but it's hard to take advantage of these without knowing the local language.
That's why universities often ask international students to complete a language test as part of their PhD application. You can usually take these at test centres in your home country, or online.
The guides below introduce some of the tests that are suitable for doctoral research, including the IELTS and TOEFL for English as well as specific tests for German, French, Mandarin and other languages. You can also find out more about how language tests work for PhD study, below.
What are PhD language tests for?
A PhD is an independent research degree, but you'll still need to communicate clearly with your supervisor and other researchers. You'll also need to be able to read journal articles, monograph studies and other scholarly materials for your literature review and general research, and at least some of these are likely to be in the local language for your university. Finally, you'll need to be able to write up your thesis at the end of your PhD and defend it at your viva voce exam.
Language tests check that you'll be able to do all of these things at the advanced level required for a PhD. After all, original academic research can be confusing enough without a language barrier making things harder.
Who needs to take a language test for a PhD?
You'll usually only need a language test score for your PhD application if you're studying in a second language that you haven't already completed an academic degree in before.
You won't need a language test to study abroad if you are a native speaker of the local language (British students don't need an English language test to study in the USA or Australia, for example). You may also be exempt if you have already completed a Bachelors or Masters degree in the same language as your PhD will use.
What do language tests involve?
Language tests can usually be computer-based (digital) or paper-based. Both are taken at specialist centres under exam conditions, but digital tests are becoming more common.
Both formats will measure your reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, though the exact format will depend on the test you take.
How are language tests graded?
Most language tests give a numerical score, but some award a different level of certificate depending on your performance.
What language test score is required for a PhD?
PhD admissions will usually require a fairly high score to reflect the standard of advanced comprehension and communication required for academic research.
For English language, most universities will expect a TOEFL score of 80 or above or an IELTS band of 6.5. You should always check the specific requirements for your PhD.
Are there universities that don't require a language test for a PhD?
It's very unlikely that a genuine university would admit international students without checking they have the language skills required for their programme.
Will I need a language test for my visa?
Some countries require international students to prove language skills in order to qualify for a visa for PhD study. However, you will normally need to apply for your PhD before you apply for your visa. This means that your university will usually have received your language test score and will confirm this when it sponsors your visa.
What is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)?
If you're asked to demonstrate language ability for a PhD abroad in Europe, you may come across references to the CEFR. This is a shared measurement system for language ability across Europe. Results from individual tests can be measured using the CEFR scale to make sure they reflect the right level of proficiency.
You will usually need a test score at CEFR level B2 or above to study a PhD in a second language.