Most Canadian universities organise their PhDs within doctoral programmes run by their graduate schools and its here that you'll normally apply. Some universities will have separate graduate schools for different subject areas; others may just have one large school administering all of their advanced degree programmes.
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 relatively rare to go straight from undergraduate study to a doctorate. Some universities may allow you to do so, but will normally extend the length of your PhD to accommodate additional Masters-level training.
Admission to a Canadian doctoral programme can be quite competitive. Students will often progress through classes and modules together and 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.
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
||1st / Distinction
|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
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) exam as part of your application. This allows universities to assess applicants' suitability for advanced graduate work and potentially decide between candidates with similarly good academic records.
Specific requirements (and expected scores) will vary between universities and graduate schools, so check in advance.
What are graduate admissions tests?
Though they aren't commonly used in countries like the UK, tests like the GRE and GMAT are sometimes used to assess applicants for postgraduate study in the USA, Canada and elsewhere. Our guide explains how they work and what they involve.
You'll have the option of completing a Canadian PhD in either English or French, depending on which province you choose to 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 sufficiently proficient in it to complete a PhD. If you're a native French or English 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
There are normally two routes to applying for a Canadian PhD:
- 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, rather like a conventional job opportunity.
- 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 to provide the university or graduate school with 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 transcripts of your Bachelors and Masters, including information on your specific modules and grades. Your previous universit/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 explaining your academic interests and ambitions.
- Two letters of recommendation. These will serve as your academic references and should therefore 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).
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.