PhD Study in South Africa – A Guide for 2023 |
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PhD Study in South Africa – A Guide for 2023

Written by Alice Clubbs Coldron

South Africa is hard to beat when it comes to year-round sunshine, excellent wine and exhilarating landscapes. What’s more, South African universities are growing in quality and many are now internationally recognised as world class research centres.

These low cost, but high quality research facilities and the wealth of things to do in a country that offers everything from lush winelands, forests and lagoons, to the ‘Big Five’ safari animals, mean it comes as no surprise that this country is a welcome choice to study abroad.

If you’re considering a PhD in South Africa, this page provides all the information you need to know about the PhD in general, and how applications, funding and visas work.

PhD opportunities in South Africa – what’s on offer for 2023?

South Africa is growing into the continent’s hub for PhDs, meaning that opportunities for students have never been better. The students in South Africa are spoilt by the diverse terrain, warm climate and magnificent wildlife. All of South Africa’s universities boast campuses in some of the most stunning locations on earth, with top class facilities to match.

South Africa certainly ticks a lot of boxes, and here are some more things to consider:

  • The Rainbow Nation – Full of diverse cultures and boasts 9 official languages.
  • Affordability – The cost of living in South Africa is low, which is good news for PhD students on a tight budget!
  • Unique PhD opportunities – Study anything from African Climate and Development, Conservation and Conflict to Marine Research, with access to not one, not two, but three oceans!
  • Home to the best universities in Africa – The University of Cape Town is ranked number one in Africa, with another seven universities rated in the top 10.
  • No viva – Not keen on defending your thesis for hours upon hours? PhD in South Africa is not traditionally assessed via an oral exam (phew).

PhD Study in South Africa - Key Details
Universities 26
Nobel Prize Winners 10
Oldest University University of Cape Town (1829)
International Students 36,050
PhD Length 2-3 years
Typical Fees R23,370-31,450 (USD $1,360-1,835)
Academic Year February to December

Coronavirus updates for international students at South African universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in South Africa, please check with your university for updates.

PhD life in South Africa

Want to know more about life for international PhD students in South Africa? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.

South African universities

There are 26 public universities in South Africa. These comprise of 12 traditional universities, eight ‘technikons’ offering technical and vocational courses, and six comprehensive universities, offering a combination of the above. These are all distributed within all nine provinces of South Africa, each of which has at least one university.

The main student hubs are the big cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, with the University of Cape Town being recognised as the highest rated institution in both South Africa and on the continent.

University Groups

South Africa’s government is actively developing university research facilities across the country in a bid to attract more PhD students. This will increase the quality of research output and academic professionals in the industry. Many of the universities in South Africa are associated with these institutions and ‘mission groups’ as they share similar aims and objectives.

These groups include the follwoing:

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF) is aimed at establishing leading-edge research platforms across the country. NRF-rated researchers work across the country’s universities, enabling South Africa to benchmark the quality of its research against the best in the world.
  • South Africa has 14 Centres of Excellence. These CoEs are dedicated to different research areas, and enable researchers to collaborate across institutions on long-term projects that are internationally competitive.
  • The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) has been established to strengthen research and innovation capacity of public universities for producing high quality postgraduate students.

A doctorate from a university associated with any of these government initiatives is impressive. As a PhD student, you require a research facility with the necessary expertise in the specialism you want to study.

South African university cities

The University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand are in the top 250 universities in the world. Whether it’s Biotechnology, African Development or Engineering, South Africa’s universities certainly have many specialist focus areas that attract PhD candidates to undertake their research there.

Top South African Universities in 2023
University THE 2023 QS 2023 ARWU 2022
University of Cape Town 160 =237 201-300
Stellenbosch University 251-300 =454 401-500
University of the Witwatersrand 251-300 =428 301-400
University of KwaZulu-Natal 401-500 801-1000 501-600
Durban University of Technology 501-600 - -
University of Johannesburg 601-800 =412 401-500
North-West University 601-800 1001-1200 601-700
University of the Western Cape 601-800 1001-1200 -
University of the Free State 801-1000 - 901-1000
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

South African university cities

Carrying out a PhD in South Africa will most likely be a highly collaborative experience. You will go where your research takes you, and there are many exciting cities to explore whilst you are there. .

The following are the main university cities in South Africa:

  • Cape Town
  • Johannesburg
  • Durban

PhD structure

PhDs in South Africa generally follow a similar pattern to European and American programmes, but with the added bonus of becoming a wine connoisseur. They focus on the candidate completing a supervised thesis that adds original research and knowledge to a field of study.

The PhD will consist mainly of pure research and you will spend most of your time working towards an independent doctoral thesis, which will most likely begin with a lot of reading and writing a literature review, summarising and evaluating existing research related to your topic. Some South African PhDs also require coursework to be completed in addition to the main thesis, but this is less common.

Depending on your project, you will accumulate data by analysing source materials, producing experimental results or collecting survey data as appropriate. Throughout this process, you will liaise with your supervisor. You will most likely have at least one other supervisor, and they will both be a big part of your PhD experience.

Programme length

South African PhDs generally take between two to three years to complete if you are in full-time study, with a minimum of 4 years if you are studying part-time. The course length does vary however, and this generally depends on time of registration and funding arrangements.

Assessment and examination

PhD opportunities in South Africa require you to submit a written thesis at the end of your PhD. This is normally between 80,000-100,000 words. It is normal in South Africa for PhD candidates to give a written notice to their faculty at least two or three months before submitting their thesis for examination. This generally includes giving the title and a short overview of the thesis.

Once this notice is given, three examiners (internal and external) are appointed to examine your thesis. These examiners, or at least one of them, are also experts in your field.

For a South African PhD, it is not common to have a viva. This is an additional, oral examination, done in the UK and Europe, where the PhD candidate ‘defends’ their thesis in response to the examiners asking questions.

This is not the case in South Africa, and instead a written report is submitted outlining the examiners conclusions (and any changes or corrections that need to be done) and your PhD result.

Fees and funding

International students studying in South Africa benefit from relatively cheap doctorate programmes compared to Europe and North America.

PhD fees

South African tuition fees vary widely between institutions and courses. International students are required to pay an international service fee of around of R4,200 (USD $270) and/ or a registration fee of about R6,970 (USD $440).

PhD programme fees can vary from depending on the type of PhD programme (thesis only or coursework and thesis), the university and the subject area. For example, at Wits University, PhD programmes in Engineering are on average R31,450 (USD $1,835) per year and PhD programmes in Sciences are on average R23,900 (USD $1,395). PhD fees at the University of Cape Town are generally the same for all subjects, averaging at around R23,370 (USD $1,360) per year.


International students are not eligible for support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) – the South African student loan and bursary scheme. Bursaries and scholarships are available to international PhD students and are offered by universities and external organisations.

These include:

  • Studentships and funded PhD places from the universities themselves. Some institutions also have specific funding opportunities for international students. These PhD places are competitive. You can check with universities or browse opportunities here on FindAPhD.
  • Student loans from major banks to non-South Africans with valid study permits.
  • Postgraduate scholarships from the National Research Foundation (NRF) to a limited number of international students.

Applying for a PhD in South Africa

The first step for your South African PhD application should be to contact a prospective supervisor (universities will not normally consider applications from international students who haven’t done this).

The person you choose should normally be the lead researcher for a project or research group you wish to join, or an academic with research interests related to the topic you would like to propose.

Once you’ve found a potential supervisor, you should contact them via email. Try to provide a clear and concise description of your project or interests – and make the relationship to their research obvious.

Once you have an expression of interest from a potential supervisor, you can begin your formal application to the university.

Admission requirements

To apply for a PhD in South Africa, you will require an existing Bachelors and usually a Masters degree in a related subject. In special circumstances, a candidate without a Masters may be accepted. There will usually be an application fee of around R300 ($17.50).

Individual universities will set their own requirements, but in general, you can expect to be asked for some or all of the following:

  • CV and evidence of previous qualifications (some may even want to see a copy of your Masters dissertation
  • References
  • Personal statement/motivation letter
  • A research proposal (if you’re putting forward your own PhD topic)
  • Interviews

    Once your PhD application has been reviewed, the university may wish to interview you. This is a good sign, as your prospective supervisor thinks you have potential, and it’s also a great way to show yourself off!

    Don’t worry though – they will not expect you to travel all the way to South Africa for just an interview. As an international student, this will most likely be done via a video-conferencing platform.

    Application deadlines

    Deadlines for PhD applications vary in South Africa. While some deadlines are in August or September, some universities have PhD programmes that are open to apply all year round. It is also important to take into account any deadlines that you may have if you are applying to funding.

    You can check for specific dates with your chosen institute and if you are in touch with your prospective supervisor, you can always ask them.

    Remember that, even if there isn't a deadline, your application will still take time. As a general rule, you should apply at least four months before you hope to start your PhD.

Student visas

South African study permits are issued for a programme of study at a specific institution. Once accepted by a South African university, international students are required to obtain a study visa.

Visa requirements

In order to qualify for a visa to study a PhD in South Africa you’ll normally need the following documents:

  • Proof of financial means to cover envisaged living expenses for the duration of study
  • An official letter from the university confirming enrolment
  • A valid passport that expires no less than 30 days before the end of your course
  • Proof of medical cover

You can check out South African Department of Home Affairs for more information on student visas.

Language requirements

South African PhDs are organised and delivered in English, so you will need to have sufficient language skills and be able to comprehend complex information and communicate ideas for your PhD.

For international students for whom English is a second language, an English language test must be taken. The most recognised English language tests will be accepted. The score you need will depend on the test you take and the minimum requirements set by your specific university.

Language tests - minimum scores
TOEFL (internet-based) 88
NBT 65%

Health insurance

The South African government states that in order to obtain a student visa, the student must have adequate medical cover with a registered South African medical scheme and provide evidence for this when applying for the visa. A letter confirming that this health insurance will be renewed every year during the duration of your stay is also required. You can see the list of registered medical aid schemes in South Africa to check if your medical cover is recognised by the South African Department of Home Affairs.

Work during your PhD

You can carry out paid work for up to 20 hours per week whilst researching for your PhD in South Africa. However, you should check that any work you undertake fits with the requirements of your PhD (and the expectations of your supervisor).

Fees and processing times

To apply for a student visa, you will need to complete the BI-1738 form, which costs around R1,800 (USD $120) to process. It normally takes six to eight weeks for applications to be processed and is valid for the duration of your course.

Next steps

With internationally recognised universities and research capabilities, a South African PhD can translate into career opportunities all over the world.

Can I work in South Africa after my PhD?

International students who are awarded their PhD from a South African university can apply for a critical skills work visa (a five-year temporary residence visa) which includes a 12-month period to secure a job. After the end of the five years, they can apply for permanent residence.

Find a PhD in South Africa

Decided that South Africa is the right destination for your PhD? Why not get started browsing some South African PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

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Last Updated: 14 December 2022