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PhD study in South Africa

by Charlotte Griffiths

South Africa is hard to beat when it comes to year-round sunshine, excellent wine and exhilarating landscapes. With such tempting distractions on the campus doorstep, it is perhaps no surprise that PhD students are finding the country a welcome choice for study abroad.

While the post-apartheid education system continues to evolve, South African universities are growing in quality and many are now internationally recognised as world class research centres.

What’s more, exchange rates have never been more favourable for those visiting from Europe and North America, making PhD fees in South Africa considerably lower than in Western countries. The availability of high quality research facilities at a cheaper cost is therefore undoubtedly one of South Africa’s best selling points for international students.

We have produced a detailed advice guide on all you need to know for PhD study in South Africa. Alternatively, if the sunshine, fine wine and lower student debt already has you wondering where to sign up, you can get searching right away for your South African PhD.

Why study a PhD in South Africa?

It’s difficult to rival the beauty that South Africa holds. Diverse terrain, warm climate and magnificent wildlife make it an exhilarating country to explore.

The students in Cape Town are spoilt by a coastal landscape with mountainous backdrop; while those in Stellenbosch are in the heart of the country’s Winelands. All of South Africa’s universities boast campuses in the some of the most stunning locations on earth, with top class facilities to match.

Government mission to develop world class postgraduates

As a BRICS nation (an association of five major emerging national economies) South Africa’s government is actively developing university research facilities across the country in a bid to attract more PhD students and continually grow its knowledge economy.

Several government initiatives have been launched in recent years to make South Africa globally competitive with the quality of research output and academic professionals in the industry.

The most significant of these initiatives include the following:

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF) is a government mandated agency aiming to establish leading-edge research platforms across the country. Having appointed nearly 3,500 NRF-rated researchers, South Africa is now able to benchmark the quality of its researchers against the best in the world.

    Many of these NRF rated researchers work across the country’s universities, providing significant development and support to PhD students.

  • South Africa has 14 Centres of Excellence. CoEs enable researchers to collaborate across institutions on long-term projects that are internationally competitive in order to enhance the pursuit of research excellence and capacity development.
  • The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) has also been established to strengthen research and innovation capacity of public universities for producing high quality postgraduate students.

All of these initiatives benefit PhD students in South Africa by improving available resources and strengthening their academic connections.

International student population

With nine official languages, South Africa is a hub of multiculturalism.

With such diverse cultures and backgrounds originating from across Africa, Europe and India, South Africa is understandably a home away from home for many foreign students. This is shown through the 60,000 international students attending South African universities.

Six universities in particular are recognised as producing 70% of total international PhD graduates in South Africa:

  • The University of Cape Town (UCT)
  • University of Pretoria (UP)
  • University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN)
  • University of Witwatersrand (Wits)
  • University of South Africa (UNISA)
  • Stellenbosch University (SU)

What’s it like to study a PhD in South Africa?

South Africa is growing into the continent’s hub for PhDs, meaning that opportunities for students have never been better.

The government has committed considerable investment towards increasing PhD production and supporting graduates with work experience opportunities - particularly in Science, Engineering and Technology institutions.

Nearly all postgraduate programs in South Africa are delivered in the English language, making them very appealing to international students.

Universities in South Africa

An increasing number of South Africa’s 23 public universities are now included in the Times Higher Education and QS World Rankings. Spread across the country, the big cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban all bustling with students in tertiary education.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) is recognised at the highest rated institution in both South Africa and on the continent; while Witswatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal are all amongst Africa’s top 5.

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings: South Africa
University THE Ranking THE Africa Region Ranking
University of Cape Town =120 1
University of Witwatersrand 201-250 2
Stellenbosch University 301-350 4
University of KwaZulu-Natal 401-500 5
University of Pretoria 501-600 11
University of South Africa 601-800 13

Information in this table is based on the 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Top 30 African Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Whether it’s Biotechnology, African development, or Engineering to name just a few; South Africa’s universities have many specialist focus areas that attract PhD candidates to undertake their research there.

Do rankings matter for PhDs? – International rankings can be a great help when choosing a university. But you'll need to know what to pay attention to (and what not to!) as a PhD student. Our sister site,, has a helpful guide to international rankings for postgraduates.

What’s involved in a South African PhD?

PhDs in South Africa generally follow a similar pattern to European and American programmes. They focus on the candidate completing a supervised thesis that adds original research and knowledge to a field of study.

Some South African PhDs also require coursework to be completed in addition to the main thesis, but this is less common.

How long is a PhD in South Africa?

Similarly to UK programmes, South African PhDs generally take between three and five years to complete. It is normal for universities to require a minimum period of two consecutive years before completing your PhD.

How are they examined?

PhD programs in South Africa are examined by thesis. This is normally between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

The PhD thesis should demonstrate that the student has made a substantial and original contribution to knowledge in the discipline, the substance of which is worthy of publication in a scholarly journal or book. Additionally, the thesis must be satisfactory as to literary style and presentation.

It is normal in South Africa for PhD candidates to give written notice to their faculty at least two or three months before submitting their thesis for examination. This notice generally includes giving the title and a short overview of the thesis.

Once this notice is given, three examiners (internal and external) will normally be appointed to examine the candidate’s thesis.

Commonly in Europe, once a candidate has submitted their PhD thesis they will be invited to take an oral examination known as a viva voce. A viva examination requires candidates to verbally defend their thesis. However, it is not common for South African PhDs to include a viva as part of the examination process.

Instead, the examiners will assess your work will be assessed as a written document before submitting their conclusions (and recommending any changes or corrections).

Applying for a PhD in South Africa

To apply for a PhD in South Africa, you will typically be required to have an internationally recognised Masters degree. Some universities will additionally require a Masters dissertation grade of at least 65%.

While most applications are now performed online with electronic submission forms, there are normally other stages to go through prior to this.

Finding a supervisor

When applying for a PhD in South Africa it is common to indentify and communicate with an academic supervisor prior to submitting a formal application. The university will want to ensure that there is a supervisor relevant to your field so that you get the appropriate guidance and support with your research.

You will need to contact the appropriate faculty and they will direct you to an appropriate academic to liaise with.

Supporting documents

You may need to provide the following supporting documents prior to submitting a formal PhD application:

  • Your CV
  • A motivation letter
  • A proposal/statement that includes your research question, hypothesis, proposed methodology, and what interests you about the field
  • Previous academic transcripts and certificates
  • Copy of your Masters dissertation / thesis

Formal application

Once the above has been considered and the university department establishes a prospective supervisor for your research, you can submit a formal online application.

Online applications may require a non-refundable fee to be paid. This fee can vary between no charge at all to R150 – R300 (£7 - £14).


Once your PhD application has been reviewed by the university, you may be invited to interview. As an international student it may be possible to arrange this interview through video-calling.

What happens at a PhD interview? – Want to know more about PhD interview processes? Why not check out our guide to PhD interviews and our tips for answering common PhD interview questions.

Dates and deadlines

Deadlines for PhD applications vary in South Africa. While some university’s programme deadlines are in August or September, many are open all year round.

You will need to check with your chosen institution for specific dates, so you don’t miss out.

You should also allow plenty of time to commit to the PhD application process. As in other countries, South African universities require students to provide demonstrable interest in their field; so writing and reviewing your application may take some time.

Student visas for PhD study in South Africa

South African study permits are issued for a programme of study at a specific institution. Once you have accepted the formal offer from your university, you can make your application for a student visa.

Visa application

International PhD students will require a Student visa to study in South Africa. To apply for a student visa, you will need to complete the BI-1738 form, which costs around R500 (GPB £23).

You may be required to present the following documentation to your nearest South African Embassy, Consulate or High Commission when applying for your visa:

  • a valid passport which expires no less than 30 days before the end of your course
  • additional passport photos
  • an official university letter confirming your acceptance and the duration of the course
  • flight itinerary including return journey
  • proof of health insurance and a copy of your medical reports
  • criminal background check
  • proof of financial means to support yourself while studying in South Africa

Working with a Student visa

The student permit allows you to work up to 20 hours per week. However, your chosen university may set its own restriction if they feel that working will impede on your PhD study.

Health insurance

International PhD students in South Africa require valid health insurance for the duration of the study period. Your university will ask for proof of medical cover so it will need to be internationally recognised.

PhD fees and funding in South Africa

As with many degrees and universities, PhD fees can vary. However, internationals with a favourable exchange rate can benefit from a easonably cheap doctorate programme compared to Europe and North America.

How much does it cost

South African universities receive substantial teaching subsidies from the government, causing PhD programmes to be significantly cheaper than in the UK.

However, international fees still apply which makes PhD programmes more expensive to foreign students than South African citizens.

Depending on whether your PhD programme is thesis only, or coursework and thesis, the fees will vary.

PhD programme fees can vary between across universities between R15,000 – R50,000 (£680 - £2,270) for international students.

Registration fees can cost around R7,500 (£340) per each year of academic registration.

International levy fees may also be payable in addition to programme and registration fees. This may cost around R2,000 – R3,000 (£90 - £135).

Funding available

Bursaries and scholarships are available to international PhD students and are offered by universities and external organisations. However, availability for funding is often limited and will normally require the applicant to have a weighted grade average of 75% to qualify.

After graduation: careers and opportunities with a South African PhD

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

Studying abroad always enhances your CV as employers will be intrigued by what you have learnt from your international experiences.

Remaining in South Africa after earning a PhD

Earning a PhD in South Africa does not entitle internationals to work there afterwards, however Work visas are available. General Work visas and Critical Skills visas are valid for the duration of the employment contract, or a period not exceeding 5 years.

If staying to work in South Africa as an academic is of interest to you, the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) is a programme focussed on the recruitment of highly capable scholars as new academics.

The nGAP programme covers a six year period of academic development training and salary. While positions are more limited to non-South Africa citizens, the programme is open to all international students.

Ready to start searching for 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.

Last updated - 20/04/2016

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