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PhD studies in Brazil

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Perhaps not on your education radar, Brazil attracts people from all over the world for tourism and business. In terms of higher education, Brazil punches well above its weight, especially when you consider it remains a country in development. Brazilian universities dominate rankings in Latin America, with 17 Brazilian institutions in the top 50 Latin America QS rankings. Only three South American universities are in the Times Higher Eductaion (THE) world ranking but two of them are from Brazil! The country itself is a fascinating location for any postgraduate student looking to live in a country known for exciting cities, dynamic culture, stunning beaches, and an incredible biodiversity.

Before you further investigate Brazil as a study destination it is worth noting that you will need at least some knowledge of the official language, Portuguese, just to find out about the universities you may wish to study at, as most of their websites are in Portuguese. Luckily for you, we have done some of the work for you so you can at least start to explore Brazil (virtually) for your PhD studies.

Brazil has more than 100,000 researchers and scholars engaged in research at private and governmental institutions. Brazilian graduate programs deliver 13,000 PhD degrees per year and are continuously evaluated using an internationally recognized methodology, conducted by the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES).

The university system

The Brazilian government engaged in an ambitious reform of the public higher education sector in the 1970s and 1980s and invested large sums in graduate education. Conversely, the public school sector did not receive as much attention and the current university student population from Brazil comes mainly from the private education sector.

The reforms also saw a systematic effort to finance graduate and postdoctoral studies abroad. A large proportion of these graduates returned to Brazil and helped to shape higher education institutions and graduate programmes, particularly in public universities. Today, this is a policy which is seeing a revival with the introduction of the Science without Borders programme.

Brazil has a diverse higher education system with a relatively small number of public research universities and a large number of private institutions. As a result of the reforms, public-funded universities tend to offer the best quality education in Brazil. There are currently 84 higher education institutions managed by the Federal Government, 94 managed by state governments, a number of research centres both federal and state run, technical higher education institutions under municipal authority, and a large number of private universities. All universities have acronyms (in Portuguese) and those starting with UF are the federal universities.

There are no tuition fees for Brazilian students in universities (a right established in the Brazilian Federal Constitution) and universities make up most of the Federal and State institutions. The great news is that many public universities do not charge fees to international students either.

Choosing your university

Rankings can only tell you so much about universities. Besides, Brazilian universities are nowhere near equal in standing and quality. Within each university there are notable variations between departments.

Why not ask people at your current university? Is there a Brazilian society in your university? Why not get in touch and ask for advice. Consider all the information carefully and, of course, beware of personal preferences and bias! In addition, your lecturers may have research connections in Brazil and might be able to advise you. It is important to find out as much as you can from the research centres you apply to make sure they have international research partnerships and the resources to support your doctoral research.

Universities in Brazil may also have a world class reputation for a particular subject area. For example, Unicamp in Campinas and USP in São Paulo are well known for their strength in electrical/electronic engineering and telecoms and mechanical engineering.

Quality assurance is an integral part of Brazilian higher education and graduate programs are evaluated every three years, with scores ranging from one (lowest) to seven (highest). Programs with scores of three or below are closely monitored by CAPES and consistently re-evaluated while deficiencies are improved, or the programs are closed. These scores can guide your search for your particular subject area.

Application process and entry requirements

Applicants to a PhD program often have to take entrance examinations, but check with your university as there are also other selection processes. Entrance examinations, when they are required, may include written tests (often subject-specific) and an interview during which the panel assesses the applicants’ motivations.

As for most countries, applications for the majority of postgraduate courses can be made online via individual university websites. Sometimes you will have to contact your chosen department and ask for a form to be sent to you by e-mail.

Deadlines for applications for postgraduate study will vary depending on the university but can be really early, and remember that the academic year starts in February so make sure you check with admissions departments of individual institutions when you application needs to be submitted.

As part of the application, you will have to provide:

  • Application form.
  • Official copies of diplomas (“Official” means that it may have to be stamps by a lawyer or by local authorities at your local town hall, consulate or embassy).
  • UG and PG transcripts.
  • A copy of your Masters’ thesis.
  • A CV to include participation in subject-relevant conferences/meetings/courses, experience in teaching, publications as well as relevant professional experience.
  • Two/three reference letters.
  • A letter from an academic who has agreed to be your supervisor.
  • A copy of the receipt showing that you have paid your application fee (where applicable).

The selection process normally consists of reviewing your qualifications, professional experience and the relevance of the course chosen for your future career. Some universities have a two-stage application process and if you are selected, you may be ask to attend an interview (in person or via teleconference). International students not currently living in Brazil may be exempt from this.

Entry requirements

In Brazil, you need a “mestrado” (or international equivalent to a Masters) to start a PhD. This is the norm in Brazil and even if it is common practice in your home country (for example if you are from the UK or Ireland) to accept students directly from a Bachelor degree, it is unlikely to be sufficient in Brazil.

Please note that degrees considered as "Lato sensu” postgraduate qualifications are not suitable for entry onto a PhD programme degree. MBA programs in Brazil are classified as lato sensu programs. You will need a strictu sensu Master's degree (see below).

Examinations and courses are delivered in Portuguese so it is essential that you have adequate levels of Portuguese proficiency. To demonstrate your knowledge of Portuguese, you will have to provide a Celpe-Bras certificate, the only Portuguese language test recognised in Brazil.

For PhD students, there is a very small number of departments (such as the department of chemistry at Unicamp) which are willing to let you apply in English. However, you will require at least some Portuguese before you start your studies (and for everyday life) and will require it if your doctoral programme includes exams and classes which are likely to be in Portuguese. Universities offer both pre-sessional and in-sessional intensive Portuguese courses so be sure to find out about those.

“International doctorates” also exist and English tends to be the working language, for example at UNESP, a new project called International Courses at UNESP will be launched in 2013 in four different areas: Agricultural Sciences, Alternative Energy, Dentistry, and Literature and Linguistics.

Tuition fees and other costs

As mentioned earlier, public universities are generally free of charge for international students while private universities will charge tuition fees ranging from 300 Brazilian Real (R$) to R$3,000. You may also be charged an application fee at both public and private universities.

Other costs will include: international student health insurance (see The PhD student guide to living in Brazil) and student services (such as sports facilities). Your student card will give you access to discounted public transport and university restaurants.


There are a number of scholarships available to study in Brazil but a large number are for one-year study abroad (for example as part of a joint-PhD or as a visiting PhD researcher). Your university or your department may also have funds for your research. The biggest expense (if you are studying in a public university) will be associated to living costs. Note however that international students are entitled to all the educational loans available to Brazilian students for accommodation, transport, meals, and books.

Bilateral agreements may have made by embassies, consulates or government agencies to provide bursaries to study in Brazil so visit the websites or e-mail them to find out. For example:

PEC-PG is a program run by Brazilian agency CAPES to provide financial aid to Masters and PhD students to increase the qualifications of professors, researchers, professionals and graduates in developing countries which Brazil has a cultural or educational cooperation agreement with. More information (in Portuguese) and a list of eligible countries can be found on CAPES website.

Other scholarships:

PhD structure

In Brazil, a PhD usually lasts for four years and leads to the award of Doutorado. In some universities/research centres, the first year may mainly comprise of classes and you may not have to choose a thesis supervisor right away. In others, the structure is similar to a PhD in Norway, Japan or Singapore and it will consist of four years of research with some taught components throughout. PhD in Brazil programmes are challenging and rigorous and may also require teaching seminars and other responsibilities.

The general conditions (remember there are always exceptions and variations) for the award of a PhD is that you have to sit a qualifying examination, the equivalent of the first year review in the UK, prepare a thesis (which is examined – see below) and have the required number of credits from taught courses (and have a good attendance record for these classes), if applicable.

The thesis examination is very similar to that of the French PhD, the défense, which is a public examination in front of a committee. The committee will examine whether the research results in an original contribution in a particular field of knowledge, which is the most important criteria for a successful outcome. The committee will be chaired by your supervisor and will have up to 5 other examiners, all of them PhD holders themselves. As it is a public event, anyone can sit in the audience.

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