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PhD Study in Canada - A Guide for 2019

Home to some of North America's most historic - and globally renowned - research universities, Canada's multicultural outlook and cosmopolitan society also make it an increasingly popular home-away-from-home for thousands of international students.

A PhD in Canada will give you the opportunity to work with leading experts and take advantage of modern high-tech facilities. Once you've earned your doctorate, you'll have the opportunity to take advantage of one of the world's most generous post-study work visa schemes.

This page covers everything you'll need to know to take advantage of postgraduate study in Canada. It includes information on the Canadian university system, the structure of a typical Canadian doctoral programme and key facts for fees, funding and visa requirements.

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PhD opportunities in Canada - what's on offer for 2019?

Canada has always been popular with international students - and international students have always been popular with Canada. But this has never been more true than it is right now.

The number of people studying abroad in Canada has risen by nearly 30% recently as more and more students have been attracted by the prospect of living and studying in a friendly and liberal society that supports and celebrates its internationally acclaimed universities. Not to mention the chance to experience and explore the country's diverse range of stunning natural landscapes and habitats.

Here are a few of the things that make Canada a great choice for PhD study in 2019 and beyond:

  • Internationally renowned universities - Canada's oldest universities date back to the seventeenth century, but the research they carry out continues to be world-leading, with six institutions in the top 150 of all three major global rankings.
  • Attractive international fees - PhD study in Canada is generally cheaper than in the neighbouring USA, with some universities actually reducing - or even waiving - international fees.
  • Post-study opportunities - Successfully completing your doctorate will entitle you to live and work in Canada for up to three years and perhaps take up a pathway to permanent residency, or even citizenship.
  • The great outdoors - From the Great Lakes of Ontario and Québec and the Canadian Rocky Mountains and Prairies of Alberta to the unspoilt wilderness of the vast Northwest Territories: there's plenty to explore (and perhaps even research) during your PhD.

You'll also have the opportunity to study at the same universities as a famous American leader - and who knows: you might even meet Justin Trudeau himself.


PhD Study in Canada - Key Details
Universities 96
Nobel Prizes 25
Oldest University Université Laval (1663)
International Students 189,573
PhD Length 3-6 years
Representative Fees CAD $20,000-20,500 (USD $9,930-16,430)
Academic Year September to April

Canadian universities

Like its near-neighbour, the USA, Canada is a big country. However, unlike the USA, a relatively small proportion of Canada is actually inhabited. This means that the Canadian university system isn't as large as you might expect and, when it comes to PhD-level study, it's actually relatively easy to make sense of.

Research universities and graduate schools

There are around 100 research universities in Canada (other institutions such as liberal arts colleges and community colleges also exist, but these don't tend to offer PhDs). These universities often run their doctoral programmes within dedicated graduate schools that house all the facilities and expertise necessary to support students through advanced postgraduate (or 'graduate') degrees.

Individual Canadian universities can be public or private, depending on how they receive their funding.

Public universities (the great majority) are financially supported by their local province or territory and tend to offer more comprehensive study opportunities, including doctoral programmes. Private universities are funded by third-party sources (such as religious organisations) and tend to be smaller and more specialised.

Universities within Canadian provinces and territories

Canada's vast geographical size and colonial history means the country has developed a federal structure, made up of 10 provinces and 3 territories. Provinces are independent sovereign entities (similar to US states) whereas territories have their authority delegated by the central federal government.

The most important difference between Canadian provinces and territories for international PhD students is that only provinces possess research universities (with the ability to offer doctoral programmes).

Most provinces take a similar approach to doctoral training and international recruitment, but local policies can sometimes affect the amount (and type) of funding available. The part of Canada you choose to study in may also determine whether your university offers programmes in English, French or both.

The 10 Canadian provinces are as follows:

  • Alberta is a landlocked province in western Canada, famous for its vast forests, prairies and mountain ranges. There are 8 universities offering PhD opportunities in Alberta and the official language is English.
  • British Columbia is Canada's westernmost province. Its rugged landscape is characterised by temperate rainforests and striking coastal fjords. There are 11 universities offering PhD opportunities in British Columbia and the official language is English.
  • Manitoba is a central province, home to vast prairies and some of Canada's Great Lakes. There are 6 universities offering PhD opportunities in Manitoba and the official language is English.
  • New Brunswick is a small province on the eastern coast of Canada, home to forests, mountains and some of the oldest European settlements in North America. There are four universities offering PhD opportunities in New Brunswick and the official languages are English and French.
  • Nova Scotia is a maritime province in Atlantic Canada, made up of a peninsula and neighbouring islands. There are 9 universities offering PhD opportunities in Nova Scotia and the official language is English.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador is Canada's easternmost province, made up of the island of Newfoundland and the mainland region of Labrador, geographically defined by its subarctic tundra and striking mountains. There is 1 university offering PhD opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador and the official language is English.
  • Ontario is Canada's most populous province, located in the east of the country. It is home to the Canadian capital, Toronto, as well as the famous Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls. There are 31 universities offering PhD opportunities in Ontario and the official language is English.
  • Prince Edward Island is a maritime province on the east coast of Canada - the smallest in the country. It is made up of the titular island, plus a network of smaller islands. There is 1 university offering PhD opportunities in Prince Edward Island and the official language is English.
  • Québec is Canada's largest province, situated at the east of the country. It is home to a rich independent Québécois culture and is famous for its rivers, lakes and bays. There are 19 universities offering PhD opportunites in Québec and the official language is French.
  • Saskatchewan is a large landlocked province in central Canada, defined by its praries and lakes. There are 6 universities offering PhD opportunities in Saskatchewan and the official language is English.

Canada's three territories are the Yukon, Nanavut and Northwest Territories. They are home to colleges offering undergraduate degrees, but do not currently possess universities with doctoral programmes.

Canadian university cities

There are several cities in Canada with one or more universities and large numbers of students.

Canadian university rankings

Not to be outdone by their North American neighbours, Canadian universities are world-leading in a range of fields and this is reflected in their international rankings.


Top 20 Canadian Universities in 2019
University THE 2019 QS 2019 ARWU 2018
University of Toronto 21 28 23
University of British Columbia 27 47 43
McGill University =44 33 70
McMaster University 77 146 86
University of Montreal =90 =149 101-150
University of Alberta =132 109 101-150
University of Ottawa =176 =289 151-200
Western University =190 =214 201-300
University of Calgary =199 229 151-200
University of Waterloo 201-250 =163 151-200
Dalhousie University 251-300 =279 301-400
Laval University 251-300 =402 201-300
Queen's University 251-300 =239 201-300
Simon Fraser University 251-300 =264 301-400
University of Victoria 301-350 =359 301-400
University of Manitoba 401-500 601-650 301-400
University of Saskatchewan 401-500 =461 301-400
Carleton University 501-600 651-700 701-800
University of Guelph 501-600 581-590 301-400
Memorial University of Newfoundland 501-600 651-700 601-700
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.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

PhD structure

As in other countries, the Canadian doctorate is normally awarded as a final 'terminal degree' - the highest level of academic qualification a student can achieve following an undergraduate Bachelors degree and a postgraduate Masters.

A range of doctoral degrees are available alongside the familiar academic PhD, including professional doctorates such as the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) and Doctor of Education (EdD) qualifications.

PhD length

Most courses require at least three years of full-time study and research, but some students study for longer, with a typical maximum registration of six years.

In most cases you'll need to hold a Masters degree in order to gain admission to a standard Canadian PhD programme. However, some universities offer doctoral stream Masters routes that commence with one or two years of MA or MSc study. These are suitable for students coming straight from an undergraduate degree, but take longer to complete.

The Canadian PhD process

PhD study in Canada has more in common with the UK than the neighbouring USA. Whereas the US PhD normally begins with one or two years of taught classes and examinations before a student defines their thesis topic, a Canadian PhD is often more research-focused from the outset.

However, as in the UK, it is increasingly common for universities to offer more structured PhDs within dedicated doctoral programmes.

These programmes are normally run by a university's graduate school where academic cohorts of students benefit from collective teaching and training alongside their more independent research activities.

Courses often focus on key skills such as practical research techniques and methodological principles, or useful additional training in areas such as teaching, presentation or publication. Some doctoral programmes also arrange internships and professional placements.

Generally, students complete these courses in the first year of their PhD, before moving on to focus on researching and writing their doctoral thesis.

In some cases a university may require PhD students to sit a comprehensive exam at the end of their first or second year. This tests a student's general knowledge of their field before they are allowed to proceed to much more specific research. It is somewhat similar to the MPhil upgrade or 'confirmation review' used in UK universities.

Graduate vs postgraduate

Like the USA, Canadian universities usually refer to Masters and PhDs as 'graduate' degrees, rather than 'postgraduate' degrees. We've used postgraduate here to be consistent with the rest of the FindAPhD website.

Academic year

The Canadian academic year generally runs from September to April, but exact semester dates vary between individual provinces and their universities.

Supervision and research

You'll complete your PhD under the guidance of at least one academic supervisor. They'll be an expert in your general subject and field, though they won't have researched on your specific topic before (it wouldn't be a PhD, otherwise).

Other members of your graduate school may also contribute to your supervision and training, particularly if your programme involves additional classes and coursework.

The main criteria for your degree will be the completion of a substantial doctoral thesis. As in other countries, this must represent a rigorous and significant research body of research, making a substantial new contribution to knowledge.

If your qualification is a professional doctorate such as a DBA or EdD, you'll focus on practical work and case studies as well as / instead of academic research. You'll still be required to submit a thesis, but this may be shorter and supplemented by other materials.

Types of PhD

Our guides help explain the different types of PhD (and other doctorates) available in Canada and elsewhere.

Assessment and examination

The main criteria for the assessment of a Canadian PhD is the originality and quality of your doctoral thesis. You'll normally begin drafting this during the middle part of your PhD before writing up a final version based on feedback from your supervisor.

Once you submit your dissertation a committee of examiners (including at least one external expert) will be appointed to read and consider it. Your PhD will then proceed to an oral defence.

This procedure may be slightly more involved than the viva voce used in the UK and elsewhere. Instead of discussing your work in a 'closed room' situation, you may be expected to offer a presentation on your research before being questioned on the content and significance of your thesis.

The examiners will then meet separately to decide if your examination performance was satisfactory. If it was, you will be awarded your PhD!

Some Canadian PhD programmes also include coursework and examinations prior to your thesis. However, these will normally be checkpoints for your progression, rather than factors determining your final result.

Cotutelle programmes

As well as the conventional PhD process described above, some Canadian universities work with other international institutions to offer a collaborative route to a PhD, known as a 'cotutelle' (French for 'co-tutored').

These programmes involve a student spending time at two different universities, each of which is involved in supervising, examining and awarding the PhD project.

In this sense a cotutelle is somewhat like a joint PhD. However, unlike some other joint PhDs, a cotutelle arrangement is usually specific to the student's project rather than an ongoing partnership between a pair (or network) of universities. In that sense, it's helpful to think of a cotutelle as a specific kind of joint PhD.

The availability of this option varies between individual Canadian universities. Check with your institution for more information.

Fees and funding

Studying abroad in Canada is more affordable than you might think, despite the fact that universities typically charge higher fees for international students.

Canadian PhD fees

Representative international fees for a Canadian PhD programme are around CAD $10,000-20,000 (USD $7,500-15,000) per year. This is more than a domestic student pays, but still less than in other popular countries like the UK and USA.

If your PhD is part of a more structured programme its fees may vary from year to year; stages of the degree that involve taught classes and assessments are normally more expensive than those that focus on independent research.

In addition to tuition you may also be asked to pay some smaller supplementary costs for student services and union fees.

Recent fee changes for international students

The size of Canada's higher education system and the administration of universities by separate provincial governments means that the representative PhD fees quoted here should be used as a guideline only.

However, it's worth being aware of some new initiatives for international students at specific universities.

  • The University of Toronto has begun charging the same fees to domestic and international PhD students from 2018. This means that you'll pay the same for your PhD as a local Canadian student.
  • Brock University has begun fully covering international PhD fees through its own fellowships.

Canadian PhD funding

Canada welcomes international students and provides a wide range of scholarships and other funding opportunities for PhD study at its universities.

Here are some of the options available for international students in Canada:

  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships - funding for international students on selected PhD projects at Canadian universities
  • IDRC Doctoral Research Awards - provides up to CAD $20,000 (USD $15,000) over 3-12 months for students from developing countries studying a PhD in Canada
  • IDRC Research Awards - offers a salary of at least CAD 40,000 (USD $30,000) for PhD students from developing countries to complete an internship at the International Development Research Centre
  • Trudeau Doctoral Scholarships - provide PhD funding for international students in a range of subjects
  • Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships - provide international students with CAD $50,000 (USD $38,000) per year for three years of PhD study in Health Sciences, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences or Humanities

The Government of Canada website features an interactive database of funding opportunities for international students.

Funding from Canadian universities

In addition to the general scholarship opportunities listed above, there's a good chance your prospective university will also have funding available. Most Canadian institutions provide some form of support for international PhD students.

You can start searching for university funding by browsing our listings of current PhD projects or programmes in Canada. Many of the opportunities featured on FindAPhD will already have funding attached, but even if they don't, you can use the contact details to check for other scholarships at that institution.

Graduate teaching assistantships

Some universities in Canada offer their PhD students contracts as graduate teaching assistants. As the name suggests, these arrangements require you to complete a certain amount of teaching (usually as an undergraduate tutor) during your PhD. In return, you'll be paid a salary and / or have some of your doctoral fees waived by the university.

This work can be personally rewarding (as well as financially rewarding) and will enhance your CV for future academic positions, or other jobs that involve teaching. However, a GTA position will place extra demands on your time. It's a good idea to establish just what these will be in advance.

PhD funding guides

There's plenty of support out there for you to complete a doctorate in Canada (or elsewhere). Our PhD funding guides will help you make sense of your options.

Applying for a PhD in Canada

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.

Admission requirements

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.

GPA scores

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 UK result Approximate GPA
70+ 1st / Distinction 4.0
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 Unclassified 1.0

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.

Language requirements

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

Application process

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).

Interviews

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.

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in Canada will follow a fairly standard format (even if the actual process takes place online). Our guides explain what happens at a PhD interview and look at some of the questions you might be asked.

Student visas

Canada is a friendly and welcoming country with an active interest in attracting international students. This is reflected in its student visa and immigration system.

You'll normally need two documents to enter Canada as a student and remain there during your PhD: an electronic travel authorisation and a study permit.

Applying for a Study Permit

As its name suggests, a study permit entitles you to live (and study!) in Canada during a course. The Permit lasts for the duration of your PhD, plus an extra 90 days (giving you time to arrange travel or apply for a post-study work visa once your course is finished).

You should normally apply for a Study Permit in your home country before you travel to Canada. You can begin the process online, but may need to take your passport and other information to a Canadian visa office. You'll need a letter of acceptance from your university before you can apply (a good reason to start your PhD application early).

Students from China, India, Vietnam or the Philippines can apply through a special Student Direct Stream for faster processing.

Applying for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA)

Most international students will need permission to enter Canada. You can get this by applying for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA). This serves as your visa and allows you to come into Canada.

The application process for an eTA is relatively simple and takes place online. You will need to provide your passport details and payment information for a fee of CAD $7 (USD $5.50).

Note that your eTA allows you to enter Canada, but does not entitle you to live there for the duration of your PhD. To do that you will need to have applied for your Study Permit (described above).

There is more information on applying to live and study in Canada on the official Government of Canada website.

Next steps

Excellent universities and cosmopolitan culture make Canada a great place to pursue a doctorate, but the country could also become your longer-term home.

Can I work in Canada after my PhD?

Yes. As a PhD graduate you'll be a great candidate for a range of jobs in higher education, research and other areas. What's more, Canada will be very keen to keep you and its post-study visa system is designed to make that option as attractive as possible.

Canada's post-graduation work permit (PGWP) allows international graduates from its universities to live and work in Canada for up to three years after completing a doctorate.

You'll need to have studied for your PhD full-time and have successfully completed your programme. The fee is normally CAD $255 (USD $200) and the processing time is approximately 56 days for an online application.

There is more information on the Government of Canada website.

Once you have a PGWP you may be able to apply for permanent residence and eventually even Canadian citizenship.

Find a PhD in Canada

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Canada? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 30/11/2018

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