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PhD Study in Malaysia - A Guide for 2020

One of the fastest growing economies in the region, Malaysia is quickly becoming a hub of business and research in Southeast Asia.

In recent decades Malaysia has experienced an exciting evolution of the higher education facilities in the country, with publicly funded universities, private institutions and branches of overseas universities now forming a rich educational landscape.

A PhD in Malaysia will expose you to one of the fastest growing and most vibrant countries in Southeast Asia. From the PhD process to student visas, this guide will get you prepared to start looking for a PhD in this exciting country.

PhD opportunities in Malaysia – what’s on offer for 2020?

The Malaysian government is eager to attract talented international postgraduate students to local universities. This has led to most university instruction being conducted in English and over 100,000 international students currently studying in Malaysia.

The Malaysian government is especially keen to encourage research into areas that offer technological advancement to the country, meaning fields such as Science and Engineering receive significant government support. On the other hand, Malaysia’s natural resources and biodiversity are a great boon to those studying topics in Ecological, Medical and Natural Science fields.

There are many good reasons for studying a PhD in Malaysia:

  • Rapidly growing economy – The Malaysian economy is currently thriving, and its success has been funnelled into education, research and development
  • Affordable – Despite the rapid economic growth the cost of living is still very reasonable. Programme fees are also significantly lower than countries such as the UK and Australia
  • World class universities – Malaysia maintains high standards for universities, ensuring internationally recognised education.
  • Peace and prosperity – Along with a strong economy Malaysia is ranked as one of the most peacful countries in the world, making for a great environment for study.

PhD Study in Malaysia - Key Details
Universities 63
Oldest University University of Malaya (1905)
International Students 122,823
PhD Length 3-5 years
Representative Fees MYR 35,000 (USD $8,610)
Academic Year January to November

PhD life in Malaysia

Sporting the tagline ‘truly Asia’, Malaysia is home to an estimated 20% of all animal species and four UNESCO world heritage sites. As a postgraduate student in Malaysia you will have the opportunity to experience a vibrant country rich in history and culture. For more information about living in Malaysia, why not check out our living guide.

Malaysian universities

It is the intention of Malaysia to become one of the go-to centres for higher education, and with the University of Malaya and other institutions performing well in international rankings, it is rapidly achieving this aim.

Malaysia’s higher education system is comprised of both private and public universities as well as several branch campuses of international institutions. The quality of all university research programmes is maintained by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

  • Public universities - These are funded by the government but remain autonomous, managing all aspects of teaching, research and administration. Public universities are currently the most successful when it comes to both national and international rankings
  • Private universities - A relatively new form of higher education provider, private universities were first established with the passing of a higher education act in 1996. They are funded by private organisations, but their educational quality is still monitored by the MQA to ensure it meets the required standards
  • International branch campuses - An increasingly common phenomenon in Malaysia, branches of international universities are evidence of the country's drive for international collaboration. The programmes offered by these branch campuses may be accredited by the Malaysian host university or the overseas partner, but this varies between such campuses

University rankings

The efforts made by Malaysia towards becoming a world-renowned higher education provider is reflected in the university rankings, with several being ranked in the top 300 universities worldwide by the QS world rankings. This is all the more impressive as the higher education sector in Malaysia is relatively small on the international scale.


Top 5 Malaysian Universities in 2020
University THE 2020 QS 2020 ARWU 2019
University of Malaya 301-350 =70 301-400
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) 501-600 801-1000 -
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia 601-800 =160 -
Universiti Malaysia Perlis 601-800 701-750 -
Universiti Putra Malaysia 601-800 159 -
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

A doctorate in Malaysia can take between three and five years, but it is often closer to three years, especially since most scholarships are often only awarded for this shorter period.

Research based

Most PhD programmes are not as heavily structured as those in some other countries. You will find that you will largely be expected to conduct independent research into your chosen project. Over the course of your study you will be required to also give regular seminars on your progress.

Depending on the university to which you apply, you may need to complete a number of taught modules as part of the programme. Some universities may also expect you to publish your findings in a peer reviewed journal before they will award you a doctorate.

Viva

The final test of a PhD candidate in Malaysia is similar in structure to many other countries. In order to obtain your doctorate, you will need to produce a thesis on the subject of your research. This thesis must satisfy the examiners that it contains original work, and that it relates this to the existing body of knowledge.

You will also need to deliver a seminar on the key findings of your thesis to several experts in your field. During this seminar you will have to defend these findings and demonstrate that your subject knowledge is sufficient for the award of a doctoral degree.

Fees and funding

The fee structure in Malaysian public universities can be fairly complex so it is worth spending a bit of time researching the costs involved. In general, however, doctoral education in Malaysia is offered at lower costs that in the UK, USA or Australia.

The total cost of the programme will depend on the length and the subject studied but you can expect the university fees for a three-year PhD to be between MYR 30,000 and MYR 40,000 ($7,380 and $9,840 USD).

A variety of funding packages are also available for your studies in Malaysia. From scholarships, to financial aid to teaching and research assistantships you have many options for covering the costs incurred in the course of your PhD.

Scholarships

In order to encourage international talent, there are many scholarships available to help with both tuition fees and living expenses. These scholarships may be funded by the Malaysian government, private institutions or the universities themselves.

It is worth checking with the institution you are applying to for the most up to date list of available scholarships.

Malaysia International Scholarship (MIS)

A government-funded initiative to attract talented graduate students to Malaysia. This scholarship is open to all international students with excellent academic records including a Masters degree in a field related to the PhD they intend to study.

In order to obtain this scholarship, you will need to present a research proposal that aligns with the interests of the Malaysian government therefore this scholarship tends to be focused on the Sciences , Engineering and Communications Technology.

This award covers relocation to Malaysia, university fees and a monthly stipend to help with living expenses for three years

Find out more about the Malaysia International Scholarship.

Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan

Similar in benefit to the Malaysia International Scholarship, this award is available to students from commonwealth countries. As with the MIS, you will need a Masters degree in a related field and be able to justify your research proposal in order to be eligible for this award.

Find out more about the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme Scholarship (MTCP)

This award provides opportunities for international students to pursue advanced academic study in Malaysia. This scholarship is a bilateral agreement between Malaysia and other countries and is available on a government-to-government basis.

As with other scholarships, eligibility for this award depends on a Masters degree in a related field, and projects are restricted to a number of priority study areas, focused around Science, Engineering, Health and Finance.

As a recipient of this award you will be expected to make significant contribution to your home country after you complete your doctorate.

Find out more about the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme Scholarship (MTCP) for Postgraduate Studies.

University scholarships

Universities may award scholarships based on academic merit and following the recommendation of the host department/research centre. These usually include tuition fees (sometimes excluding other fees) and a stipend.

The University of Malaya, for example, offers the Bright Sparks scholarship that will provide tuition fees and a MYR 3500 (USD $860) monthly stipend.

Teaching and research assistantships

Another way of funding your studies is to work for the university at which you’re studying for your doctorate. This can be done in the form of a teaching or research assistantship; the university will subsidise the cost your tuition in lieu of payment for your work.

You undertake teaching and / or research duties within their institution. You may be asked to keep office hours and to mark exam papers which will be time spent away from your PhD. However, you will also gain academic experience and may be involved directly in the research work of senior members of staff.

Alternatively, you may be expected to hold the role of a research assistant while studying for your PhD. So long as you can fulfil these conditions without it affecting your ability to complete your studies it is a good way to have your fees to wholly or partially subsidised.

Applying for a PhD in Malaysia

PhD programmes in Malaysia can generally start throughout the year but some universities will stipulate two intake periods, in July and February.

There is no centralised postgraduate application agency in Malaysia. Applications are made directly to the individual universities (or even individual Graduate Schools) using an application form or via their websites (if a form is available online).

You can apply to more than one university but make sure you know what you should supply in your application as it varies from institution to institution. Some will only require a letter while others will want a complete academic history and research plan.

Academic results

In order to apply for a PhD project at a Malaysian university you will generally be required to hold a Masters degree in a relevant field and demonstrate research experience. A first class Bachelors degree may also be accepted by some universities, but many will also require you to have several peer reviewed publications.

In disciplines such as Management or Business, applicants may also be asked to demonstrate readiness for graduate study through specific entry examinations (e.g. GRE or GMAT).

Research proposal / statement of objectives

It is common practice to submit a research proposal (or at least an abstract of your proposed research) when applying for a PhD. This should comprise a short synopsis of the background, objectives and proposed methodology of your prospective research project.

A small number of institutions (e.g. Asia e University) do not require you to supply a research proposal or to identify prospective supervisors when you apply. You will then be assigned a supervisor by the institution and you will develop your thesis proposal while at the institution.

How do I write a PhD research proposal?

The research proposal is an important part of any PhD application, regardless of where you choose to study. Take a look at our guide for some tips and advice on putting yours together.

Language proficiency

Higher education in Malaysia is almost always conducted in English. If English is not your native tongue and your previous degree(s) were not taught in English you will be required to submit scores for either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) as evidence of your proficiency.

Don’t think that the study being in English will prevent you from learning another language though. If you are not originally from Malaysia you may be required to attend and complete a course in Bajasa Malaysia (Malaysian language) to a satisfactory level. Often such courses will be conducted at the university that you’re attending and passing this course may be a condition of the doctorate.

Health requirements

Health requirements are often part of the admission process and public universities will have strict restrictions. You may need to, at your own expense, provide a medical report that attests to the fact that you are in good health.

Some conditions will not exclude you from applying but you will need to demonstrate that they will not affect your ability to complete your study.

Student visas

In order to study for a PhD in Malaysia as an international student you will need to go through the immigration procedure. This involves first applying for a Visa Approval Letter (VAL) from the Malaysian Immigration Department.

Once you have obtained a VAL you can arrange to travel to Malaysia where you will need to present this document to the authorities when you arrive. Your passport will then be stamped allowing you to remain in the country to apply for your Students Pass.

Your application for a student pass will usually be done through the university where you’ll be studying. You will need to be able to prove that you can meet the course fees and the living expenses for the duration of your studies.

The application process will cost around MYR 60 (USD $15) and in some cases you will need to provide a personal bond. This is to ensure students do not overstay their students pass and will be refunded upon the completion of your doctorate.

If you would like more information, the Education Malaysia Global Services website has more on visas and immigration for international students wishing to study for a PhD in Malaysia.

Next steps

Despite Malaysia only recently starting to grow its higher education sector, many of the universities are already performing well against regional competitors and some are now even recognised on the global stage. This, combined with the rapid economic growth, makes for a very attractive country for hi-tech industries and businesses.

A PhD from a Malaysian university lends itself to exciting employment prospects both in Malaysia and internationally.

Find a PhD in Malaysia

Want to start your PhD journey in Malaysia? Why not take a look at the PhD projects in Malaysia we have listed. Alternatively, you can view our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 22/01/2020

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