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PhD Programs in New Zealand

by Mark Bennett

New Zealand's world-class higher education system has always punched well above its weight. This is especially true at postgraduate level, where the country's eight universities excel in providing unique and innovative PhD programs.

On this page you can read all about PhD study abroad in New Zealand. We've included information on the New Zealand university system and the organisation of its doctoral programs as well as application and visa requirements for international students.

Or, if you've already decided that a PhD in New Zealand could be for you, you can start searching for one now.

Why study a PhD in New-Zealand?

What comes to mind when you think of New Zealand? Scenery? Sports? . . .The Lord of the Rings? What about higher education and study abroad?

Top global universities

New Zealand may only be home to 8 public universities, but each of them is globally recognised and respected.

All feature in the 2015-16 QS World University Rankings top 500 and seven also place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 800 (with two in the top 200).

Other study abroad destinations may have a greater number of universities. But few can boast that so many of their research and training institutions are ranked at such a high level.

How important are rankings for PhDs? – It's certainly impressive when a country like New Zealand achieves such a high set of rankings for its universities. But you'll need to evaluate league tables carefully as a PhD student. Our sister site, FindAMasters.com, offers information and advice on using university rankings for postgraduate study.

Friendly, welcoming and popular with international students

If New Zealand's universities sound impressive, well, you won't be the first person to think so.

New Zealand currently welcomes over 40,000 international students. Many of them study for postgraduate qualifications such as PhDs and Masters degrees.

The country is also one of the world's friendliest and safest study abroad destinations. New Zealand has been identified as the world's third most peaceful country and the second least corrupt.

A familiar and recognised degree structure

Most importantly, a PhD earned in New Zealand will be recognised around the world. The country's higher education system is modelled on the UK, with a familiar series of undergraduate, taught-postgraduate and doctoral research qualifications.

As a PhD student, you'll be at the final stage of this process, just as you would be in most other countries. Your doctorate will be an advanced research degree, identifying you as an expert researcher in your field.

Unique research and training opportunities

New Zealand's stunning landscapes, sporting prowess and cinematic fame won't simply be a backdrop for your PhD. They could also be part of it.

After all, if you're interested in Life Sciences or Earth Sciences research, few countries can compete with New Zealand's unique ecology and biodiversity.

Or, if your interests tend more towards the Arts and Humanities, you'll have access to unique resources and materials related to the country's rich culture and history.

New Zealand is also a vibrant hub for technology and commerce, with important science parks and financial centres in cities such as Auckland and Wellington.

What's it like to study a PhD in New Zealand?

New Zealand's famous landmarks and popularity with international travellers make it an attractive destination. But the country is also easy to adjust to for international students looking for a longer term stay.

Universities in New Zealand

Higher education in New Zealand is closely modelled on the UK university system. Various institutions offer degrees, but, as a PhD student, you need only concern yourself with the countries eight universities.

They are:

All of these are public universities. This means they are supported and regulated by the New Zealand government.

It also means that PhD fees at New Zealand universities are subsidised. Better yet, this applies to international students as well as New Zealand citizens.

In addition to its universities, New Zealand is also home to various Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPS). These are also tertiary level (higher education) providers.

ITPS focus on vocational and professional education. This can include support for advanced training on postgraduate Masters level degrees, but doesn't normally extend to PhD research.

Interested in a Masters in New Zealand?

This page covers everything you need to know about doing a PhD in New Zealand, but the country also offers other postgraduate study options. Our sister-site, FindAMasters.com, provides a detailed guide to studying a Masters in New Zealand.

When does the academic year in New Zealand begin and end?

New Zealand's universities begin their academic year in February. This may seem strange if you're used to studying in a country where university begins in the autumn. But it's actually quite normal for countries in the southern hemisphere.

You'll probably find that you have a period of time between the end of your Bachelors or Masters degree and the start of your New Zealand PhD. This can actually be ideal for international students. You'll have more time to work on your PhD application and arrange a study visa.

There are two semesters in New Zealand. These run from February to June and from July to November. As a PhD student you will work on your project all year round, but most teaching and administration will occur in these semesters.

What does a New Zealand PhD involve?

The New Zealand PhD is similar to its equivalents in other countries. You'll research an in-depth topic and present your findings as an original and significant contribution to your academic field.

This process will be assisted by an academic supervisor. They will be an academic expert in your subject area, able to provide advice and support as you plan and complete your project. After all, you may not have completed a PhD before. . . but they have.

In New Zealand a PhD supervisor also plays an important role in approving and assisting your application.

Your PhD will normally begin with a literature review. This will be a survey of existing scholarship related to your project. You'll evaluate it and make sure that your research expands and improves upon the work that's already been done.

You'll then refine your topic and methodology before getting down to research. This could involve an extended period collecting data and results (this is likely in the Sciences and related subjects). Or it could mean working systematically to research and write chapter by chapter (this is more common in the Arts and Humanities).

At some point in this process you may be asked to submit some work for evaluation. This could be a formal upgrade (from MPhil to PhD) or it could simply be a progress report.

Eventually, you'll have enough material to write up a final draft of your PhD. Your supervisor will look this over and provide feedback before you get ready to submit the thesis for examination.

How long is a PhD in New Zealand?

PhDs at New Zealand universities are expected to take around three years of full-time study. Some students can take slightly longer, provided their institution (and their visa) allow it.

Note that you can't study part-time as an international PhD student in New Zealand. Visas will only be issued for full-time degrees.

How are New Zealand PhDs assessed?

Your PhD will be assessed entirely on the strength of the thesis you submit.

Your university may set other training tasks during your degree and you may be required to complete these to progress. But they won't have any impact on the final award of your PhD.

The examination of your PhD will involve internal and external experts. They will read and evaluate your work before deciding whether it is of an acceptable standard for the award of a doctorate.

In some cases this process will involve an oral exam, or viva voce. This is a formal discussion with the examiners, during which you answer questions and 'defend' your thesis.

New Zealand's location and the smaller size of its higher education system can make it more difficult to arrange viva voce exams in person. Where experts cannot be found in New Zealand, it may be expensive for them to travel.

For this reason some PhD programs do not include the viva, but subject the thesis to rigorous analysis as a written document. This is similar to the practice in Australia where vivas are also less common.

Where an expert is available, your university will usually prefer to arrange an oral exam. This can sometimes involve the use of video-conferencing to provide a 'virtual' viva.

Individual universities in New Zealand will be able to provide more information about their PhD examination processes.

How do I apply?

There is no centralised application service for PhD students in New Zealand. Instead, you should apply directly to your chosen university. Or, if you are a student from the UK or Ireland, you can submit your application through Study Options.

What are the admissions requirements for a PhD in New Zealand?

Universities in New Zealand will have two main criteria for evaluating you as a potential PhD student. These will be based on your existing qualifications and the viability of your research project.

Academic qualifications

Your university will want to know that you have sufficient subject knowledge. This will be assessed based on your existing academic qualifications.

Most universities will prefer you to hold a Masters degree in an appropriate subject. Some may accept a Bachelor's degree, but the rest of your application will need to make it clear that you are sufficiently prepared to step up to PhD level work.

Exact grades for Masters (and Bachelors) degrees may not be specified. But a strong application should be supported by the equivalent of a Merit (Masters), 2.1 (Bachelors) or higher.

You may find that the content of your undergraduate and postgraduate work are as important as the results you received for them. Degrees without a substantial research component may not be regarded as sufficient preparation for PhD research. You should be fine if you have completed a previous thesis (ideally at Masters level).

Honours degrees in New Zealand

'Honours' doesn' mean quite the same thing in New Zealand. Instead of being part of a standard undergraduate degree, honours are awarded for an additional year of research-based study. If your PhD asks for an 'honours' degree it will require you to hold a Masters as well as a Bachelors.

Research proposal

Universities will also want to satisfy themselves that your research project has sufficient potential to lead to a PhD.

You will demonstrate this by submitting a research proposal. This will outline your project, your aims and the methodology you intend to use.

It doesn't have to be exhaustively detailed. (This is a proposal, not the actual PhD!) But it should give your university (and your supervisor) a good idea of what you hope to accomplish, why you hope to accomplish it and how you hope to accomplish it.

What is the application process for a PhD in New Zealand?

Before formally applying for a PhD in New Zealand you should begin by contacting a prospective supervisor.

This is slightly different to applications in other countries, where universities often assign a suitable supervisor after an application has been approved.

In New Zealand, your international application won't normally be considered unless you have gained the interest of a supervisor at the university.

This helps universities manage the number of research applications they receive (and focus on the best candidates). But it can also benefit you as a student. Once you have found an interested supervisor they will be able to support you through the remainder of the application process.

Finding and approaching a supervisor

Universities in New Zealand will provide details of their academics and research interests, but you can make the process even easier by using our PhD search.

This will allow you to see the kinds of projects and programs offered at different institutions. You can then use this knowledge to narrow your search - or contact one of the supervisors associated with the projects you see on FindAPhD.com.

Choosing a supervisor to approach doesn't need to be a complicated process. Your primary criteria should be their research area. Take a look at their past publications, their current work and any research they are currently supervising.

A good supervisor doesn't have to be working in exactly the same area as you (your PhD needs to be unique and original, after all). But they should have interests that your project is likely to appeal to. And sufficient expertise to advise you on it.

You should normally contact a supervisor by email. Aim to explain your research plans as clearly and concisely as possible, making it obvious why you have chosen to approach them with it. If you already have a research proposal you can attach this to the email, but don't rely on it. Your email should attract sufficient interest for the prospective supervisor to consider reading further - not the other way around.

Submitting a formal application

Once you have the support of a supervisor you can submit an application to the university with their support and endorsement.

This will normally involve providing evidence of your existing qualifications, as well as a formal research proposal. It's possible that your university will also wish to see other materials. These could include:

  • Academic transcripts - Your university may want to know more about your previous degrees. An academic transcript helps them do this. It will include information on the modules you have studied, the specific grades you were awarded and any other relevant information about your course. Your previous university will normally be able to produce a certified transcript for you, given time. Simply providing information about previous courses yourself won't normally be acceptable.
  • References - These should include at least one statement from someone who knows you in an academic capacity. A good choice would be a tutor from your Masters degree. Dissertation supervisors can also be a good option - they will be able to prove that you have the aptitude for advanced research. Other referees could be people who can provide more general 'character references'. These could be employers or other professional contacts. Make sure you notify any referees in advance and leave them enough time to produce references.
  • A personal statement - Advanced research degrees such as a PhD are less likely to ask for a separate personal statement. Your research proposal should already cover your academic interests and reasons for selecting your project. If a personal statement is requested it should normally cover your wider goals and aspirations. More specific guidelines may be available from your university.

Once you've assembled the necessary documents and have the support of a supervisor, you can submit your application. You can do this by going directly to the university. Or, if you are from the UK or Ireland, you can apply for a PhD in New Zealand through Study Options.


Universities in New Zealand may wish to discuss your application with you. If so, they may invite you to an interview.

This can usually be conducted virtually, through a webchat or video-conferencing channel.

Don't be nervous if you do get invited to take part in an interview. This is always a good sign - it means a university likes the project you are proposing and wants the opportunity to discuss it further with you.

What is a PhD interview like? – Your interview for a PhD in New Zealand may be conducted 'virtually', but it will still follow a fairly standard format. For more information, read our guide to what happens at a PhD interview and our advice on for answering common PhD interview questions.

Is there an application deadline?

Because a PhD is an independent research degree you can begin it at any time. This normally means that you won't need to apply in time for the start of an academic year or a specific term.

Exceptions may apply if you have funding. This will often commence from a specific point, so you'll need to start your PhD at the same time.

How long will an application take?

You should always allow as much time as possible for an international PhD application. Your university will do its best to deal with you quickly and effectively, but they will need time to review your qualifcations, transcripts and research proposal.

You'll also need to leave time for your visa application.

As a rough guide, you should expect an application for PhD study in New Zealand to take at least four months. This could be longer in some cases.

Applying through Study Options

Study Options is the official application support service for UK and Irish nationals who wish to study abroad in New Zealand (or Australia).

Their advisors can offer help with your application and its supporting paperwork, including providing forms and other materials. Best of all, this service is completely free.

You can find out more at the Study Options website.

Student Visas

New Zealand welcomes international students, but you'll probably need a visa to live and study in the country during your PhD. Exceptions apply to citizens of some countries, including Australia.

You'll need a specific student visa to study in New Zealand. A standard visitor's visa will only be valid for three months. This is great for visitors, but not nearly long enough to complete a PhD (trust us).

Applying for a New Zealand student visa

You can apply for a New Zealand student visa online through Immigration New Zealand, or seek assistance from services offered by Study Options and individual universities.

You'll normally be granted a visa for PhD study in New Zealand without any difficulties. But you will need to make sure you submit evidence of the following with your application:

  • Confirmation of your PhD enrolment - You'll only be eligible for a student visa if you've been accepted to study at a recognised higher education provider in New Zealand. This won't be a problem as a PhD student. All eight of the country's public research universities will be able to endorse your visa application. They will do so by providing an official declaration proving that you have enrolled, or been offered a place.
  • Financial evidence - You'll need to show that you have sufficient means to pay your fees and cover your living expenses whilst studying in New Zealand. This can take various forms, including a fee deposit, funding or third-party support or sponsorship. The New Zealand immigration service expects international students to have access to at least NZ$15,000 per year whilst studying in the country.
  • Health insurance - International students in New Zealand are required to have health insurance. Universities will usually be able to provide details of acceptable providers in New Zealand. International policies may be acceptable, but you should confirm this in advance as Immigration New Zealand sets strict standards for student health insurance.

Needless to say, you'll also need your passport.

Can I work whilst studying a PhD in New Zealand?

Yes. New Zealand allows international students to work up to 20 hours per week during term time and up to 40 hours per week during holiday periods.

There is no limitation on the kind of work you do, but you must stay within these limits. Exceeding them could invalidate your visa.

Fees and funding

New Zealand is generally regarded as an affordable study destination. Funding is also available to encourage and support international students.

How much does it cost to study a PhD in New Zealand?

The good news is that universities in New Zealand don't charge any additional fees to international students. This means that you'll pay exactly the same for your PhD as a domestic student would.

This only applies to PhDs, not Masters programs. It is part of an initiative to attract and support international postgraduate researchers in New Zealand.

Exact fees vary between universities, but you can expect the cost of a full-time PhD in New Zealand to be between NZ$6,500 and $8,000 per year.

Remember that you cannot study part-time on a student visa.

What funding is available?

Funding for PhD study in New Zealand is available from various sources. They include

Funding from universities and other organisations

Universities will often offer their own scholarships, some of which will be specific to international students. The best way to research this kind of funding is to visit university websites, or look at the PhD opportunities listed here on FindAPhD.com.

You can also search for scholarships in New Zealand using a tool on the official New Zealand Education website. However, not all of these will be appropriate to PhD-level study.

New Zealand International Doctoral Research Scholarships

The New Zealand Government also runs its own New Zealand International Doctoral Research Scholarships (NZIDRS) scheme. They cover tuition fees along with annual stipends of NZ$25,000 for living costs and NZ$600 for medical and health insurance coverage.

Scholarships are awarded entirely on merit and applications are highly competitive. Recipients are expected to be within the top 5% of doctoral researchers worldwide, with academic records to match.

Don't let that put you off though. If you think your project has potential, apply! After all, winning such a prestigious award won't just fund your PhD. It will also make an impressive contribution to your CV.

Further information, including advice on applications and selection criteria, is available from Education New Zealand.

After graduation: careers and opportunities with an New Zealand PhD

New Zealand is a popular visitors' destination and you'll certainly enjoy your time there as a PhD students. But what happens when you finish?

Well, one thing's for certain: you'll gain an internationally recognised and respected qualification that will enhance your CV around the world. The fact that you've taken up the opportunity of studying abroad, exposing yourself to a different culture and facing new challenges will also impress future employers.

Career pathways for New Zealand PhD graduates are roughly the same as those for students in other countries.

You'll be able to apply for postdoc positions, or academic jobs. But your opportunities won't be limited to higher education. PhD holders work in various other professions, from government and civil service jobs to consultancy firms and think-tanks.

Can I remain in New Zealand after I graduate?

Your PhD will make you an attractive candidate for jobs around the world, but New Zealand will be keen to benefit from the training its universities have given you. That's why the country offers generous post-study visa arrangements.

You can apply for two types of additional visa after your PhD, depending on your circumstances:

  • If you are looking for a job you can apply for a 12 month post-study work visa.
  • If you are lucky enough to have already found a job you can apply for a further two-year post-study work visa.

More information is available from Immigration New Zealand.

Once these periods have expired you will need to decide on your longer term plans. If you are in work in a suitable profession, you may be able to receive an ongoing residence permit.

Ready to start looking for a New Zealand PhD?

Hopefully this page has answered your questions about PhD study in New Zealand. If you've decided this is the right destination for you, why not get started browsing some New Zealand PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 26/02/2016

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