WES Advisor Blog

Trusted Advice for Academic and Professional Success

The Differences Between PhD Studies in the U.S. and Canada

Wednesday | February 14, 2018 | by StudyPortals

differences between PhD studies in the U.S. and Canada

North America is often seen as the epicenter of education, research, and innovation. This lures many prospective PhD students from all around the world. In fact, international student enrollment in Canada increased 11 percent in the last year, mainly as a result of the 2016 elections in the U.S. But despite the sociopolitical climate in the U.S., universities in the U.S. are still attracting international students. This is evidenced by the 2016-2017 data from the 2017 Open Doors Report, which revealed a total of almost 291,000 international students in the U.S.

According to the report, most international students chose the same top two areas of study, regardless of whether they studied in Canada or the U.S. The top subject areas were business and engineering.

Which country should you choose for your PhD? The best way to make a decision is to analyze the pros and cons of each country. In this blog post, we will help you arrive at a decision by describing the major differences between PhD studies in the U.S. and Canada.

Requirements for Admission to a PhD Program in the U.S. Versus Canada

The general admission requirements for a PhD in the U.S. and Canada are similar. Both countries usually require the following:

  • High score on a graduate admissions tests, such as the GMAT or GRE
  • Language certificates (English for the U.S., and English or French for Canada)
  • Statement of purpose
  • Research proposal
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing sample

Although most differences between pursuing a PhD in Canada or the U.S. will be visible during the program itself, there are two key differences that might make you favor one country over the other:

  • To apply for a doctoral degree in the U.S., a master’s degree is not necessary, whereas in Canada it is. U.S. universities accept students who have only a bachelor’s degree because the structure of PhD programs is typically longer and is designed to include part of the curriculum from master’s programs. Whereas in Canada, it is rare that students without a master’s degree can pursue a PhD. The main exception is when you enroll in a Master of Science degree program, you can switch to a PhD after the first year.
  • Although the research proposal is an important admissions component in the U.S., PhD students are expected to develop their theses and research during their second or third year. In contrast, in Canada, PhD students are expected to begin working on their theses as soon as they start their PhD program.

What to Expect as a PhD Student in Canada

In Canadian PhD programs, you will be expected to participate in small group seminars and you will likely spend about 20 hours per week reading. Additionally, you will be required to do research on your thesis from the start, publish several peer-reviewed articles, and proactively apply for fellowships and scholarships to further fund your research.

Moreover, it is likely you will also participate in Teaching Assistantships (TAs) and Research Assistantships (RAs), which might take up to 20 hours per week of your time. Although 40 hours per week is the average time you are expected to invest in your doctoral studies, depending on the program, you might find yourself working even more.

Although PhD programs in Canada are typically designed to last about four years, it is more realistic to expect that you will finish your doctorate in five or more years. This is important to remember because some programs do not allow for extended funding, so you might have to pay tuition for the extra years you take to complete your studies.

What to Expect as a PhD Student in the U.S.

Things are a bit different in U.S. PhD programs. In the U.S., there is no time pressure to complete your PhD program. The timeline to complete a PhD is typically five to six years. If it takes you longer, it is not a problem because you can keep your funding until you complete your program. The system is so flexible that some students finish their program in three years with extensive amounts of research, while others can take up to eight or even 10 years.

As in Canada, the PhD curriculum in the U.S. includes seminars, but more of them, and naturally, a lot of reading and research. Additionally, you will be asked to publish peer-reviewed articles, but they do not count as much in the U.S. as in Canada.

Although the average 40 hours’ work per week is also the norm in the U.S., the main difference with Canada is that teaching and grading responsibilities often take more of students’ time. This is tricky because it might mean that you do not have as much time as you would like to invest in your own research thesis.

The Financial Costs of a PhD in Canada Versus the U.S.

The financial aspects of doctoral programs are one of the most important issues students face, whether they are an international, U.S., or Canadian student. The average cost of a PhD program is a lot cheaper in Canada than in the U.S. However, if you are an international student, you should expect higher fees in both countries. Below are the average tuition rates that international students pay for PhD studies in each country:

  • Average tuition in the U.S.: $28,000 – $40,000 USD per year
  • Average tuition in Canada: $8,000 – $20,000 CAD per year

The advantage the U.S. has over Canada in this respect is that you are more likely to find a fully funded doctorate in the U.S. than in Canada. Plus, in the U.S., by securing a TA or RA position, you automatically receive a tuition waiver.

In Canada, students typically have to apply for scholarships based on academic merit. These scholarships can cover tuition fees, cost of research, and occasionally living costs. Sometimes TAs and RAs can further cover the cost of studies, either partially or totally.

Living costs vary in both countries, but on average, living in Canada is still cheaper than living in the U.S. To get an idea about what to expect in terms of living costs, below are some median figures:

  • Average student living costs in the U.S.: $1,200 – $2,500 USD per month
  • Average student living costs in the Canada: $1,000 – $1,500 CAD per month

Employment Options After a PhD in Canada Versus the U.S.

If you are looking to obtain a PhD, you probably know that a doctoral program is more about passion for research and teaching than anything else. Numerous reports show that most industries are just as happy with employees that hold only a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Furthermore, many statistics show that PhD graduates do not earn more immediately after their studies and that the financial benefits of doing doctoral studies are more visible in the long run.

That being said, in our comparison, PhD studies in the U.S. have more favorable outcomes than in Canada. Recent data shows that the demand for employees with a doctoral degree in Canada is lower than the number of doctoral graduates. But this should not necessarily discourage you. It simply means that you will have to make a name for yourself in a more competitive market, given that most jobs in Canada for PhD graduates are available in the academic and research sectors.

The U.S. business sector is more educated about the added value a PhD graduate can bring to a company, and consequently, there are more jobs (outside of the academic and research sectors) available for holders of a doctoral degree.

Common Ground Between Canada and the U.S.

In both the U.S. and Canada, you will be required to put in a lot of hard work in your PhD program. If you imagine a PhD is going to be like a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you may be in for a lot of surprises (and challenges). Fortunately, both the U.S. and Canada have strong international student organizations and associations that can help you better integrate with your PhD program, adjust to life as a PhD student, and make connections. In fact, in both countries, you are actively encouraged to join such networks and partake in their activities.

Another aspect in common is that your professional success or work-life balance—basically, your overall satisfaction with the PhD program—will depend on the following factors:

  • Field of study
  • Department
  • Supervising professor

These three factors make a world of difference in your level of satisfaction with your PhD program because:

  • Your field of study influences your workload and can have a negative impact on your results if you are not 100 percent motivated to research the topic you choose.
  • Your department influences your finances and your social relations. It is with people in your department that you will spend the most time. Furthermore, the relationship the department has with the university influences a lot of the administrative issues related to your studies, including the stipends, grants, and scholarships that you are likely to receive. Additionally, the relationships your department has with the industry can influence your career prospects.
  • Your supervising professor is the scholar with whom you will work most closely. It is essential to have someone you can communicate with, who is genuinely interested in your project, and whose knowledge and experience are relevant for your research.

Now all you have to do is decide which country and program are right for you. The PhD Portal is a great resource for finding and comparing PhD programs in Canada and the U.S. Best of luck in pursuing your PhD studies!

StudyPortals is the global education search platform enabling students worldwide to search for English-taught degree programs anywhere in the world. Through our various portals, students can find comprehensive information about international education, allowing them to find the education opportunities that are best for them.