Applying for a PhD

As regular readers know, I’m currently moving towards becoming Dr. Cheap. The first step in any graduate program is being accepted. This is somewhat different then applying for an undergrad, but luckily I’ve gone though a Masters program so I pretty well know what to expect.

If you want to read more about grad school from someone who has been through it all – check out the new site Ivory Tower Unlocked.

In very general terms, one of the biggest differences between graduate work in Canada and graduate work elsewhere in the world is that for research / academic programs (e.g. not law, medical or business school) there is usually funding provided to cover tuition and living expenses while in the program. The living expenses is enough that some grad students can even afford to have a car (its about $22K / year for Masters students and $24K / year for PhD candidates). Many people, even here in Canada, don’t realize that you can make money while studying, instead of going into debt.

In fact, amazingly, this is even true for international students. The “official” explanation why we’d want to use government funds to pay people from other countries to learn (then take that knowledge and benefit their own economy instead of ours) is that it creates a superior academic environment, which then benefits the schools’ other profs, students and country. Beats me if this actually works out, I’m just glad that many foreign students decide to settle down in Canada after finishing their grad work (we should offer automatic citizenship after graduation from an advanced degree to encourage those who might stay). My best friends, while working on my Masters, were all Chinese, so I certainly benefited from this.

The application process itself is quite similar to a Masters application and varies little between schools. You fill out various demographic info (like your address, SIN, etc). Recently this has gone on-line, which is cool compared to the old fashioned paper forms I filled out years ago. You need to get recommendations from 3 academic sources (which is a pain in the butt). These are professors that you had a good relationship with who’ll fill out a form saying “he’s a good guy”. Profs act like they’re doing you the biggest favour in the world filling out these damn things (for my Masters I had a reference belly ache that I’d only given him a MONTH to fill it out).

You need to order transcripts from your previous degrees, which is only annoying in that it takes a little while and costs a bit of money (~$8 / transcript). Speaking of costs, most schools will charge you $80-$90 to apply (money grubbing bastards!).

International students have to submit a GRE (to prove they’re smart) and a TOEFL (to prove they can speak English). Its definitely nice, as a Canadian, that I don’t have to prepare for and take an aptitude test.

The applications also require your CV (which is subtly different from a resume – more academic), supplemental info (which is often restating information from your transcripts so that lazy profs who are considering supervising you don’t have to do much reading) and a form where you discuss your research interests (which usually involves looking at faculty at an institution and deciding, by surprise coincidence, you’re interested in EXACTLY their area of research, what a shock!).

After you get your application in (definitely by the deadline, the earlier the better), they make it available for professors who have funding for graduate students. Profs apply for funding, and as part of the application they talk about how many grad students they’re going to take on (which the people awarding the grants view as a good thing). They then use this money to take on graduate students (so profs who get lots of grants, have lots of money and can take on lots of students). If you get a scholarship, which Mr. Cheap was too late to apply for, you become inexpensive for a prof (plus they’re reassured that you’re a smart cookie: if you get NSERC or OGS you can pick the school and prof you want to work with).

Once you’ve been accepted, you start your program (which often involves course work at the start). You get a check every month and have to be a TA usually to earn part of it (which is light work throughout the term, maybe 10 hours a week). Usually within 5-7 years you finish your thesis, which is a major project that represents new knowledge in the area you’re working in (the trick is to pick a very specialized area so that not many people have done work in it and its easy to come up with something new).

Less then 50% of people who start a PhD finishes (and virtually no one who starts a part time PhD finishes). Often you’ll do research in an area, find there isn’t anything interesting to do a thesis on, and after 2 years you have to start over from scratch (which has happened to friends of mine, it is obviously incredibly demoralizing, and this is often the point people drop out at).

In terms of interpersonal dynamics at a university, I like to think of it as a family. Undergrads are babies (they’re cute and can be safely and easily ignored), professors are parents, Masters students are children, and PhD candidates are surly teenagers. You develop a love/hate relationship with your supervisor that is very similar to a parent/child relationship (at least it was for me). They help you, but at that same time are often quite patronizing.

Anyone who has finished grad work (Wooly Woman for one), what do you think of this write up? Does it match your experience?

12 replies on “Applying for a PhD”

Since I went through this all at an US university I can’t vouch for the veracity of it, but I do in fact envy your stipend. Working in the sciences, I also got a stipend but it was about half of what you’ll get. 🙂 I didn’t go into debt due to my degree but I sure did not save anything. $1000/month before taxes does not go very far. lol

I think I am still a surly teenager. Good luck!!!

Dr. PW: After graduation did you do anything with your PhD in Genetics? Were you ever tempted to become a prof or do postdoc work? What did you feel were the career options that a PhD opened up to you?

Was it a hard decision to stay home with the kids?

Great write up! I think it is a good summary of what can happen, but I also think it depends on what field you are in. Or whether or do everything ass backwards like myself 🙂 What I did:
-picked my topic/research idea
-started an application for funding (NSERC)
-scrambled to find a supervisor
-got funding, then applied to university
In my field it is best if you do find a supervisor even before applying for a PhD- to make sure you can find a prof and a project that fits your interests. Also, my school FORBID any PhD candidates to take longer than 4 years. You were practically thrown out the door if you didn’t get it done in that time frame, I think because they had trouble with people hanging on for way too long.
Are you applying for January? How exciting! Do you have an idea of what you will do yet?
I agree with Dr PaidTwice 🙂 I too am still a surly teenager academically… I don’t know when you quite grow out of it…
Dr WW (hahahaha)

Dr. WW: Unfortunately I’ll by lucky to start in May (Sept 2008 is more likely). In some ways that’d be great if they pushed you out after 4 years. With the group I did my Masters with, they seemed happy to let people hang around as long as they wanted (the profs had a bunch of money back then so things might have changed).

Have you ever been tempted to teach at a university? Maybe later in life?

Congrats on getting NSERC, that’s great!

No teaching for me at this point (it is not my forte)… my ideal position in the academic world would be a non-teaching research position. We’ll see if I can create that via consulting or whether I find that perfect job one day elsewhere!

Pretty close… I think your stipend figures are a little optimistic. At UWO we get $20k for MSc candidates, $22k for PhD candidates (for those with a minimum 78% average and no scholarships), but $6k tuition is taken off leaving you with 14k/16k to live on — values that haven’t moved in over 6 years. You get paid to be a grad student, but you’d have to live pretty frugally to make money at it (especially if you have accumulated debt after your undergrad!). Getting OGS/NSERC/CIHR makes a big difference — NSERC/CIHR doubles your “take home”. Remember kids, “Marks Are Money!”

Part of the explanation behind stipends is also that grad students are doing research that helps their supervisors, and if they’re not paid they’re out working to make ends meet and doing research only in their spare time (and thus taking decades to finish and making the whole affair look really unappealing to potential recruits). It also gives the supervisors reasons to get the grad students working on projects other than their main thesis (everything from helping the supervisor update his CV, which I’ve had to do, to contributing to a group/multidisciplinary project). My understanding is that students who do that in the states get research assistantships…

TAships vary by department. Those with large undergraduate populations (and thus large TA needs) tend to have nearly mandatory TAships, whereas other departments hardly have any. TAships are usually pay above & beyond your stipend, except when they’re a mandatory part of it… 10 hrs/wk is the guideline for the maximum non-thesis-research time from the university, whether you get a job waiting tables or as a TA. However, while you may get paid for 10 hours of TA work, it generally takes a lot more time investment to do a decent job. For example, when I was a lab demonstrator TA I’d spend a half hour preparing my 15 minute intro/theory/instructional talk, then 3 hours on my feet in the lab, leaving me 1.5 hours to mark 40 lab reports (this was a “half-TAship”, so 5 hrs/wk). It usually took me closer to 10-12 hours to mark. I didn’t mind since the TAship was a nice injection of cash and I somewhat enjoyed it… but it does lead to some conflicts of interest. Your supervisor wants you to be in the lab 60 hours/week doing research for him/your thesis, while the course instructor you TA for wants you to do a good job marking, not just handing out marks but also explaining mistakes to students. I know a few TAs that found it easier to balance the demands by just being exceptionally lenient in their marking — if they didn’t mark things wrong, students didn’t ask the instructor for an explanation, and it didn’t take them very long that way so they didn’t get in trouble with their supervisor.

After you’re accepted, generally you do have a “course year” and you also spend a lot of time delving through the published research of your field. You then figure out what you want to do for your thesis, and about 8-12 months in you form an advisory committee and present your thesis proposal to them. In theory, they can find you lacking and flunk you out, but that’s exceptionally rare at this stage (only one known case in the grad student gossip in my department, and that was 6 years ago now). Then with your committee you plan out your experimental design details and how you’ll spend your time over the next 4-6 years. After that, you’re off and researching!

I started my MSc in January (I was aiming for Sept then had a marks snafu coming out of undergrad — a course I got 90% in was registered as a 54% and it took 3 months for them to find that I did indeed give and ace my report). It’s a little different not starting in September. Most classes start in September, so if you start in January or May (especially May) your initial class load is a lot lower. However, you really don’t have a lot else to be doing at that point except your background literature search, and helping out around the lab with other projects, since your thesis experimental design won’t be ready yet. Plus, a lot of bonding/socializing/getting to know each other amongst a cohort in a department is done in classes, so you miss out on a lot of that stuff early on. Finally, many university training things (WHMIS, orientation, laboratory health and safety, radiation safety, biohazard handling training, etc.) are done in October and June for students starting in Sept. and May — if you start in January (though this will depend on the school), you may be SOL for a while! So, I would have to recommend thinking of a September start if you’re not in a hurry to get going. In fact, a good compromise can be starting your degree in Sept, but getting the lab to hire you as a RA for the summer. You generally get paid better than a grad student, and can get a lot of hands-on experience in research…

For your application, don’t neglect your cover letter. You can really impress potential supervisors if you mention an interest in or knowledge of research going on in the department…

That’s about all the advice I can give you as a PhD student at UWO. I haven’t gotten far enough back in the archives to know if you took a research or course-based master’s, so you may or may not already know all of this…

Hello Dr. Mr.Cheap,
Thanks for the wonderful write up on PHD programmes, I have following queries. I know its not an FAQ section, but still seeking a bit of guidance: :))
I recently graduated with a Masters Degree in Electrical engineering with a specialization in Microelectronics and Mikrosystems(MEMS). I also have a patent pending against my aim. The point is I come from a University which ahs linkages with various Canadian and US universities and Russian ones as well. I have 2 international publications. I am also a fellowship awarded student from India. I also received a special appreciation award from Department of Electrotechnik and Informatiks at my university. My Master thesis and internship experience in MEMS accounts for 1 year’s fulltime experience 12 hours * 6 days.
Also was awarded by ABB and IMTEK with a grade of 1,0 in Master Thesis . 1,0 is highest possible grade, which only one student receives per German University for the entire batch. Also the course programme has received special recognition from UNESCO for Object Oriented Research.

Well if I come directly to the point, with all the above stated, I am supposed to show up a GRE score still?:(( Coz I dont have one, but surely I do have a Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering Score card with a considerably high peprcentile which is organized by the Indian Institutes of Technology for admission into Masters and Research programmes. This was the parameter with which I had got into DAAD addmission programme of Germany. Your guidance will be much appreciated my mail id.

I would follow up your website. Thanks in advance.

Hi Sai,

Unfortunately, GRE scores are required for international students (at most Canadian / American universities I believe). That being said, with all your accomplishments, I’m sure if you put the time into working through a few study guides you’ll easily get a decent GRE score.

Not all profs are in love with undergrad marks / GRE scores, so if you can connect with the right supervisor who is interested in working with you, the GRE score may not matter (although you might still be required to write it, just to satisfy university requirements).

I’d recommend calling a few universities you’re interested in attending directly and asking them (the grad studies office of the department you want to study at). Usually they can clear up any requirements that are unclear…

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