22. Geographies of PhDs: Applying in the UK and Canada

We all know that geography matters.
Geography also matters when it comes to deciding where you want to study a PhD. There are huge national variations in expectations concerning what it means to be a PhD student.
In light of this, we wanted to give some advice for those considering applying for PhDs beyond the UK. This blog outlines the primary differences between studying for a PhD in the UK and in Canada.
Thanks to Lacey Willmott (University of Waterloo) for offering the Canadian perspective, and Maddy Thompson (Newcastle University) for the British side.  
  1. How long does a PhD take (full time, part time, minimum and maximum time frames)?
    • UK- A PhD is meant to be 3 years FT and 6 years PT. In reality, most submit between year 3 and 4 (6 and 8 PT). To submit beyond the 4 years, you must get an extension approved.
    • Canada – PhDs in Canada are usually a bit longer than in the UK, as most Canadian PhD programs include some amount of course work, and completion of comprehensive exams (also called candidacy exams) that are completed before a student enters their research phase. This of course depends on the program, but Canadian PhDs are usually about 4 years. Some students finish in as little as 3 years (which is the minimum), and most schools will give you up to 6 years to complete it without a formal request for extension. Part-time PhDs are usually 6 to 8 years.
  1. What sort of funding options are available?
    • UK- Most UK funded PhD students are funded by one of the 6 major research councils, but within geography, it tends to be via the ESRC, AHRC or NERC through Doctoral Training Centres. This funding covers tuition fees, provides a maintenance grant to cover living expenses (currently at around £1100/month), and provides some funding for conferences and fieldwork expenses. There are usually also options to claim for overseas fieldwork funding, overseas institutional visits, internships, etc. Some universities also offer their own funding (which generally is very similar to ESRC/AHRC), either through the institution, department, or individual research projects. Students can also be self-funded, or can apply for loans at a low cost to cover fees and living expenses. There are also independent groups and charities which provide certain types of funding (such as the RGS). In most cases, funding is sought prior to the commencement of the PhD, and funding is often allocated based on the strength of research proposals. Look on our Funding Opportunities page for more information.
    • Canada – In Canada nearly all PhD programs have a guaranteed minimum level of funding for each student. This consists of either a major external government scholarship, or is funded through their school directly. In Canada, federal government funding is issued through the “tri-council” or “tri-agency” including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). The nature of your work determines which funder you are eligible to apply to. Physical geography research is usually funded through NSERC, human geography through SSHRC and health or medical geography through CIHR. There is also a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship that is open to all PhD students (through nomination by their school), regardless of research area. These federal awards are prominent, and are transferrable if the student changes programs or schools. Most universities offer some sort of top-up or additional funding to students who receive these awards. Most provinces also have their own funding programs for PhD (and masters) students, ie: Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). These are lesser value and have a shorter duration than the federal tri-council awards, but are still major scholarships. Note, that you cannot hold both provincial and federal funding concurrently. Students that do not secure major external funding are supported by their department or school, through a combination of Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships or internal scholarships, grants and awards. For recipients of major external awards other departmental funding (including Teaching Assistantships) is often limited or not granted at all. This is something you should clarify early on so you don’t run into any surprises along the way. Outside of your base funding most schools have small pools of money available to support conference travel and international field work costs, but these are limited, and in most cases, will not fully cover costs for these activities – but every bit counts. For students doing work in the Global South, the International Development Research Centre also offers competitions for doctoral research funding. And last, but most certainly not least is the prestigious social sciences Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholarship, for which students must be nominated by their school. Otherwise, there are loads of smaller scholarships available to support PhD research, you just have to find them, and apply! It may not seem worth it compared to these bigger external awards, but it is still valuable. You can find out about these opportunities (both internal to your school and external) through your school’s graduate studies website, or through organizations and associations – like the Canadian Association of Geographers. Similar to the UK, scholarships are allocated on the strength of your research proposal, publication record and grades –each school values some of these more than others in their assessments. In the case of smaller scholarships leadership, volunteer and work experience may also be considered.
  1. How and when do you apply for funding?
    • UK- This depends on which funding body you are applying for (so please check), but generally funding deadlines are around January- March each year. This is true for the ESRC and AHRC funding bodies, but actual deadlines tend to change by DTC. You apply before starting your PhD, and usually need a department to confirm you are eligible for a place on their program. In order to apply, you will need a strong idea of your PhD project, as well as having at least two supervisors who are happy to work with you, and who fit with your general topic. Therefore, while deadlines are early in the year, I would advise starting applications and approaching potential supervisors in early autumn in order to ensure you have the best chance. Most funding bodies provide 3 years of funding.
    • Canada – Well, this seems to change with the season over here in the Great White North. In general, federal funding creeps up on you really quickly in the fall semester, sometimes as early as end of September! Plan ahead and start thinking about and preparing for this ASAP – including ordering transcripts and getting reference letters from your professor who may be on sabbatical for the semester, offline and in the Kalahari where you won’t get a response to your last-minute reference letter request. You can apply for federal funding as an external applicant in the year prior to the start of the PhD you plan/hope to do. Many students aren’t this prepared or able to apply at that point, so fear not, in most instances you can rely on departmental funding for your first year, and apply for external scholarships as an internal applicant once you start your PhD program, for funding for your second through fourth years. Provincial scholarship application requirements are specific to each province, and in Ontario are particularly variable year-to-year. So you will have to check on the specific details for your school, but this generally happens early in the winter term. IDRC funding deadline is usually in May, and you apply directly to IDRC, while the Trudeau Scholarship follows a similar schedule to other tri-council scholarships with fall semester deadlines. For funding from your school, sometimes you are automatically considered, and sometimes you need to apply for specific competitions or awards – check on this too. Have you started a list yet? Maybe even a flow chart? This can all get a bit confusing, but deadlines are firm and these competitions are only open once per year, so don’t miss out!
  1. How much say do you get over your PhD topic and overall project?
    • UK- This depends on whether you are joining an existing research project or developing your own. If you are joining one, you generally have little say over the overall theme and direction, but may have scope to choose methods/concepts/theories to engage with. If you are developing a standalone project you are usually given a lot of scope to make your own decisions as to where the research should go. That said, if the research changes dramatically from the initial proposal, you may need to confirm changes with the funding body (your supervisor can advise on this). While supervisors will advise of the best way(s) to move forward, you generally have scope to disagree with them, and changes in supervision team are not uncommon.
    • Canada – Ah ha! Finally, this is where the UK and Canadian PhD converge. Works the same here in Canada. The only thing I will add is that existing research project or not, some advisors are pickier about this than others, which is neither good nor bad, just something to consider. If you have substantial changes to your research direction you may have to switch supervisors, either because they are unable or uninterested in supervising your new research, or if you find someone with a better fit to your work, it just makes sense to switch. Again, much like the UK switching advisors is not un-common, and can often be less of a hassle and less scary than you think – especially if it is early on, due to a change in research direction, and if you haven’t used any of their personal funding. I did this, and sweated it (and used only back hallways in my former advisor’s building) for months, which was entirely unnecessary and not a good use of time, or mental energy. If you need advice on navigating this I suggest you chat with your department’s graduate program advisor.
  1. How many supervisors do you have? What form does the supervisory team take?
    • UK- It’s standard practice to have two or three supervisors (some funding bodies prefer three, so check!). In the majority of cases, you will meet with your supervisors once a month to discuss progress, next steps, and receive feedback on aspects of your work. Generally, supervisors are also happy for more informal meetings, or for contact via email. Your supervisory team in most cases is there to support your PhD progress. This includes making sure you’re on the right track, advising you of readings/theories to engage with, and suggesting ways to progress. Supervisors rarely ‘tell you what to do’, and as noted, you can disagree with suggestions, they are supervisors not bosses. That said, supervisors are generally very experienced academics, and it may be worth listening to their advice.
    • Canada – In Canada you normally have one supervisor, or two co-advisors. Once you are in the comprehensive exam and research stages you will have a committee, which consists of your advisor(s) and two to three additional professors. The composition of your committee is shaped by your program’s requirements and fit to your research. This is usually decided upon by you and your advisor(s). Frequency and nature of communication and meetings with advisor(s) and committee depends on schedules, personalities and needs. This varies throughout different stages of your degree. Normally, until students are focussing on preparation for their comprehensive exams meetings with advisors are less frequent – once or twice per semester, or as needed. Once you are in your comprehensive exam and research stages most people meet with their advisor(s) a minimum of once per month, often every other week, and with their committee once or twice per semester. It is useful to have a conversation on this upfront and early on with your advisor(s) to determine what will work between you, and to set a plan for that.
  1. Describe a typical PhD journey (timeframes)
    • UK- Start applying for programs and funding around 12 months before the start date (usually in early autumn). Your first year of the PhD is best dedicated to planning – wide reading of relevant literature, building upon your proposal, a deep consideration of methodological techniques, acquisition of ethical approval (if needed), planning for fieldwork (whether setting up contacts, social media presence, planning for overseas trip). Supervisors will often ask you to write literature reviews and a draft methodology chapter in this year. For students who have not undertaken a research skills based Masters degree, there may also be some classes on research methods. Your second year is a continuation of this, but it is expected that within the second year, the majority of data will be collected. Depending on progress, you may also start to analyse data at this point. The third year is a continuation of analysis (and any final data collection). But the main goal of third year is to write! Fourth year is for those (the overwhelming majority) who do not submit within third year to continue writing and editing.
    • Canada – Apply approximately eight months to one year in advance – all programs and schools have their own deadlines and application procedures. Also, if you wish and are prepared to do so, apply for federal funding one year in advance as well. Note – if you are a bit late in the game in deciding to apply to a PhD program and it is past the official deadline, reach out to the department admin and potential advisor anyways, because often times your application may still be considered. Most programs start in September, but some also offer January or April starts. Your first semester in the program is spent taking courses, while also developing preliminary research ideas and plans – while also applying for all of those scholarships I mentioned earlier J Depending on program requirements, your second semester will be similar to your first, unless you have already completed your required coursework. If so you jump right into preparation for your comprehensive exams. Deadlines to write your “comps” vary, but are usually somewhere in the range of the end of your first year, or in the first semester of second year. At most schools this includes both a written and oral component. Timeframes after this are variable, depending on the nature of your research and program. You need to prepare a research proposal, which depending on your program is more or less substantial ranging from a 5 page write up rather casually approved by your advisor, to a full on twenty-page proposal and oral presentation that need be formally signed off on by your committee members to proceed. This usually happens within 4 to 6 months of completing your comprehensive exams. Once your research proposal is approved, and you have ethics clearance (if applicable) you can begin your data collection and analysis. The nature of your research entirely dictates how long this will take, ranging from weeks to months, up to a full year. Following this all you have left to do is actually write your dissertation! Generally speaking it takes about a year to write, revise and write your thesis. Many Canadian universities are now offering a choice between manuscript style (3-4 academic journal papers, plus supplementary chapters if needed) or traditional dissertations. This may influence your research process and timelines, and is most certainly influenced by this.
  1. What other responsibilities are you expected to do?
    • UK- Most PhD students will do some form of teaching during their studies, but this depends on the institution and funder. The ESRC for example, state students cannot work more than 6 hours a week on non-PhD related activities (including teaching and research assistant roles). Some universities demand that PhD students teach, others offer it. Some will pay for teaching, and others will not (particularly if your funding contract includes mandatory teaching hours). This is something you should check with departments before committing to them, particularly if teaching (or not teaching) is important to you. There are also often short research assistant roles which may become available. If these are part time, they can usually be worked around the PhD (although you MUST check with supervisors first). If they are full time but temporary, you may be able to organise postponing your PhD and funding for a few months, but again, check with supervisors.
    • Canada – In this respect PhDs in Canada are a bit different. Unless required by your funding, ie: you must teach if your funding is provided through a Teaching Assistantship, there are few if any formal requirements outside of your academic work. Though most programs require you to apply for federal and provincial funding at least once, if not every year unless/until you are successful. Similar to the UK, most programs limit your paid work outside of school to ten hours per week. Most programs have teaching opportunities. Ask early on, or before you even apply to see how this works at your school, including when you can start teaching (usually not until completion of comprehensive exams), and how instructors are selected – by union seniority or formal application and interview process. Some programs require you to attend departmental seminars and present on your research at them. Despite having few formal requirements, your advisor(s) and committee members may have some unofficial requirements or expectations of you. Again, it is good to have these discussions upfront and early on with your advisor. This lets you know what their expectations are, and what opportunities you can pursue with/through them. Some advisors constantly have or pass along opportunities for students, others very few. It can be helpful to align yourself accordingly, if this important to you. Other opportunities may include teaching, guest lecturing, presenting at conferences, publishing, editing, peer-reviewing, applying to additional grants or scholarships, research assistant work, internships, professional development workshops or training, sitting on student committees or pursuing additional opportunities both at your university, and more broadly within your research/practice area. Let me tell you though, this stuff gets time consuming fast, and there is a wealth of opportunity for these types of things. So be selective and strategic!