Applying for a PhD

by Mr. Cheap

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.

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?

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