So you’ve decided to enrol onto a doctoral degree and study abroad at the same time. This is a great opportunity to develop yourself both personally and academically. However, do you actually go about securing a PhD as an international student? To help answer this for you, we’ve created this guide to explain how to apply for a PhD in foreign universities.
Why Do Your PhD Abroad?
There are many benefits to studying abroad.
Some PhD students do so as a way to develop a new language, discover more about a different culture, and to meet new people.
Besides personal reasons, undertaking a doctorate degree abroad can also for academic purposes. For example, in some countries, a particular research field may not be very popular and so there may not be many doctorate options available. In these cases, undertaking a PhD abroad will open up many more opportunities. It could also offer greater funding, lower tuition fees, better laboratory equipment and more experienced supervisors. Not only would these factors result in a more enjoyable PhD, but they could also contribute to greater career prospects. For example, you will likely have more opportunities to write publications, attend conferences and collaborate with other researchers. All of these will help you establish yourself as a respectable researcher within your field.
Is It Difficult to Apply to PhDs Abroad?
It’s not as difficult as you would imagine when it comes to applying to a PhD in a foreign country. Regardless of whether you’re applying to a university within the EU, such as the UK, Finland or Spain, or to universities within the US or Asia, the processes are relatively similar.
The differences in the application process can be categorised into three areas.
- the documents you need to provide,
- the prerequisite tests you need to sit,
- how much you need to communicate with the potential supervisors before applying.
We’ve provided a basic outline of the application processes below. Although this will provide you with a good starting point, we highly recommend you look at the university websites for specific instructions and guidance before applying.
Will I Need a Student Visa?
This will depend on what country you are applying to. For example:
- In the UK, applicants from outside the EU will need a Visa Tier 4 (Student). This will allow them to undertake a full-time PhD. However, due to UK visa restrictions, international students are unlikely to be able to enrol onto a part-time degree.
- In Germany, most students will not require a student visa but will require a residence permit.
- In the US, applicants will need to hold an F-1 Student Visa.
- In Asia, the requirements differ depending on the specific country. For example, in China, you will require an X1 Student Visa whereas in Singapore you will require a Student Pass.
Because of the significant differences between countries, we highly recommend it is highly that you check the requirements on an individual case-by-case basis. This is best done by checking the government website of the country you wish to apply to.
General Process for Applying to PhDs Abroad
When applying to a PhD position, most universities regardless of where they’re located will require:
- Online Application – An electronic form to provide your details and attach all supporting documents. You will also need to make any application fees during this process if required.
- Academic Transcripts – Most universities need a scanned copy of your transcripts when applying. You will only have to submit official hard copies once they have accepted your admission.
- CV – This should include details of your previous education, undergraduate degree and any experiences revenant to the field you’re applying to.
- Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement – A letter which outlines why you’re applying to the PhD and why you believe you’re suitable for the project.
- Letters of Recommendation – this should preferably be provided by your undergraduate degree course tutor or a professor who knows you well.
If your PhD is to be undertaken in English and English isn’t your first language, most universities will require you to sit an English language proficiency test. The most common tests, in order of popularity, are:
- IELTS (International English Language Testing Systems)
- TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
- PTE (Pearson Test of English)
The minimum test scores will change from university to university. They will also vary depending on the research field. For example, research projects related to English Literature or Law will require relatively high scores whilst projects in Science and Engineering will require slightly lower scores. To provide an example, the University of Leicester in the UK requires a minimum overall IELTS score of 7 for Law PhDs but has a lower overall score requirement of 6 for Engineering PhDs.
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How to Apply for PhDs in EU Countries
For UK universities, there are generally two ways of applying. You can either apply directly through the university’s website or you can make an application through the UCAS Postgraduate system.
In Spain, Italy and Germany, before applying to a PhD you will first need to pass a pre-application process. This involves checking that your qualifications meet their eligibility requirements. Before undergoing this pre-screening process, it would be beneficial to first speak to your government. They may offer advice on how your countries qualification system corresponds to the qualification system in the country hosting the PhD.
Once you’ve made your application, the university will review it and get in contact with you. For most EU institutions, they will invite you for a Skype or telephone interview with them if they believe you may be a suitable candidate.
If you require a student visa to study in an EU country, it’s recommended that you submit your application at least 3-4 months before the proposed PhD start date.
How to Apply for PhDs in USA
In addition to the English language exams mentioned previously, international applicants will also need to sit additional exams to be eligible for PhDs in the USA. These are the GRE General Exam and GRE Subject Exam(s). The GRE Subject Exam(s) you will need to undertake will be specific to your field and will be specified by the university as part of their edibility requirements.
Securing a PhD position in the United States is considered relatively difficult compared to other countries. As a result, it is commonly recommended that you apply to at least 9 different universities to increase your chances of securing a position.
How to Apply for PhDs in Asia
As Asia covers a wide range of countries such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, UAE and India, their application processes naturally differ from one another. Therefore, check the specific application process for each university you’re interested to get the most accurate information.
- China – uses two centralised application services, CUAC and CUCAS. Both these services help international students find and apply to a PhD project in China. Students can also apply directly to a University if they wish to.
- Singapore – rather than applying to a specific research project, you will have to apply to a faculty or department within a University. Only once you have been accepted into the university department will their research projects become available to you. Like US universities, most universities in Singapore will have required you to have sat a GRE Exams prior to applying to them.
- UAE – you must apply directly to your chosen university. To be eligible for a PhD in UAE, you must hold a Master’s degree and it must be from a university recognised by their government. You will also be required to undertake GRE Exams before making your application.
How to Apply for PhDs in Australia
To apply to a PhD in Australia, you will first be expected to find and email a potential supervisor. If you’re an international student and you make an application directly to the university without doing this first, it’s highly likely that you won’t be considered for the position.
Upon discussing the project with the supervisor, they will instruct you to put in a formal application. This formal application will require the information previously outlined above.
Similar to EU institutions, if an Australian university believes you’re a strong candidate, they will likely invite you to a Skype or telephone interview.
Unlike EU universities, PhDs in Australian universities can start at any time of the year. Therefore, unless a specific funding requirement is attached to the project, there are usually no deadlines associated with applying to their PhDs. However, try to apply 3 to 4 months before you intend to start your studies.