Demystifying the grad school application system across countries: UK, USA, Canada & the Netherlands

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Written by Ava (Qingting) Ma de Sousa and Jennifer Fielder. Edited by Rebecca Dyer.

You're (thinking about) applying to graduate school! This is a big step and can be extremely daunting. To make matters more complicated, different countries can have different program structures, application processes and timelines. When we, the authors, were in the process of applications (in the fields of psychology/cognitive science/neuroscience), the differences and quirks between different countries felt especially confusing to navigate. In this post, we outline differences in program structure and application processes in a few different countries: the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, and the US. For a summary, see the table at the bottom of this post.


Applications In The UK


Unlike countries who have more standardised application systems, there are multiple ways to apply for UK PhDs, depending on the programme or funding, for example. Different online guides can, therefore, be confusing if they only describe one route. I hope, here, to give an overview of the different routes you can take so that you can make more informed choices. I will summarise what I think are the hardest parts of the application system to navigate. You can also check out Timothy Sadhu's great blog post about UK PhD applications for more detailed information.


The primary routes for UK PhD applications fall into three categories outlined below:

  1. Proposing your own project (and applying for funding)

  2. Rotation programmes

  3. Applying to an advertised predefined project

We’ll start with some terminology:

  • A studentship is one way to fund your PhD. It is attached to a specific PhD project or programme. The money may come from a government research council, an independent research charity, or a university department. A full studentship covers your research costs, your tuition fees, and a maintenance allowance to live off (called the stipend, which is typically around £15,600 a year, rising to £17,600 in London). Other ways to fund a PhD include University scholarships or a teaching position in the department (sometimes called a ‘demonstratorship’).

  • Studentships are often linked to a specific Doctoral Training Programme (or Partnership) (called DTPs). Each DTP gets funding from a source like a research council or charity (for example the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust) which will be used to provide the studentships. A DTP can be hosted at just one university, but often multiple universities belong to the same DTP and these are often grouped regionally. For example, here you can see the list of Medical Research Council DTPs and here you can see a list of Economic and Social Research Council DTPs. The DTP is where you apply to get funding and is ultimately the ‘programme’ you belong to (e.g. your ‘cohort’ when you start will be all PhD students who also start that DTP). Importantly (and very annoyingly), each DTP is run in a slightly different format. For example, I applied to a DTP that provided funding for projects that applicants had proposed (route 1 below), but another DTP that was a rotation programme (route 2 below), and another DTP that advertised specific projects (route 3). This is especially confusing, as often people mistakenly think DTPs only refer to one ‘style’ of PhD (e.g. a rotation programme), but they can take different formats. Just bear this in mind when applying - every programme will have its own application procedure, so check out their websites as all the information will be there, and ask students and the programme coordinators if you have questions.

The different ways of applying for funding for a PhD in the UK:


1. Proposing Your Own Project

This is a common route to doing a PhD in the UK. It involves contacting a researcher who you’d like to do your PhD with, and then proposing a project, applying for funding, and applying for a place at the University (which is separate to funding). This is very different to the US (in the UK you must contact a researcher beforehand), and Cody Kommers has written a blog about more of these differences. The researcher would be a principal investigator (PI) who is the head of a lab and, therefore, able to supervise PhD students. To find potential supervisors, you can look on department websites and lab websites, or perhaps you’ve seen a researcher talk or you know a lecturer you’d like to work with. Once you have found a potential supervisor, you should email them asking if a) they are accepting PhD students for the following year, b) explaining your research background and interests, c) why you’d like to do a PhD with them, d) attaching your CV (not necessary, but is typical). This can be quite concise - the main purpose is for them to know whether they’d like to chat with you and support your application further. Assuming they are on board with you working with them (this will probably be based on an informal interview), you will write a research proposal to then apply for 1) studentship funding (this will likely come from a DTP or University scholarships) and 2) a place at the university, specifically to work with that PI as your supervisor. I’d recommend reaching out to PIs around October time, as proposal deadlines can be as early as the beginning of December. Tips for proposals can be read in Tim’s blog. Regarding timelines, each university will be different, but I would say full applications typically need to be submitted in early January (earliest I know of is Cambridge that is beginning of December). It’s worth noting that when it comes to applying to work with a specific researcher, it’s likely you will have to make applications for funding (a DTP or other sources of funding such as university scholarships) as well as to the university (to gain a place as a PhD student, separate to funding). Annoyingly, they often have different application formats. Each DTP will have it’s own website with the application details, and any PI you’re interested in working with should be able help with this information or contact their department to see different funding options. This option is great if you know exactly what you’d like to do. You really have to hit the ground running, as funding is typically just for 3 years. Writing proposals takes a lot of time. They should typically be around 4-6 pages, with a breakdown of the experiments and timelines for the PhD project, so it will be a big time commitment to put a strong proposal together.


2. Rotation Programmes

Another option in the UK for doing a PhD is to apply for a rotation programme. Rotation programmes have 1 year before the PhD project starts where you can work in different labs (typically three labs, but possibly two or four) to get a feel for different research areas/methods/labs, before choosing your PhD project to conduct in years 2-4. This is great if you know you want to do a PhD in a certain area, but are not sure on the exact topic and want to try more things out. These programmes typically have a strong interdisciplinary focus. Here are some in the (cognitive) neuroscience/psychology field:

Gaining a place on these programmes will come with funding (including your rotation year), so you won’t have to source funding elsewhere. From personal experience, each of these programmes have their own kind of application process (stated on their websites). Some require a CV, others don’t, and I found that most require a motivation statement of around 500 words. Unlike route 1 above, you do not need to propose a research project, but having a good idea of researchers you’d like to do rotations with is important. The timeline for these varies considerably across programmes. I've included the typical dates above based on a September 2022 intake. Programmes typically follow a similar application timeline year-on-year, but do check the programme websites.


Side note 1: For those interested in rotation programmes and not exclusively in the UK, Germany offers the Max Planck School of Cognition with links to Max Planck Institutions in The Netherlands and UK (typically early December deadline) and the Einstein Center for Neurosciences Berlin (typically January deadline).


Side note 2: The following programme includes six months of teaching in the first year, plus a two-month rotation in the second year to learn something outside of your chosen field. This isn't necessarily the same as lab rotations, but still follows an interdisciplinary ethos with a (funded) year before you embark on your PhD project: Gatsby PhD in Computational and Theoretical Neuroscience and Machine Learning at UCL (typically November deadline).


3. Advertised Pre-Defined Project

Another route for doing your PhD in the UK is to apply to a position that you see advertised. This option is the most similar to the European style of PhD adverts. With this, a project will (normally) already come with funding, so a PI will advertise a position for a project they’d like a PhD student to join. These adverts can be found on Twitter (create an account and follow researchers whose work you’re interested in!), jobs.ac.uk, findaphd.com. The application procedure will be stated in the advert (e.g. email the PI with a CV and cover letter). Sometimes, DTPs will advertise specific projects (say a list of 50 projects), but they only have a certain number of places on the DTP (say, 10). This means that although you may be the best candidate for that one project, you’d still have to gain a place on the DTP to do the project. This kind of information would be on the PhD advert as it will say something like “apply via the DTP” and give more information. This option is great if you know your research interests and direction, but are happy to be more flexible with the exact topic (i.e. it has been proposed already). They will be typically 3-4 years. Regarding the timeline, I saw a DTP with specific projects advertised as early as November (for the following October), but they can also be advertised throughout the year with start dates in say 3 months time. You can set alerts on the websites stated above for positions with certain keywords so adverts won’t pass you by!


Applications In The Netherlands


In the Netherlands, PhD positions are much more similar to regular jobs than to being a student. PhD’s are mostly advertised as specific projects that already have funding.


Finding A Position

There are two main paths when searching for PhD positions in The Netherlands:

  1. Applying to a posted position: Positions come up just like jobs, and are advertised on university websites. Academic Transfer is an excellent resource that collects available PhD positions. You can set email alerts for specific keywords so that you can stay up to date.

  2. Individual grants: If you have an idea for a specific project, you can write a proposal yourself for the NWO Talent Grant. Note that you should find a professor to supervise you (and help write the grant!) before getting started.


The Application Process

The application process is more straightforward than North American and UK applications. Since you are applying to an individual project/job, the cycle typically goes much quicker, taking around a month. Unlike North America, applications are also free.


  1. Submitting materials: CV, research and/or personal statement, transcripts and letters of recommendation. Sometimes extra materials are asked for, such as rating specific skills in analysis techniques and software. Note: In the Netherlands, it is typical (and sometimes required) to have, or at least be completing, a Master’s degree.

  2. Assignment: Though this is not always mandatory, it seems that applicants can be asked to complete an analysis and report on a dataset similar to what the PhD will require. Typically, labs give 24 hours to one week to complete these assignments.

  3. Interview and presentation. Like other systems, the final step is often an interview with your PI and lab. Sometimes applicants are also asked to give a presentation on a past project (i.e., your Master’s thesis) or the assignment they were asked to complete.


Degree Requirements

Complete your research project(s)! Unlike PhDs in other places, students in the Netherlands are not usually required to take classes (though you might take some to sharpen a specific skill-set). They are also not required to teach classes for their stipends, although many PhD students have opportunities to teach if they want to. Sounds like a sweet deal right? One extra source of potential stress in some Dutch Universities, however, is that PhD students can be required to publish a certain amount of articles in journals in order to graduate.


Salaries

Like a job, PhD students in the Netherlands are paid a salary. This salary is set at the national level, meaning that all PhD students in the Netherlands are paid the same. You can see the salaries from 2020 on page 80-81 of the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities (CAO NU), under the column P. A PhD student’s salary increases each year, going from €2395 a month in first year to €3061 in fourth year.


Applications In The US And Canada

*This advice mainly comes from personal experience of applying to Psychology PhD programs. Some programs do not follow this timeline. For instance, the Integrated Program in Neuroscience at McGill University has different deadlines, and a system more similar to European PhDs than standard North American grad school.


Getting a PhD in the United States and Canada typically involves getting into a graduate school program, involving research, courses, and teaching. A PhD in North America also often involves a Master’s degree included in your graduate school experience. Thus, the first two years of a PhD, you also work toward a Master’s. For this reason, all applications are mostly done within the same chunk of time, with first deadlines starting in late Fall, and acceptances coming in early Spring. This process can also be expensive. Application fees are between $80 to $125 per university. Fee waivers can be obtained for financial hardship, but this is often only for domestic students. Alexis Smith-Flores has a great guide on applying on a budget.


Timeline of applications:


1. Summer-Early Fall: Finding programs and labs.

See this guide on how to choose a program and advisor. In this time you can also consider reaching out to Faculty members with whom you would be interested in working. You don’t want to spend time and money applying to a program only to find out the lab you want to work in isn’t accepting students! See more about how and why to contact potential advisors here.


2. Fall: Putting Together Your Materials. These Include:
  1. A research statement. Here you outline the questions that make you tick, how your past research experiences have influenced you, and how this fits in with the program and lab you are applying to. How do your interests fit and extend this lab’s work? This can be extremely daunting to write -- find some helpful guides here and here.

  2. A personal statement. Though not always required, many programs ask for a more personal statement about your experiences outside of your strictly research and academic experiences. This is an opportunity to discuss accomplishments, service and how academia relates to your life and goals. This also is a place to discuss any ‘weaknesses’ with your application (low grades, lack of research experience… etc). Read more about writing a personal statement vs research statement here.

  3. Transcripts.

  4. 2-3 Letters of Recommendation. Make sure you ask your professors for this early (September/October) and keep the update which the programs and labs you are applying to.

  5. English language test scores if you are not from a primarily English-speaking country.

  6. GRE General test scores: The GRE General Test used to be required by almost every Psychology PhD program, but ‘thanks’ to the pandemic, is falling out of fashion. Make sure to check whether your programs will be requiring the GRE so that you can adequately prepare. Many test prep services and guides, including some from the test makers themselves exist. I personally used Magoosh, which was significantly cheaper than other test prep, and had an online interface similar to actual testing conditions. Please also keep in mind that registration for the GRE costs $205. The fees, unfortunately, do not end there. Although you can choose to send your scores to four schools for free right after your test, sending additional scores cost $27 to each recipient.

  7. Additional materials, like writing samples, statements on software knowledge can be required by some programs.

3. Late Fall/Early December: Submit Your Materials!

This step actually might take longer than you expect, so give yourself time before the hard deadline. Each university will have its own application portal with some requiring manual inputs of grades, diplomas, and even courses taken.


4. Late Fall/Early Winter: Preliminary Interviews

Some PIs conduct preliminary interviews with potential candidates before inviting a select few to the more formal departmental interviews that happen later in the Winter. These preliminary chats might happen before you’ve even submitted your application (another reason to contact a PI before applying!), but many professors prefer to have these discussions after reviewing all applications to ensure equal treatment to all students.


5. Winter/Spring: Departmental Interviews

This is it! The last hurdle! These ‘formal’ interviews can last one full day to one whole weekend. In pre-COVID times, universities hosted interview weekends on campus, including formal interviews and other social activities. Check out this guide to interview weekend.


These interviews can be very nerve wracking but are your final opportunity to not only showcase your passion, ideas and personality but to get a feel for your potential new lab. Always remember that you are interviewing the program as much as they are interviewing you. Ask lots of questions (like these and these). Take notes during this process! A spreadsheet with important points might help.


If that pep talk didn’t help, make sure to check out these tips and resources.


Degree Requirements

Degree requirements vary from program to program, which can be a deciding factor in your decisions to apply to and attend different schools. Many universities in the US and Canada require a year or two of relatively heavy coursework in addition to research. These courses constitute the Master’s degree built into many North American PhD programs. After the bulk of your classes, some programs require students to pass written and oral qualifying exams, which test your knowledge about your field. Of course, like other programs, you also need to complete your dissertation and defense.


Stipends And Fellowships

In almost all graduate programs in Canada and the US, all accepted students will be provided funding. Funding can vary widely from program to program, but usually ranges from $20k-35k a year (but keep in mind that a dollar in the Midwest might stretch much further than a dollar in New York City). However, unlike many programs in Europe, your funding may also come from teaching work. Some programs require PhD students to teach a course each semester of their degree, while others require students to teach a certain number of courses, which they can elect to do earlier or later. These requirements and structures may also be an important factor in your decision making.

Stipends and scholarships also vary in what they cover. For instance, you may have to pay university fees, or even health insurance out of pocket. Some universities also do not provide summer funding. If you cannot find funding information on the program website make sure to ask about finances, especially when you speak with current graduate students.


Because students can be burdened by heavy teaching loads, many look into external fellowships. The most-well known of these are NSF for American students and NSERC/SSHRC for Canadian students. While many students apply for these grants during the first years of their graduate programs, it is also possible to apply for these fellowships before being accepted into graduate school.


Summary Table: PhD Differences Between Countries

North America

Netherlands

UK

What is it

A graduate school program

A paid research position

A graduate school program (you are a PhD student)

Your Research

Up to you and your supervisor Often relatively a broad idea at the start of your program, though highly subject to change.

​Usually a clear idea of research question/area, even methods.

​Depends on the programme/entry method (see above). Either a year to do rotations in different labs and choose the PhD project after, or start with a pretty clear topic/proposal.

Length

4-6 years

3-4 years

3-4 years

Stipends/Salary

​Stipend of 20-35k a year Depends on the program ‘Good’ programs do not admit students without funding

€2395 to €3061 per month depending on year (as of 2020)

Stipend of typically £15,609/year outside of London, £17,609/year in London (standard UKRI research council rate). Can be higher (e.g. Wellcome Trust funding is £20-24k/year outside of London or £22-27k/year in London)

Stipend source

​University departments (typical),

Lab, OR NSF (if American) and SSHRC/NSREC (if Canadian)

NSERC/SSHRC*

*this is transportable, can be taken to any country and program

Lab Or self-funded NWO Talent Grant

Research councils (e.g. Medical Research Council) or charity (e.g. Wellcome Trust), or university scholarships (rarely).

Stipend Requirement

TA + research duties,

depends on the program



Do the research

​Do the research (teaching is in addition to the programme and therefore can be additional income)

Program Requirements

Relatively heavy course work first two years, qualifying exam, research & dissertation

Research & dissertation Sometimes 4+ publications

​Research & dissertation

Stipend Covers

Tuition, fees, health insurance BUT sometimes hidden fees

-

​Full studentship covers research costs, stipend (your salary), tuition fees (note: not all programmes cover international fees, but there can be scholarships to cover the difference between home and international rates),


Summary Table: Application Differences Between Countries

North America

Netherlands

UK

Deadlines

Nov/Dec 1 – Feb/April

Whenever a position comes up

(check Academic Transfer and Twitter)

Nov/Dec - Feb

Research Statement/Statement of Purpose

for the program

Motivation Letter for the position

Personal/motivation statement (often max 1 page or sometimes 500 words), will vary greatly on the programme applied to

Bachelor’s degree

Bachelor's + Master's/Res Mas

Bachelor’s degree

CV

CV

Bachelor’s degree

2-3 References

2-3 References

2 References

Transcripts

Transcripts

Transcripts

Application fees: 80-125$* *can be waived for financial hardship – but often not offered for international students

Free

Free (except University of Oxford who charge £75 admin fee)

Possible requirements

GRE Personal Statement Writing Sample

An assignment (analysis and report) which you have 1-7 days to complete

Written answers (in an application form) to questions specific to that programme (e.g. “What are your thoughts on current mental health research?”)

Interview

​Preliminary interviews with PI (December-January)

Full day with whole department (grad students, PI, other professors) (January-March)



Interview with PIs, lab, maybe a presentation of your work

Depending on type of programme applied to (see above), typically an interview with a panel from the funding programme including discussion of a previous research project (Jan-March). If applying for a specific project, then a more informal interview with PI would happen first to see if they want to apply for funding with you Oct-Dec.


Extra Resources

Here are a few other resources: This Twitter thread, First Gen Guide by Enrica Bridgewater and this resource compilation.


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