US PhD vs. Canada PhD: Differences?

Here’s everything about the differences between a US PhD and a Canadian PhD:

The biggest difference is that PhD programs in Canada usually require a master’s degree before you can apply.

This makes the programs two years shorter, on average.

Additionally, the US is a much bigger country with a lot more opportunities, and PhD outcomes tend to be better in the US as a result.

So if you want to learn all about the differences between the US and Canada PhD programs and their disparities in job outcomes, then this article is for you.

Keep reading!

US PhD vs. Canada PhD: Differences? (All the Info)

What Are the Major Differences in the PhD Degree Path? (6 Distinctions)

It’s hard to find any two countries in the world that are more similar than the US and Canada.

The cultures are inseparably linked together, and because of that, experiences in each country tend to be very similar.

This applies to PhD pursuits as well as anything else.

A PhD in the US and Canada is a lot more alike than it is different, but there are some distinctions that are worth discussing.

We can break these differences into two categories: obtaining the PhD, and life after school.

First, let’s look at the major differences in obtaining a PhD.

#1 Country Sizes

The most obvious differences in pursuing a degree in these countries is the countries themselves.

Clearly, the United States and Canada are different in a lot of respects, and one that needs mentioning is the size.

While Canada takes up more space, the US is just shy of 10 times the population of Canada.

With that huge population disparity comes a lot of variety and variability in colleges and PhD programs.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Canada has 223 public and private universities.

That’s a lot of different places to study.

Meanwhile, the US has almost 6,000 colleges and universities.

That’s 30 times as many, even though the population is only 10 times as large.

On top of that huge difference in the number of places you can study, the US ultimately offers substantially more PhD programs than Canada.

Any one learning institution is going to offer dozens of different PhD programs or more. 

What this means is that you can see a lot of different experiences in the US.

While I can go over some of the most common differences from one country to the next, keep in mind that there is an exception to every rule.

With thousands upon thousands of PhD programs in the US, you can find just about anything possible.

#2 Admissions

While the admissions processes in each country are extremely similar, there are some stark differences.

Certainly both countries require applicants to have at least a  bachelor’s degree in their fields.

They both use standardized tests like the GRE for admissions, and both countries require pretty substantial preparation.

In both places you will need letters of recommendation, a clear research idea, language certification to ensure you’re prepared for the language of the school (which is mostly English but includes French in some parts of Canada), and a statement of purpose.

The primary difference between the two is the level of preparation.

PhD programs in Canada, on average, are more competitive than in the US.

So, you will likely need a higher GRE score or comparable display of excellence to get into a program.

It’s also a lot easier to get letters of recommendation in the United States.

Most of all, because there are so many more programs, you can pursue more niche research topics in the US.

That lowers competition and increases your overall ability to pursue a PhD.

#3 Prerequisites

While technically this could be considered part of admissions, there’s a clear distinction in prerequisites between the two countries.

Namely, Canada requires much higher levels of expertise before you can get into a PhD program.

This mostly boils down to degrees.

In the US, it’s common to finish a bachelor’s degree and then start a PhD program. In Canada, this is rare.

The vast majority of PhD students in Canada already have a master’s degree in their respective fields.

While there are plenty of students in the US who earn a master’s before pursuing a PhD, it’s not a prerequisite.

This leads to substantial differences in the degree programs.

More or less, PhD students in the US have to catch up to the starting point of students in Canada.

Because of that, the first two years of PhD programs in the US often involve a lot of coursework (and US students who already have a master’s skip the bulk of that coursework).

Meanwhile, there is very little classroom study during a PhD program in Canada.

This also affects students’ responsibilities and overall timelines.

#4 Timeline

Let’s take a look at those timeline differences.

As I said, US PhD students are typically taking a lot of courses in their first two years.

Meanwhile, Canadian students have already completed all of that work.

Because of that, the average time to complete a PhD is two years longer in the US than in Canada.

Canadian programs finish in an average of four years, and they rarely extend beyond six years.

There’s a lot of pressure in Canada to finish the program on time.

This has a lot to do with funding, which I will talk about more in a later section.

Meanwhile, the average time to complete a US PhD is six years, and the programs can easily extend well beyond that.

The two year difference is easy to understand.

US students are basically completing a master’s degree on the way to their PhD.

But, that’s not all.

In the US, PhD programs usually have a lot more funding, and there’s a lot less pressure to finish “on time.”

In fact, a large number of PhD programs in the US don’t even have a concept of finishing on time.

You’re done when the research is complete.

That’s it.

If it takes 10 years, then it takes 10 years.

The program is funded, so it’s not a big deal.

Good research matters most.

#5 Responsibilities

All of this is reflected in student responsibilities.

In both countries, you can expect to do a lot of studying.

Whether you are taking graduate courses or not, completing PhD-level research requires a huge amount of study.

You have to compare other research to see how it informs your own.

You have to master incredibly dense and complex topics just to pursue your research.

There’s a reason that a PhD represents the pinnacle of education around the world.

Yet, there’s a lot more to a PhD program in each of these countries.

Students in both countries are often required to work as a teaching or research assistant.

That said, Canadian students often have to spend more hours a week in these roles.

Similarly, students in both countries are expected to contribute to published research, but the expectations are usually higher on Canadian students.

Most of this goes back to the master’s requirement.

Canadian students should be able to start their research immediately, and they don’t do much classroom study.

That time is reallocated to teaching and additional research.

In the US, as students complete their coursework, they tend to transition into more research-heavy roles.

So, later in the program, research requirements in the US start to match those seen in Canada.

#6 Costs

Lastly, these programs cost different amounts in each country.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the average school cost in the US is much higher than in Canada.

There is obviously a lot of variance, but the annual tuition in the US is usually between $28,000 and $40,000 (public vs private colleges) each year.

That’s pretty steep.

In Canada, tuition averages are between $8,000 and $20,000, and that’s in Canadian dollars, so it’s even more of a difference than the numbers describe. 

On top of that, the cost of living in the United States is considerably higher than Canada.

The average annual cost of living in the US is $1,200 to $2,500 USD.

Meanwhile, those costs in Canada look more like $1,000 to $1,500 CAD.

Despite all of that, the out-of-pocket costs for PhD programs in the US is lower than Canada, and this comes back to funding.

The majority of PhD programs in the US are completely funded.

That means students ultimately don’t have to pay tuition.

On top of that, students often receive stipends, grants, or wages for their contributions while in the program.

It’s fair to say that pursuing a PhD program in the US is akin to working a full-time job that includes study and research among your responsibilities.

It’s a low-paying job, but the average PhD student in the US receives more than their total education and cost-of-living expenses while in the program.

Canadian PhD programs usually are not totally funded.

Canadian students often have to pursue scholarships and research grants.

This isn’t just to cover the cost of tuition and living.

Canadian students often have to help bring in funding for their research too.

Labs aren’t cheap, after all.

In the end, Canadian students have opportunities to fully fund their PhD experience, but it’s a lot harder.

In most cases in the US, simply getting into the program is enough of a qualification to be fully funded.

What Are the Differences for the PhD Degree Holders? (3 Outcomes)

We just took a good, long look at the differences involved in pursuing a PhD, but that’s not really the whole story.

What about after the degree is completed?

How is the experience different from there?

In general, job outcomes for PhD holders in the US are better than for Canada.

A lot of that is because the US has a larger population and economy, but there are some other stark differences that are worth considering.

#1 Level of Expertise


Technically, this is not a difference at all, but it’s an important topic to cover.

A PhD in either country is considered an equivalent certification.

Regardless of which country supplies your PhD, once you complete it, you’re an expert.

You’re qualified for jobs and research positions that require a PhD.

There is no difference, and both countries recognize each others’ degrees in this respect.

It’s safe to expect that after completing a PhD in Canada, you can get jobs in the US and vice versa.

In fact, a degree from either country will be recognized around the world.

#2 Prestige

With all of that said, the prestige from the two countries is not the same.

In fact, prestige is the only clear difference between a finished PhD in either country, and it’s not a straight comparison. 

Basically, there are a lot more prestigious institutions and PhD programs in the US compared to Canada.

So, you have a lot more opportunities to participate in such a prestigious program if you study in the US.

Like I already said, this isn’t a straight line.

In either country, for every prestigious program there are another 10 that aren’t prestigious.

And whether you go to a top school or not, a PhD is a PhD.

What this comes down to is how easy it is to get a job after completing the degree and how much money you make with that job.

There’s no question that outcomes are better in the US, and it has a lot to do with prestige.

In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Programs in the US come with more networking opportunities.

Even if you aren’t going to a prestigious school, you will likely have opportunities to go to conferences and events where top employers and prestigious colleagues are available.

Those networking opportunities can help with job opportunities after completing the degree.

Now, Canadian students still have a lot of opportunities to network, and there are globally competitive universities in Canada.

This isn’t cut and dried. But, there are a lot more private-sector jobs in the US that specifically hire PhD holders.

So, US students get more access to those employers, and that’s a major reason for the differences in outcomes.

#3 Postdoc Research

The final major difference is postdoctoral research.

It’s common in both countries to find a postdoc research fellowship.

This is where PhDs really hone their skills and master their craft to the highest degree.

The best-paid private-sector positions are often going to come after a postdoc fellowship.

Here’s the difference between the two countries.

There are a lot (and I mean A LOT) more postdoc opportunities in the US.

The United States is far and away the leader in privately funded research, across pretty much all fields.

People go from all over the world to the US to complete postdoc research.

As mentioned before with networking opportunities, already being in the US offers some advantages towards finding and obtaining a postdoc fellowship.