Wondering what the key differences are in the process of getting into a doctoral program in Canada vs US, and things to keep in mind? Keep reading!

My name is Cerina Lee – and I am a Canadian entering into my first year of doctoral studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois – at the Feinberg School of Medicine. I am currently 1 of 4 cohort of students accepted into the fully-funded HSIP program for 2019.

Having gone through the process, here are my top TEN tips/things to consider when applying as a Canadian student to a US PhD program in Public Health.

1. The Differences

Admissions-based (US):

The US has more of a tier-system when it comes to Universities and Colleges. This means that if you’re hoping to work in academia in the US, where you attended University for your degree does tend to make a difference.

When it comes to deciding on your supervisor, there is no “shopping” for professors – as in, although you can “recommend” professors that may be of interest to you, your academic supervisor is not assigned to you until your 2nd year of your doctoral program. I spoke over the phone with a few professors from Harvard, UCLA, NU, Brown’s and John’s Hopkins – and although they gave me great advice on how to start my application process, they also emphasized that speaking with them does not necessarily secure a position in their program. In fact, they all commonly mentioned that the admissions process will dictate whether I get in or not.

Research interest-based (Canada):

Although Universities are regarded as more “rigorous” than Colleges, I found that PhD programs are all considered the same playing field, regardless of the school.

In Canada, it is also more professor-student-centered, meaning that you get to “shop” for your PhD program before you even begin the program. During my search, I spoke with professors at the University of Calgary, Dalhousie and UBC, in order to “select” the professor who you would want to conduct your research with. If the professor is compatible with you, it can essentially be a stepping stone in your acceptance to that PhD Program. I’m not in any way implying that Canadian school acceptances are not rigorous – it is just as competitive; it is simply different.

2. Aim high but be realistic

Don’t be afraid to apply to a top-ten tier school (John’s Hopkins, Cornell, Columbia, Brown’s, Northwestern), but be clear on WHY you are applying for their School. Don’t apply to them because of their “status”. Graduate programs in the US only have a few select spots for International students. Yes – depending on the school, Canadian students are considered international. At the same time, US schools are very open-door to Canadians and love seeing students with diverse backgrounds apply for their programs. The Schools I applied to had many questions around bringing a Canadian perspective for their programs and how public health practices differ between the countries. A lot of good Schools also have fully funded programs (see #7 below).

3. Do well on the “GRE”

More Canadian schools are now asking for the standardized GRE examination for their graduate programs, but is still optional for many schools. On the contrary, in the US, almost all Schools require the GRE exam for their programs. I won’t get too much into detail about the GRE, but do not underestimate it. Most top-tier Schools require an 80-90th percentile score on the GRE, and use it strictly as a way to screen students during the admissions process.

4. Interviews

Once you apply, one of the final screening processes for US doctoral programs is during the INTERVIEW. For Northwestern, the School paid for my flight and all expenses for me to fly to Chicago to attend an in-person interview. This is not always the case for every School, but most top-tier Universities may fund you to attend (if you are coming out of State). The interview was an awesome learning experience. It was an all-day undertaking, starting in the morning, and went into the afternoon. I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with different Faculty and professors in the program to see if I was a good fit in the program and show them exactly why I was pursuing their School. I would say the interview was quite intimidating as you are waiting in a line of other students with amazing academic credentials. Regardless, have confidence in yourself and know that you have made it this far in the process!!

5. Be aware of the application $$$

US school applications cost money (and are listed in USD!!). Certain schools utilize the SOPHAS portal – which costs about $100/application plus a transcript fee (~$50) that ensures your transcripts are correct. In addition, each school may have their own additional application portal fee (~$100). Each application also requires you to send your GRE scores from ETS ($30 per school that you send to) – this is a separate cost from the actual writing of the GRE exam ($300). Lastly, there is a mandatory WES evaluation fee of about $120, which is a credential evaluation that you need to send your Canadian transcripts to – this ensures that your grades are legitimate and “real.”

6. Does your GPA count?

Yes, but how much depends on the school. The majority of top-tier Universities utilize your GPA and GRE as a first step screening tool. Depending on the school and program you are applying to, your GPA may not hold as much of a weight. However, I will warn you that most competitive programs do ask for a minimum of a GPA of 3.5 or higher from your MPH.

7. The cost of your PhD program

I highly advise you to apply for programs that are FULLY funded. For my applications, I did not want to waste time applying for ones that required me to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees. I wanted to be at a program that had a fully paid tuition plus a monthly stipend (as well as full health insurance). These fully funded programs can sometimes be difficult to find – so, do your research on which programs do provide this for international students.

8. Timing of your research

Although the research topic you have in mind may be “current”, it may not be available at the University you are seeking acceptance to. Furthermore, even if it is studied at the University, doctoral students researching in that field may be capped for the year. Thus, be diligent in figuring out if there is a NEED for your research at the University. By learning this early, it may save you hundreds of application fees.

9. Course-work heavy

Doctoral programs in the US, I generally find, are more course-work heavy. This is because a lot of Canadian credits from your MPH are not usually transferrable to the US school. For example, that 600-level health policy class you took in your MPH as an elective will not be transferrable, meaning you need to take it again at your US school.

10. The final “call”

When I got that phone-call from the Dean himself, I was shaking with excitement! Essentially, even before you receive that official acceptance letter, you may receive such a personal phone-call with a personable welcome and acceptance offer to their program!  So, don’t hesitate celebrate your accomplishment multiple times!

In all, I know that the above may seem like a huge investment, but it really is worth it when you realize you got into the School and program of your dreams!! Despite the effort and time, I am so happy to move to Chicago this Fall and start a new journey in a new city, program and new horizons of Public Health!

About the author:

Cerina Lee is a Master of Public Health graduate from the University of Alberta – School of Public Health. She is now entering into her first year of Doctoral studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL at the Feinberg School of Medicine.