Applying to study in Canada: How a student from Cambodia did it?

Vicheth Sen, a university lecturer and education researcher from Cambodia, applied and got admitted to the doctoral program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in 2012. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Studies and is in the process of writing his dissertation. I asked Vicheth to share his experience as an applicant/student as well as his advice to help you prepare and make your choice when applying to Canadian universities. The following is my interview with him.

Sopheap: Why did you decide to apply to study in Canada? 

Vicheth: Well, there are several reasons why I decided to apply to study here. First, I liked the overall PhD program structure at North American universities, specifically Canada and the United States. It is a blend of required coursework of one to two years, followed by Comprehensive Exams, after which a student can begin writing his/her research proposal, defend it and then prepare for field research and data analysis and writing. I find this program structure useful because it has allowed me to explore diverse foundational theories and methodologies and pass the Comprehensive Exams to be qualified to write a research proposal and go to collect data in the field. Second, I decided to come to Canada instead of the United States although the universities in the two countries have similar PhD program structure because, personally, Canada is a more peaceful and tolerant society. Of course, I understand that gun violence and shootings do not occur everywhere in the US, but I do not feel safe knowing that anyone may carry a gun and gun violence may occur at any time anywhere. That does not mean the same thing could not happen in Canada. It is just that Canada has different laws with regards to gun control and possession and, generally speaking, Canadians have a different attitude toward gun possession. Third, Canada allows the children of international students to attend public schools at no cost. Because I had one daughter when I arrived in Canada (now I have two children!), Canada is just the perfect place for my children. I am sure this is not just the case specific to Canada; many other countries also allow children of international students to attend public schools free of charge. But in my case, this third reason perfectly complements the first two.

Sopheap: How did you apply to your program?

Vicheth: Applying for admission to a graduate program is a time-consuming process and requires a lot of preparatory work. During the preparation stage, I had the checklist below with major items that were required:

  • Transcripts from previous degree programs attended
  • Certified copies of degree certificates from previous degree programs attended
  • An updated curriculum vitae
  • A sample publication
  • A valid TOEFL or IELTS score report and a GRE score report (certain graduate programs required this)
  • Reference letters or employers and former professors who are available to write good reference letters for me
  • A Statement of Purpose (required as part of the application package)
  • A well-written research proposal (2-3 pages) (this is not required for the application. But it is good to have it for communication purpose with prospective supervisors)

Once I had collected these items, or I knew that I would be able to secure them in time for my application submission (such as reference letters), I began exploring the website of the program I was interested in and wanted to submit my application to. I specifically reviewed the admissions requirements, areas of research of the faculty members, and scholarship/funding opportunities. Then, I began contacting a few faculty members with expertise in the areas I would like to focus my PhD research on. The purpose of contacting them was to secure their approval to be my prospective supervisors if I was admitted into the program. I knew that my application would be more competitive if I had at least one professor who agreed to be my prospective supervisor. I contacted three professors with expertise in the areas of my research interests, and two professors agreed to be my potential supervisors, which I mentioned in my Statement of Purpose submitted as part of my application package.

It is important to note that not all professors you contact will agree to supervise you. They always have a good reason to say no if they want to. They need to assess whether you are a good fit and whether you have a good chance of being admitted. So, when you contact them, make sure to attach your updated CV and your research proposal. When I emailed them, I introduced myself, the reason why I contacted them, and why I thought he/she was the most suitable supervisor for the research I was going to conduct if I was admitted into the program. I also attached my updated CV and my research proposal. One of the professors requested I send him one of my publications. After he read it, he asked me to engage in a discussion about my publication before he agreed to have his name mentioned as a prospective supervisor in my Statement of Purpose. I should also note that most of the Canadian universities do not require a research proposal as part of the application package. Instead, an important document required is a Statement of Purpose (roughly about 800-1200 words in length). A Statement of Purpose is not the same as a research proposal but contains most of its elements. Each university usually lists what they expect to see in a Statement of Purpose.

Once I received the green light from the two prospective supervisors, I began creating an online profile to fill in the online application form and upload required documents. Certain documents such as original transcripts and reference letters had to be mailed to the Graduate Program Assistant of the Department I was applying to. After the online application was submitted and all required supporting documents were mailed, it was waiting time, which was about three months before I received an email notification of the result of my application.After I received a mailed letter of acceptance, I began applying for a study permit and got prepared for my departure to Canada.

Sopheap: Can you work while studying in Canada?

Vicheth: Yes, of course. I’ve been working here soon after I arrived in Canada. As a study permit holder, I am allowed to work on-campus or off-campus up to 20 hours per week during regular school sessions. During scheduled breaks such as spring break or winter and summer holidays, I can work full-time. If I want to work after I finish my studies, I can apply for a Post-Graduation Work Permit and work in Canada for up to three years.

Sopheap: Are there English language proficiency requirements?

Vicheth: For admission requirements, international students whose first language is not English are required to prove their English language proficiency by using either TOEFL or IELTS test score. Some other English language tests may also be accepted. The minimum test score may be slightly different from one university to another. Some programs also require applicants to submit a GRE test score as part of the admission requirements. Proof of English language proficiency may be waived for students who have previously attended a degree program conducted in the English language. Applicants should carefully consult the language proficiency requirements for the program(s) they are applying to.

Sopheap: What final advice can you give to those who want to apply?

Vicheth: The process is time-consuming. It may take up to one year before you know the result of your application. So, start getting prepared as soon as you want to pursue further studies in Canada. Also, it is wise to apply to more than one program and university to maximise your chance of getting admitted. The admission requirements of different programs or schools are similar so it will not take much time for you to slightly modify your applications according to the specific needs of various programs or universities.

Sopheap: Thank you, Vicheth, for taking the time to respond to my questions today.

Please feel free to leave your comment below if you have a question or a topic you would like me to answer or cover.

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