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Building a Successful PhD Application Package

Updated: Apr 4

Written by: Charles Thickstun

Applying to postgraduate programs can be a painstaking and anxiety-inducing process. First, you need to make the decision to go back to university after years of schooling. Second, you need to compile a list of programs that are the right fit for you. Then comes the most dreaded part: the application process. We’ve been through it ourselves. We know what you’re going through — and we’re here to help. Here is a list of tips and considerations to make the application process a bit easier for you than it was for us.

Have any questions that we didn’t answer? Send us an email!

Disclaimer: This guide is based on our personal experiences and opinions as successful applicants to SEPH programs. What we consider to be important may not be the same as the admissions committee. Please refer to the specific application guidelines for each program and contact the Faculty of Medicine Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Office (aka. Grad Med) for more specific enquiries. 


First of all, when is the application deadline?

Make sure to send in all supporting documents for your application before the deadline. Deadlines can be found here. Note that for the PhD in Epidemiology, the application deadline is earlier for international applicants. Be sure to plan accordingly.

The PhD in Epidemiology admits students for any semester (September, January, and May) to allow for the needs of each student. Applications can further be deferred up to a full year, giving a great amount of flexibility. This rolling admission cycle is possible as students in the PhD in Epidemiology are not admitted in a set cohort, but rather based on their individual applications. That being said, some elements of the program assume a September start, and you may find a lack of course offerings if you start your studies in January or May. You should work with your supervisor to plan what term of entry makes the most sense for your schedule.

Do I need to find a supervisor before applying?

Yes. While it is encouraged to find a supervisor before applying to the Master’s program, for the PhD it is absolutely essential. To a large extent, applications to the PhD program in Epidemiology are a joint venture with your supervisor. By agreeing to take you on as a student, they are guaranteeing their time (and funding) to your education. Your supervisor should be closely involved in your application to the program from the beginning, offering support and insight throughout the process.

The full inventory of faculty with supervisory privileges is here, though not all these supervisors may be looking for students. SEPH also maintains a current inventory of supervisors available to take on students here, which you can also find on our resources page.

How should I contact potential supervisors then?

At this point in your studies, you have no doubt gone through this process at least once, which we understand makes it no less daunting. Some students find it helpful to reach out to a previous supervisor for assistance, as they may have professional contacts with potential supervisors or offer to leverage their network to get you in touch. This has a secondary benefit in informing your previous supervisor of your intent to apply to the PhD program (you will likely want to request a letter of recommendation from them as well).  

Unless your field of study is highly saturated, there will likely only be one or two potential supervisors at SEPH that will be the right fit for you. While this does make it easier to narrow down your options, it can be that much more frustrating if your preferred supervisor is not accepting new students. Depending on your personal situation, it may be a good idea to inquire (politely) if they would be willing to take you on at a future date, or if they could recommend another potential supervisor from their personal network. In either case you may have to wait, move to a different institution, or both.

I have a meeting with a potential supervisor. Now what?

In many ways, this is a job interview. At the PhD level, your supervisor is committing (at least) four years of their time and (at least) $21,000 to your education. They are signing up for the joys and frustrations of working with you (and we all have both) and often at the expense of another candidate who may be equally qualified and excited for the opportunity. At the same time, however, you are interviewing your supervisor.

Grad Med has a great guide on finding your supervisor here. I particularly suggest that you consider the list of points under the "After the meeting" section before your first meeting, as these may be great questions to ask to determine if your goals and expectations align with those of your supervisor.

Notably, I would consider:

  • "Do you think that this professor's approach (philosophical and theoretical) is compatible enough for an eventual collaboration?"

  • "Do your expectations in terms of roles and responsibilities appear to coincide?"

Most applicants have a sense of the nuts and bolts of an interview with a potential supervisor (which project would you be working on, what funding is available, etc.), but it is also important to take a step back and examine the larger scope of collaboration between a student and their supervisor. Especially in a PhD program, you will be working with this person for the next half of a decade and they will be first in line to serve as your mentor and referee for your future career goals for years to come.

Who should write my letter of recommendation?

In almost every circumstance, when applying for a PhD, one of your letters of recommendation should be written by a previous academic supervisor. If you are lucky enough to have more than one then you can choose based on any criteria that you see fit, but we recommend either the most recent, or the one whose research is most closely aligned with the project you plan to undertake for the PhD in epidemiology program.

The second letter can come from any person that you feel will best represent your application. General recommendations are to choose your employer (if you work in an epidemiology related field) or another academic reference with whom you have a strong, positive relationship.

Do I need to submit proof of language proficiency?

If your first language isn’t English or French, you will need to provide your test scores from one of the certified language tests. More information can be found here.

Note that unlike many programs at the University of Ottawa, the PhD in Epidemiology does not have a bilingual requirement.

Which part of the application package matters most? Does GPA matter?

For the PhD in epidemiology application, the most important parts of your application package are the parts you can change. If you are still in a previous program, ensure that you are working hard in your courses. If you are finalizing a thesis or manuscript, put whatever effort you can into the quality of those projects. If you have the opportunity to expand your CV through workshops or conferences, take those opportunities.

Generally, though, most of your application package is behind you. Transcripts have been fixed (sometimes for years), your thesis done and submitted, and while you can always pad your CV, there comes a time where one more workshop is just that. Where you can always add value to your application is in the Letter of Intent.

Now I need to prepare my application documents. But, what should I write in a Letter of Intent?

There is no “right way” to pen a Letter of Intent. Each applicant will have to lean on their experience writing applications in the past to explain their reasons for wanting to earn a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Ottawa.

We recommend that you clearly articulate an attainable research goal and point to your previous experience and expertise to demonstrate your ability to execute that undertaking. We highly recommend that you work closely with all your supporting partners (potential supervisor, previous supervisors, employers, etc.) to craft the most coherent and comprehensive Letter of Intent possible. In many ways, it may be beneficial to think of this as an early draft of your thesis proposal (not a rough draft though!).

Think through your research aspirations and the project your potential supervisor has proposed:

  • What data will you gather or gain access to in order to execute that research goal?

  • Will you need to take courses to learn new methods or theories?

  • How will you leverage your previous experience in this endeavor?

  • Why is the University of Ottawa the best institution to conduct this research?

  • Do you have access to any funding for this research?

The answers to these questions can be a great starting point for your Letter of Intent. Remember to engage with all members of your support network in editing and refining this part of your application.

What funding packages are available?

We have a whole blog on funding your program (Editor's note: Funding rules have recently changed at SEPH and this blog is temporarily offline as it is being rewritten to reflect those changes). Briefly, all doctoral students are guaranteed a minimum of $21,000 in annual stipend for four years by their supervisor. Additional funds may be available based on your application package. At a PhD level, we would highly recommend planning to apply for external funds in the year you submit your application package (the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, Tri-Council Awards, and Vanier can all be applied to prior to your admission to the program). See the Graduate Studies Office page on External and Other Awards for more information on applying here and here. We also have a blog post on some applicable internal scholarships.

Note that funding options may differ for international students.

Still have more questions?

Grad Med now maintains a formal Admissions FAQ which may have the answer you need!


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