A completion of the Master's degree in a related field (with sufficiently high grades and proven research ability) is needed in order to obtain and admission to a Ph.D. program at a Canadian university. Very rarely, a student may progress directly from and Honours Bachelor's degree to a Ph.D. program. The student is usually submitting an application package, letters of reference, research proposal, transcripts, and (in some cases) a sample of the student's writing included. A common criterion for prospective Ph.D. students is the qualifying or comprehensive examination. This process is usually commences in the second year of a graduate program. In most cases, successful completion of the qualifying exam permits continuance in the graduate program. Formats for this examination are including: oral examination by the student's faculty committee or a separate qualifying committee, or there is a possibility of written tests designed in order to demonstrate the student's knowledge in his or her specialized area.

There also may be a requirement of a demonstration of English language abilities at some English-speaking universities. This is usually done by achieving an acceptable score on a standard examination - TOEFL - "Test of English as a Foreign Language". The student may also be required to demonstrate ability in one or more additional languages, depending on the field. A prospective student applying to French-speaking universities may also be obliged to demonstrate some English language ability.
In some programs students are advised, or even must agree, no to devote more than ten hours per week to activities outside of their studies, employment included. But some students still work outside the university of at student jobs within the university.

At some universities of Canada, most Ph.D. students receive an award equivalent to the tuition amount for the first four years. This is sometimes called a tuition waiver or tuition deferral. There also are other sources of funding, research assistantships and teaching assistantships included, while experience as a teaching assistant is encouraged (but not requisite) in many programs. There are some programs that may require all Ph.D. candidates to teach, which is commonly done under the supervision of regular faculty or their supervisor.

There are also various competitive scholarships, awards and bursaries besides these sources of funding available. Some of them are offered by the federal government via CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC.
Requirements for completion
The first two years of study are generally devoted to completion of coursework and the comprehensive examinations. The student is known as a "Ph.D. student" at this stage. It also is usually expected that the student by the end of this stage will have completed most of his or her required coursework. By the end of eighteen to thirty-six months after the firs registration, the student is usually required to have successfully completed the comprehensive exams.

The student becomes known as a "Ph.D. candidate" upon successful completion of the comprehensive exams. From this stage on, the bulk candidate's time will be devoted to his or her own research. This stage will then culminate in the completion of a Ph.D. dissertation or thesis. The oral defense of the thesis is the final requirement and it is open to the public.

The time needed to complete a Ph.D. at most Canadian universities typically ranges from four to six years. However, it is not uncommon for students to be unable to complete all the requirements within six years. It is a well-known fact that funding packages often support students for only two to four years and many departments are allowing program extensions at the discretion of the thesis supervisor and/or department chair. There are alternate arrangements where a student is allowed to let his or her registration in the program lapse at the end of six years and then re-register once the thesis is completed in draft form. A general rule exist that the graduate students are obligated to pay tuition until the initial thesis submission has been received by the thesis office. This means that if a Ph.D. student delays or defers the initial submission of their thesis they still remain obligated to pay fees until the time that the thesis has been received in good and acceptable standing.