Choosing the right PhD program is key to your success—not just in getting admitted, but in having a successful grad school experience.
First, it needs to fit your needs: you need to have access to a mentor who can oversee your research and guide you as you develop in the profession; you need to have an environment that feels collegial and supportive to you; you need to have a community where you feel comfortable.
Second, it needs to be a program you can get into and fit into. What does that mean, practically?
• Evaluate your credentials. If your GPA and test scores are well below the averages for your target school, you need to broaden your search. (Note that GRE scores are not the end-all for PhD programs, but many grad schools do have a minimum score—below which the university won’t even forward your app to the department for consideration.)
• If you don’t have research experience, top programs won’t see you as a serious candidate.
• PhD programs don’t admit many students, so admissions can sometimes seem capricious, especially to the applicant. Balance that by making certain you’re a good fit for the program, and by applying to enough schools. I recommend applying to at least 8-10 programs.
How can you evaluate “fit”?
• Look at the research that current students and recent grads of your target department have done. Is this the type of work that appeals to you? Yes? Then look into the labs they worked in, contact professors, etc. No? Broaden your search. It’s not all about the name/ranking of the university – you need to find your research home.
• It is worth contacting potential research mentors before you apply, to let them know you’re interested. Give them an overview of your background/experience/goals. Be professional and courteous in all of your interactions – a brusque, demanding, or badly proofread email can harm your chances later on.
• To start finding potential mentors, you need to do extensive research. Take advantage of every resource available to you: your undergraduate faculty and grad students you may have done research with may have helpful advice. Reading journals and attending conferences will also give you a sense of what work is going on, where, and who is doing it. That’s your starting point for researching potential labs and programs.
Start your application process early – there’s a lot of research involved in choosing the right programs to apply to.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, Accepted consultant since 2008, former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center. Dr. Blustein, who earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, has helped hundreds of applicants get accepted to top MS, MA, and Ph.D. programs. She’s also an expert on grad school funding and scholarships. Want Rebecca to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!