The previous post in this series addressed some of the issues an informed PhD applicant should be aware of and consider prior to applying (such as the state of the academic job market).
Once you’ve made the decision to apply for a PhD field, how can you prepare effectively and strengthen your candidacy?
Your research is a vital part of your PhD application—you need to have clear reasons for pursuing advanced research in your field, and you need to be able to show that you have the research skills to succeed. Pursuing a PhD means dedicating yourself to high level research in your field. Admissions committees (rightly) expect that before deciding to do that, you understand what that type of research involves, and that you demonstrate the potential to succeed in an advanced program. Your grades and GRE scores serve as confirmation that you can succeed in grad school— this is not to discount the importance of those numbers. But you will not get into a top PhD program without strong research skills or well-thought-out research interests.
If you’re still an undergrad, participate in research. If your department offers the chance to do a thesis, write it. Try to find other ways of developing your research experience and building your skills: volunteer in a lab, assist a professor or doctoral student with research, etc. Some universities have a formalized system for assigning undergrad researchers to labs. If yours doesn’t, contact professors in your department and ask about lab opportunities. (The best way to do this is to contact individual professors: explain your qualifications/background and ask if there are volunteer positions available in their labs.)
If you’ve already graduated and don’t have enough research experience, try to fill that gap. If you’re near a university, contact faculty in your department of interest and ask about volunteering in their labs. If you’re working in industry: have you conducted research for your job? If so, think about how to present this experience in your application (and ask a supervisor to write you a recommendation that addresses your research skills).
Whether you’re applying directly from undergrad or have been out for a few years, stay current with the publications in your area of interest.
Building strong research skills will enhance your PhD application and set you on the road to a successful graduate school experience.
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!
• Choosing the Best PhD Program, a free guide
• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Graduate School SOPs, a free guide
• How to Write About Your Research Interests