Enrolling in a PhD program is a big commitment that requires you to invest a large amount of time, energy, and sometimes money. And, for many PhD applicants who are aware that the academic job market is highly competitive, exploring PhD programs can become an overwhelming and daunting task steeped in uncertainty.
Choosing a program can often feel like a leap of faith. With all the different offerings, what should you look for to determine which PhD program could be right for you and provide the best return on your investment?
How to evaluate a PhD program
As you explore options, here are three areas you should investigate to decide if the PhD program is worth considering further and, ultimately, applying to:
Your first stop should be the faculty profile page. If you have a clear idea of the area of study or topic you want to explore, look for a professor who could be your advisor and whose primary area of interest matches yours. If you haven’t decided on a topic yet, you are not alone. Many people go into PhD programs without research plans set in stone, and gain a clearer idea of their research topics within their first few semesters.
If you’re vacillating between interests, look for the department that offers you the most options and two or three professors you could work with. Having one or two faculty members as a backup in case you change your mind as you take classes or don’t have the best chemistry with your first choice of advisor is a great way to minimize risks.
- Financial aid
The second departmental web page you should look at when researching a PhD program is the financial aid page. Some important questions to ask yourself:
* Does the department offer partial or full funding?
* Is the distribution merit-based, need-based, university-specific, subject-specific, or demographic-specific?
* How many years of funding are guaranteed?
* And most importantly, will the funding be distributed as a scholarship or as a teaching/research assistantship?
The form of funding you will receive deserves serious consideration, as it can impact the length of your doctoral studies. Although it looks good to have teaching experience before going on the job market, teaching can sometimes take up 20 + hours a week of your time.
Keep in mind that the time devoted to teaching or any other work required to justify your funding will take time away from your studies. The more you work outside of your doctoral studies, the more time it might take for you to finish. As you explore programs, give priority to the programs that will provide you the most amount of time to focus on your studies.
Finally, make sure that the department offers dissertation fellowships and find out how competitive these fellowships are. Having the opportunity to take a year to focus all your time on writing your dissertation can enable you to cut your writing time in half and put you on the job market earlier.
- Career support
Finally, while researching a PhD program, pay careful attention to the professional development opportunities the department offers.
Start by examining the department’s mission statement. Is the program solely designed to help you become a professor and work in academia, or is it also training you to work in industry?
Once you have looked at the mission, make sure that the words match the department’s actions and find out where recent graduates are working. What percentage are in academia, and what percentage are in industry? How active is the program’s alumni network? Whether your whole heart is in academia or not, you should give priority to departments that provide professional development opportunities that cover a wide variety of careers. Let’s face it: not only are tenure-track positions highly sought-after, but some of the positions available when you graduate might be in locations that don’t align with your life choices. Or you might simply realize that academia is not for you.
Choose a program that will provide you with the opportunity to diversify your skill set beyond academic research to prepare for more career options post-graduation and stay away from departments where the professional development opportunities are minimal or too narrowly defined.
The PhD process: Keep an open mind and be patient
The PhD is a process that is at once transformative and exploratory. As you progress through your studies, you will discover new ideas and points of view and the thrills of creating new knowledge, but you’ll also encounter a fair number of roadblocks and challenges that will put your patience and skills to the test.
As you prepare for this new adventure, it’s important to choose a program that will provide the tools that you need to succeed. In selecting a PhD program, make sure that you will have not just the team and the financial means to reach your career goals but also the opportunity to hone skills that will enable you to thrive wherever the road takes you.
Do you need help navigating the PhD admissions process? Our expert advisors are available to guide you through the application maze, from choosing the best PhD program for you, to helping you write your statement of purpose, to prepping for your interview. Explore our Graduate School Admissions Consulting Services and get matched with an advisor who will help you GET ACCEPTED.Want Dr. Barr to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!