If you are thinking about applying to a PhD program, then you are probably already familiar with the research process, either because you researched with professors at the undergraduate level or you earned (or are earning) a master’s degree with a research focus. If you have no research experience, then you have a much better chance for success if you first apply to a master’s degree program where you have the opportunity to write a thesis.
If you have research experience, your survey of the literature will have revealed the names of professors who are exploring issues that align with your interests. Make a list of those professors, and do your homework about where they are currently teaching and/or researching. You can also ask your current professors or a previous professor with whom you have a relationship to make program recommendations to you, given that they likely have colleagues at other universities. Your target schools should originate from this list of professors you would like to have on your PhD committee.
Once you have a list of schools, read about other faculty members in your target department. It’s risky to apply to a department if there is only one professor of interest to you. That professor could go on sabbatical or transfer to another school, and you’d be left with no one to supervise your work. You can also reach out to professors, providing a summary of your research experience and asking them whether they plan to accept PhD candidates into their research group the year of your enrollment. Their support would positively influence your chances for admission. Although graduate admissions committees initially screen applicants for eligibility, they then disperse the applications to the appropriate academic department. It is the department professors who make the final decision on admission.
How important is school ranking and reputation as you make your target list of schools? It’s always helpful to come from a school with a great reputation and brand, but in the case of a PhD degree, the MOST important factor is finding professors who align with your research goals. Nothing else comes close to being as critical as that factor.
In addition to reaching out to professors, you could contact students and recent graduates to learn what their experiences have been like and whether they recommend the department. They might also provide you with “inside” information that could help you in writing your statement of purpose. You can ask the admissions department for referrals to students – sometimes there is a cadre of admissions ambassadors. Or, you can use your undergraduate alumni database or LinkedIn to find individuals studying at your target schools.
Here are two other factors to consider:
- What are your career goals? Are you planning to work in academia? In industry? Research where the graduates of the program are finding jobs; employment reports are usually posted online. Find out whether there are graduates working in the type of setting for which you are aiming.
- What is the financial support provided for your tuition and living expenses, and for your research projects, as well as to attend conferences to present your research?
Earning a PhD can take up to seven years. Investing time and energy now to thoroughly understand your options is well worth the effort.
With 30 years of career/admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business and College of Engineering, Dr. Karin Ash has met with thousands of recruiters seeking to hire the best students from leading schools. She has served as an admissions committee member, ensuring that the applicants who ultimately enroll are a good fit for the program and prime candidates for employers. Karin has been a consultant with Accepted for eight years and has facilitated candidates’ entry into top engineering, data science, MBA, and other STEM graduate MEng, MS, and PhD programs. Her clients have been accepted to MIT, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, UPenn, and USC. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!