The thought of pursuing a PhD can be daunting. You might ask yourself the following key questions:
- When should I apply to graduate school?
- Where should I apply?
- How do I get in?
- Why should I go?
- How can I be a competitive PhD applicant?
Let’s consider these questions one at a time.
Question 1: “When should I apply to graduate school?”
The right time to apply to graduate school is when your personal, academic, and professional experiences have aligned such that you know how you want to further your knowledge and skills in a specific field. Here are some signs that these experiences are, in fact, aligned.
In your personal life – whether through your hobbies, hardships, health, or something else memorable – you have learned lessons that have given you a unique perspective on your target field. You have a deep investment in, and connection to, this field because you understand how it relates to what you’ve personally experienced or are intensely interested in.
Perhaps you were diagnosed with a medical condition and spent the past decade experimenting with devices and therapies, perhaps even undergoing surgeries. The psychological strain of this situation has made you highly empathic toward patients suffering from chronic conditions. You’re now committed to studying the effectiveness of various approaches to promoting mental health among this population.
Or maybe one of your fondest childhood memories is bird-watching with your dad, who taught you all about various species and their migration patterns. This experience led you to pursue ornithology.
The experience motivating you doesn’t have to be deeply profound to others for it to be deeply meaningful to you.
In your academic life, you’ve demonstrated – via high grades or assignments in which you went above and beyond the basic requirements – that you have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of a particular field. You’ve done more than memorize core concepts and theories; you’ve contemplated how they relate to the broader aims of the field. And you now want to apply those theories and concepts in graduate school and your career.
Let’s say you majored in civil engineering. You’ve excelled in all your engineering courses, as well as your chemistry, math, and physics classes. In the process, you’ve learned how to apply the core principles of each field to design resilient infrastructure that does not fail in extraordinary events and that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.
In your professional life, whether you’ve worked/volunteered in a field-relevant setting for six months or six years, you’ve learned about and contributed to the rigorous research process. Ideally, you’ve held multiple roles, each one more demanding than the previous one. But at every stage, you’ve taken your responsibilities seriously because you understand that each task, no matter how seemingly trivial, must be performed diligently, lest you risk compromising the data and ultimately the findings of the entire study.
As an undergraduate research assistant, you might have begun with basic responsibilities such as data entry and cleaning in Excel. After demonstrating that you are reliable and diligent, you were able to help conduct studies and even ran some of your own analyses using the data.
Then, by the time you entered your current role (the one you’re in when you apply to PhD programs), you’d learned what it’s like to interact with data. You are now able to not only evaluate all the variables being assessed but also identify other variables that aren’t being measured and articulate why they should be included in future research. At this point, you’re able to generate research questions, formulate testable hypotheses, and even design a hypothetical study in which the findings are interesting regardless of whether your hypotheses are supported.
When you’ve identified these signs in your personal, academic, and professional experiences, you’re ready to apply.
Question 2: “Where should I apply?”
It is crucial to identify the right program(s) to apply to. Therefore, U.S. News & World Report’s “2023 Best National University Rankings” should not be your primary source for one simple reason: PhD programs are very idiosyncratic. Even if you have chosen a field of study (ideally the field in which you earned your undergraduate and/or master’s degree), there are likely many research areas within that field and even more specific topics within each area. The right research area for you will depend on your previous research experience, as well as on the specific topic(s) you want to investigate.
For example, within the field of psychology, there are many areas, including clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, health psychology, evolutionary psychology, personality psychology, and social psychology. Then, within social psychology, for example, there’s a vast array of specific topics, such as attitudes, aggression, decision-making, emotion, prejudice, and prosocial behavior, to name a few. As you can imagine, these topics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining topics can generate unique findings. Therefore, when thinking about where to apply, you might prioritize programs where the faculty are studying combinations of topics you find particularly interesting.
Another factor to consider is that programs differ as a function of the research methods they employ. Thus, when thinking about where to apply, it’s necessary to identify programs where the faculty are researching the specific topics you’re most interested in, and to consider whether those faculty are using methods that you would like to apply in your future career. Do you want to master advanced statistical techniques? Do you want to work with state-of-the-art technologies? Do you want to interact with people? Do you want to observe phenomena in the “real world” or in experimental settings? It’s not only about what you’re researching, it’s also about how you’re researching it.
Once you’ve identified programs based on those considerations, it’s time to identify prospective faculty advisors within your chosen programs. After all, you’re not just applying to PhD programs, you’re applying to work with specific faculty members, and they are the ones who will be reviewing your application and deciding whether to accept you. Based on key faculty members’ professional biographies (which you can find on most programs’ websites), you’ll probably be able to identify the individuals whose interests are most similar to yours.
But that’s not enough to be confident that you want to work with a given faculty member. Next, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with that person’s recent work by reading research papers they’ve published in the past couple years. As you’re reading, ask yourself whether this faculty member writes and thinks clearly and presents arguments and evidence in a compelling manner. You will be mentored by this person for five years (or more!), so it’s crucial that you find someone you admire and are motivated to learn from.
In sum, the steps to deciding where to apply for PhD study are as follows:
- Choose your field of study
- Identify your area(s) within that field
- Discover the specific topics you find most fascinating
- Consider what methods you want to employ
- Evaluate the merits of prospective faculty advisors
Question 3: “How do I get in?”
Once you’ve determined that you’re ready to apply and you know where you want to apply, the focus shifts to whether you will be accepted. Getting into a PhD program is largely a matter of fit. The faculty members who evaluate your application want to know what insights you can offer to their current and future research studies, how your interpersonal style will contribute to their lab dynamics, and whether you are committed to extending their research in a meaningful way after you obtain your doctorate. You can convey all this crucial information in your statement of purpose.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of your statement of purpose. You might have an exceptional CV, but if your statement of purpose is lackluster and fails to convey to your prospective faculty advisor that you are the right fit, then you are unlikely to be accepted. Conversely, you might have a modest CV or even a weakness, such as a low GPA, but nevertheless be accepted if you convey in your statement that (a) you have taken (and will continue to take) concrete steps to become more prepared for PhD training, and (b) you possess unique skills and knowledge that are highly relevant to your prospective advisor’s research area but that might not be reflected in traditional metrics of achievement (e.g., your CV or GPA).
To write a compelling statement of purpose, you need to articulate everything relevant to Question 1: “When should I apply to graduate school?” You have already reflected on how your personal, academic, and professional experiences have aligned such that you know you are ready to apply. But it is not enough for you to know that you are ready. You need to convince your prospective advisor that you are.
This is where Accepted comes in. The most valuable service we offer is essay consulting. You will learn how to craft a narrative surrounding your journey that is coherent, authentic, and distinctive. During each consultation, we will challenge you to think more deeply and clearly than you ever have about where you’ve been and where you’re going. You will learn how to identify and describe the reasons your prospective advisor should accept you.
Question 4: “Why should I go?”
A PhD is an academic degree that prepares you to conduct original research, perform advanced statistical analyses, interpret empirical results, and evaluate competing theories. You will be trained to become an academic – that is, a university professor who directs a research lab and teaches students the nuances of a specific field. The skills you acquire during your doctoral training can be applied to industrial, governmental, and nonprofit settings; however, doing so should not be your primary goal. Your prospective advisor will want to know that you are committed to the work of an academic. It is great if your research has important implications for those other sectors, so long as you are still first and foremost committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge in your field. The university and everything it stands for should give you chills.
Thus, the best reasons to pursue a PhD are intrinsic. After all, a PhD is a doctor of philosophy. You get a PhD because you are passionately drawn to the philosophy of your chosen field. You can’t help but think about it in your everyday life, because you see it everywhere. It is a lens through which life makes sense. Discovering its guiding principles, subject matter, and potential applications allows you to identify patterns in the world around you – and sometimes within yourself as well. So why should you pursue a PhD? Because you can’t not.
An expert can help you evaluate your unique situation to help you determine whether now is the right time to apply. Our experienced admissions pros can help you succeed at any and every stage of the PhD admission process. Get in touch with Accepted today to get the ball rolling!
Question 5: “How can I be a competitive PhD applicant?”
Answering the following questions will help you honestly size up your profile:
Keep in mind: most PhD programs are extremely competitive, and admissions can seem downright capricious. That’s the inevitable result of admitting only a handful of applicants each year.
Are you PhD material at this time?
Have you discussed grad school with any mentors—and do they think you’re capable of grad-level work? Here are some other questions to ask yourself:
- Have you done research as an undergrad or master’s level student?
Perhaps you helped a professor work on a book; done lab work for a researcher; done an independent study (these are particularly great for revealing a student’s deeper research interests, and for cultivating significant student-faculty relationships); or participating in summer or yearly academic programming, such as language courses or research work.
If not, consider gaining more research experience before applying.
- Are your GPA and test scores competitive?
Most programs (not all) publicize their average admitted GPA and GRE info. Bear in mind that at some schools, your application will be processed first by the university’s graduate school, which may impose a minimum GPA or GRE requirement. If you’re concerned about meeting minimum standards, check the department’s requirements carefully.
BUT REMEMBER: Top programs want very high GPAs. And, GRE matters less (compared to SAT or to one’s GPA) for many programs, especially in humanities. Look at each school’s site. It is also crucial to demonstrate that you’ve done relevant coursework, to show you have a real background in your field. For example, was it your major? Did you do a postbac?
- Do you meet the prereqs for admission?
This might seem like a no-brainer. But many of the competitive/highly ranked programs (in a variety of fields) have minimum requirements that far surpass the requirements you met as an undergrad. For example, to enter many English departments, you’ll need to demonstrate fluency in two or more foreign languages. Do your research.
- Is there a professor in your specialty at the program you’re targeting, and (important!) are they accepting students?
Look at faculty pages for your department at each target school and note the interests, publications, and bios of profs you’d want to work with. Reach out to them directly; offer to meet with them in person (though probably not during COVID) or arrange a Zoom call.
You could be a superstar and still not be accepted if the program doesn’t think they can fit your needs.
- Don’t only target the very top-ranked programs in your field.
Because PhD admission is so competitive, it is important to do a broad-ranging, well-researched search.
HOWEVER: This is not always true. In certain fields, many would argue that it is only worthwhile to target the very top programs because otherwise you don’t have a chance of getting a job in the field afterwards. It is best not only to ask current doctoral students, but also senior professors who might be on the hiring end of the profession. You can also look at professors’ online bios to see where they got their degrees- if everyone, even those at “less-than-top-tier” universities, all have degrees from Harvard, it probably means there are few jobs to go around and so only those coming out of the very best schools are securing them.
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!