Choosing the right PhD program is key to your success – not just in getting admitted, but in having a successful grad school experience.
What makes a PhD program the right one?
There are two things you need to be on the lookout for when choosing the best program for you.
First, it needs to fit your needs: you need access to a mentor who can oversee your research and guide you as you develop in the profession; you need an environment that feels collegial and supportive to you; and you need a community where you feel comfortable.
Second, it needs to be a program you can get into and fit into.
How can you measure your ability to get accepted to a PhD program?
There are three steps to assessing your candidacy:
- 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.)
- Pay attention to research. If you don’t have research experience, top programs won’t see you as a serious candidate.
- Make sure you’re a good fit. 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”?
Schools don’t just care about your numbers on a sheet of paper. They want to admit students who will fit the culture and match with the goals of their program. Short-term, they want you to fit in the student body and faculty; long-term, they want you to do great things and make them proud.
Here are two ways you can evaluate your “fit” with your target PhD program:
- Find your research match. 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.
- Find your mentor match. 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.
Do you need help choosing the best PhD programs to apply to? Do you need guidance in selecting the programs that will help you reach your educational and professional goals. Learn more about how we can guide you to admissions success when you explore our catalog of Graduate School Admissions Consulting & Editing Services.By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, former Accepted admissions consultant. Dr. Blustein has a BA and PhD from UCLA in English and Comparative Literature. She formerly worked as a Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center where she gained experience guiding applicants in areas of admissions and funding. Dr. Blustein’s clients have been accepted to top Master’s and PhD programs in dozens of fields across all disciplines. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!