Applying for a PhD Programs can be overwhelming, but there are several things you can do to make the process more manageable.
The Earlier You Start, the Better:
The vast majority of PhD applications are due in December or January, so if you’re a Master’s students or final year undergraduate you should start working on your PhD applications in early fall. The deadlines will come up very quickly once the semester really gets going.
Define Your Research Interests:
Once you’ve decided that a PhD is the right step for you, you need to identify places where you see a strong fit—essentially meaning that your research interests and goals line up closely with those of the program and your future mentor or mentors.
The first step on that road is to nail down your own interests. Think about the topics, courses, projects, and experiences that pique your curiosity enough to spend a half-decade or more studying them. Your interests will likely evolve over time, but defining them now will serve as a compass guiding you in the right direction.
Do Your Research:
Once you have established your research interests, you can start looking into potential supervisors and narrowing down which schools you want to apply to. No matter the school’s ranking, it won’t be the right place for you if there’s no one there who can supervise your dissertation.
Find the professors who are working in your area of interest. It’s also a good idea to talk to a trusted professor or your advisor who knows you and your interests.
What schools do they suggest applying to and who do they recommend working with? In some fields like science and engineering, PhD positions are available for a set project. On many PhD search sites, you can create alerts for positions within your field of interest.
Look for Open PhD Programs:
Don’t waste your time and money applying to work with people who are not accepting students. In some fields, the program or faculty members will describe the application process and any openings on their websites.
In other cases, you may need to email individual faculty members to find out whether they are taking on new students. (Just because a program is accepting students doesn’t mean that every faculty member affiliated with that program has room for new people!)
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A few months before the application deadline, send a short email to prospective faculty mentors, briefly describing your academic background and any work in their lab that inspires you, and asking whether they are taking any new students (some faculty may wish to see a copy of your current CV).
Don’t be offended if you do not receive a response—many faculty get more than 100 emails a day and some slip through the cracks. You are still free to apply to the program.
Make Your Application Stand Out:
Many programs receive more applicants with stellar grades and test scores than they can admit. Therefore, top applicants set themselves apart by putting great care and attention into all the other elements of the application package.
This includes a thoughtful description of their research experiences, a carefully crafted statement of their current interests, and personalized reference letters. In some fields, applications may even include samples of your work or publications. So stay organized and give yourself enough time to carefully craft every part of the application.
Make the Research Statement Shine:
Perhaps the most important element of the application is the research statement. Faculty members use the statement to get a sense of your writing ability, passion for the field, research experience, intellectual potential, and fit with the program.
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Your goal is to show that you are a deep thinker who is ready to become a scientist. Read some of the papers your potential advisers have published, think critically about them, and offer specific ideas for extending the work in new directions. Look at sample statements from graduate students in your field.
Ask for feedback from as many relevant people as possible, including graduate students and faculty members in the field (not your roommate or your parents). It may feel tedious, but the practice of writing and rewriting is one of the most essential skills you will hone in graduate school.
Prepare Your Materials:
Each PhD program you apply to will require you to submit different materials as part of your application so make sure to read the job posting carefully. If you are still unsure what type of documents should be in your application, check the university’s graduate school website.
Incomplete applications will not be considered. Start working on your application materials early and spend a good deal of time on them. Some parts of the application will have to be customized for each school you apply to.
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You may be required to submit some or all of these materials:
• A CV: A CV is a resume of your academic qualifications.
• Motivation Letter: What are your areas of interest? Why are you applying to this school? How have you prepared to do a PhD? What are your future career plans? Your statement of purpose should answer these questions. It is very important to make it specific to each school you are applying to.
• A Research Proposal: Often required for science or engineering PhDs, the research proposal is an outline of your proposed project. Clearly define your research question, methodology, and research plan. Show that you know the field by highlighting the project’s originality and how it will contribute to the field.
• References: Most universities require two to three letters of recommendation. Choose professors who know you individually and are familiar with your work, ideally someone you took a small seminar class with. Ask if they will be a reference before you start applying to programs. You should provide your references with a list of schools you are applying to and the deadlines for each school.
• A Writing Sample: PhD programs in the humanities often require a writing sample. This should be an academic paper you have written about a topic in your field of interest. Choose a paper you wrote for a seminar or upper-level course that shows who you are as a scholar. The maximum page length and formatting can vary from school to school, so make sure you check the requirements of each program.
• Transcripts: You will need to submit official transcripts from each university-level institution you attended or are attending. It is often necessary to upload an unofficial transcript with your application an mail in a hard copy of your official transcript to the department. Official transcripts often have to be ordered from your university and can take a few days to prepare.
• Standardized Test Scores: Many universities in the United States and Canada require PhD applicants to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). The GRE tests your analytical writing, qualitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning skills. There are a variety of resources available to prepare for the GRE. You can select the schools you would like your results sent to when you write the test or pay to have them sent later.
• Proof of Language Proficiency: If you are an international PhD applicant, you may be required to show proficiency in another language. For English-based programs, the TOEFL is often required.
Submit Your Application:
Almost all PhD applications are done online through the university’s graduate school. When it comes time to actually apply, leave yourself at least an hour to fill out each application. There are many steps and you don’t want to feel rushed when you are filling it out.
Before you start the application, make sure you have all the appropriate supporting documentation saved in the correct format for each school and your references’ contact information on hand. You should also have your credit card ready to pay any application fees.