How to Apply for a Ph.D. Program

Carolina Jacobs

Apr 9, 2021

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Pursuing a Ph.D. is nothing short of an experience. You’re likely feeling all ranges of emotion as you go on to continue your education. There are multiple steps to applying for a Ph.D., and that can leave you overwhelmed, stressed and terrified. Programs receive plenty more applications than available positions, so you may even hold yourself back from applying.

However, stay determined! Each application you send in is another chance of pursuing your dream. One key element to applying for a Ph.D. program is ensuring you know what to prepare and how to submit it, which this article aims to do. Read these tips on how to apply for a Ph.D. program for a more straightforward, less stressful application process.

1. Define Your Goals

Before you begin applying, make sure you have set goals for yourself. You probably have clear passions and interests if you’re even considering a Ph.D. However, it might be too broad. Narrow in on one specific aspect of that interest. 

You’ll be working on it for the next few years. You should be able to sum up your goal in just a few sentences. To help with this, think about courses you enjoyed in undergrad, questions you continue to ask yourself about the subject matter and resources you’ve read that piqued your interests further. 

Also, make sure you stay true to yourself. You don’t want to be stuck in something that you have no interest in, or else the next few years will drag.  

2. Find Available Openings

Once you have your goals set, you can begin searching for openings to apply for a Ph.D. program. A program may be accepting new students, but that doesn’t mean every faculty member can put you on their list. You don’t want to waste your time and money on programs that aren’t accepting.

If you find someone you’d like to work with, send an email explaining why you want to work with them. An email never hurts, and you may get a more defined answer as to whether you should spend your time applying or not. 

Even if a school has an opening, it won’t be worth your effort if there’s no one there who can supervise your work. If you need further help, reach out to an undergrad professor or mentor who knows you well.

3. Research

There’s no such thing as too much research when it comes to applying for grad school. As you curate your list of potential programs and advisors, you might notice your list getting long. Of course, you probably won’t be applying to every program available.

Begin researching these programs beyond what you currently know about them. You need to narrow down the list enough so that you’re not overwhelmed by hundreds of applications. However, don’t just narrow it down to one or two — just narrow it down to places you would consider.

For these programs, make sure you have the qualifications, make a note of the deadline and ensure there’s a professor that will work with you. 

4. Start Applying Early

As soon as you have your list, start the applications. Ph.D. applications tend to be pretty involved, and there is more to it than just a high school transcript and essay about why you’re applying. 

Take your time applying. Deadlines for Ph.D. programs tend to be the fall before you would begin your program. Therefore, start your applications the spring before that, which would be about 1.5 years before the program begins.

The more time you spend on your applications, the better your chances will be of getting accepted. A rushed application will be mediocre comparatively.

5. Ask for References and Letters

When you start applying for graduate programs, you can also begin asking potential references for letters. Typically, these references are professors from undergrad or a master’s program. 

Remember that the people you’re likely asking for letters are busy. Professors have to teach classes and grade papers. They need time to gather their thoughts about you for a good recommendation letter.

This is courteous to the professor, and it will allow for a better letter of recommendation for you, which can increase your chances of being accepted to the program.

6. Gather Your Materials

As a part of your application process, you’ll need a list of documents to submit. Here are some of the typical requirements:

  • Personal Statement: You should have a statement of purpose as to why you’re applying for a Ph.D., future career plans and interests.
  • Research Proposal: Your area of study is unique to you, and you should have a prepared research proposal clearly defining your intent for pursuing a Ph.D.
  • Academic CV: This is like a resume for your academics, outlining your scholarly accomplishments and studies.
  • Writing Sample: One necessity for a Ph.D. is knowing how to write and write well in your area of study.
  • References and Letters: Have all of your reference information and letters readily available when you apply.
  • Test Scores: Standardized test scores, like the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), are usually required for Ph.D. programs.
  • Language Proficiency: Some programs may require you to be proficient in a language that is not your own.
  • Transcripts: You’ll be required to submit official transcripts from your higher education career.

There may be other requirements depending on the program, but have all of these prepared when you submit applications.

You’re Almost There, Doctor!

Once you’ve submitted your applications, wait for those acceptances to come your way. Preparing well in advance sets you up for success. With these tips, the process of applying for a Ph.D. program should be less stressful and provide you with a clearer picture of what you need to do to get your doctorate.

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