Are you ready to get started with your Ph.D.? If you are not, that is ok. Getting a Ph.D. is a challenging yet rewarding process. And navigating through searching for schools applying and completing all requirements can seem daunting. I hope this post can help guide you through the process of getting into a Ph.D. program. And, most importantly, getting into the program that is right for you.
Step 1: Define your field of study
Always start from the very beginning. Make sure you get as much exposure to different areas within your major. Learn what you are passionate about and be excited about the new adventure. In some cases, it is a clear decision. You might be a History major, with an emphasis on European history, and you are interested in very particular topics within European history. Then, you know you are looking for a history Ph.D. In some other cases, it might not be as clear. A colleague of mine studied chemistry and was very interested in battery development. When he started researching about Ph.D. programs, he ended up finding several schools with cutting edge research on new battery development. Physicists or material scientists led many of those programs. He ended up changing his idea from pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry to material sciences.
All in all, focus on doing the research. Then, finalize your department choice. If your specific interests change through the program, that is ok. In the end, you will end up discovering many interesting subfields.
Step 2: Choose School that fit your goals
This step is crucial. Now that you know which department you are looking for, you can select the schools that fit your goals and personality. Some key elements to consider are the following:
- Program details: Learn about how is the program’s structure. Most schools will have a basic outline of courses you need to take and possible electives. If you have an interest in a particular subject, make sure the school has excellent expertise in the matter.
- Location: Completing a Ph.D. will probably take you a few years. Do not choose a university located somewhere you hate. Remember you need to be happy and motivated to be successful. Consider staying in your current city or moving to one that you like. You should even consider the weather. The location can definitely influence your well-being
- Prestige/ranking: Some schools are just really well known for their programs. Consider taking their ranking and their prestige into consideration. Some universities offer similar curriculums, but there is always one that gives students an edge. Some give more exposure to employers, industry leaders, or research facilities. Once you are ready to get started in academia or the industry, you will be thankful for all those connections you were able to build during your studies.
- Funding: Consider what type of funding you could achieve. If a university can offer you a stipend on top of funding your tuition, then you are in high standing. Also, check how competitive are the funding opportunities. Some universities have standardized stipends and assistantships; others don’t.
- Faculty: This is an essential point. You should learn about the faculty and research advisors. They are the ones that will teach you the coursework, mentor you, and lead you to success: publish papers, industry projets: post-doctoral programs, etc. If possible, you should get connected with them ahead of time (next item).
How many schools should you target?
First, take all aspects into consideration and make a list of your top schools. Remember to never pick just one. A good recommendation is to apply to six two that are your dream institutions, two which are realistic prospects, and two back up plans.
Step 2b: Get connected
This item is not a whole step, but more a piece of advice. Even before you apply to a university, you can get connected with faculty and staff. Do not loose changes to learn more about grad life. You might even be able to meet with your future research mentor. Take advantage of open houses or graduate fairs to get connected.
Step 3: Asses application requirements
Now that you have a list of schools, you can start gathering the materials, But first, make a list. List the standardized tests you need to take, how many recommendation letters, letters of intent, etc. Also, make sure to list some targets. For example, list the GRE scores you want to achieve. Take the time to review all application requirements and start preparing.
Step 4: Collect the materials
Set achievable study goals to take GRE and GRE subject examinations. Always give yourself a second try just in case. For reminding the documents, I would recommend starting early. Do not rush professors to write you a recommendation letter. They are usually swamped, and if you are looking for the best recommendation letter you can get, give them time. You will have your timeline to write a letter of intent and build a resume. Do not leave it for the last minute. Take your time, but start finalizing items at least a month before any deadline.
Step 5: Send your application
Before you send your application, do not be shy and ask for a second opinion. Your advisor might be willing to help or maybe even Career Services. Once your application is complete and checked, then you can send it over. If the recommendation letters have to be sent separately, make sure your recommenders send the letters before the deadline and get a submission confirmation.
Step 6: Wait patiently (but be productive)
Waiting is stressful, and it can make anyone impatient. Stay busy while you wait. Maybe you want to focus on course work if you are still completing school. Or perhaps you want to use this time to relax and prepare for the next step. If you haven’t connected with any faculty yet, you can use this time to do so.
Step7: Make your final decision
This is the most exciting (and nerve-racking) step. You almost made it! Now is when you find out where did you get in and funding details. You should be thrilled about all acceptances; it is a big deal and a huge reward for your hard work. If you were accepted at several universities, then you have a tough decision to make. Remember, April 15 is the deadline for your final choice (more information). All grad schools agree that you can wait until April 15 to accept or deny their offers. You will have all your offers on the table by the time you have to make your final decision.