Pursuing a Ph.D. is an academic, mental, and personal challenge. Finding the right Ph.D. program is a crucial first step. If you are researching different schools, remember to not set your heart into just one. Do not focus on finding the right Ph.D. program, but find a set of options that fit you. Only applying to one school is extremely stressful and risky. Instead, make a list of three to five programs that fit your needs. Consider the items below to make a complete and honest option list.
What type of program interests you? It helps to think about three main aspects:
- Research vs. Industry: Do you see yourself working in academia or the industry? Some programs are famous for their prestigious research expertise. They focus on researching core knowledge, even if there is no real-life application for businesses. All Ph.D. programs will include your independent research, but some will have more focus on the industry. Know your standing between the academia and the industry, then, give some extra thought to programs that adapt to your end goal.
A classmate of mine ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering. He knew he did not want to be a researcher or a professor at the university but instead wanted to be a research leader in a big company. He found a program that emphasizes practical industry applications. During his Ph.D. studies, he connected with a large semiconductor company. They did not only give him funding to support his projects, but they also hired him upon graduation.
- External collaborations: Some institutions have key connections that might enhance your experience while pursuing your Ph.D. Universities can have collaboration agreements with other institutions such as national labs, the government, companies, and other universities. Research beyond the curriculum to learn more about additional perks. For example, let’s think about a college with one of the most advanced university computational labs in the country. It is impressive, but an average institution might collaborate with a national lab. And national labs can offer many more resources.
- Length: No Ph.D. program has a set timeline, but some programs tend to be shorter. Sometimes additional counseling or supervision can help candidates complete their degrees in a more timely manner. Also, considering the culture is essential. Within a department, there is usually a prevalent culture. Research advisors might be used to give students many side projects and delaying their program completion. Other cultures try to push students to complete their research efficiently.
This section depends on your research preference. Read the part that represents you for advice.
- You have a set research interest: You are sure you want to dedicate your studies to a very particular topic. Since you have an excellent idea of what interests you, you should research schools that are well known for your field of interest.
- You have two or a few fields of interest: Make sure to look for a program that offers at least two of your main interests. Do not make the decision, just yet if you are not sure. Instead, keep your options open.
- You do not have a clear idea of your interest: The first years in the program will help you decide. For now, focus on searching for very diverse programs. For example, large institutions might offer more options, since they have more extensive facilities and more faculty.
Funding and Potential Cost
Once you know a program is a good fit for you, you should always ask for information on the financial aspect. Some advisors only recommend choosing institutions that can offer you a stipend or at least an assistantship position. There are hundreds of doctoral programs in the US; pick programs that do not put a financial strain on you that you can’t handle.
Some programs are fully funded and offer stipends. Slots are competitive, but students in those programs have a higher probability of completion. Moreover, remember tuition and fees are not your only costs. A stipend can help you cover those living expenses.
Location, location, location. Do not pick a university located somewhere you hate; you might never get used to it. Preferably look for programs in an area you know and like. If you are thinking about moving to a new city or state, make sure you visit. Do your due diligence and research about the living situation in the area and asses if you can be happy there. You will be spending a significant percentage of your life there, do not overlook the location.
Consider your family and friends when choosing a program. Ask yourself a couple of questions before getting starting your search: Do I want to stay near my family? Do I want to look for a midpoint city to be relatively close to my family? Are family members coming with me? If so, where would they like to live? And so on. Completing a Ph.D. program takes years and you want to have the support you need.
Maybe instead of finding the right Ph.D. program, you let it find you. If you are still researching programs, you still have time to build meaningful connections. Attend conferences, open houses, and graduate fairs for networking. The easiest way to learn more about an institution and get an insider view is to chat with one of their professors or students. Online resources give you a general overview, but an insider view is much more valuable. Also, if you connect with faculty and you impress them, then you have someone inside that will guide you through the application process.
I was involved in research during my undergraduate studies. One time I attended a conference and presented my senior research project. After the presentation, I meet a professor. They were interested in my project and wanted to stay connected. They ended up offering me a spot in their research team. It was an unexpected proposal. I was static. I had an almost guaranteed acceptance to a graduate program thanks to a connection made through networking.
Find the Right Ph.D. Program or Programs: Make a List
You should never rush making these decisions. To find the right Ph.D. program, do all the research you can before you have a set list of universities. Then, focus on your applications. Even if you only get accepted to one, remember you made a realistic list for a reason. All schools on your list were great candidates. This article goes over the crucial steps to get into a Ph.D. program. Read it to get started into the application process!