Career advice

How to Apply for a PhD

6 min read · By Academic Positions

Applying for a PhD 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.

Determine your Interests

This is probably the most important thing to consider before you start applying to PhD programs. Spend some time determining the exact subspecialty that you want to work on for the next five years (at least!) Think about courses you have liked, recent publications that have interested you, or reoccuring questions. Be able to summarize your interests in a couple of sentences.

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.

Research Some More

Now that you have made a list of programs, it’s time to narrow down your list. Some schools require a minimum GPA or degree classification to apply. In Europe, applicants are usually required to have a Master’s degree first, while many schools in North America allow applicants to apply with only a Bachelor’s degree. You should apply to as many programs as you can as long as they are places you would actually consider attending. Make note of the deadlines for each application as well as materials required for each application.

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. You may be required to submit some or all of these materials:

  • A CV- A CV is a resume of your academic qualifications. You can find an academic CV template here.

  • A statement of purpose/personal statement- 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.

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By Academic Positions  ·  Published 2018-02-21

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