How to Be a Competitive PhD Applicant and Apply to the Best Programs for You

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How to Be a Competitive PhD Applicant and Apply to the Best Programs for You

What are your goals?

If you’re considering applying for admission to a PhD program, you should start thinking about where you want to apply. Your criteria for selecting target programs will depend on your goals and circumstances, but here are a few things to think about.

Getting started: Ask yourself these goal-oriented questions

Let’s jump right into the introspective phase of mining your goals:

  • First (and most importantly), what is your goal?
  • What are your primary research interests? 
  • Do you want to pursue an academic career?
  • Or do you plan to work in another sector?

How will your goals influence your career?


If you’re primarily interested in research, your priority should be finding a program that will give you the research training to launch your career. Follow these steps:

  • Try to identify scholars who are working in the areas that interest you.
  • Review the literature in your field, network at conferences, and review CVs on departmental websites. In short, do your research.
  • If you have an undergrad mentor in your field, consult them for advice about departments where exciting research is going on.
  • Ask yourself: who would be a good mentor, and who would I be interested in working with for the next several years?
  • Consider the rankings of your target school and/or department. In many fields (see below), top programs are a MUST for securing a job in the field post-graduation. On the other hand, go beyond the rankings to explore the real dynamism of, and specialities in, a department (particularly once you’re talking about the specific subfields PhD students are concerned with). Even among the top schools, Princeton and Harvard are very different places!

Outside academia

If your goals lie outside of academia, work on identifying programs that will help you reach your goals. For you, these questions will be most relevant:

  • What industry are you interested in? 
  • Does the university you’re considering have research ties with that industry? 
  • Does the department offer opportunities for professional development (fieldwork, internships, etc.)? 
  • Whether you are primarily interested in industry or academia (or if you are undecided), the following question is important: What other resources does the university offer to support graduate students (career development, professional groups, alumni working in the field, etc.)?

Do your research to find the best programs for your interests and goals. You might begin by searching for “PhD in X” online, searching by specific universities, and considering the different departments in which your field of interest could be placed. For example, a doctoral candidate studying religion could, depending on the specialty, be getting her PhD in a religion, history, or literature dept.

Are you a competitive PhD applicant?

Once you’ve established your goals, it’s time to evaluate your credentials and consider where you will be a competitive candidate.

Answering the following questions will help you honestly size up your profile:

Keep in mind: most PhD programs are extremely competitive, and admissions can seem downright capricious. That’s the inevitable result of admitting only a handful of applicants each year.

Are you PhD material at this time?

Have you discussed grad school with any mentors—and do they think you’re capable of grad-level work? Here are some other questions to ask yourself:

  • Have you done research as an undergrad or master’s level student? 

    Perhaps you helped a professor work on a book; done lab work for a researcher; done an independent study (these are particularly great for revealing a student’s deeper research interests, and for cultivating significant student-faculty relationships); or participating in summer or yearly academic programming, such as language courses or research work.

    If not, consider gaining more research experience before applying.

  • Are your GPA and test scores competitive?

    Most programs (not all) publicize their average admitted GPA and GRE info. Bear in mind that at some schools, your application will be processed first by the university’s graduate school, which may impose a minimum GPA or GRE requirement. If you’re concerned about meeting minimum standards, check the department’s requirements carefully.

    BUT REMEMBER: Top programs want very high GPAs. And, GRE matters less (compared to SAT or to one’s GPA) for many programs, especially in humanities. Look at each school’s site. It is also crucial to demonstrate that you’ve done relevant coursework, to show you have a real background in your field. For example, was it your major? Did you do a postbac?

  • Do you meet the prereqs for admission?

    This might seem like a no-brainer. But many of the competitive/highly ranked programs (in a variety of fields) have minimum requirements that far surpass the requirements you met as an undergrad. For example, to enter many English departments, you’ll need to demonstrate fluency in two or more foreign languages. Do your research.

  • Is there a professor in your specialty at the program you’re targeting, and (important!) are they accepting students?

    Look at faculty pages for your department at each target school and note the interests, publications, and bios of profs you’d want to work with. Reach out to them directly; offer to meet with them in person (though probably not during COVID) or arrange a Zoom call.

    You could be a superstar and still not be accepted if the program doesn’t think they can fit your needs.

  • Don’t only target the very top-ranked programs in your field.

    Because PhD admission is so competitive, it is important to do a broad-ranging, well-researched search.

    HOWEVER: This is not always true. In certain fields, many would argue that it is only worthwhile to target the very top programs because otherwise you don’t have a chance of getting a job in the field afterwards. It is best not only to ask current doctoral students, but also senior professors who might be on the hiring end of the profession. You can also look at professors’ online bios to see where they got their degrees- if everyone, even those at “less-than-top-tier” universities, all have degrees from Harvard, it probably means there are few jobs to go around and so only those coming out of the very best schools are securing them.

More criteria to consider when selecting a PhD program

I’ve discussed some important criteria for helping you to select a grad program: your goals/research interests, and evaluating whether you’ll be a competitive applicant. Those are big ones. But as a classic PhD Comic reminds us, you’re not just a “brain on a stick”—you have concerns and needs outside of your research. You also need to find a program where you’re going to fit and thrive as a human being for the next several years. A few things to consider are location, finances, and departmental culture.


Your PhD program won’t exist in a vacuum! Where you’ll be spending your next few years matters. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a part of the country you want to live in? 
  • Are you constrained geographically by family needs, or by a career you’re pursuing already? 


it’s a good idea to investigate funding opportunities when you research admission information. 

  • Will you need to submit additional applications? 
  • What type of funding is available to grad students in your target department? 
  • Is funding guaranteed for the duration of your program? 
  • Is funding available during the summer?

Departmental culture

This is largely an issue of “fit”—but you can find out a fair amount about how a department treats its students by talking to people. 

  • When you visit, do people seem at ease? 
  • If you sit in on a seminar, do you sense a collegial environment? 

Also, contact the department registrar to get in touch with current doctoral students to ask for some of these details, and for their experience in the program: working with certain profs, living in the area, etc. Consider COVID limitations and their impact on in-person visits, of course; consider asking permission to sit in on a Zoom class!

The grad program you select will be a major part of your life for the next several years, so you want a good fit on a personal level.


Remember, make sure the school where you are going to spend several years pursuing your PhD fits your needs, and not just the other way around. Your target PhD program should help you reach your goals, and it should enable you to work with professors you admire. Think deeply about the people you’d like as your mentors, and consult with their current advisees: Do they treat their students well? Be sure to find out how they interact with students, and consider writing out for your own self-understanding what the ideal advisor-advisee relationship would look like. Is your dream advisor hands-off? Hands-on? Is he/she warm, or distant? Do you want an ongoing mentorship with this person, or simply someone to look over your work when required and help sign the papers to get you over the finish line?

Also, your target program should be in a location and price bracket that you can manage. Don’t underestimate the value of fit in these ways, as well as school culture—these will strongly contribute not just to whether or not you get accepted, but how well you fare and how happy you’ll be over the course of your PhD experience.

Do you need help choosing the best PhD programs for you? Do you need help with any other elements of the application process? Explore our Graduate School Admissions Consulting & Editing Services and work one-on-one with an expert consultant who will help you GET ACCEPTED!  

Get Your guide!

By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, former Accepted admissions consultant. Dr. Blustein has a BA and PhD from UCLA in English and Comparative Literature. She formerly worked as a Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center where she gained experience guiding applicants in areas of admissions and funding. Dr. Blustein’s clients have been accepted to top Master’s and PhD programs in dozens of fields across all disciplines. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!

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