Applying to PhD Programs: When, Where, How, and Why?

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Applying to PhD Programs: When, Where, How, and Why?

Applying to PhD Programs: When, Where, How, and Why?

The thought of pursuing a PhD can be daunting. You may ask yourself the following key questions:

  1. When should I apply?
  2. Where should I apply?
  3. How do I get in?
  4. Why do I want to go? 

Let’s consider these questions one at a time.

Question 1: “When should I apply to graduate school?”

The right time to apply to graduate school is when your personal, academic, and professional experiences have aligned such that you know how you want to further your knowledge and skills in a specific field. Below are some signs that these experiences are, in fact, aligned.

In your personal life—be it through your hobbies, hardships, health, or something else memorable—you have learned lessons that have given you a unique perspective on the field. You have a deep investment in, and connection to, this field because you understand how it relates to what you’ve personally experienced or are intensely interested in.

Perhaps you were diagnosed with a condition and spent the past decade experimenting with devices and therapies, and even undergoing surgeries. The psychological strain of this experience has made you highly empathic toward patients suffering from chronic conditions. You’re now committed to studying the effectiveness of various approaches to promoting mental health among this population.

Or maybe one of your fondest childhood memories is birdwatching with your dad, who taught you all about various species and their migration patterns. This experience led you to pursue ornithology. 

It doesn’t have to be deeply profound to others for it to be deeply meaningful to you.

In your academic life, you’ve demonstrated—via high grades or assignments in which you went above and beyond the basic requirements—that you have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of the field. You’ve done more than memorize core concepts and theories; you’ve contemplated how they relate to the broader aims of the field. And you now want to apply those theories and concepts in graduate school and your career.  

[Read: You’ve Caught the “Academic Ambition” Bug—Now What?]

Let’s say you majored in civil engineering. You’ve excelled in all of your engineering courses, along with chemistry, math, and physics. In the process, you’ve learned how to apply the core principles of each field to design resilient infrastructure that does not fail in extraordinary events, and is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

In your professional life, whether you’ve worked/volunteered in a field-relevant setting for 6 months or 6 years, you’ve learned about and contributed to the rigorous research process. Ideally, you’ve taken on multiple roles, each one more demanding than the previous one. But at every stage, you’ve taken your responsibilities seriously because you understand that each task, no matter how seemingly trivial, must be performed diligently, lest you risk compromising the data and ultimately the findings of the entire study.

As an undergraduate research assistant, you may have begun with basic responsibilities such as data entry and cleaning in excel. After you demonstrated that you are reliable and diligent, you were able to help conduct studies, and maybe even run some of your own analyses using the data.

Then, by the time you’re in your current role (the one you’re in when you apply to PhD programs), you know what it’s like to interact with data. You are able to not only evaluate all of the variables being assessed, but you can also identify other variables that aren’t being measured and articulate why they should be included in future research. At this point, you’re able to generate your own research questions, formulate testable hypotheses, and even design a hypothetical study in which the findings are interesting regardless of whether your hypotheses are supported.

When you’ve identified these signs in your personal, academic, and professional experiences, you’re ready to apply.

Question 2: “Where should I apply?”

To identify the right program(s) to apply to, it is crucial to look at more than just the ranking or reputation of the university. Therefore, “2021 Best National University Rankings” by U.S. News & World Report should not be your primary source for one simple reason: PhD programs are very idiosyncratic. Even if you have chosen a field of study (ideally the field where you received your undergraduate and/or master’s degree), there are likely many research areas within that field, and even more specific topics within each area. The right research area for you will depend on your previous research experience, as well as the specific topic(s) you want to investigate.

For example, within the field of psychology, there are many areas, including clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, health psychology, evolutionary psychology, personality psychology, and social psychology. Then, within, say social psychology, there’s a vast array of specific topics such as attitudes, aggression, decision making, emotion, prejudice, and prosocial behavior, to name a few. As you can imagine, these topics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining topics can generate unique findings. Therefore, when thinking about where to apply, you might prioritize programs where the faculty are studying combinations of topics you find particularly interesting.

Another factor to consider is that programs differ as a function of the research methods they employ. Thus, when thinking about where to apply, it’s necessary to identify programs where the faculty are researching the specific topics you’re most interested in, and to consider whether those faculty are using methods that you would like to apply in your future career. Do you want to master advanced statistical techniques? Do you want to work with state-of-the-art technologies? Do you want to interact with people? Do you want to observe phenomena in the “real world” or in experimental settings? It’s not only about what you’re researching; it’s also about how you’re researching it.

Once you’ve identified programs based on those considerations, it’s time to identify prospective faculty advisors within your chosen programs. After all, you’re not just applying to PhD programs; you’re applying to work with specific faculty members, and they are the ones who will be reviewing your application and deciding whether to accept you. Based on faculty’s professional biographies (which you can find on most programs’ websites), you’ll probably be able to identify the faculty whose interests are most similar to yours. 

But that’s not enough to be confident that you want to work with a given faculty member. Next, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with that faculty’s recent work by reading research papers they’ve published in the past couple years. As you’re reading, ask yourself whether this faculty member writes and thinks clearly, and presents arguments and evidence in a compelling manner. You will be mentored by this person for five years (or more!), so it’s crucial that you find someone who you admire and are motivated to learn from.    

In sum, the steps to deciding where to apply for PhD study are:

  1. Choose your field of study
  2. Identify your area(s) within that field
  3. Discover the specific topics you find most fascinating
  4. Consider what methods you want to employ
  5. Evaluate the merits of prospective faculty advisors

Question 3: “How do I get in?”

Once you’ve determined that you’re ready to apply, and you know where you want to apply, the focus shifts to whether you’re going to be accepted. Getting into a PhD program is largely a matter of fit. The faculty members who evaluate your application want to know what insights you can offer to their current and future research studies, how your interpersonal style will contribute to their lab dynamics, and whether you are committed to extending their research in a meaningful way after you obtain your doctorate. You can convey all of this crucial information in your statement of purpose.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of your statement of purpose. You might have an exceptional C.V., but if your statement of purpose is lackluster and fails to convey to your prospective faculty advisor that you are the right fit, then you are unlikely to be accepted. Conversely, you might have a modest C.V., or even a weakness such as a low G.P.A., but nevertheless be accepted if you convey in your statement that (a) you have taken (and will continue to take) concrete steps to become more prepared for PhD training, and (b) you possess unique skills and knowledge that are highly relevant to your prospective advisor’s research area, but may not be reflected in traditional metrics of achievement (e.g., your C.V., G.P.A).

To write a compelling statement of purpose, you need to articulate everything relevant to Question 1: “When should I apply to graduate school?” You have already reflected on how your personal, academic, and professional experiences have aligned such that you know that you are ready to apply. But it is not enough for you to know that you are ready. You need to convince your prospective advisor that you are. 

This is where Accepted comes in. The most valuable service I offer is essay consulting. You will learn how to craft a narrative surrounding your journey that is coherent, authentic, and distinctive. During each consultation, I will challenge you to think more deeply and clearly than you ever have about where you’ve been and where you’re going. You will learn how to identify and describe the reasons why your prospective advisor should accept you. 

Question 4: “Why should I go?”

A PhD is an academic degree that prepares you to conduct original research, perform advanced statistical analyses, interpret empirical results, and evaluate competing theories. You will be trained to become an academic—that is, a university professor who directs a research lab and teaches students the nuances of a specific field. The skills you acquire during your doctoral training can be applied to industry, governmental, and non-profit settings; however, doing so should not be your primary goal. Your prospective advisor will want to know that you are committed to the work of an academic. It is great if your research has important implications for those other sectors, so long as you are still first and foremost committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge in your field. The university and everything it stands for should give you chills. 

Thus, the best reasons to pursue a PhD are intrinsic. After all, a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy. You get a PhD because you are passionately drawn to the philosophy of your chosen field. You can’t help but think about it in your everyday life, because you see it everywhere. It is a lens through which life makes sense. Discovering its guiding principles, subject matter, and potential applications allows you to identify patterns in the world around you—and sometimes within yourself as well. So why should you go and pursue a PhD? Because you can’t not.

An expert can help you evaluate your unique situation to help you detwermining if now is the right time to apply. Our experienced admissions pros can help you succeed at any and every stage of the PhD admission process. Get in touch with Accepted today to get the ball rolling!

Komi German, Social Psychology Ph.D., is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, and author of a forthcoming book on the psychology of professors, including their priorities regarding whom to admit. She is an admissions consultant who has helped grad students obtain competitive fellowships and tenure-track positions. Want Komi to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!

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