Ah… the Ph.D. application process. Boy can that be quite intimidating, stressful, and/or tiresome. The biggest peace of advice I can give to you is: DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

I always want to emphasize that everyone comes from different backgrounds, resources, and experiences. This is about choosing the right school for YOU. I had NO IDEA what this process would be like, like everything else I had no idea about hah! It wasn’t until the AMAZING professors at SFSU laid this process down for me that I even had a slight idea on what to do. Then the programs SFSU helped me get involved with and the people I met along the way helped me even more so to learn what next steps to take. To this day, although I’m happy with my turn out, I think I could have done a better job if I knew this information earlier.

Again, there is no “right” way to do any of this. However, I will say this method is what I was advised on multiple occasions by various people and found effective in my personal experience. But, I hope, if it doesn’t at least serve as a friendly reminder, that this helps you in your own journey.

Please feel free to alter this strategy (based on your own personal needs), ask questions, share, like, subscribe, and/or #LivingThePhDream!

Choosing Which Ph.D. Programs to Apply to:
*You might want to use an excel spreadsheet to keep track of the information you collect along this process. I did so and it helped me stay organized!

  • Start with a broad search for universities that have your degree and topic of interests–obviously right? But…
    • Don’t limit yourself, at least not yet. What I mean by this is don’t set location boundaries yet. Give yourself options. Heck, I wouldn’t have found the program I’m attending if I had limited myself to California!
    • Talk to professors, even if just at your university. They usually have ideas on whether or not a school’s program is doing well or changing.
    • Read their website carefully! Questions to think about while doing so:
      • Does the mission, values, and so forth match?
      • Is the department culture something you can see yourself part of?
      • Can you see yourself actually living in this area?
      • What is the curriculum like?
      • How long is the program?
      • Do they describe how students are trained and do you prefer it?
      • What is the funding like? Do you have a family to provide for as well?
      • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but also, don’t bother them with questions that are already answered for you on the FAQ page. Most statistics that you might be pondering are readily available to you online.
    • Don’t pay much attention to the ranking of the program (Ivy League or not). Yeah, to an extent this might play a role in reputation; however, what I’ve heard matters more is that you have AT LEAST 2 faculty members at that program who share similar research interests. In fact, I’ve been told several times that ranking doesn’t make too much of a difference.
    • Bonus: read academic articles that truly interest you and see where the authors teach. 
  • Let’s get more narrow… Let’s talk faculty and students!
    • DO YOUR HOMEWORK: If you haven’t read academic articles that interest you and traced programs based on the authors, then take a look at the program’s faculty. What do they research? Sometimes the professors have their personal websites listed and/or their CVs. Read it and read some of their work. Do you like what they study? 
    • Initiate a conversation with them! You can do so by sending them a professional email, nothing too lengthy, but something that builds a positive impression. Introduce yourself, tell them you read one or two of their articles (which you should actually do!), and pose a good question or comment. Then briefly inform them of your interests in their research and graduate program and why. Kindly ask for a follow-up meeting via phone/email and attach your CV if you have one prepared. If they don’t reply, don’t take it too personally. Often times, they are just really busy. In these cases, you might consider reaching out to a doctoral student as well.
    • Talk to doctoral students at the program. From my personal experience, the most helpful, transparent, and detailed information on programs and faculty came from the students and it most definitely played a HUGE part in my decision-making process. Plus, you learn about the personalities that attend that program!
    • In another post, I will share questions to ask certain people, including students, throughout this whole process.
    • Bonus: if you are fortunate enough to attend academic conferences, talk to professors and students there and ask about their thoughts on programs. In short, you are doing qualitative research here through “interviews/conversations/observations”! It’s good practice and can help build strong networks/relationships. 
    • Bonus X2: Attend your target professor’s presentation. Ask questions, get engaged, and try to EARN a follow-up meeting. I made a connection with a professor at NYU this way and she offered me a research job for a few months. It was a win-win for the both of us and a GREAT talking point during my interviews!
  • Assess your application package by reviewing your qualifications to get even more narrow.
    • Remember applications can be costly. If you haven’t already read my post “Research? You mean like Google?” then please do so! I talk about programs that are helpful especially in your personal development, but also financially. Being involved with some of these programs helps WAIVE your application fee! It saved me hundreds of dollars.
    • Are your grades/scores competitive enough for this program? “Top” programs usually look at 3.5 GPA or higher generally speaking and within your major. And, often times they look at 75%-80%+ on your GRE/GMAT scores. *Don’t let this be the rule out factor. They look at your overall application but it does help to understand your target school.
    • Do you have research experience? If so, on what, with who, and for how long?
    • Do you have strong letters of recommendations? This will play a significant role. Usually they look for letters from professors you’ve worked with directly not only as their student, but also as their research assistant. These people should be able to talk to your personal stories as a person, researcher, and student.
    • Did you participate in relevant programs? Again see my post on “Research? You mean like Google?” I talk about these there as well.
    • Make sure you have a STRONG statement of purpose. I’ll talk more about this in another post.
  • Finalize your application list.
    • Select both top-tier programs and second-tier programs. 
    • Don’t rule out the possibility of getting into a top-tier program that you are really interested in! Apply! You never know!
    • Make sure the programs you select have at least 2 professors you could potentially work with (share similar research interests).

I hope some of this information helps! Good luck and just keep swimming!




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