How to Apply for a PhD

So you want a PhD. Determining whether that is the right path for you or not is a discussion for another (maybe future) post. But now that you have decided you want a PhD, how do you apply into a PhD program? Though some of the steps are similar to college and graduate applications, many aspects and steps of the application process are also quite different! I’ll share the steps I took to get into a PhD program.
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Here’s a summary of the steps, with in-depth explanations soon after:

  1. Research departments and professors, and the type of research they do
  2. Contact departments/professors you are potentially interested in
  3. Volunteer to do research with the department/professor
  4. Check for universities’ and department-specific application requirements, and work on fulfilling them
  5. Apply! Seriously, just do it.
  6. Last but not least, surrender!

Feel free to share what steps you took, or your stories about getting into college or a PhD program in the comments!

Disclaimer: The process and steps I list here are ones I took to get accepted into a university in the U.S. Talking to PhD students from other countries, it seems that the process and steps may be somewhat similar for other countries as well, but there may be differences.

When I started considering getting a PhD, I found quite a few PhD handbooks, manuals, and blogs of people sharing their experiences online. I no longer remember these sources, but I do remember the main lessons I learned from them. Below I am sharing what I learned from those sources, plus things I learned along my own PhD journey.

1. Research Departments and Professors, and the Type of Research they do

Research is the main component of getting a PhD, though classes are required, too. Professors are more likely able to provide guidance, have ideas, or resources to help you do research in their research areas. Additionally, since professors also need to do research with or for industry or government organizations to get financial support, you, as the professor’s student, may be required to work on those research projects. These projects will most likely be in topics the professors are interested in or familiar with. Hence, you really want to find a professor and/or department whose research interests match with yours. Many professors and their current PhD students list their research interests and publications on their websites.
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When I was considering the PhD process (to teach), I did not have research interests. I wasn’t too familiar with the various types of research happening in the field, either. I did, however, know that I wanted to stay as close to home as possible. I researched the departments and professors within the areas I wanted to stay within, noting the general topics of their publications and their research interests. Of the universities I researched, there was one professor whose research seemed very interesting to me, and a few other options I thought would also work.

The idea is to find programs with matching research interests, if you already know what they are, or figure out what kind of research does sound interesting to you, if you don’t know what your research interests are yet. You will be in the PhD program for about 3-7 years, so you want to find a program that can keep you interested, or at least sane, for this long.

2. Contact Departments/Professors you are Potentially Interested in

The handbooks, manuals, and blogs I read suggested to tell the professors that I was interested in their program, mention my GPA and accomplishments, and ask if they had suggestions on what I can do to improve my chances of getting accepted into their PhD program. I received responses from about 3 or 4 out of the 5 or 6 professors I contacted. Fortunately, one of them from the professor I was most interested in. While the other professors gave me general responses on what the universities’ expectations are, the one I was interested in most invited me to participate in an unpaid summer internship program they have at the university!


What if the professor you are interested in does not respond to you? Professors are busy people, and it is very possible that they don’t respond to your email. Some things to try are to contact the department, find out if the professor has an administrator, or try to contact the professor’s current PhD students. These contacts might try to help you set up an appointment with the professor, or talk to the professor about your interest in joining the PhD program.


3. Volunteer to do Research with the Department/Professor

When contacting professors you are interested in doing the PhD under (step 2), ask them if they have volunteer opportunities to do research with them or their PhD students. I did not have this idea or suggestion when I initially contacted the professors, and the professor I was most interested in invited me to do an unpaid internship within his department. Though it was not research, it still helped me get my foot in the door. After becoming a PhD student at my university (let’s call it U), I learned that most professors within the department have a course called Directed Research, that graduate students can take to do research with the professor. This course gives both the student and the professor a chance to see if the student has similar research interests and is competent. I am not sure if all or most other universities have this type of process/program, but you can ask to volunteer to do research over a summer or semester with the professor or his/her current PhD students. Even if volunteering to do research does not help you get accepted into that professor’s program, it will count towards experience to put on your resume and research statement to apply to other PhD programs. Essentially, universities and professors want to see that you have an aptitude to do research. Since becoming a PhD student, I worked with 4 graduate students, 3 of whom applied to and got accepted into PhD programs at other universities.

4. Check for Universities’ and Department/Field-Specific Application Requirements, and Work on Fulfilling Them

Don’t forget the most important aspect of applying to a PhD program – the application itself! Depending on the field, you will generally be expected to take some type of exam, such as the GRE and a subject-specific test with the GRE. You will also need at least 3 letters of recommendations. Additionally, PhD programs typically require a Research Statement, or also called a Statement of Purpose. Note all of the application requirements and deadlines for the universities you want to apply to. Fulfill the requirements, and submit the applications on time.

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Some specific tips:

  1. You’ll have to check when the exams are typically scheduled and when the deadlines are to sign up for them.
  2. You may want to find resources to study for the exams. I bought 2 GRE books, and made a plan to completely go through them before I was scheduled to take the GRE. This really helped me score well.
  3. Ask the professor(s) or people you worked with when you volunteered to do research to write a letter of recommendation.
  4. Make sure you give your professors or other contacts writing your letters of recommendations plenty of time before the deadlines (professors are busy people). They may also ask for a resume or list of things you have accomplished to note in the letters. Hence, it’s a good idea to have these ready before or soon after you ask them to write the letters.
  5. You can find lots of resources and guidelines on how to write good Research Statements (or Statement of Purpose, or other similarly named statement). You can also ask your professors or other acquaintances to review them and make suggestions for improvement.

5. Apply! Seriously, Just Do It.

The main point I want to make here is not to allow perfectionism or paranoia paralyze you. Here are 2 example stories.

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I met a peer who was applying to the same PhD program as me at U (the university where I am doing my PhD). One day, he asked to meet to talk about the PhD application process. While talking to him, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted to know or what he needed help with, as he knew and already did all of the steps for the application. At that point I said, well I just did all the same steps and sent in my application. He later told me that I helped him feel that he should also just send in his application.

After becoming a PhD student, a student approached me saying she wants to volunteer to do research, as she would like to apply to the PhD program I am in. I worked with her,  talked to my advisor about her work, and even reminded her of the application deadline. I later found out that she did not apply yet, but she continued to volunteer on research with me. I figured she was planning to apply the next year when she graduates with her Masters. Again, the application deadline came and went, and she did not apply. My advisor was even asking if she had applied as he was ready to support her application and write her a letter of recommendation. When her volunteer term completed, she again told me that she would like to continue volunteering even though she was working full-time. I asked her what her future plans were, and learned that though she had the support she needed to get accepted into the PhD program, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to commit to getting a PhD. Not everyone needs a PhD to do what they want to do in life, as may be the case with this student. However, if you really do want to get a PhD and you have the support, you should go for it! Don’t lose the opportunity!

How are you supposed to perform all these steps in time to apply to PhD programs? Here’s a suggested timeline (as the image shows, you should start the process at least 1.5 years before you plan to start the PhD program):

The timeline represents when each step should be started and finished. For instance, you don’t necessarily need to start Step 1 exactly in the beginning of the Fall semester, but should plan to finish it at least mid-way through the following Spring semester.

6. Last but not least, Surrender!

Disclaimer: I do mention God in this section and when sharing my experiences. However, I am in no way suggesting you should or need to believe in a God. You can replace the word God with universe, life, coincidence, or any word of your choice.

We don’t always know the full picture to see where we are meant to be, or where we will fit best. For this reason, we will actually be happier if we surrender to God, to life, to the universe. Surrender doesn’t mean to give up, but trust that even if something we have our hearts, minds, and determination set on doesn’t work, something else, and maybe better, can and will come to us.

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For those of you who watched the Dr. Strange movie, it’s like when Dr. Strange is fighting Kaecilius, and the Cloak of Levitation is stopping Dr. Strange from going towards the weapons on the wall. The harder Dr. Strange tries to go towards it, the harder he’s pulled back by the Cloak. When Dr. Strange finally surrenders even a little to look in the direction the Cloak is taking him, he sees the Cloak pointing him to a more effective weapon on the other side of the wall.

This isn’t easy to practice, as I still am not good at surrendering. But looking back, I do think that I could have been happier had I just trusted that everything will be ok, as it did end up being. I put myself through a lot of unnecessary sadness, anger, and stress. Though I know this, I still find it hard to trust, have faith, and surrender. This step is easier said than done, but we can strive. And if any of you are good at surrendering, please share the magic with me!

Below, I’ll share 3 stories, 2 of them being my own experiences (one of them about my PhD acceptance journey),  and 1 about my sister. Feel free to read them, if you’re interested. I’d like to hear your stories about getting into college, getting into a PhD program, or even stories about how surrendering brought you or could have brought you peace and happiness in the comments!


I applied to quite a few colleges when I was a senior in high school. As any aspiring student, I had my eyes set on highly prestigious schools, hoping I would get an acceptance letter from one of them. But I come from a very small town with much fewer  resources available to me to compete with students from bigger cities. I secretly feared I wouldn’t get accepted by any college because of that. One by one, I was getting rejected from lots of very prestigious universities. My self-esteem was getting crushed more and more with each letter I was receiving. After a while, I got an acceptance letter from a good university, but I wasn’t excited about it because I didn’t feel I would fit in there. I tried to like it by reading about it, researching the city and what would be around me, imagining that it could be great. One day, I got a letter from the university I really did want to go to (though it’s slightly less prestigious than the other universities), but wasn’t sure I would get in. I read it, and I was accepted, and for the first time (and so far last time), I cried because I was so happy!

Then my sister went through the same situation, except that she didn’t even consider going to a less prestigious college. Though I knew that everything would work out for the better, through my experience, I was still sad because she was not convinced. Plus, surrender is much easier to practice when it’s not your own experience, as we will soon find out. She got accepted to a slightly less prestigious university (but still well-known and prestigious) that was near my college and the university I wanted to go to for my PhD, so I was happy and excited. But she was not. It wasn’t until she started her Masters program there and had an internship on the East coast, visited the schools she had hoped to go to, met and worked with students from those schools that she told our mom she was glad she didn’t go to those schools. She realized that those schools focused on theory and research, whereas the university she went to focused on theory and research as well, but also on practical application. This university was a better fit for her, but she didn’t realize it until about 5 years later.
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I should be the queen of surrender by this point, right? Maybe you more experienced persons know the answer is no, because trust, faith, and surrender is a journey not a destination. But I really did think I mastered it before applying to the PhD. I took all the steps to apply into PhD programs. Every step along the way, I felt I was being pointed to university U: the professor responded to my email quickly, told me to intern with his department, he was ready to support my application, my sister started going to that university, everything lined up. But I was rejected for the PhD program. I broke. I was angry, so angry. I promised to never go to that university. I became angry with God, because I felt He misled me or tricked me, it was all a game to break me. I followed the way He showed me, what did I do wrong? I was angry with the professor because maybe he lied to me and didn’t actually want me to join his program. Maybe God has a reason, but what is it? I don’t see or understand it. Why can’t He just tell me or explain it to me? Why must He keep it a mystery?

My mom insisted to contact the professor, which I did after at least a week of crying and being angry (though I was still sad and angry). The professor responded quickly saying apply to the Masters program and we will work on getting you into the PhD program when you’re here. I applied to and got accepted into the Masters program. I started taking the Masters level classes, and the professor and research associate I worked with during my internship had me start working on a project. I found out from other PhD students in the program that because the economy had crashed, the professor doesn’t have funding, and that is why I might not have gotten into the program. But the professor never told me that, so I questioned its validity. The professor had me apply to the PhD program again, and I got rejected again! I was feeling embarrassed. One of the PhD students even told me a story about how he had applied to another university 2-3 times, and then tried at this university, and got in. He was trying to give me helpful advice that maybe I should try to apply to a different program. On the other hand, the professor is telling me to try again the next year. I’ll give it another try, and then I may have to reconsider my PhD plans. The next time. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I got in! But I wasn’t happy about it at this point. The happiness didn’t outweigh the hurt of getting rejected twice. And I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t get in the first time around, or even second.

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I wasn’t really interested in research, nor did I have much experience in doing research. I didn’t have a topic, and really wasn’t sure on how to find a topic for my PhD. A co-PhD student told me he was in the same boat as me, and that the advisor will give me an idea as he had given him. But my advisor wasn’t giving me ideas, yet. He didn’t seem stressed or worried about it, either. Was he hoping I would find my own topic? I just continued working on the projects I was assigned, and tried to read literature and papers with hopes I’d find myself a topic. Because I was stressing, my advisor gave me an idea for a topic, but the data we had access to was very incomplete, which led to very statistically insignificant and inconclusive results. Additionally, we weren’t able to get better observational data to study it in detail or an environment to run experiments. After a half year, my advisor had the idea for me to collect and quantify data from the project I was consistently assigned to since I first came to the university as a Masters student. I wasn’t sure if much would come out of it, but I started the work with the help of some Masters students. I ran a simple first analysis, and found that I got decent results! I published 2 papers from this data, as I also got decent results for another analysis! But I still didn’t have a topic. Another half year later, while working on another project, both my advisor and I had the same idea for my topic using the same dataset! As I started working on it, I realized that it required me to segregate the data into 2 groups, and the smaller of them just barely had enough data points to be statistically acceptable!

In my case, my professor was happy and said, this looks good enough to be publishable! This is exactly how how I reacted and actually felt!

At this point, it all came together. When I wasn’t getting into the PhD program, God wasn’t playing tricks on me. He was telling me, wait, you need the extra time to get enough data points. Wait, you need the extra time to meet the PhD deadlines once you get the data. Wait, it will all work out. And it did. God’s timing was perfect! Not too early, not too late. As soon as I finished my Masters degree, I got accepted into the PhD. I didn’t need to take any time off. And during the time I was doing my Masters degree and the first couple years of my PhD degree, I was gathering just enough data to run analyses for when I find my topic. And I was able to schedule my Qualifying Exam just in time for the deadline, and even have a few published papers under my belt. And I should be able to finish on time for my defense – which I am planning to try to do by December or early next year.

Getting Data
It actually took me 4 years to get data!

Sure, I might not be the student that got into the PhD program right out of her Bachelors degree (which is what I wanted to do). Sure, I wasn’t one of the fastest people to finish my PhD (which is another thing I was hoping to do). But these small accomplishments that feed our egos are insignificant with respect to God’s bigger plans!

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If you read my stories/experiences, I hope they help you hope, trust, and surrender. I hope you enjoyed them, as I keep these experiences and stories close to me to remind me that everything has and will work out.


7 thoughts on “How to Apply for a PhD”

  1. Thanks for sharing about this, interesting to hear how the process works in the US. Getting on to a PhD is quite different over here in the UK as 99% of PhDs are funded by either one of the research councils (I’m funded by the Medical Research Council [MRC] for instance) or by a research charity (British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK etc) for research in a specific area and because of that it does somewhat change the process of applying. Typically a PhD project will be advertised (usually for 3 years) by the project supervisor at the university who will had been allocated the money by the funder and you apply to projects of interest. It really does differ between universities though as to how the application process is, but most will request a CV, personal statement and details of 3 referees. Pretty much nowhere to my knowledge has an entrance exam. If the supervisor advertising the project is interested in you then an interview will be arranged and it goes on from there if you are successful (assuming the university and funder are happy with you as well, typically one from each will be on the interview panel and the decision will be the result of a discussion between them and the supervisor).

    It is possible to go down the self funded route and apply to an individual academic to work with them, but it is rare for people to do that as it is difficult to self fund a PhD or arrange funding individually (science PhD fees are typically about £12000 a year including bench fees for resources etc, but the prices do vary massively). Practically all PhDs last 3 or 4 years maximum (which is typically set by the funder, who pay any fees and by law have to pay you a tax free “stipend” to live on), but some universities have recently introduced 4 years PhDs where the first year is spent rotating through several labs and then you decide who you want to work with and what you want to work on for the remaining 3 years as your main project.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing how the process is in the UK! I have a PhD friend in the UK, and she explained how she got in the PhD and her journey a little but not to this degree. This is good to know! Indeed, the process is very different!


    2. Your experience is very similar to mine, I think because we’re both Science/Medical PhDs. 🙂

      However, the experience of Humanities/Social Science areas is more difficult and quite different in some ways. A lot of PhDs in the UK aren’t actually funded. Being in Science/Medicine it’s very rare to find a PhD that isn’t funded, like you say, but the majority of Humanities and Social Science PhDs are not funding. That’s why there’s a much higher rate of part time students in those subject areas – they work alongside their studies. It sounds like really hard work and I really don’t envy them – I’m very grateful that I’m funded too!

      Also, many of the Humanities/Social Science PhDs have to submit their own research proposal and find their supervisor. There are much fewer PhDs that supervisors advertise, partly because of the lack of funding I think.

      In the UK, most universities/research councils will fund students for 3-3.5 years, but the universities allow you up to 4 years to complete the PhD. I know a lot of people who work in the last 6 months whilst they’re writing up, but also a lot of people who use that extra time because they’re not done yet!!

      Liked by 1 person

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