How to get into a PhD program

Jess Drake (aka @soilduck) suggested she write a post on how to get into a PhD program a little while ago. I thought it would be a good follow up to Ehsan’s popular “Should you do a PhD?” because it can be surprisingly difficult to get into a program. After helping a few friends and family members through the process of getting in, I am aware of how much ‘insider knowledge’ can be required.

Jess struggled initially to write this post as she only has experience of getting into a science program, so I advised that she just write it for scientists. I was planning to write one a follow up for humanities people. As it happens, I think the majority of the advice she offers holds for both cases. I don’t think a follow up post is needed – but I am open to the idea. Let us know at the end if you think more specific advice is required.

So, you have decided to do a PhD (in science).

You have found something that you are really really passionate about, and you want to learn more. You’ve worked out that a PhD fits in your life plans. You have the income you need, and some savings to get you out of tight spots. You have talked about it with your family and loved ones, and they are all on board the PhD roller-coaster. And you are pretty excited and wondering when you can start!

It is hard not to let the excitement get the better of your judgement. Before starting, you need to find the right university, team and supervisor for you. Remember, you will be dedicating 3+ years of PhD discovery, and you need to make sure you have the right match to make it that much more comfortable and fun.

Here are a few steps to help you find your PhD match.

1. What makes you passionate?

Most science research is conducted in groups with funding, and a specific project is usually worked out in that group. Don’t spend too much time working out a specific topic, just write down some things that stir your curiosity or subjects you are interested in. You’ll use this for your next step.

With that list, also write down types of scientific processes, thinking, modelling, lab work, field work etc you like and don’t like to do. Also have a think about things that are important to you in the work place. That could include things like support, open discussions, amount of input and feedback you need etc. You can use this list to do some research on possible universities, groups and supervisors to find a project and people that suit you.

2. Internet stalking

Before you start talking to specific people, do a bit of research on the web. Have a look at what universities have science programs you are interested in. Have a look at their specific projects, do they match the list? Yes – write it down. No – keep going!

And don’t discriminate based on University rankings. It doesn’t matter where you get the PhD from, but the people and the project do!

Using the matching Unis and groups, find out names of scientists are working on the project and stalk them… a little. Before you approach a potential supervisor, you want to make sure they know their stuff and that they will help you get a PhD. Google their name and see what they are currently and previously working on. Is it the same topic? Slightly different? Very different? You can have a look on any big science databases (like Web of Science or Google Scholar) for their citation record. Have they published much and in what field? Do they publish with many other people and are well connected? If they haven’t published for awhile or not in the field you are interested in, you might want to ask ‘why?’

3. Wave the red flag

You have found an interesting group, done a bit of research on the people and now it is time to go in! Approach the potential supervisor! Everyone is different, but I suggest calling them and sending a follow-up email. Introduce yourself, say you are interested in their research group and your intentions on doing a PhD. Ask them if they have anything available and go from there!

If they don’t reply, don’t be disheartened! Academics can be bad at answering email. Try again, or someone else in their group. You could also contact the School’s PhD advisor or administration contacts and ask them about the best way to get in contact with the potential supervisor. If the potential supervisor never replies, cross them off the list! It means they are probably too busy and you don’t need a supervisor who can’t get back to you about things.

4. You can interview too

If you get called in for an interview (and you probably will) use this opportunity to do some of your own interviewing. This is when you pull out that second list. Find out more about the project and what the team does, if there is funding and what type/how much. Ask your potential supervisor about how the team works, what support is like and the facilities.

If you are able, ask some of their current and past students about the supervisor, team, uni, facilities and any other important questions on your list. Is the supervisor prompt and helpful? Are they away a lot? Do they know lots about the subject? Ask them about the facilities and have a look at them. Is there everything there that you need? Is the lab up to date or do they have access to another lab through funding/on campus?

Finding a supervisor and team that fits your personality and research is key to a harmonious, productive and successful PhD. Take plenty of time researching potential supervisors.

5. Wave the white flag

After you have interviewed and researched a few places, have a look at your lists again. Which place fits most of your questions? Do you have to toss up between some good and bad things? Are there a few options? Take plenty of time to make decisions. Don’t think about it for a week or two, and then come back and look at your lists. And when deciding, try to be flexible! It is better to have an awesome supervisor and good facilities in an area your care a little less about than a not-so-good supervisor in an area you are more interested in; a not-so-good supervisor may mean a more stressful PhD journey.

Once you have settled on one or more options then you are ready to apply! Call them, contact them, and write the applications. Put in a few applications if you can; no harm in having more choice. Then wait to see where you will be heading next!

Done!

It may seem like a lot to think about and do, but remember it is 3+ years of your life. And it isn’t just about a PhD, it is also about learning, growing and having the best opportunity to enjoy the research and then progress with a future career (academic, research or otherwise). And finding a place that is right for you will ensure a happy PhD.

One last thing: If you have a specific project in mind I still recommend going through the same steps, even if you know the perfect person. You want to be absolutely sure it is the right place and person for you. There are pluses and minuses to going this way… but that is a topic for another post.

Do you have anything you think should be added to this advice? Perhaps something you wish had known before you started looking? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s note: Both Jess and I are Australians. I am not sure how much the advice holds in other countries, particularly in the United States. I hope those with experience will write in and enlighten us as to how it works elsewhere so this post can be a good starting point for many potential students.

Related Posts

Should I do a PhD?

Living happily ever after

36 thoughts on “How to get into a PhD program

  1. I was ‘head hunted’ both times. I met my master’s supervisor at the childcare centre my son attended and we became friends. She suggested I do a masters while we played with our kids one day after work. Towards the end of the masters I gave a conference presentation. Afterwards my future PhD supervisor came up and gave me a card, suggesting when I was ready I come talk to him. He helped me get into the PhD at Melbourne Uni. I’m grateful to both of them for fostering me, but I can’t help but wonder that it shouldn’t have been so random…

    • Thanks for posting this! I was wondering if stories like this were true, or fairy tale myths! Reason being is because I’m in the final 6 months of my masters (at a Canadian school) and am also presenting at a conference in a few months at an American conference based in my field. I particularly chose this conference because it is in the area (geographic) that I hope to either do my PhD and/or get a job once I’m done my MA. The schools that have PhD programs in my field are top notch and really hard to get into, so I figured any networking I can do will help. My supervisor had said this would be a better choice of conference because then my research is seen ‘locally’ and I can network with those that would be possible PhD supervisors, and in the back of my mind, I had wondered, well maybe one of them will like my research so much, they’ll come talk to me! I’m pretty sure it will be more networking and ‘selling’ of my research ensuring people hear and learn about what I am doing, but knowing that it CAN happen is nice! Thanks!

    • It probably wasn’t as random as you are thinking it was… Although circumstances put you in situations that allowed you to get some opportunities, it was up to your master’s supervisor to approach you and make the suggestion. She probably saw many things in you that were important to her when she chooses a graduate students. Likely, personality and character attributes are probably high on her list of criteria. She probably learned from you some things about your requisite academic abilities, scholarly potential, interests, motivation, and since she also knows you, it was a no-brainer for her to make you an offer. Low risk situation for her. You probably impressed the other guy (future PhD supervisor) in significant ways, and he might have even heard wonderful things about your from your master’s supervisor — so, he approached you because he saw it as a good-bet, low-risk situation. That’s says a lot about you (without really saying anything specific)! clearly, you are impressing people, and you also seem to be on the humble side because you are grateful and, well, humble. You refer to your graduate supervisors as “fostering” you, but I bet they benefited quite a bit from having you on their team for a few years. Good chance that they are still benefiting. your successes are among their successes.

      • How lovely of you to say :-) And I think you are entirely right, knowing someone socially can be a good way to understand their general orientation towards life and work and thus what sort of relationship you might be getting into when you make an offer..

  2. As an American who studied in the UK (ironically enough, funded by Australians), my journey into an Engineering PhD was surprisingly similar to the five steps described above. Nothing beats doing your research and getting in touch! I can definitely echo point 5. My project was not in something I would call my passion, but the group resources were fantastic, we interacted very well with one another, and my supervisor was always engaged and helpful.

    One of the big reasons I was cautioned against doing a PhD in the UK was that I would be forfeiting the opportunity to study on an US National Sciences Foundation (NSF) grant. NSF fellowships are available to top students (with American citizenship) studying at US universities. As the webpage duly touts, the program has some illustrious alumni. More information can be found at: http://www.nsfgrfp.org/about_the_program. In the end, I had funding from a different source so it did not matter. But the NSF fellowship is a real asset to Americans studying at US schools.

    Love this blog and found it so massively encouraging in those last few days of the writeup. I look forward to more great content in the future!

  3. You mentioned that people who are ready to start a PhD have the income they need and some savings to get them out of tight spots. I just want to say, this is assuming a lot about people who are ready to get their PhDs. Not all of us have cushy jobs or a savings safety net, but we’re passionate and intelligent. It’s not just upper and middle class folks who are going to get their PhD. And, people who do not have the wealth you mentioned are still able to follow the steps necessary to get accepted into PhD programs. (This is coming from a US perspective.)

    • I completely agree! I actually wrote that in the post, because it is something people need to think about if they have families, no scholarship, or having a nest-egg to get them out of a tight spot. Of course, there are also scholarship opportunities available to anyone :)

      I went into my PhD with $2000 saved from my previous job. It is now all gone, and I rely on my PhD scholarship and teaching.

      • You are highlighting an extremely important issue. The Australian government are trying to encourage more economically disadvantaged people into undergraduate study – and into research degrees. But there needs to be follow up with cash to really make this idea work. So far, not seeing much of that…

    • very much agreed (also from a US perspective). but i also chose to apply only to programs that are fully-funded because i knew i wouldn’t have any money to support myself (i’m a social worker).

      but everything else about this post was on point; i did all of that when i chose my programs.

    • Cheers, Chris!

      I know many people skip the income and savings bit, but as someone who worked before pursuing graduate studies, I can say it helps! What student needs yet another source of stress? Also, knowing that, at the end, if you don’t land an academic position you at least have some industry contacts is a nice comfort. :)

  4. Some good general advice here, but the assumption that you have ‘income and savings’ ready before you make the decision to study seems a little odd. I certainly didn’t! What steps could you take if you don’t have the money? In the UK, there is funding available for PhD study, usually 3-4 years, and (hopefully) paying your fees, a stipend for living expenses and if you’re lucky, some money to fund the research. This is what most students are looking for and in my (quite limited, admittedly) experience there are three ways to get it:

    1. You look for an advertised PhD project that already has funding attached and apply for it
    2. You look for a university advertising funded studentships that aren’t attached to particular projects, then follow the steps above to find a supervisor (supervisors might advertise particular projects in these circumstances, but if you have your own ideas they may be happy to let you apply based on those)
    3. You follow the steps above, find your dream supervisor and then apply to other funding agencies for money, but there aren’t many of these available, at least not in my field.
    These are all VERY competitive, and the luxury of being able to apply for and be interviewed for several, then compare labs and pick your favourite, is probably only going to be available to a small number of candidates. Your CV/application are going to be critical here.

    Option 4 would be to self-fund a PhD, but this is HARD. If you haven’t got the money in place at the start, then you shouldn’t think that you can work and do a PhD at the same time – a PhD is your full time job. The sad thing is that we advise against part-time PhDs, as you can’t work fast enough to keep up with the field. Something that was a novel and exciting idea 7 years ago has probably been scooped by another research group by the time you finish investigating it (disclaimer: may only apply to science). So if you happen to have come into large sums of money, and have a dream project, then by all means self-fund, but it shouldn’t be your first choice of route into PhD study.

  5. Excellent advice. I wish I knew that beforehand. The followup should be, how to change supervisor when you’ve made a bad choice or your topic has evolved outside of their area of expertise. Can you change university?

  6. I am working on a humanities PhD in the US. Having some savings is a good idea. There will often be months at a time without pay, particularly in the summers, and my loan check often comes several weeks after a semester has started. If you have pets or kids who depend on you, it’s important to have a safety net, even a tiny one.

    In the humanities, we often have language requirements outside of regular coursework. If you’re considering applying for a PhD program, find out which languages are necessary for your field and get a head start.

    The advice to connect with potential supervisors before applying to the program is spot-on.

  7. This is great advice! :) In response to your editor’s note, I think that all of this advice would apply in the US with just some minor tweaks:

    *Calling a professor here might be considered “pushy” and some professors rarely use their office phones, so I would encourage email as a first means of contact.
    *Admissions here is cyclical (with a few exceptions): applications are turned in November-January, decisions handed out January-March, responses from admitted students due in April, and programs beginning in August or September. There are a limited number of programs with what we call “rolling admissions,” where applications are welcome at any time and are considered as they are received. There are also a small number of programs that have a spring and fall cycle each year (with students entering in January and August). Thus, you should contact potential advisors at least a year before you plan to start your PhD.
    *I don’t know anything about how admissions compares, but it is very competitive in the US, and you will want to have several options (applying to 10-12 programs is common in my field) because, even if you are a great student, rejection is much more common than admission.
    *In contrast to the Commonwealth, our PhDs include the taught master’s component, so they are typically 5+ year commitments.
    *Admissions will generally require taking the GRE.

  8. I would say that the process is often quite different in humanities, where it is not as common to do research in groups but rather find your own research topic and get independent funding. Most humanities people I have known have had to start their projects independently, only later it may have been possible for them to become a part of research project groups.

    I, too, was surprised at the suggestion that an income would be necessary to begin with, especially given that science research projects often receive funding. Of course I come from a country where higher education is free (no tuition), so in this situation it just comes down to being prepared for the energy-consuming process of applying for grant money so you can focus on your research full-time (and I would say one really should be prepared for that; know what to expect so you won’t get discouraged when funding is difficult to get as it often is, especially in humanities). Of course in this situation it is good to have some savings to survive. But an income – I haven’t known many people who have entered a PhD program in the humanities who have had a steady income to begin with (or if they did, it was usually not on a related field). When you do need to apply for funding independently, it is useful to have a supportive supevisor who believes in your abilities.

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  10. Hi All!

    Thanks for all your great feedback and advice! It is fantastic :)

    I am sorry for the confusion about the money. And I completely agree with all of you. It was a bit of a throw-away comment on my behalf, and not meant to be the crux of the content. Perhaps another post on this topic (money and PhD) is needed?

    Money is a very individual requirement. I actually wrote that in the post, because it is something people need to think about if they have families, no scholarship, or having a nest-egg to get them out of a tight spot. Of course, there are also scholarship opportunities available to anyone. BioScienceMum gives some good insight into PhD and money/funding arrangements as well.

    I went into my PhD with $2000 saved from my previous job. It is now all gone, and I rely on my PhD scholarship (which I got from my University when applying for a program with my Supervisors) and teaching.
    :)

  11. All of this advice is very good. Especially important is the advice about contacting potential supervisors before you apply. There are many reasons why you need to do this. One reason is simply because some faculty members have a personal policy of never accepting an applicant who they have never before heard of, and about whom they know nothing but what is in the applicant’s file! At the very least, you need to contact potential supervisors to find out whether they are even open to taking on a new student, next year. Also, you need to have some communication with potential supervisors before you can know whether or not you will be compatible, interpersonally.

    One really important factor has not been mentioned here, in the original post or the comments, but which usually ends up playing a significant role in the decision process when final selections are made. I’m referring to the applicant’s personality and character. Keep in mind that your graduate supervisor will agree to be your mentor and supervisor only if there is something in it for them — namely, you help them accomplish their research agenda (some people are fortunate enough to end up with a supervisor who also has a student-training agenda, a very important thing to look for in a potential Ph.D. supervisor). But, the next most important thing to most potential supervisors, and even the most important for some, will be their perceptions about YOUR personality and character, and their expectations about what it would be like to be “responsible” for you over the next few years. No one wants any headaches from their graduate students, so most experienced professors will shy away from anyone who seems like they might be unpleasant to deal with, or who might not work well with other students, or who is moody, or is insufficiently motivated, or who is a drag in any other way. Many have the experience to know that one can’t always trust an applicant’s letters of recommendation to provide a frank picture of what they are really like as a person. So, potential supervisors have a lot at stake in getting to know a bit about you, firsthand, before giving serious consideration to accepting you. If you don’t give them a chance to assuage any concerns they might have about what it would be like to have you nearby for the next few years, then you run the risk that they won’t take a chance on you.

    One more nice thing I want to point out about your post, and a few of the great comments it has elicited… It seems there are more things in common than differences between how things work in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, with respect what matters most to the people who actually decide whether or not you get into their Ph.D. program. I am a seasoned professor, researcher, and academic counsellor at a major university in Canada. I have spoken about such issues with faculty members, including graduate program directors, from many different disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts, and at a few different universities within the U.S. and Canada. The finer nuances that distinguish how the selection process tends to work in graduate programs within different disciplines are overshadowed by several huge commonalities, most of which are mentioned more than once in the blog post and comments.

    Some of the things you mentioned are discussed further at my blog (mygradschool.wordpress.com) and in numerous articles I have published on a website (MyGraduateschool.com), which aims to help students prepare for and apply successfully to graduate school.

    • Thanks so much for this – I think people need to hear the importance of these interpersonal aspects of the selection process.

      Personally I am looking for a person who has a curious mind, an openness towards learning new things and an ability to accept failure and frustration. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – to get a sense of this from a letter. I would be more confident about selecting someone based on my interactions with them in twitter. Watching how people react to others is as important as how they react to you.

      At our second ‘pre application’ meeting my PhD supervisor took me to a private office meeting the ‘attack dog professor’ of the department (there’s always one of these isn’t there?). He asked me to run my idea by this guy, who comprehensively tore me to shreds.

      On the way down in the lift I was pretty shaken, but I was hardened by many years of architecture school into not showing any fear. I just raised my eyebrow at my supervisor and said: “Well. Clearly I need to do more work”. He replied: “You did OK. The idea is under developed but it’s not crap.”

      It was a long time before I understood he wasn’t interested in what the professor had to say about my ideas – he was testing my mettle. He wanted to see what would happen when a) I met an articulate and intelligent academic who strongly disagreed with my ideas and b) how I would pick myself up after it.

      In a perfect world of course, academia would be more civilised than this…

  12. This article has great advice for Australia and New Zealand – I can’t comment on other countries. Although Australia has a high proportion of PhD students who are older (more than 60% over 30, and 45% come to PhD from full-time employment), I’d guess that this isn’t reflected in the science disciplines. People in science tend to be younger and full-time, as others have said above. But that still doesn’t preclude them having worked for at least a couple of years and saved some money to supplement their scholarship or grant. It’s not a bad plan, if you can implement it. For example, my son-in-law in NZ worked as a lab tech for several years before enrolling on his funded PhD, so they had a chunk of their mortgage paid off and some savings. It’s worth thinking about.

  13. One other piece of advice is when you are interviewing your potential supervisor, be sure to ask about her or his plans; if they are applying to other universities, for example. There is nothing more frustrating than finding that great supervisor and then finding out they are going to do research at an overseas university and you are left high and dry!

    That said, I even asked my potential supervisor about her plans, and my supervisor said she wasn’t going anywhere; that there was nothing to worry about. Then, 3 months into my PhD studies she announced she was pregnant and taking a year off!

  14. My definitive moment about a PhD came when I emailed the author of a nursing philosophy text. I had been thinking about what I thought were the gaps in our field, and her final chapter on the future of nursing philosophy was exactly what I was thinking. Believing it important to give kudos when due, I emailed her with my kudos for her work. Without boring you with details, the Einstein of our field invited me, the ignorant one, to apply for late entrance to their PhD program, as they would be evaluating latecomers in 3 weeks, but did not pressure me to apply. Of course, I applied. I was accepted and received a huge scholarship based on my writing abilities that were determined from a theological paper I wrote for another class. Over time I came to find out that our school was among the most rigorous for nursing PhDs, with faculty with pedigrees that rival the best anywhere. Now at my part-time teaching position at another university, I am told my program is well-esteemed. I am just starting my research, and am so proud of my professors and still pinch myself to make sure this is not a dream. Bottom line: Give kudos where kudos are due. Be a grateful person and bless others with goodness.

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