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3 things you must know before applying for the North American PhD program

Applying to a PhD program? Read this.

If you’re planning to apply to a PhD program, you’ve probably received tons of advice from professors, family, and fellow students. You’re also probably uncertain whether the information and suggestions you’ve received are accurate or not. It’s hard to know which advice will help you in your future endeavors and which ones should be ignored. As a study abroad consultant, I regularly work with PhD applicants from all fields, and there are some important factors for you to consider as you embark down the path of a PhD. It is my hope that this article will help you avoid unnecessary challenges and guide you to make strong decisions as you prepare for your advanced degree.

This article is specifically for students intending to apply for a PhD program - not other graduate programs. Application expectations are very different for PhD applicants and other graduate program applicants. Why? Because master’s, business, law, and medical school applicants pay to advance their studies and, as such, need to show they have the ability to be a strong learner and specialist in their respective fields. PhD applicants, on the other hand, are applying for a paid research position - a position that also happens to include graduate courses. This is an important distinction that shapes how applicants should prepare themselves and their materials.

Further, the advice presented in this article is likely best for students who have time to develop their applicant profiles (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors); however, if you are applying soon, this article will help you craft an application that emphasizes the traits admissions committees look for in candidates. So without further ado, here are my 3 most important pieces of advice:

1. A PhD application should be viewed as a job application. Again, unlike other graduate programs, PhD applicants are essentially applying for hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and 4+ years of mentorship in exchange for producing publishable research. As such, PhD applications should be seen as job applications. Your job is to show admissions committees that you have what it takes to be a strong researcher and are thus worthy of the university’s investment.

Because the best predictor of future success is past success, admissions committees and professors consider your previous research experience to be the primary factor in determining whether or not you are admitted into a PhD program. This is very important to understand. Contrary to what you may hear from other sources, your GPA, GRE, and extracurricular involvement are not anywhere near as important as your research experience. At the end of the day, universities are looking for research assistants, so showing that you have successfully conducted research in your chosen field or have the capability of doing so is of the utmost importance.

For students who are in the process of applying to PhD programs (or will be very shortly), this means utilizing every application requirement to highlight the research you have conducted up to this point. Even if you don’t feel your research is not relevant to the program you are applying to, it’s still research and important to your application.

I have worked with students in the past who have insisted they leave research off of their application because they: a) don’t feel it’s relevant to the program they’re applying to, or b) don’t feel their research was successful (i.e. didn’t culminate in publication). This is a big mistake. Remember, you need to show admissions officers and professors that you have either completed successful research or have the capability of doing so. By completing research in a different field, you show that you have the ability to conduct research and, most likely, have skills that will transfer into your new area of interest. Further, it is understood that undergraduate students usually end up doing undesirable “grunt-work” rather than advanced research, so don’t worry if you are not given the chance to publish. Of course undergraduate publications are great, but it’s okay if you don’t have them.

If you have a year or more before you submit PhD applications, you need to focus on developing your applicant profile by contributing to research projects - even if they aren’t in the field you end up applying for. Ideally, you will work on projects during the school year as well as the summer to show commitment to your research. This will also help you move up the ladder from menial tasks to contributing in more impactful ways (possibly leading to publication). For these same reasons, if you are only able to work during the summer, try to work on the same project for two or more summers.

2. The strongest applications are research-heavy. All of your application materials should focus on your research experience - from your CV and letters of recommendation to your statement of purpose. When done correctly, each of these documents will highlight your experience from different angles.

Curriculum Vitae Concisely emphasize research by detailing project-specific responsibilities, results, and impact. Include any funding secured in your name, relevant publications (including poster presentations, undergraduate research journal submissions, and papers awaiting review), and associated patents owned by your university or employer.

Letters of Recommendation (LORs) It is best to secure recommendations from your research advisors or supervisors, as they will corroborate your research results and speak to your skills and qualities as a researcher.

If you cannot find at least three LORs from people you have researched under, you can turn to professors who know you well, but these letters won’t be as impactful. Undergraduate freshmen, sophomores, and juniors can mitigate this by seeking out research opportunities for final class projects, as these experiences establish similar skills required for PhD research. Students who have some time before application submission can also take graduate-level courses. LORs from these professors indicate an ability to handle the academic rigor of graduate school.

Statement of Purpose (SOP)

While many graduate programs favor application essays that are in narrative form, professors screening applicants for PhD programs expect you to focus your writing on your research experience and your reasons for pursuing a PhD. Avoid being creative or writing about your personal life. Instead, explain your research experience, using examples to support your claims. You must show (rather than tell) the reader that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher and PhD candidate.

As you explain your research experience, include your motivation for each project. I often read first drafts that list off research experiences without including the WHY behind them. If a professor wanted to know only about your responsibilities or achievements, they would read your CV. Your statement of purpose, on the other hand, is meant to illuminate your reasons for pursuing a PhD through the lens of your past research. You accomplish this by explaining your reasons for taking on past research projects and how, through those projects, your reasons for seeking a PhD developed and matured.

Even if your actual research contributions were minimal (again, professors know undergraduate students get little opportunity to meaningfully assist in research), you can add strength to your experience by describing the overall impact you had on the project. Don’t over-exaggerate (professors know their stuff and can easily spot bullshit) but also don’t sell yourself short by only focusing on a list of your responsibilities.

Finally, use your statement of purpose to demonstrate interest for the program. List professors you would like to work with or projects you would like to work on. Don’t forget to explain your motivations behind these goals, and please, please don’t suck up. I see it all the time: “I want to work with Professor X because s/he is the best in the world.” It’s cringe-worthy and will cause those reading your SOP to take your writing less-seriously.

(Do you want to know how to get in touch with professors before submitting applications? Check out this article: Contacting Professors - For Graduate Applicants)

3. Do not focus exclusively on your GPA or test scores At this point in the article, you’re probably sensing my insistence that research is the most important part of a PhD application. But you might be thinking to yourself, sure, I get it, but my GPA or standardized test scores are terrible and I need to improve those first. Here’s the thing: unless your GPA or test scores are egregiously bad, admissions committees don’t really care. They are much more interested in your ability to contribute as a research assistant; so long as you demonstrate a history of successful research experience and describe your future research goals, you will be fine. A great GPA or amazing test scores will not get you into a PhD program alone, but research experience very well might. That’s it! I hope this article is of help to you.

If you are lost in your PhD journey and would like some assistance, let me know. You might not know exactly what you want to study in the future, or how to find undergraduate research projects, or how to apply for research projects, or how to strategize your research experience, or how to wow a professor with your background. Let me help.

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