How many PhD programs should I apply to?

PhD admissions are exceptionally competitive. Top PhD programs in a variety of disciplines report receiving more than 400 applications for fewer than 20 student slots each year. While many PhD programs have much more favorable acceptance rates, the fact remains that PhD programs are difficult to get into. Thus, to have the best chance of acceptance, it is important to apply to a variety of different programs.

It is hard to say how many applications is the right amount. While student advisors at some universities recommend applying to between 5 and 8 PhD programs, other advisors suggest that applying to as many as 12 programs is a good idea. In the final analysis, the best number for you will depend on your academic goals and the acceptance rates for your favored programs.

If you plan to apply to top tier PhD programs with low acceptance rates, it is usually a good idea to also apply to less exclusive “backup” schools that you are more confident will accept you. However, given the length of PhD programs, it is always important to choose programs that are a good fit for you.

Research Schools and Programs

In order to identify a good range of schools that match your academic goals and interests, you must do significant research. Your research will include speaking with professors and advisors in your undergraduate university and contacting professors and PhD students at schools you are interested in applying to. Generally it is a good idea to begin your research up to 1 year in advance of application submission dates.

Once you have determined your favored area of study, pay a visit to several of your undergraduate professors. Tell them about your academic goals and interests and ask for advice about good PhD programs in those subject areas. You should be able to get a lot of good information and perhaps even some contacts at other schools. Additionally, pay a visit to your academic advising office for more advice and direction.

Another good method of finding suitable PhD programs is to read recent papers in academic publications that deal with your area of interest. In this way, you can learn about professors and programs doing cutting-edge research that you may want to be involved in.

Talk with Professors and Students

Once you have identified a group of potential PhD programs that seem to be a good fit for you, consider contacting advisors, faculty members and current students in those programs. Discussion with professors and students will give you a better idea about whether a PhD program suits your academic goals and interests.

To get started, visit PhD program websites and look for contact information on the admissions page. Most PhD program websites list several people for prospective students to contact. You can also find email addresses for faculty members by browsing to their profile pages on the program website.

There are a few things to keep in mind when contacting professors directly. First, do not email résumés or other documents that would generally be included in a PhD application. Also, do not ask general questions about the admissions process. Rather, express your specific research interests and ask how the program might fit with those interests.

Another excellent way to talk with professors and students is to make a campus visit. In fact, many graduate schools have regular outreach events and information sessions designed specifically for students interested in joining a program.

Prepare a Strong Application

The best advice for preparing a strong application is to get started early. Most PhD applications require official transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation and a personal statement, among other things. You should begin planning the preparation of each of these documents up to 1 year in advance of the application deadline.

Many PhD programs require applicants to take the GRE General Test. It is important to begin preparing for your test well in advance to ensure a good performance. While you can retake the test if you are unhappy with the results, try to avoid this scenario by preparing thoroughly.

Strong letters of recommendation can play an outsized role in your admissions success. Ideally, your chosen letter writers should be former professors who are very familiar with your academic interests and can write about your abilities using specific examples. Letters of recommendation for a PhD program should always include favorable judgments on your research abilities as well. Remind your letter writers far in advance of the due date.

Your personal statements should include specific information about your academic and professional goals and interests. Further, you should describe exactly how your interests align with the PhD program and the faculty at the school. It is important to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about the program you are applying to and that you have strong reasons for wanting to join the program.

Apply for Financial Aid and Scholarships

As you work to finish your PhD applications, you will need to begin devoting some time to completing applications for financial aid and scholarships. While many admitted PhD students are able to participate in several types of PhD funding programs offered by their graduate schools, including fellowships and graduate assistantships, outside sources of funding are important as well.

Be sure to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. In most cases, the FAFSA must be submitted around the first of the year in order to gain eligibility for the following fall semester. PhD students are eligible for several types of federal loan programs.

You should also spend some time searching for national scholarship opportunities for PhD students. If you are currently finishing a degree, visit your school’s financial aid office for advice in finding scholarship opportunities for PhD students. You can also use the Department of Labor’s searchable scholarship database for leads.