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The 10 Best Universities in the U.S.
Every year, millions of students in the United States graduate high school and set off on their next big adventure. For many of them, that adventure is attending college at one of the country’s many universities. If you’re preparing to go to college in the next year or two and you only want the best in the U.S., these 10 universities consistently earn high rankings for academics, program options and other factors.
Located in New Jersey, Princeton is one of the oldest schools in the country. It’s the alma mater of plenty of famous people, from presidents to movie stars, and the school’s top programs include degrees in international affairs and engineering. Princeton is also known for its extracurricular activities, and even undergrads have to write a senior thesis.
Harvard consistently ranks as one of the top colleges in the nation. Founded in 1636 just outside of Boston, the school boasts business and medical schools that are consistently considered the best of the best. Eight presidents have graduated from Harvard, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy.
Located in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University consistently ranks in the top 10 for both undergraduate and graduate students. Some of its top programs include nursing, business, public policy and engineering. The school is home to highly-ranked medical and law schools and has a strong sports program, particularly in men’s basketball. Notable Duke alumni include Melinda Gates, Elizabeth Dole and Tim Cook.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known around the world for its math, science, technology and engineering programs. Buzz Aldrin, Kofi Annan and actor James Woods all attended the school. MIT is also a recognized leader in scientific research and often spends more than $700 million each year on various groundbreaking projects.
If you prefer a school on the West Coast, Stanford is in sunny California, just outside of San Francisco. Its education, engineering, medicine, law and business schools are highly ranked, and the school has a prominent sports program and ample Greek life opportunities. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, NFL star John Elway and entrepreneur Elon Musk all attended Stanford.
Located in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale is another school that always ranks near the top of the list of best universities in the U.S. Founded in 1701, the university has top-ranked medical, law, art and nursing schools and has popular drama and music programs as well as extracurricular activities. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper all attended Yale.
University of Chicago
One appeal of the University of Chicago is its big city setting. It’s located in Hyde Park, so there’s plenty to do if you get bored with the school’s 400 organizations and 15 sports teams. The university’s law, medical, public policy and business schools are all highly ranked. Notable alumni include economists Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and writer Kurt Vonnegut.
Located in New York City, Columbia is another school that sits in the heart of a big city. Its business school, law school, dental school, journalism school, teacher’s college and school of surgeons and physicians are all highly ranked and in demand. Warren Buffett, Amelia Earhart, Eric Holder and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch are all notable alumni.
University of Pennsylvania
Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1740. Today, it sits on 299 acres, has 12 unique schools and colleges and is popular for students seeking extracurriculars, like sports, Greek life and religious organizations. Education, engineering, design, business, medicine and dentistry are all highly-ranked programs. Presidents WIlliam Henry Harrison and Donald Trump, Noam Chomsky and fashion designer Tory Burch are all notable alumni.
California Institute of Technology
Another West Coast option, the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) has graduated leaders in fields like the arts, aerospace, government and business, including 17 Nobel Prize-winning scientists and several important entrepreneurs. The science and engineering school is located just north of Los Angeles in Pasadena and features highly-ranked physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics, biology, chemistry and earth science programs.
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- Do University Rankings Matter for PhD Study? – Tips and Tricks
The problem with PhD rankings is simple: they don't exist.
You can use overall university rankings to inform your PhD search, of course (that's why we update our guide to each year's tables). But the overall results won't be specific to a university's postgraduate research opportunities - or focus on the things you might care about as a prospective PhD student.
What this means is that, if we want a PhD ranking, we're going to need to make one. Or maybe a few.
Creating PhD rankings
To put together our rankings, we're going to need some good data. Thankfully, that's no problem. The Times Higher Education World University Ranking in particular measures a lot of interesting things about universities.
We just need a methodology for selecting the information that might matter most to PhD students:
Individual metrics like research performance and the number of doctorates a university awards are clearly of interest to us. We can also take a look at how different countries compare as study abroad destinations and how much individual universities focus on internationalisation.
From there, it's just a case of analysing the results.
Data, methodology and analysis? It'll be just like doing a (very short) PhD. Let's get started.
#1 Research performance
A PhD is a research degree, so it stands to reason that the quality of a university's research is one of the things we should look at. And it just so happens that research is one of the key aspects of the Times Higher Education methodology*.
The metrics used are measurements of a university's research income and output, together with a reputational survey of almost 22,000 academics.
If we just focus on research performance for 2023, we get a ranking that looks like this:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these universities are also highly ranked in the overall tables (research is an important part of what a university does, after all!). But it's interesting to see some institutions – such as Tsinghua, in China – rising up the table once we focus in on this one metric.
*Other rankings like the QS and ARWU tables also measure research quality in slightly different ways, but we're going to keep things simple for this blog.
#2 Teaching performance
Ranking universities for PhD study using their teaching performance may seem strange. A PhD is a research degree, after all, right?
Well, yes. But some of the methodology the Times Higher Education ranking uses for teaching is actually very relevant to postgraduate researchers. In fact, some of them measure the presence (and achievements) of postgraduate research students.
As well as general metrics such as staff/student ratios, income and academic reputation, THE also looks at the ratio of PhDs to undergraduate degrees awarded and the total number of doctorates awarded.
Somewhat counterintuitively, this means that the measurement of 'teaching' in the Times Higher Education ranking includes information that's very relevant to research degrees.
Ranking universities in this way gives the following top 10:
Again, these are all well-ranked institutions overall (with only two outside the top 10). It's no surprise that they're also likely to offer strong PhD research opportunities.
Do remember though that this table doesn't just focus on PhD training. It also reflects broader statistics (such as staff/student rations) that will be more relevant to undergraduate teaching.
#3 Study abroad opportunities
Moving away from specific metrics for a moment, let's 'zoom out' and look beyond individual universities.
As global comparisons, the league tables can also tell us how different countries compare, based on the number of their universities that rank (and how highly).
For simplicity's sake, we'll just look at the most prolific countries in the world top 200:
It may not surprise you to see the USA and UK at the top of this list, but would you have expected Germany and the Netherlands to be so close in third and sixth place? Or for Asia to have three destinations in the top ten?
#4 International education
Next, let's look at PhD study abroad from a different angle: which universities are the most invested in international education?
Again, the Times Higher Education ranking includes a handy metric for this. Its 'international outlook' score measures universities on the number of international staff and students they recruit, as well as their involvement in international projects.
Ranked in this way the top ten universities are:
It's no surprise that cosmopolitan study destinations like Hong Kong dominate this ranking. Still, it's interesting to see universities from further down the rankings rising into the top ten when judged solely on international metrics.
Institutions like these are likely to foster especially vibrant research environments, offering opportunities for knowledge exchange and alternative perspectives that can inform and develop your PhD. In addition, they're probably welcoming (and well-established) destinations for international study
Conclusion – a PhD ranking?
So, we've worked with some great data and done a bit of analysis: have we come up with a definitive PhD ranking? Not as such. What we have done is come up with a set of 'sub-rankings' that might indirectly measure some of the factors that matter for PhD students.
In particular, we've been able to see where countries have especially renowned higher education systems. We've also identified some of the universities that excel at internationalisation. Both of these are going to be useful if you're planning on studying abroad (or simply casting a wide net for your PhD search).
Perhaps just as importantly, we've also witnessed a strong correlation between overall rankings and our specific top tens for research and teaching metrics.
Does this mean that a top-ranked university is the best choice for your PhD? No, no more than it means that great programmes and great research opportunities aren't available at a whole range of universities.
But it does suggest that rankings are worth including as one resource in your PhD search . You can find out more about them - and read more advice - here on FindAPhD.
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How to choose the right university for your doctorate.
Earning a doctorate is a challenging process. But it can be a lot more feasible—and your degree can be a lot more valuable—if you choose the right university. Here’s what you need to be looking for.
1. Choose an accredited university. To help ensure you’ll receive a quality education as you earn a PhD or professional doctoral degree, you want to attend an accredited university . Accreditation is a voluntary process where universities submit their educational programs for independent review by an accrediting organization.
There are six regional accrediting organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. All use a rigorous set of criteria to determine whether or not an educational institution is providing uniform, high-quality education. If the university meets the accrediting organization’s standards, the organization grants accreditation. To maintain the accreditation, universities must maintain their standards. When choosing a university for a doctorate, be sure you choose one that’s been accredited by one of the six regional accreditors.
2. Select the right degree program. You may know what field you want to study, but do you know exactly what kind of doctorate you want to earn? In many fields, you can choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree path or a professional doctoral degree path. Once you decide, you’ll need to check whether the universities on your list offer your preferred degree.
If you’re asking “What is a PhD exactly?” and “What is a professional doctorate exactly?,” you may want to spend some time learning about the differences and deciding whether you want the more academic approach of a PhD or the more practical approach of a professional doctorate.
Once you’ve used degree offerings to narrow your list, it’s time to dig deeper. Which universities have specific courses that fit well with your interests? Which programs have a history of conducting research into the areas of your field that excite you most? Which programs are most likely to support a dissertation or doctoral study focused on your specific passion? Examining doctoral programs closely can help you determine which program will best meet your needs.
3. Research the faculty members. In a doctoral program, the department faculty will be more than teachers. In many instances, faculty aren’t just academic professionals, they also work in the field and can help you understand how your studies will apply to your work. Faculty members will also be mentors and, ultimately, the determiners of whether or not you earn your degree. When choosing a PhD program or professional doctoral degree program, take time to research the faculty. Do they have good credentials? Are you comfortable with having one of the faculty members serve as your advisor when you’re a PhD or professional doctoral candidate? Do faculty members appear to communicate well with students? Who you learn from is almost as important as what you learn, so make sure you choose a program with a quality faculty.
4. Review the student support services offered. Universities with good doctoral programs also provide plenty of student resources . Take time to review the resources of your preferred universities and make sure they offer a wide range of support. In particular, look for resources that can help with your writing and research. This is especially important if it has been a while since you have been in an academic environment or if you have never formally conducted research. Find out if the university offers just general support, or if it has specific resources for doctoral students. Another great resource to look for is career planning services. Does the university have networking opportunities available once you graduate? Is the career center always open to alumni? Lastly, with all of the resources a university promotes, make sure they are easily accessible.
5. Make sure the capstone project is in line with your goals. The selection of a dissertation topic is another important aspect of consideration. Some universities are more flexible than others, allowing students to choose an area of focus that they’re passionate about and a topic that is meaningful to them. Others provide a list of choices from which to select, which can be a roadblock if your own vision is different from that of the university.
6. Determine if fellowship opportunities are available. Not all universities offer fellowship programs; however, many of the high-quality ones do. Even if you’re not interested in the opportunities that come with a fellowship, learning about what a university has to offer can bring valuable information to your decision-making process. How many different fellowships are available? What types of research topics are the doctoral fellows working on? What are the elements of the doctoral program being offered and is there support in place to help each fellow be successful?
7. Consider the flexibility of the available learning formats. If you’re like many who are considering earning a doctorate, you may currently hold a full-time job or have other responsibilities you can’t just set aside. You also may be worried that this will inhibit your ability to complete a PhD program or professional doctoral program. But thanks to online education, your responsibilities don’t have to hold you back.
Your Doctoral Journey
Earning a doctorate won’t be easy, but as the No. 1 granter of doctoral research degrees in the U.S., 1 Walden knows what it takes. We’ll guide you every step of the way with a comprehensive suite of support resources designed to help you confidently pursue the finish line. Learn more about the many benefits of beginning your doctoral journey at Walden.
When you enroll in an online doctoral program , you can earn your doctorate without upending your life. Rather than having to move to be near a university—or having to drive across town to get to a campus—you can earn an online PhD or professional doctoral degree right from home. Plus, online learning offers a flexible platform that gives you the power to attend classes and take care of other degree-related work at whatever time of day or week works best for you.
Additionally, many of the top accredited online universities offer a wide range of doctoral programs, making it easier to find a program that fits your needs. Some online universities even offer all-but-dissertation programs designed for those who have completed all the requirements for a PhD degree or professional doctoral degree except for the dissertation or doctoral study.
Finding the right doctoral program can change your life for the better. And thanks to online learning, finding the right program is easier than ever before.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering a variety of doctoral programs online . Walden’s doctoral fellowship program for the PhD in Management and PhD in Psychology programs gives new doctoral students the opportunity to develop their teaching and research experience, gain further insight into their field of interest, and position themselves for future career success.
Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org .
1 Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Database (IPEDS) database. Based on the most recent year of completions survey data available, using all classifications of instructional programs (CIP) codes. A doctoral research degree is a PhD or other doctoral degree that requires advanced work beyond the master’s level, including the preparation and defense of a dissertation based on original research or the planning and execution of an original project demonstrating substantial artistic or scholarly achievement. Available at https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/use-the-data . (Retrieved January 2021; may consist of or include provisional release data.)
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How to Choose a PhD Program
Successfully completing a doctoral program requires commitment and perseverance. the most important step in this process is to consider whether academic life is right for you and what kind of doctoral program — from discipline to environment — will be the best fit for your goals and preferences., we asked our current students and faculty, “what is key to making this decision” following are some questions they suggested you ask yourself, and answer, in order to select the appropriate program..
First, a basic description of a doctoral program:
As a doctoral student, you will spend the first two years of your program exploring areas of interest through coursework. In the two to three years that follow, you will select and pursue your own research topic, one which will make an original contribution to the existing body of knowledge in your field. Your original research culminates in an extensive written document known as the doctoral dissertation.
If you are considering your career options, answering these questions will help you clarify your goals and ambitions — and determine if a doctoral program is the right decision for you.
- Am I the type of person who is suited for a career in academia? Am I independently motivated to answer questions that I find interesting?
- Do I want to spend the rest of my career doing research, as well as reading and talking about it?
- Do I have a strong enough academic background in order to apply and be accepted by the program?
- Is now the time for me to pursue a PhD?
- What are my goals after completing the PhD?
If you know you want to pursue a doctoral degree, answers to these questions will help you select the right program for you.
- How many faculty are working with students?
- How many faculty members are doing research in areas related to my own interests?
- What opportunities are there to work with a variety of faculty and to be exposed to different approaches in research (modeling, work with data, experiment design)?
- Am I technically prepared to learn to do research in this field?
- Most PhD students change their vision of research and many change their intended concentration area after joining the program and being exposed to a variety of research styles. Does my program of choice offer flexibility needed to do so?
- Is there financial support for students to attend academic conferences to present their own research?
- What opportunities are there for students to participate in colloquia, both as an attendee and as a presenter?
- What is the department’s placement record? What types of jobs do graduates take and where?
- Finally, how well do graduates of the program perform in the long term (contributing to the field through publication, practice of management and earning tenure)?
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From undergrad to phd, conducting ground-breaking research at wharton, why i chose academic research instead of consulting.
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How to Be a Competitive PhD Applicant and Apply to the Best Programs for You
What are your goals?
If you’re considering applying for admission to a PhD program, you should start thinking about where you want to apply. Your criteria for selecting target programs will depend on your goals and circumstances, but here are a few things to think about.
Getting started: Ask yourself these goal-oriented questions
Let’s jump right into the introspective phase of mining your goals:
- First (and most importantly), what is your goal?
- What are your primary research interests?
- Do you want to pursue an academic career?
- Or do you plan to work in another sector?
How will your goals influence your career?
If you’re primarily interested in research, your priority should be finding a program that will give you the research training to launch your career. Follow these steps:
- Try to identify scholars who are working in the areas that interest you.
- Review the literature in your field, network at conferences, and review CVs on departmental websites. In short, do your research.
- If you have an undergrad mentor in your field, consult them for advice about departments where exciting research is going on.
- Ask yourself: who would be a good mentor , and who would I be interested in working with for the next several years?
- Consider the rankings of your target school and/or department. In many fields (see below), top programs are a MUST for securing a job in the field post-graduation. On the other hand, go beyond the rankings to explore the real dynamism of, and specialities in, a department (particularly once you’re talking about the specific subfields PhD students are concerned with). Even among the top schools, Princeton and Harvard are very different places!
If your goals lie outside of academia, work on identifying programs that will help you reach your goals . For you, these questions will be most relevant:
- What industry are you interested in?
- Does the university you’re considering have research ties with that industry?
- Does the department offer opportunities for professional development (fieldwork, internships, etc.)?
- Whether you are primarily interested in industry or academia (or if you are undecided), the following question is important: What other resources does the university offer to support graduate students (career development, professional groups, alumni working in the field, etc.)?
Do your research to find the best programs for your interests and goals. You might begin by searching for “PhD in X” online, searching by specific universities, and considering the different departments in which your field of interest could be placed. For example, a doctoral candidate studying religion could, depending on the specialty, be getting her PhD in a religion, history, or literature dept.
Are you a competitive PhD applicant?
Once you’ve established your goals, it’s time to evaluate your credentials and consider where you will be a competitive candidate.
Answering the following questions will help you honestly size up your profile:
Keep in mind: most PhD programs are extremely competitive, and admissions can seem downright capricious. That’s the inevitable result of admitting only a handful of applicants each year.
Are you PhD material at this time?
Have you discussed grad school with any mentors—and do they think you’re capable of grad-level work? Here are some other questions to ask yourself:
- Have you done research as an undergrad or master’s level student? Perhaps you helped a professor work on a book; done lab work for a researcher; done an independent study (these are particularly great for revealing a student’s deeper research interests, and for cultivating significant student-faculty relationships); or participating in summer or yearly academic programming, such as language courses or research work . If not, consider gaining more research experience before applying.
- Are your GPA and test scores competitive? Most programs (not all) publicize their average admitted GPA and GRE info. Bear in mind that at some schools, your application will be processed first by the university’s graduate school, which may impose a minimum GPA or GRE requirement. If you’re concerned about meeting minimum standards, check the department’s requirements carefully. BUT REMEMBER: Top programs want very high GPAs. And, GRE matters less (compared to SAT or to one’s GPA) for many programs, especially in humanities. Look at each school’s site. It is also crucial to demonstrate that you’ve done relevant coursework, to show you have a real background in your field. For example, was it your major? Did you do a postbac?
- Do you meet the prereqs for admission? This might seem like a no-brainer. But many of the competitive/highly ranked programs (in a variety of fields) have minimum requirements that far surpass the requirements you met as an undergrad. For example, to enter many English departments, you’ll need to demonstrate fluency in two or more foreign languages. Do your research.
- Is there a professor in your specialty at the program you’re targeting, and (important!) are they accepting students? Look at faculty pages for your department at each target school and note the interests, publications, and bios of profs you’d want to work with. Reach out to them directly ; offer to meet with them in person (though probably not during COVID) or arrange a Zoom call. You could be a superstar and still not be accepted if the program doesn’t think they can fit your needs .
- Don’t only target the very top-ranked programs in your field. Because PhD admission is so competitive, it is important to do a broad-ranging, well-researched search. HOWEVER: This is not always true. In certain fields, many would argue that it is only worthwhile to target the very top programs because otherwise you don’t have a chance of getting a job in the field afterwards. It is best not only to ask current doctoral students, but also senior professors who might be on the hiring end of the profession. You can also look at professors’ online bios to see where they got their degrees- if everyone, even those at “less-than-top-tier” universities, all have degrees from Harvard, it probably means there are few jobs to go around and so only those coming out of the very best schools are securing them.
More criteria to consider when selecting a PhD program
I’ve discussed some important criteria for helping you to select a grad program: your goals/research interests, and evaluating whether you’ll be a competitive applicant. Those are big ones. But as a classic PhD Comic reminds us , you’re not just a “brain on a stick”—you have concerns and needs outside of your research. You also need to find a program where you’re going to fit and thrive as a human being for the next several years. A few things to consider are location, finances , and departmental culture.
Your PhD program won’t exist in a vacuum! Where you’ll be spending your next few years matters. Ask yourself:
- Is there a part of the country you want to live in?
- Are you constrained geographically by family needs, or by a career you’re pursuing already?
it’s a good idea to investigate funding opportunities when you research admission information.
- Will you need to submit additional applications?
- What type of funding is available to grad students in your target department?
- Is funding guaranteed for the duration of your program?
- Is funding available during the summer?
This is largely an issue of “fit” —but you can find out a fair amount about how a department treats its students by talking to people.
- When you visit, do people seem at ease?
- If you sit in on a seminar, do you sense a collegial environment?
Also, contact the department registrar to get in touch with current doctoral students to ask for some of these details, and for their experience in the program: working with certain profs, living in the area, etc. Consider COVID limitations and their impact on in-person visits, of course; consider asking permission to sit in on a Zoom class!
The grad program you select will be a major part of your life for the next several years, so you want a good fit on a personal level.
Remember, make sure the school where you are going to spend several years pursuing your PhD fits your needs, and not just the other way around. Your target PhD program should help you reach your goals, and it should enable you to work with professors you admire. Think deeply about the people you’d like as your mentors, and consult with their current advisees: Do they treat their students well? Be sure to find out how they interact with students, and consider writing out for your own self-understanding what the ideal advisor-advisee relationship would look like. Is your dream advisor hands-off? Hands-on? Is he/she warm, or distant? Do you want an ongoing mentorship with this person, or simply someone to look over your work when required and help sign the papers to get you over the finish line?
Also, your target program should be in a location and price bracket that you can manage. Don’t underestimate the value of fit in these ways, as well as school culture—these will strongly contribute not just to whether or not you get accepted, but how well you fare and how happy you’ll be over the course of your PhD experience.
Do you need help choosing the best PhD programs for you? Do you need help with any other elements of the application process? Explore our Graduate School Admissions Consulting & Editing Services and work one-on-one with an expert consultant who will help you GET ACCEPTED!
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What is a PhD?
By Hasna Haidar
Do you have a love of wisdom and a clear field of academic interest? If so, a PhD might be the right choice for you. But what is a PhD, and how can you get one?
PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy. This is an academic or professional degree that, in most countries, qualifies the degree holder to teach their chosen subject at university level or to work in a specialized position in their chosen field.
The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Ancient Greek philosophia , literally translated as ‘love of wisdom’. It originally signified an individual who had achieved a comprehensive general education in the fundamental issues of the present world. Today, the Doctor of Philosophy still requires a love of wisdom but applies to individuals who have pursued knowledge in a much more specialized field.
A PhD is a globally recognized postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities and higher education institutions to a candidate who has submitted a thesis or dissertation, based on extensive and original research in their chosen field. The specificities of PhD degrees vary depending on where you are and what subject you’re studying.
In general, however, the PhD is the highest level of degree a student can achieve (with some exceptions). It usually follows a master’s degree, although some institutions also allow students to progress straight to a PhD from their bachelor’s degree. Some institutions also offer the opportunity to ‘upgrade’ or ‘fast-track’ your master’s degree to a PhD, provided you are deemed to possess the necessary grades, knowledge, skills and research abilities.
Traditionally, a PhD involves three to four years of full-time study in which the student completes a substantial piece of original research presented as a thesis or dissertation. Some PhD programs accept a portfolio of published papers, while some countries require coursework to be submitted as well.
Students must also complete a ‘viva voce’ or oral defense of their PhD. This can be with just a small number of examiners, or in front of a large examination panel (both usually last between one to three hours). While PhD students are traditionally expected to study on campus under close supervision, distance education and e-learning schemes have meant a growing number of universities are now accepting part-time and distance-learning PhD students.
PhD admission requirements
Generally speaking, PhD admission requirements relate to the candidate’s grades (usually at both bachelor’s level and master’s level) and their potential research capabilities. Most institutions require that candidates hold an honors degree or a master’s degree with high academic standing, along with a bachelor’s degree with at least upper second-class honors. In some cases, you can also apply for a PhD simply on the basis of your master’s degree grades. Grades-based PhD admission requirements may also be based on the type of funding you will be using – you may be able apply with lower grades if you self-fund your PhD (read more on PhD funding here ).
Some institutions and subjects (such as psychology and some humanities and science subjects) stipulate that you must find a tenured professor in your chosen institution to serve as your formal advisor and supervisor throughout your PhD program before you can be formally accepted into the program. In other cases, you will be assigned a supervisor based on your research subject and methodology once you have been accepted into the PhD program.
Either way, it is a good idea to approach a faculty member in your chosen institution before applying for a PhD, in order for them to determine whether your research interests align well with the department, and perhaps even help you to brainstorm PhD research options.
Some PhD applications require proof of proficiency in the language in which you intend to study. You can either provide the results of an approved standardized language exam or show evidence of having completed undergraduate or postgraduate study in the relevant language.
Some institutions may also ask for a record of your employment such as a résumé, and/or all your academic transcripts, including details of course modules and module content as part of your PhD application. Details of other research projects you have completed and any publications you have been featured in can also help your application.
Many PhD applicants are also asked to provide references from two or three people who know them well in an academic setting, such as their undergraduate or postgraduate tutors or professors. These references must have a particular focus on your academic performance, coursework and research abilities, your research potential and your interest in your chosen field of study.
Many institutions ask for a personal statement - a short essay which you can use to demonstrate your passion for your chosen subject. You can outline your reasons for wanting to study a PhD, personal motivations for doing so, any extracurricular activities that are particularly relevant or should be highlighted, and any flexibility in your chosen area(s) of research. If you need help, many institutions have a guide to personal statements on their website, which can also help you tailor your personal statement to each institution.
PhD research proposals
Finally, in order to be considered for a place on a PhD program, applicants are expected to submit a PhD research proposal. A research proposal:
- Outlines your proposed research topics in the context of previous work,
- Highlights your awareness of current debates within the field,
- Demonstrates a suitable level of analysis,
- Identifies relevant gaps in current knowledge,
- Suggests a relevant research hypothesis to fill some of these gaps,
- Explains your intended research methodology in sufficient detail,
- Discusses the implications to real-world policy that your PhD proposal may invite.
This will help admissions tutors to assess your aptitude for PhD research, and also to determine whether your research interests align with their own research priorities and available facilities. They will also consider whether they have the relevant staff to provide you sufficient supervisory expertise.
For this reason in particular, it is important to research institutions thoroughly before applying for a PhD. Not only will you be happier if your research interests fit in with those of your chosen institution, but institutions may be forced to reject your application simply on the basis of discrepancies between their research interests and yours. Note that this initial research proposal is not necessarily binding – it is usually a starting point from which to further develop your research idea.
Some subject areas (such as science and engineering) do not ask for original research proposals. Instead, the institution presents a selection of PhD research projects which are formulated by the supervisor(s) concerned and peer reviewed. This may be done at a certain time of year or year-round, depending on the institution. Students can then submit a statement demonstrating a clear understanding of the research to be undertaken and their suitability to undertake it.
These PhD research projects may also have been formulated in consultation with another organization that may provide funding/scholarships for the successful candidate. These pre-defined PhD projects are less common in arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, where it’s more common for students to submit their own proposals.
Can I apply for a PhD without relevant qualifications?
If you wish to do a PhD but do not have the relevant qualifications or their equivalent, you may still be able to apply for a PhD program by fulfilling additional requirements as stipulated by your institution of choice. Some possible requirements could be to undertake specified extra study or passing a qualifying examination.
You may also be able to make a special case to your chosen institution, either on the basis of a non-degree professional qualification and considerable practical experience, or on the basis of foreign qualifications. Special case PhD applications will require the strong backing of your potential supervisor, so you will need to seek his/her advice and support before applying in this manner.
PhDs through MPhil
Another option available for potential PhD candidates is to apply as a general research student or for an MPhil degree . This is a common path taken by PhD candidates. The MPhil is an advanced master’s degree awarded for research and can be suitable for students who do not have a strong research background. You will be required to take some taught courses to get you up to speed with things like research methods.
The successful completion of a one-year taught program may lead to the award of the MRes degree, which includes more taught components than the MPhil and can be awarded in lieu of a PhD for students who have not completed the required period of study for a PhD. Alternatively, the successful completion of original research may lead to the award of the MPhil degree, which can be awarded without the candidate having to present a defense of their dissertation (a requirement to achieve a PhD).
If, after the first or second year of your research (i.e. during your MPhil), the institution is satisfied with the progress of your work, you may then be able to apply for full PhD registration. Usually, your supervisor or tutor will be in charge of determining whether you are ready to progress to a PhD. If you’re deemed to be ready, you will then need to develop a title for your thesis and choose your PhD program.
Starting a PhD
When registration has been completed you should be officially informed of: your supervisor(s) and their area(s) of expertise; the topic or field of PhD research for which you have been accepted; the minimum length of time required before submission of your thesis; the formal assessment methods preferred by the institution.
Most institutions will also provide you with a comprehensive list of provisions and available facilities for PhD and research students at the university. They will also include a detailed outline of the milestones you must reach on your journey to achieve a PhD. Your supervisor will be in charge of going through these milestones with you, making reports on your progress, and advising you on your next steps. You will need to make adequate progress each year in order to continue your PhD studies.
Alternatives to a PhD
When looking for PhD programs, keep in mind that there are several types of degrees which have the term “doctor” in their title, such as the Juris Doctor (common in the US, Canada, Australia, Mexico and parts of Asia), the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or the Doctor of Pharmacy (DPharm) and the US and Canada version of the Doctor of Medicine (MD).
These degrees are generally not classified as PhDs as they lack that vital component that really defines the PhD: academic research. These other types of doctorate degrees are instead referred to as entry-level doctorate degrees. Candidates who wish to pursue a PhD may do so afterwards, and this may be known as a ‘post-professional doctorate’.
Neither the JD nor the US/Canada MD programs universally require students to complete a specified academic research component in order to be awarded the degree title. However, there are also many research degrees, such as the MD, which conduct scholarly research (medical in the case of the MD) which is published in peer-reviewed journals. This makes them very similar to PhDs, and some countries consider them equivalent. Some institutions therefore offer combined professional and research training degrees, such as the MD-PhD dual program, which is useful for medical professionals looking to pursue a research career.
Degrees higher than a PhD
In addition to various degrees which may be considered equivalent to a PhD, there are also some ‘higher doctorate’ courses considered to be a step above the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). These are most common in UK universities and in some European countries, although they are increasingly awarded as honorary degrees. The US does not have a system of higher doctorates and offer the titles solely as honorary degrees. Honorary degrees are sometimes signified by adding ‘hc’ (for honoris causa ) to the end of the degree title.
Some higher doctorate degrees include:
- Doctor of Science (DS/SD): Awarded in recognition of a substantial and sustained contribution to scientific knowledge beyond that required for a PhD.
- Doctor of Literature/Letters (DLit/DLitt/LitD): Awarded in recognition of achievement in the humanities or for original contribution to the creative arts.
- Doctor of Divinity (DD): Awarded above the Doctor of Theology (DTh), usually to recognize the recipient’s ministry-oriented accomplishments.
- Doctor of Music (DMus): Awarded in the UK, Ireland and some Commonwealth countries on the basis of a substantial portfolio of compositions and/or scholarly publications on music.
- Doctor of Civil Law (DCL): Highest doctorate excepting the DD, offered on the basis of exceptionally insightful and distinctive publications that contain significant and original contributions to the study of law or politics in general.
This article was first published in February 2014 and most recently updated in January 2020.
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Your Guide to a Strong Ph.D. Application
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Rarely is there discussion of how to prepare for doctoral programs in professional master’s programs. So when I came across a workshop on preparing Ph.D. applications by Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Development J. Alan Kendrick , I jumped right into it even though it was scheduled to be around midnight in my time zone. (Yes, graduate school remotely from Pakistan is tough and disorienting, but that is a topic for a different blog post.) Here was someone who, in addition earning a Ph.D. himself, has years of experience in selecting Ph.D. applicants, so there could not have been a better opportunity to get introduced to the process! In this piece I’ll touch upon some major points highlighted by Dr. Kendrick to explain what it means to aim for a Ph.D. program and build a solid Ph.D. application.
THe Master's Versus the Ph.D.
Starting off, it is crucial to know the difference between a master’s program and a Ph.D. program. Whereas a master’s degree will generally be more specific than an undergraduate degree and usually span one to three years, a Ph.D. program usually entails a more focused set of question(s) within a discipline and usually spans five or more years. In a Ph.D., the cost of attending is often covered through a combination of fellowships and stipends. Schools are more likely to look for applicants who secured funding from external sources, but this it is not always necessary. So, a good yardstick to measure your readiness and commitment for a Ph.D. program is your willingness and ability to work consistently for years on the academic inquiry you wish to pursue to push the frontiers of existing human knowledge. Scholars in STEM fields such as microbiology or solid-state physics usually spend most of their time in labs, so it is essential to get to know the work environment, culture, and expectations in your prospective labs.
A Strong Application
After getting clarity on what a Ph.D. program demands, let’s get into some major elements of a strong Ph.D. application. Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. application consists of previous academic grades, competitive examination scores, work experiences, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. For a Ph.D. program, all previous academic grades are weighted and assessed including undergraduate transcripts, while standard examination scores (i.e., the GRE) are now becoming optional at many institutions. And while top-tier grades are a great foundation, they are not decisive as each application is looked at holistically with all its elements to give a better picture. Letters of recommendation from previous academic supervisors are weighted heavily along with your personal statement.
One thing Dr. Kendrick emphasized was to not just get recommendations as mere “character profiles” but rather what he called “ strong recommendations.” Before you ask for faculty recommendations, share your résumé with them, sit down with them over a Zoom call (at least during the pandemic) and share your aspirations and objectives, and then ask for strong recommendations. Additionally, you should waive your right to review recommendation letters in your applications as doing this will indicate that the referee has been candid in your assessment for the admissions committee.
Mastering the Personal Statement
Finally, I come to the part where the ball is really in your court: the personal statement! I say this because while other elements of your application—grades and transcripts, previous work experiences, etc. are no longer alterable—the personal essay is your space to unapologetically express your true self and how you have evolved to be the person you are today. You can explain how your intellectual life has brought you to your specific academic area and where you see yourself going forward. Your statement should make it clear why you are interested in the field, the institution and program you are applying for as well as your research and career goals. Your essay should be tailored to the institution and/or program. Red flag here: if you end up with an essay where you can just replace institution names, then you haven’t met your goal. Additionally, your statement should include details about your background that can help the faculty better understand your motivation for pursuing their program. This can be anything—people, events, challenges, and achievements that have aided your growth and add to your fitness for the program. Additionally, you should address any noticeable discrepancies or gaps in your profile or transcripts that are worth mentioning.
While the personal statement is crucial to your application and speaks on your behalf in a room full of faculty who are judging your application, it is important to understand that there is no standard format or template that you should follow. This space is supposed to be personal, and it is supposed to be yours. It is also equally important to understand that the faculty judging applications are humans like us and often have diverging opinions about different profiles. Also remember that funding and positions for Ph.D.s are often limited and hence a rejected profile does not necessarily make it an incompetent or ineligible one.
In a nutshell, for a strong Ph.D. application, you need academic questions that keep you up at night and the discipline to follow the guidelines Dr. Kendrick shared, so that you can demonstrate your willingness and ability to work under supervision to answer those academic questions. This session with Dr. Kendrick brought me much-needed clarity to tackle my Ph.D. applications, and I hope this post does the same for you!
Editors’ note: You can find additional resources on preparing a strong application on The Graduate School’s website.
Soman ul Haq
Master's candidate, Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment
Soman is a Fulbright Scholar from Pakistan and a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment concentrating in Energy and Environment. He is currently focused on energy access in developing countries, sustainable development, energy transition, and behavioral changes with energy transition and access. Prior to joining Duke, Soman worked with the German International Development Cooperation (GIZ) as a technical advisor for energy access in off-grid areas and energy transition in industrial sector in Pakistan. As a mechanical engineer, he has experience consulting commercial and industrial sectors in developing energy efficient practices to achieve their sustainability goals. He tweets at @somaanulhaq
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9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD
The ideal research program you envision is not what it appears to be
Editor's Note: When Andy Greenspon wrote this article, he was a first-year student in Applied Physics at Harvard. Now he has completed his PhD. — Alison Bert, June 23, 2021
If you are planning to apply for a PhD program, you're probably getting advice from dozens of students, professors, administrators your parents and the Internet. Sometimes it's hard to know which advice to focus on and what will make the biggest difference in the long-run. So before you go back to daydreaming about the day you accept that Nobel Prize, here are nine things you should give serious thought to. One or more of these tips may save you from anguish and help you make better decisions as you embark on that path to a PhD.
1. Actively seek out information about PhD programs.
Depending on your undergraduate institution, there may be more or less support to guide you in selecting a PhD program – but there is generally much less than when you applied to college.
On the website of my physics department, I found a page written by one of my professors, which listed graduate school options in physics and engineering along with resources to consult. As far as I know, my career center did not send out much information about PhD programs. Only after applying to programs did I find out that my undergraduate website had a link providing general information applicable to most PhD programs. This is the kind of information that is available all over the Internet.
So don't wait for your career center or department to lay out a plan for you. Actively seek it out from your career center counselors, your professors, the Internet — and especially from alumni from your department who are in or graduated from your desired PhD program. First-hand experiences will almost always trump the knowledge you get second-hand.
2. A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.
Many students don't internalize this idea until they have jumped head-first into a PhD program. The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master's degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.
At the end of your PhD program, you will be judged on your research, not on how well you did in your courses. Grades are not critical as long as you maintain the minimum GPA requirement, and you should not spend too much time on courses at the expense of research projects. Graduate courses tend to be designed to allow you to take away what you will find useful to your research more than to drill a rigid set of facts and techniques into your brain.
3. Take a break between your undergraduate education and a PhD program.
You are beginning your senior year of college, and your classmates are asking you if you are applying to graduate school. You think to yourself, "Well, I like studying this topic and the associated research, and I am going to need a PhD if I want to be a professor or do independent research, so I might as well get it done as soon as possible." But are you certain about the type of research you want to do? Do you know where you want to live for the next five years? Are you prepared to stay in an academic environment for nine years straight?
Many people burn out or end up trudging through their PhD program without a thought about what lies outside of or beyond it. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective. If all you know is an academic environment, how can you compare it to anything else? Many people take a job for five or more years before going back to get their PhD.
It is true though that the longer you stay out of school, the harder it is to go back to an academic environment with lower pay and a lack of set work hours. A one-year break will give you six months or so after graduation before PhD applications are due. A two-year gap might be ideal to provide time to identify your priorities in life and explore different areas of research without having school work or a thesis competing for your attention.
Getting research experience outside of a degree program can help focus your interests and give you a leg up on the competition when you finally decide to apply. It can also help you determine whether you will enjoy full-time research or if you might prefer an alternative career path that still incorporates science, for example, in policy, consulting or business — or a hybrid research job that combines scientific and non-scientific skills.
I will be forever grateful that I chose to do research in a non-academic environment for a year between my undergraduate and PhD programs. It gave me the chance to get a feel for doing nothing but research for a full year. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the Space Division, I was the manager of an optics lab, performing spectroscopic experiments on rocks and minerals placed in a vacuum chamber. While my boss determined the overall experimental design, I was able to make my own suggestions for experiments and use my own discretion in how to perform them. I presented this research at two national conferences as well — a first for me. I was also able to learn about other research being performed there, determine which projects excited me the most, and thus narrow down my criteria for a PhD program.
4. Your current area of study does not dictate what you have to study in graduate school.
You might be studying the function and regulation of membrane proteins or doing a computational analysis of the conductivity of different battery designs, but that doesn't mean your PhD project must revolve around similar projects. The transition between college or another research job to a PhD program is one of the main transitions in your life when it is perfectly acceptable to completely change research areas.
If you are doing computation, you may want to switch to lab-based work or vice versa. If you are working in biology but have always had an interest in photonics research, now is the time to try it out. You may find that you love the alternative research and devote your PhD to it, you might hate it and fall back on your previous area of study — or you may even discover a unique topic that incorporates both subjects.
One of the best aspects of the PhD program is that you can make the research your own. Remember, the answer to the question "Why are you doing this research?" should not be "Well, because it's what I've been working on for the past few years already."While my undergraduate research was in atomic physics, I easily transitioned into applied physics and materials science for my PhD program and was able to apply much of what I learned as an undergraduate to my current research. If you are moving from the sciences to a non-STEM field such as social sciences or humanities, this advice can still apply, though the transition is a bit more difficult and more of a permanent commitment.
5. Make sure the PhD program has a variety of research options, and learn about as many research groups as possible in your first year.
Even if you believe you are committed to one research area, you may find that five years of such work is not quite what you expected. As such, you should find a PhD program where the professors are not all working in the same narrowly focused research area. Make sure there are at least three professors working on an array of topics you could imagine yourself working on.
In many graduate programs, you are supposed to pick a research advisor before even starting. But such arrangements often do not work out, and you may be seeking a new advisor before you know it. That's why many programs give students one or two semesters to explore different research areas before choosing a permanent research advisor.
In your first year, you should explore the research of a diverse set of groups. After touring their labs, talking to the students, or sitting in on group meetings, you may find that this group is the right one for you.
In addition, consider the importance of who your research advisor will be. This will be the person you interact with regularly for five straight years and who will have a crucial influence on your research. Do you like their advising style? Does their personality mesh with yours? Can you get along? Of course, the research your advisor works on is critical, but if you have large disagreements at every meeting or do not get helpful advice on how to proceed with your research, you may not be able to succeed. At the very least, you must be able to handle your advisor's management of the lab and advising style if you are going to be productive in your work.
The Harvard program I enrolled in has professors working on research spanning from nanophotonics to energy materials and biophysics, covering my wide range of interests. By spending time in labs and offices informally chatting with graduate students, I found an advisor whose personality and research interests meshed very well with me. Their genuine enthusiasm for this advisor and their excitement when talking about their research was the best input I could have received.
6. Location is more important than you think — but name recognition is not.
The first consideration in choosing a PhD program should be, "Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?" After all, you will have to study this topic in detail for four or more years. But when considering the location of a university, your first thought should not be, "I'm going to be in the lab all the time, so what does it matter if I'm by the beach, in a city, or in the middle of nowhere."
Contrary to popular belief, you will have a life outside of the lab, and you will have to be able to live with it for four or more years. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, your social and extracurricular life will revolve less around the university community, so the environment of the surrounding area is important. Do you need a city atmosphere to be productive? Or is your ideal location surrounded by forests and mountains or by a beach? Is being close to your family important? Imagine what it will be like living in the area during the times you are not doing research; consider what activities will you do and how often will you want to visit family.
While many of the PhD programs that accepted me had research that truly excited me, the only place I could envision living for five or more years was Boston, as the city I grew up near and whose environment and culture I love, and to be close to my family.
While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not. In graduate school, the reputation of the individual department you are joining — and sometimes even the specific research group you work in — are more important. There, you will develop research collaborations and professional connections that will be crucial during your program and beyond. When searching for a job after graduation, other scientists will look at your specific department, the people you have worked with and the research you have done.
7. Those time management skills you developed in college? Develop them further.
After surviving college, you may think you have mastered the ability to squeeze in your coursework, extracurricular activities and even some sleep. In a PhD program, time management reaches a whole new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and homework to do. You will have to make time for your research, which will include spending extended periods of time in the lab, analyzing data, and scheduling time with other students to collaborate on research.
Also, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters, and you will want to attend any seminar that may be related to your research or that just peaks your interest. To top it all off, you will still want to do many of those extracurricular activities you did as an undergraduate. While in the abstract, it may seem simple enough to put this all into your calendar and stay organized, you will find quickly enough that the one hour you scheduled for a task might take two or three hours, putting you behind on everything else for the rest of the day or forcing you to cut other planned events. Be prepared for schedules to go awry, and be willing to sacrifice certain activities. For some, this might be sleep; for others, it might be an extracurricular activity or a few seminars they were hoping to attend. In short, don't panic when things don't go according to plan; anticipate possible delays and be ready to adapt.
8. Expect to learn research skills on the fly – or take advantage of the training your department or career center offers.
This may be the first time you will have to write fellowship or grant proposals, write scientific papers, attend conferences, present your research to others, or even peer-review scientific manuscripts. From my experience, very few college students or even PhD students receive formal training on how to perform any of these tasks. Usually people follow by example. But this is not always easy and can be quite aggravating sometimes. So seek out talks or interactive programs offered by your department or career center. The effort will be well worth it when you realize you've become quite adept at quickly and clearly explaining your research to others and at outlining scientific papers and grant proposals.
Alternatively, ask a more experienced graduate student or your advisor for advice on these topics. In addition, be prepared for a learning curve when learning all the procedures and processes of the group you end up working in. There may be many new protocols to master, whether they involve synthesizing chemicals, growing bacterial cells, or aligning mirrors on an optical table. In addition, the group may use programming languages or data analysis software you are unfamiliar with.
Don't get discouraged but plan to spend extra effort getting used to these procedures and systems. After working with them regularly, they will soon become second nature. When I first started my job at Johns Hopkins, I felt overwhelmed by all the intricacies of the experiment and definitely made a few mistakes, including breaking a number of optical elements. But by the end of my year there, I had written an updated protocol manual for the modifications I had made to the experimental procedures and was the "master" passing on my knowledge to the next person taking the job.
9. There are no real breaks.
In a stereotypical "9-to-5" job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes "whenever you find time to get your work done." You might be in the lab during regular work hours or you might be working until 10 p.m. or later to finish an experiment. And the only time you might have available to analyze data might be at 1 a.m. Expect to work during part of the weekend, too. Graduate students do go on vacations but might still have to do some data analysis or a literature search while away.
As a PhD student, it might be hard to stop thinking about the next step in an experiment or that data sitting on your computer or that paper you were meaning to start. While I imagine some students can bifurcate their mind between graduate school life and everything else, that's quite hard for many of us to do. No matter what, my research lies somewhere in the back of my head. In short, your schedule is much more flexible as a PhD student, but as a result, you never truly take a break from your work.
While this may seem like a downer, remember that you should have passion for the research you work on (most of the time), so you should be excited to think up new experiments or different ways to consider that data you have collected. Even when I'm lying in bed about to fall asleep, I am sometimes ruminating about aspects of my experiment I could modify or what information I could do a literature search on to gain new insights. A PhD program is quite the commitment and rarely lives up to expectations – but it is well worth the time and effort you will spend for something that truly excites you.
Learn more about Elsevier
Andy Greenspon is a first-year PhD student in Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences . Prior to that, he worked in the Space Research and Exploration group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for a year. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and received a BA in physics from Amherst College .
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