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Guide to Applying for Graduate School

Why Get a PhD?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest degree one may obtain within a particular field of study. This ranges from studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields; Social Science fields such as Education, Economics, Political Science, and Sociology; as well as Humanities fields such as English, History, Music, Philosophy, and more. The PhD degree aims to prepare people to think critically, develop research, and produce scholarship that may be used for further research or implementation. The PhD historically prepared students to take on faculty roles in colleges and universities, and that is still the goal for many students pursuing the PhD. However, today the PhD is a sought-after degree in many other industries including pharmaceutical research, arts organizations and other nonprofits, publishing, government policy, big tech, finance, and more.

  • Who can apply to a PhD program? PhD education is available to people from various educational, occupational, socioeconomic, and demographic backgrounds.
  • Who should get a PhD? People interested in uncovering new ideas, solutions, or processes within a specific area of study through conducting independent research.
  • Why is it important for diverse candidates to become PhD holders? Our world thrives on heterogeneous ideas and experiences, which is why it is indispensable to include students with diverse perspectives in our PhD programs. These students will generate important and original research.

Funding your PhD

Most PhD programs are fully funded, meaning that for a specific number of years, the program will pay for your tuition and fees and health insurance, as well as provide you with a stipend for living expenses. The structure of this funding varies by field. Below is an outline of general funding information as well as trends according to field of study.

  • Funding packages provided by educational institution. These funding packages sometimes come with service requirements.
    • Teaching Assistantships or Research Assistantships: Part-time service that provides teaching and research training opportunities within your area of study.
  • Funding packages provided through faculty research grants: Many STEM fields fund students through research grants awarded to faculty. In these cases, students perform research alongside the faculty. 
  • Fellowships: Internal or external merit-based funding. Some fellowships require an application while others are given via nomination. Educational institutions typically have a resource listing fellowship opportunities. Winning a competitive fellowship looks good on your resume.
  • Grants: Requires an application with supporting materials of either your grades, scholarly work, and/or anticipated research. These are available through internal and external means. Grants greatly vary so be sure to always understand the requirements. Educational institutions typically have a resource listing grant opportunities. Winning a competitive grant looks good on your resume.
  • Employment: For example, serving as a residential advisor, on-campus jobs, etc. Some PhD programs restrict additional employment, so be sure to check before applying for jobs.
  • The funding opportunities described here often can be combined.

Choosing a school or program that provides the most potential funding may be a challenging decision. The value of the same amount of funding will differ depending on the cost of living in different geographic locations. Admitted applicants should investigate cost-of-living tools (available on the web) and be sure to understand how their funding will be structured. Ask questions when you are admitted, such as: 

  • Could you share more about your program’s funding mechanism?
  • For how long is funding guaranteed? How does that compare to the average time-to-completion? Historically, what percentage of students have received funding beyond the guaranteed funding package?
  • Does funding cover tuition, fees, books, health insurance?
  • Does the funding rely on teaching, research, or other service? How much and for how long? 
Choosing the right program and school

Choosing a program for your studies is a personal decision that should reflect not only your research interests, but your work style, and interests outside of the classroom. Here we have identified five key tips to consider when selecting schools. 

  • Research programs and schools.
    • Talk to current/former academic advisors, faculty, recruiters, etc.
      • Ask about which programs are strong in your area of interest, which have high completion rates, and which have career outcomes that align with your goals. 
    • Explore the websites of the professional academic associations in the field(s) that interest you. Many will have a directory of doctoral programs and other resources for graduate students. For example, see the American Economic Association’s list of graduate programs and their preparing for graduate school page.
    • Conduct a general internet search with terms related to your research interest.
    • Determine your geographic and personal preferences. Does the area meet your community needs? Is it important that the university aligns with your sociopolitical values? Do you prefer a large city or a smaller/college town? Is there a particular region(s) that has better access to resources needed to conduct your research?
    • Access your current or former university career center. These services are often still available for former students!
    • As you narrow your choices, try to identify at least 3 faculty in the programs of interest with whom you’d like to study. Also note how many of them have tenure. If relevant, research which of those faculty are taking on advisees in your year of matriculation.
  • Academic fit: Do your interests align with the program and faculty?
    • Read articles from faculty with similar research interests.
    • Note the number of awards, publications, and service activities of faculty.
    • Identify research opportunities funded by both your program and university at large.
  • Assess environment and student body climate.
    • Connect with current and former students in the program for informational interviews.
    • Connect with campus Diversity Offices.
    • Whenever possible, before submitting your applications, make an appointment to visit the campuses and department(s) that interest you.
    • Use LinkedIn to see what graduates of your program are doing and how they are involved in their communities.
  • Evaluate your current and future financial standing.
    • Estimate your feasible cost of living by geographic location and compare to the funding package offered.
    • Consider availability of health insurance, childcare, housing, transportation, and other fringe benefits.
    • Connect with a local bank or your prospective university’s financial services office for budgeting, savings, and other financial wellness advice.
    • Research the career outcomes for PhD graduates from the institutions that interest you in your specific field.
  • Remain positive! There are many people who have gone through the process who can offer advice and support through your journey. Take a look at some leading blogs and resources to help you prepare for your studies.
How to prepare before you apply to a PhD program
  • During your undergraduate/master’s education, you should pursue coursework and/or research that will prepare you for the higher expectations of a PhD program; for example, taking a research methods course, pursuing a summer research experience, or conducting research with a professor at your home institution.
  • Identify instructors who could write a letter of recommendation. Share with those instructors your interest in doctoral studies; faculty can be excellent resources for advice as well as recommendations!
  • Experiences outside of higher education can also strengthen your PhD application. These may range from project management to volunteer work.
  • Develop soft or hard skills. A soft skill that is most useful from the first day of your PhD program is networking. This is necessary not only for meeting other students but also to find collaborators with similar research interests and selecting faculty for your dissertation committee. Learning how to negotiate will also serve you well when approaching collaborative projects. Hard skills related to your field might include learning statistical analysis software, economic theory, a foreign language, or search engine optimization. In short, identify a few soft and hard skills that you can familiarize yourself with prior to your program’s start date.
  • Finally, prepare by identifying leading researchers and practitioners in your field, exploring peer-reviewed literature and/or publications, and gain familiarity with research methods.
How to prepare a competitive PhD application
  • Deadlines and fees.
    • Typically, PhD applications are due 10-12 months in advance of the program’s start date (i.e. apply in November to start the following September). A good rule of thumb is to begin your application process 6 months before the deadline. 
    • The availability of reduced application fees or fee waivers varies and sometimes depends on financial status and/or experiences (AmeriCorps, National Society of Black Engineers, attending certain conferences, etc.). If you are interested in a reduced fee or waiver, reach out to the program coordinator for details.
  • Writing a statement of purpose or personal statement, which is very different for PhD programs than for undergraduate applications.
    • Be sure to address all the specific questions/topics in the statement prompt. 
    • Clearly state why you want to pursue a PhD.
    • Propose your research interest.
    • Identify the faculty you’d like to study under. 
    • Discuss the unique qualities/experiences you offer to the program/school.
    • Outline what you hope to do with your degree.
  • Asking for recommendations.
    • Ask for recommendation letters early in the process, at least 2-4 weeks before the deadline. A good letter takes time to write!
    • Provide recommenders with your resume, information about the program, your statement of purpose and/or information about your research interests and research goals.
    • Consider your current/former instructors, supervisors, colleagues. These should be people who can speak to your work ethic, academic abilities, and research interests.
  • Additional application elements.
    • Test scores (i.e. TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, etc.) may or may not be required.
    • All transcripts including those for coursework completed abroad and transfer credits. Some programs require official transcripts, which take longer to procure.
    • Resume/Curriculum Vitae (CV)
    • Writing sample (field dependent): Include a graduate-level sample and update any statements, statistics, etc. as needed. It is highly encouraged that you edit your previous work.
    • Diversity statement: Many institutions offer an optional short statement where students can expand on their diverse backgrounds and experiences that may contribute to the diversity interests/efforts of the school.
  • Interview (field dependent). Some programs may invite applicants for an interview. If so:
    • Dress professionally, even if the interview is virtual. You don’t necessarily need to wear a suit but dress pants/skirt and a blouse/button down shirt would be appropriate.  
    • Develop an engaging elevator pitch, a 30-60 second summary of your research interests and what you hope to gain by becoming a student at that particular university. Practice your pitch with a career counselor, faculty advisor, or friends, and ask for honest feedback.
    • Prepare 2-3 questions to ask during the interview. These could include questions about program expectations, the experience and success of their PhD students, and (academic/financial/mental health) support for PhD students.
    • Some interview programs will include multiple activities including a social event. Be sure to maintain a professional attitude: do not drink too much and keep conversation on academic/professional topics.
    • This is also your opportunity to decide whether this campus is a good fit for you.
    • Academia Insider is a good resource. 
What to expect in a PhD program

Unlike undergraduate and master’s level education, coursework is just one component of the degree. A PhD comes with additional expectations: you must independently conduct scholarly research in your field of study, train in specific activities such as teaching or lab/field research, pass “milestone” requirements along the way, such as comprehensive exams, and complete the process by writing a dissertation. Furthermore, some fields require you to write multiple articles (number varies by field/program) for conference presentation and/or peer-reviewed publication.

There are other important elements as well:

  • Student/Advisor relationship. This is one of the most valuable relationships you can have as a PhD student. Your faculty advisor not only assists you with learning how to approach your research topic, but also typically serves as the lead supervisor of your dissertation research and writing, and ideally mentors you throughout the PhD experience. The selection process of choosing your advisor varies so be sure to know what is expected of you as a student and what is expected of the faculty member. Whenever possible, it is important to align your personality and work style with that of your faculty advisor. Many universities publish expectations for the PhD student/faculty advisor relationship; AMP’ed is Penn’s guide.
  • Other relationships: Your faculty advisor is far from the only important person during your PhD career. Other faculty members will also serve on your dissertation committee and be potential mentors. Students in your program can also provide good advice and guidance along the way.
  • Coursework: Most programs have a number of required courses all students must take regardless of research interests. Once you have finished this requirement, the classes you choose should closely align with your research topic. Choose courses that will help you learn more about your dissertation topic and research methods. It is a good idea to discuss elective course selection with your advisor. 
  • The dissertation is a large-scale, written document that explores a narrow research topic of your choice. It is the final step before receiving your degree and must be presented and “defended” to your dissertation committee (made up of faculty members) for approval. Defending means that you have to answer in-depth questions about your topic. While this might sound daunting, the dissertation is simply a demonstration of all the knowledge and expertise you have acquired through your PhD education. 
  • Networking comes in many forms and includes connections with your fellow classmates, faculty members, and scholarly community. Formal networking events typically take place at academic conferences, where scholars and students present research. Increasing your academic circle will not only allow you to have study buddies, but offer you the opportunity to collaborate on articles or even gain employment. Your school’s career center can provide best practices for effective networking. 
Upcoming information sessions and recruitment events

Explore graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania and click on the programs that interest you to learn more about admissions and academic requirements.

Upcoming Penn information sessions and recruitment events include:

  • Fontaine Fellows Recruitment Dinner (by invitation only): every March
  • Summer Virtual Series for undergraduates thinking about graduate school: June-July, 2024
  • DEEPenn STEM (Diversity Equity Engagement at Penn in STEM): October 11-13, 2024. Application deadline is May 24, 2024.
  • DivE In Weekend (Diversity & Equity Initiative for Mind Research): October 18-20, 2024. Application due May 30, 2024.
  • IDDEAS@Wharton (Introduction to Diversity in Doctoral Education and Scholarship): April 2025. Application opens in November 2024.

National conferences to explore: