How To Apply To Doctoral Programs

There are many great reasons to get a doctoral degree, but figuring out how to navigate the application process can be challenging. I’ve been advising people on how to apply to doctoral programs since I started my own program 8 years ago, and here are five clear steps on how to apply to doctoral programs, as well as important things you should keep in mind before applying to doctoral programs.

If you are a Black womxn who is interested in pursuing doctoral studies, feel free to join us in Cohort Sistas, where we share advice and resources for prospective, current, and post-doctoral scholars.

Prefer to watch? Check out this video on How to Apply to Doctoral Programs

1. Determine Your Why

Before you even start researching programs, figure out WHY you want to get a doctoral degree in the first place. Do you want to enter academia? Do you want to advance to a senior research position in your job? Or maybe you want to run a research lab and publish extensively. Whatever your motivations, have them written down to guide your thought process as you look for programs because you should only apply to programs that will help craft the kind of doctoral experience that will align with your future goals. Not sure if you are interested in doctoral programs for the right reasons? Check out this post for bad reasons to get a doctoral degree.

2. Identify Your Wants and Needs

Once you’ve figured out your why you’ll be able to identify what you want and need out of a program. Is teaching experience important to you? Then look for programs that require students, or create ample opportunities for students to TA or lecture on their own. Is publishing important to you? Then find mentors whose past students have a track record of publishing, rather than mentors whose students don’t publish at all. Other things to consider are location (though you can likely move after coursework), diversity of students and staff, and availability of funding.

3. Research Programs That Fit Your Needs

Once you know your why and what’s important to you, identify about 5 to 8 programs that fit your academic background, research interests, and personal needs. Go through their faculty list, funding options, and current research priorities, and connect with past and current students to get a better sense of how the program functions in real life. Email the faculty members you think might be appropriate mentors before you send your applications to connect and learn more about their work. This way, they have your name in mind in case they are in a position to steer a decision in your favor.

4. Prepare Your Application Materials

The bulk of your application material will include a personal essay and a research statement essay, or a statement of purpose that encompasses both. You’ll also need a CV to detail your previous education, research, and professional experience, and some programs require a writing sample. Letters of recommendation from people who can speak to your academic and research background are also critical, so you’ll want to give your letter writers ample time to craft strong essays on your behalf. Many schools are now test-optional, but double check each program to see whether they require a GRE.

4. Submit Your Application On Time

Don’t wait until the last minute to send your application. Aim to have it complete by mid-November, to give yourself enough time to submit by the December deadlines. And remember to back up your hard drives or save your work in the cloud — because doctoral programs receive so many applications each year, there will not be much, if any, grace if you miss the application deadline. Once you’ve submitted your application, go out and reward yourself for this big accomplishment!

Now I can’t promise that if you follow these steps you will gain admission to a doctoral program, but I do know that successful applicants have a clear understanding of their motivations behind obtaining a doctoral degree and are able to clearly articulate that motivation in their application. Best of luck with your applications!

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  1. It’s good to receive good information from someone who has gone through the process before especially a WOC. You have gone through to share your experiences and accomplishments the goals. The advice is informative and truthful. You are an example to follow. I’m sorry that I am a little late posting but last week and this week has been exhausting.

  2. I need to rethink my plan of doing a PHD. Thank you for these pointers, so much learning to do before someone takes the big and final step. Really do appreciate how informative your blogs are.