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How to Apply for a PhD in the US

Four Parts:Researching Schools and ProgramsMeeting the Basic RequirementsWriting Your Statement of PurposeSubmitting Your Application Packets

Getting a PhD is a difficult pursuit that takes several years to achieve. However, earning a PhD is a life goal for some people and it can lead to a satisfying career in the end. If you are determined to get your PhD in the US, then you will need to apply for some PhD programs. The application process is time consuming and expensive, but it is necessary if you want to earn a PhD.

Part 1
Researching Schools and Programs

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    Identify your research interests. Take some time to reflect on your past academic work and to consider your current research interests. What type of PhD would you like to pursue? What would you like to research in your pursuit of a PhD?
    • Keep in mind that it is not necessary for you to have a dissertation topic already chosen or even to have an extremely specific research focus. At this stage, you should just have a general idea of what you want to study and why. For example, if you are considering a PhD in English, then you should at least have an idea of the literary period that you wish to focus on.
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    Search for programs that suit your needs. Before you start applying to programs, you should take time to research schools thoroughly and find programs that will support your research interests. Look for schools with programs that will allow you to do the type of research that you want to do.
    • For example, if you are planning to pursue a PhD in Chemistry, then you should find out more about the lab facilities at the university that you are considering.
    • Try to identify as many potential schools as you can. Graduate school is competitive and you will have a better chance of getting accepted if you submit multiple applications.
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    Identify professors whose research interests you. Some schools require or at least expect you to identify professors with whom you’d like to work. You may already have an idea of some professors who can help you with your research based on the research you completed during your BA or MA program.
    • Keep in mind that you may be working closely with the professor(s) you identify, so it is important to select professors who you really admire and whose research genuinely interests you.[1]
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    Look for funding opportunities. Graduate school is expensive, especially for international students. Therefore, it is important to seek out as many potential funding opportunities as you can. Most schools offer teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and other types of funding opportunities that will waive your tuition as well as provide you with a small stipend.
    • Keep in mind that funding opportunities are competitive. Putting forth a strong application may increase your chances of getting funding, but there are no guarantees.
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    Consider other factors. While much less important that the program features and funding available, you should also take some time to consider practical aspects of the schools you are considering. Some additional factors to consider include:
    • Location. If you plan to return to your home country during breaks, then some schools may make the trip home less time consuming than others. For example, if you will be flying back to India at the end of each school year, then choosing a school closer to one of the US coasts will make traveling easier than flying out of the Midwest. Keep in mind that it is not a good idea to select a school based solely on location. This will severely limit your choices.[2]
    • Cost of living. Some US college towns can be quite expensive, which can make it hard to get by on your student stipend. Look into the average cost of housing, food, and other expenses in the university areas where you plan to apply.
    • Extracurricular opportunities. Clubs can other types of groups can make the transition to a US university a bit easier. Many schools have clubs for people from certain countries, who speak certain languages, or who share other interests. Check out the extracurricular opportunities that are available at the universities you are considering.

Part 2
Meeting the Basic Requirements

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    Obtain the appropriate degrees. A bachelor’s degree is required for all PhD program applications and a master’s degree may be required for some PhD programs.
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    Take the GRE. GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores are required for admittance into PhD programs in the US, so you will need to take the GRE before you can apply.[3] It takes a couple of months to get your scores back, so make sure that you take the GRE well in advance of beginning the application process.
    • Taking the GRE three to six months in advance is a good idea. You may even want to take it about year before you plan to apply, just in case you do not get a good score and you need to retake it.
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    Take the TOEFL or IELTS. If you are from a country where English is not the official language, then you will have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language or IELTS (International English Language Testing System). These tests assess your English language skills and help schools determine whether or not you are equipped to attend graduate school at an English language university. Like the GRE, you should take one of these tests well in advance of starting the applications.[4][5]
    • Score requirements vary by university, so check with each university to learn the score requirements before you apply. For TOEFL, you need to have above a 600 on the paper based test OR above a 95 to 100 on the internet based test. For IELTS, you need to have above a 7.0 to 7.5.
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    Ensure that you can afford the fees. Fees for international student PhD applications can be quite high, such as around $100 US dollars per application.[6] Since you will likely need to apply to several schools in order to have a chance at a job, make sure that you can afford the fees before you start the process.
    • For example, if you plan to apply to 20 different programs, then you will need to ensure that you have about $2,000 for the application fees.
    • Keep in mind that the fees may vary drastically among schools. More prestigious schools may charge higher application fees than less prestigious schools.
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    Compare special requirements for different schools. Each school will have its own application process and some schools also have special requirements. For the best chance of getting an acceptance letter, make sure that you carefully read the application instructions for each school that you plan to apply to. Identify any special requirements that you will have to fulfill before you apply.
    • For example, some programs require applicants to answer a specific question or set of questions in the statement of purpose.
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    Request letters of recommendation. Having a few glowing letters of recommendation from professors and/or higher education administrators will improve your chances of getting accepted to a PhD program as well. Ask professors who know you well and who can evaluate your ability to do doctoral work.[7]
    • For example, it would be better to ask a professor in your discipline than someone who taught an elective class that you enjoyed.
    • Having one letter of recommendation from an administrator or employer can be helpful to show a different perspective of your academic goals. For example, you might ask your department’s chairperson, one of the university’s deans, or a current or former boss. As with the professors you ask, the administrator who recommends you should be someone who will give you a glowing recommendation.
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    Order transcripts. Transcripts are required for your application, so make sure that you know the procedure for requesting them from your university and put in your requests as soon as possible. Since your applications will be traveling via international mail, it is important to allow plenty of time for them to arrive.
    • Keep in mind that most schools require official transcripts.[8]
    • Sending transcripts may or may not require you to pay fees, depending on your university’s policies.
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    Choose a writing sample (if required). Some types of programs require applicants to submit a writing sample as part of the application. This sample should be something that reflects your research interests and demonstrates your writing and research abilities. Choose something that you are proud of.
    • If you have a piece that has been published, then this is an especially great choice for the writing sample, but unpublished pieces are fine as well.[9]

Part 3
Writing Your Statement of Purpose

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    Check for special requirements before you start to write. Some universities have special questions or ways of formatting your statement of purpose (SOP) that you will need to observe. Make sure that you check the SOP requirements for each university to which you are applying before you begin writing.
    • You may want to write one “basic” SOP and then alter or add to it as needed based on the special requirements of each university.
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    Provide a bit of background. The first part of the statement of purpose is usually an intro paragraph where you talk a bit about yourself and your interests. This paragraph should offer some insight into your academic background rather than hobbies that you have, such as cooking or collecting rocks.[10]
    • For example, you might say something like, “Since I was a child, I had a passion for the natural world and this passion led me to my desire to become a biologist.”
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    Talk about your preparation for a doctoral program. The next thing you should mention in your SOP is your preparation for doctoral studies. In this section, you should describe your coursework thus far, special projects you completed as an undergraduate and masters student, as well as any conferences you have presented at or articles you have published.
    • For example, you might say something like, “As an undergrad, I participated in on-campus research expos and even attended a local conference. Then, during my MA program, I had an article accepted to Biology Quarterly and presented at a national conference.”[11]
    • You can also talk about specific courses you took, professors who have supervised your work, and research that you conducted during your BA and MA programs.
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    Explain the types of contributions you would like to make. After you have talked about what you have done so far, you will need to explain what you hope to do in the future. What are your goals? What do you hope to contribute to your discipline?[12]
    • For example, you might say something like, “I hope to develop a new process for growing corn.”
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    Mention professors with whom you would like to work and explain why. It is also important to mention professors with whom you would like to work. Some of these professors may even have a say in whether or not you will be admitted to the program, so it is important to familiarize yourself with these professors’ research.
    • Try reading each professor’s biography on the university website. You may also consider reading one of these professors’ publications, such as an article or book.
    • Try saying something like, “I hope to work with Professor Jones because she and I share a similar interest in botany.”
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    Use examples to illustrate your points. For each section in your SOP, it is important to back up what you have to say. For example, do not just say, “I am dedicated to this discipline,” show it by providing examples of your participation in the discipline over the years. Or, if you talk about a professor who you admire, be specific about why. Draw a quote from one of his or her articles or point to a specific accomplishment that you admire.[13]
    • Make sure that you include examples throughout your entire SOP.

Part 4
Submitting Your Application Packets

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    Complete online application components. Most universities require you to submit some basic details using an online application. These details may include things like your name, address, schools attended, etc. Complete this part of your application before you do anything else.
    • Some schools also require letters of recommendation to be submitted via an online system. You may need to submit your recommenders email addresses so that they can access this system.
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    Prepare your application items to mail. Your applications will also likely include some paper items, such as your statement of purpose, official transcripts, writing samples, or other required materials. Collect these items and seal them in a large envelope. Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to send your packets so that they will arrive before the deadline.
    • Address the packets. Make sure that you double check the addresses for each of your packets to ensure that they will be delivered to the correct location.
    • Pay for postage. International postage can be quite expensive, so make sure that you reserve some money to pay for this cost. Pay the postage for each of your packets and send them out.
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    Wait for responses. Waiting to hear back from schools may be the most difficult part of the process. It can take weeks or even months for PhD application committees to make their selections. Many schools alert applicants of an acceptance or rejection via email as well as with a paper letter, so keep an eye on both of your inboxes.


  • Even if a university is unable to provide you with direct funding or a scholarship, there may be other opportunities for you to earn an income while you are there, such as research assistantships. Look into this before turning down an offer from a university you might otherwise want to attend.
  • Gaining some sort of research or work experience in the field you plan to apply to will greatly improve your chances of admission.
  • Once you are done with everything, do not forget to thank everybody who helped you, especially the referees who wrote letters of recommendation.


  • Keep your address consistent throughout - do not abbreviate or introduce variations. This makes it all the more difficult for the graduate office to file your documents.
  • Use a reliable courier service to send documents to universities - FedEx, DHL, UPS, etc. Do not use a service for which you cannot track your package.

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