So you’ve decided to apply to a PhD program, and are now trying to figure out a best path forward. It can be an extremely stressful time as you balance finishing classes, finding and applying to programs, and work. I was finishing up my master’s thesis during the application period, while also working part-time to save up for the eventual move. I’ll give you some of my strategies on how I applied to PhD programs as a first-generation international student.
Decide on a research area
A PhD program will train you to do original research in your area of interest. Your first year will usually consist of taking graduate courses related to your area of research. You will learn to conduct literature review, find the gap in your area of interest, develop research questions you want to answer, conduct experiments to answer those questions, and write and defend a dissertation in front of a committee of other academic scholars. A PhD program usually takes 4-6 years, with some needing more or less time to finish the program.
So before you apply to a PhD program, really think about what it is you want to research for a few years and develop skills for. Your research area does not have to be super-specific, but it does help to narrow down who’s lab you’ll be applying to. And you will need to write about it in your applications, so it’s a good idea to do some soul searching and figure out what you want to work on for the next few years.
Research PhD programs
I wanted to do research in thermal-fluids. I’ve had some research experience during my master’s doing thermal-fluids simulations and I really liked the area, so when I decided to apply for PhD programs, that’s the research area I focused on when evaluating programs.
I Googled mechanical engineering PhD programs, and went on each engineering department’s website to learn more about what the professors were doing research on, and how active they were in the field. Since the field of thermal-fluids is quite large, I focused it down to professors who were using specific methodologies, such as CFD simulations.
I also looked at their publications. Did they look interesting? Did they publish a lot? I tried to read the abstracts to get an idea of what they were doing, but sometimes their websites can be outdated. Google scholar can be your friend.
If you’ve done research before and want to continue in the same area, you will have probably read a lot of papers and might have even met some of the professors and academics in the field. Or you see a name coming up constantly and you’re interested in joining their lab.
You should also use your network when researching PhD programs. If there’s a professor at your current institution that’s doing research in an area you’re interested in, get their input on PhD programs to apply for. They might know professors looking for PhD students to join their lab and can get you connected to them. LinkedIn is also a great way to find out which professors are looking for PhD students and what research area they will be working in.
Narrow down the list
Once you’ve got a good grasp on the different research topics in your area of interest and which professors are active in the area, it’s time to narrow down the list of PhD programs a bit. Applying to PhD programs can get expensive, as each application generally has an application fee. If the program requires GRE scores, you’ll need to send in your official GRE scores which costs $27 per recipient.
You also don’t want to apply to too many programs as it becomes very stressful to write all the different statements for each application, contact the professors you want to work with, and figuring out who you ultimately want to join if you get multiple offers.
So narrow down the list. To narrow down my list, my priorities at the time were:
- Is the school and the program well-ranked? There is still this hierarchy in academia (which I don’t agree with, but it’s a system that’s hard to change unfortunately), where the school you did your PhD in matters a lot if you want to become a professor.
- Are there multiple professors I could work with at the department? Sometimes, shit happens and it doesn’t work out with a specific advisor, and you’ll need to rotate to a different lab in order to complete the PhD program. Having two or more professors in the department you can see yourself working with is a good backup plan.
- Did the professor reply back to my email? I sent out an email to the potential professors in order to find out if they have funding for future PhD students, what research projects these PhD students would be working on, and to see if I was a good fit. If none of the professors replied back after my several attempts, I just removed them from my application list.
- Did the location seem like a place that I would thrive? Listen, location matters. Maybe you’ll find a PhD program near your family and you want to be close to them. Or you need to find a PhD program in a city where your spouse can find a job. Or you don’t want to spend years in a region with extreme winter storms because you grew up in sunny California. Or perhaps the cost of living is too high compared to the potential PhD stipend. Think hard about the location of the PhD program and if it is a place where you will be happy for a couple of years.
- Does the lab have funding? If you’re not coming in with your own funds through a fellowship, you will need to work in a research lab where there’s funding for you to perform the research. This can be through a research assistantship, or you might have to be a graduate student instructor. NEVER do a PhD program that’s not guaranteed funding in some way. You don’t want to stress about how to fund your tuition and research in order to finish the program.
Now that I’ve been through a PhD program and graduated, here are things I would prioritize when narrowing down programs to apply to:
- Does the department or university have the resources you need to perform your research? If you’re an experimentalist, are there labs that have the necessary equipment to do your research, or do you need to build up the lab or capabilities before you can really start on the experiments? Is there funding to get that very expensive high-speed camera you need for the engine experiment? If you need to do simulations, does the school have the necessary hardware and software to do such computations? Do they have a high performance computing center and tech support? I have to be honest, this wasn’t something I was thinking about when I was performing my cursory program search, but I’ve come to realize that this is extremely important if you want to be productive during your PhD program.
- Are there any certificate programs or degrees, in addition to your PhD, that you would like to obtain? Are there any workshops or classes you would like to attend during your program? Some of my friends got certificates in public policy, others went through the entrepreneurship program. I took a class on teaching engineering, and it was a great introduction to engineering pedagogy. It ultimately led me to an opportunity to work as a teaching consultant for a few semesters, which gave me a great opportunity to learn more about alt-academic jobs.
- Are there any therapy or counseling programs for PhD students? With the rise of mental health problems, which is especially prevalent in the PhD community as about 1/3 of all PhD students experience some sort of mental health crisis. I experienced this for myself during the program as my anxiety got worse during my second year, and it was really helpful that I had access to a counselor that was embedded in the engineering program. I think everyone can benefit from having access to a mental health professional, and especially if you’re in a PhD program.
Ultimately I narrowed my list down to 10 programs, but looking back, I shouldn’t have applied to so many programs. I should have probably just applied for 6 or 7 programs, saving a bit of my sanity, time, and money.
Cool, you’ve narrowed it down. Now you need to find references who will vouch for you.
To apply to PhD program, you typically will be asked for three recommendation letters. My advice is to find people with PhDs who know you well in terms of your academics and your work/research qualities. For example, one of my recommenders was my advisor of my master’s program, who knew me well since I did research with him for a few years. Other people I’ve asked were professors that I took a few classes with, and who I’ve TA’d for. Generally, the PhD programs are looking for students who will do well in an academic setting since you’ll be taking graduate courses, and who have great potential when it comes to doing original research.
One advice is to find recommenders who will definitely write you strong letter of recommendations. There are professors out there who will write lukewarm or bad recommendation letters, so be careful and choose your recommenders well.
Once you’ve identified your recommenders, discuss your plans with them about attending graduate school, and ask if they’re willing to write you a strong recommendation letter. This could be done in person or in an email. If you send an email, make sure to attach your resume or CV so they know what you’ve been up to. Let them know how many programs you plan on applying to, so they know what they’ll be signing up for. They need to write letters for each PhD application, and will need to customize it to each school.
Prepare your application materials
You will need to write a statement of purpose. The statement of purpose should be focused on your research interest, your academic and work background, your career goals, and your potential fit in the department. In my statement, I wrote about my research interests and experience, what I wanted to do after my PhD program, and why the university I was applying to would be a great fit. I also wrote down two or three professors I saw myself working with.
I got help from my university’s writing center to improve my statement. I would also ask friends who’ve been through the PhD application process for feedback. And of course, your advisors and recommenders can be a great source of critical feedback as well.
You will also need an academic CV along with your application. There are many resources to help you get started on a CV if you’ve never created one, and if you need help, your university’s career center could be a great resource.
For some programs, the graduate record exam (GRE) is still required. Some graduate programs have done away with this exam, but many still require it. It’s an expensive and annoying test, and I remember studying for it using apps to learn new words since English is not my first language. There are also practice tests available online for free, and I would use my school’s library for extra resources and study material. The test itself costs about $200, and each application requires you to have the official test scores sent to them, which costs $27. I prepared for the GRE by studying a few months and taking the test in the summer before the application period.
You will also need to provide your college transcripts on your application. This could be unofficial or official transcripts, depending on the school.
Apply, apply, apply
Once you’ve gathered your materials, it’s time to apply! Remember that each program will have their own set of application materials you need to supply. For example, when I applied to University of Michigan, I needed to also write a diversity statement. So make sure to plan ahead. The application period usually opens up in the Fall semester the year before the program starts.
Each application will also have an application fee. This fee can sometimes be waived, depending on what fee waivers the schools might have available. It doesn’t hurt to ask the graduate coordinator about fee waivers. This could save you a great sum.
On the application, you will also list your recommenders, and the school will then usually send them an email with instructions on how they can provide their recommendation letters. If your letter writers have not yet submitted the letters after a week or two, remind them of the application deadline.
Once you’ve applied, you have a few months to wait until you hear good news. I applied for most programs in the Fall semester and didn’t hear back until after New Year from some of the programs.
Typically, if you’re accepted or you are on the program’s “to accept” list, the school will extend an invitation to visit the campus and interview with professors. This can go a few different ways:
- the professor could schedule an online meeting with you before extending an in-person campus visit
- the professor that is interested in you might reach out and invite you to visit the campus for an in-person interview and give you the opportunity to socialize with his or her students
- the program’s graduate coordinator will invite you to a campus visit, where you will meet other potential PhD students, talk to multiple professors and current PhD students to find a good fit, and you will get a tour of the entire campus, not just the department
All of these happened to me, and since I applied to way too many programs, I got multiple invitations. It was stressful to schedule them all while I still had classes, and sometimes they overlapped which meant I had to decline or reschedule a visit. Luckily they all worked out in the end. And I’m happy to report that all the visits were reimbursed by the schools.
The important thing about these visits is to figure out if you can see yourself doing research and studying in the program. Talk to the students, find out if they’re happy with their advisors, find out potential red flags, talk to the professors. Ask current students about the advisors and who they would avoid (this was extremely helpful, I managed to avoid some potentially horrible PIs). Ask if they think their stipend is sufficient for the cost of living, where students usually live, what they do for fun, and if people are collaborative or competitive.
Once your visits are over, you will hear either good or bad news from the program’s coordinator or your potential PI. This will usually happen through email or a phone call, and you will receive an official letter of admissions through email. My admission letters had my PI’s name in it, funding details for the first year or throughout the program, benefits such as healthcare, and spelled out the fees I would need to pay.
I was (un)lucky enough to get 5 offers. Two offers were horrendous. One didn’t come with any funding and I would have to fight for teaching assistantships or find my own research assistantships, and none of the professors had any openings in their labs. One gave me funding but it was definitely not enough to live on, as it was in a high cost of living area in California. I had 3 really good offers. Two schools gave me a fellowship, and two gave me a guaranteed funding for four years.
Ultimately, I decided to join University of Michigan because they had a good funding offer, great health benefits, and I had a good time during my visit. The students I talked to all seemed happy at the social event, and everyone seemed nice and collaborative instead of competitive when it came to research. The professor that became my PI seemed like a nice guy, and his students all had good words to say about him. And I could see myself (and my spouse) living in Ann Arbor for a few years, despite the cold. It turned out to be a great decision, because I’ve made some lifelong friends there. And the school also had a good support system, e.g. an embedded counselor for engineering graduate students, a good health system and great health insurance, and lots of opportunities to socialize with other PhD students.
So when you get your offers, think about what’s important to you. Don’t neglect the funding information, because funding is important. You don’t want to stress out about finding funding while you’re taking classes or doing research. Find any potential red flags by talking to current students. Evaluate if the PI and the lab will be a good fit for you.
Sometimes, you won’t hear from a program until AFTER April 15. This is usually the day when accepted students will accept or decline their offers. You might have been on a waitlist and you’ll be contacted by the program coordinator if they free up space. If you’ve already accepted a different offer and you’re happy with it, go ahead and decline the offer. But, if you haven’t received any offers or haven’t made a decision yet, and you’re contemplating this new offer, now is the time to really think about the decision and make a choice. Ask if you could have a week or two to decide, and then think through your options.
Accepting the offer
You made your decision! Time to accept the offer. There might be some paperwork involved. Email your future PI and ask if there are any papers they want you to read to get up to speed on your new research project. In any case, it’s time to celebrate! PhD programs can be brutal, so once you’ve accepted the offer, make time to celebrate with friends and family.