Putting together your application for a Ph.D. program is a daunting task. It is, however, important to remember that getting into a graduate program is just one step towards your future academic career and not the ultimate goal. This is not intended to be a suggestion for how to view your future, but only as a means to guide you with your application process. You need to know what is coming after being accepted to prepare a good application.
Ph.D. programs often accept students right out of undergraduate program, in addition to people with master’s degree. So this guide is designed to address both undergraduate students and master’s students.
The first thing you need to know is that Ph.D. program progresses in stages. One of the big questions that the selection committee (i.e. the group of professors who decide on which applications to accept) asks when they review your application is if you are likely to succeed through these stages. They look for your weaknesses, which indicate where you are likely to fail. The sooner they believe you are likely to fail, the lower your application will be ranked. So it is very important that you understand the stages of the particular graduate program you are applying for and show in your application that you are prepared to succeed in all these stages. Typically, these stages are: course taking, comprehensive exams/projects, and dissertation writing, in that order. I will go through each of these steps.
The first stage of a graduate program consists of classes. Graduate classes typically require strong analytical skills, critical thinking, and an ability to grasp abstract and complicated concepts. Excellent grades in your current program are a definite requirement, but you should not take easy, elementary level classes just to raise your average. You know and they know that a good grade in an easy (or non-related) class does not correlate with a good grade in a challenging class. Again, the selection committee looks at your grades to see if you are likely to do well in graduate classes. If you have a B, but it is in a class that is very challenging and requires those skills that are mentioned above, you may ask one of the professors to say that in their recommendation letter.
The second stage of a graduate program involves evaluating the existing research critically. Hopefully, you have written a term paper or a critical review (in the last two years, older papers count less) and received a positive feedback from the professor. Contact that professor, show him/her the paper you wrote, with his/her feedback and ask him/her to write you a recommendation letter. You need to specify that you want him/her to praise your critical thinking ability in his/her letter. Do not skip the second half of this – you need to bring the paper to the professor and you need to tell the professor what you want him/her to emphasize in the letter.
The third stage of a graduate program involves original research. How do you demonstrate your research ability? The best (because it is the hardest) way of doing so is getting your research published. Publishing your thesis (undergraduate or master’s) in a journals shows that your research is at the level accepted by the field. You need to know which journals are considered most prestigious, and which journals are most suited to the research you have done. Ask the professor you have worked with for advice on this. Having said that, getting your paper published is hard and time-consuming work. It sometimes takes years of reviewing and rewriting process, and if you are stuck in that stage, you have to list that paper as “under review” or “submitted” in your publication record. Unfortunately, anyone can submit a paper to a journal so a paper in that stage does not count much. If you need to a quicker result, look for conference presentations. Presenting at a conference involves submitting a short version of your paper (called an abstract) or a full paper to the reviewer. Depending on the reviewing process, you may be able to get a conference presentation in a couple of months. You need to know that not all conferences are the same. If you can give a great talk at professional conferences, especially a prestigious one, some professors may even invite you to the Ph.D. program at their university. Professional conferences, however, can be costly to attend. You should check with your supervisor/the professor you have written the paper for and with your current department if there is any funding available for you. Alternatively, you can look for student conferences. Do not underestimate the effect of presenting your own work at a conference. It shows, if nothing else, that you have the right attitude to go into the graduate program – you are not afraid to show your work and get feedback.
Once you have shown that you have the capacity to succeed in a Ph.D. program, you need then to consider the fit factor. If you can demonstrate that you are ready to succeed in all the stages of a graguate program, chances are, some graduate school out there really wants you. You job is to find out which one. Ask the professor who is most familiar with you and your research interests what department they think would work for you. When you find a department that interests you, look at the description of the research they undertake. It should fit with what you are interested in researching. You also need to find professors that you like to work with. If you are interested in a particular professor, you should check the following to see if they would be a good match for you: their education record, publications, and their course syllabi (if available on line). Do you know any professor in your current department that has attended the same Ph.D. program as them? Have they cited anyone from your department in their research paper? Do they cite them positively? Do they use any of the research papers written by someone in your department in their class? If all of the questions turn out “no”, consider attending a special summer school where those people in the “prestigious” circle teach, or do a year of exchange with one of these people. This is invaluable, not just for getting into a Ph.D. program but also for your future hirability.
Letters of recommendation are a big factor in graduate program selection. This article so far has pointed out a couple of hints in selecting whom you need to ask for a letter. Your recommendation letters should not be generic, so be sure to give the professor as much relevant information as possible – your letter of intent, your research papers, the term papers you wrote in his/her classes.
Last but not least, you need to know your resources. Your current university’s career planning center can give you general information. You get information specific to your field from your department’s student advisor. The professor who does the type of research you want to pursue in the Ph.D. program is an invaluable resource. In addition, teaching assistants (TAs) are most likely graduate students who have gone through the application process in recent years. They may give you more candid advice on some topics than professors.