How and Why to Apply for a PhD

Applying for a PhD is different from applying for an undergraduate degree, or even for a master’s degree.  There are a few general things to keep in mind and consider during the application process.

Choosing a program:
Before you even start applying, be sure to think carefully about why you would like to continue your graduate education (see this page for links to articles on the decision to go to graduate school).  For example, do you like to read and spend time alone and in a library?

Next, look for a program that is a good fit for your interests.  You might begin your research by examining various program websites.  If you intend to study European Intellectual History, for instance, consider whether there are others in a given program who share similar interests.  And what type of requirements–languages, statistics, etc.–are students expected to fulfill during their first few years in the program?

Once you’ve developed a short list, you can start thinking about the professors that you would like to work with.  Read their work to see if you like their approach and methods, and set up a phone appoint to speak with them (make sure that you have researched their program before you call them).  Consider where they are in their career, and whether they are likely to stay at the school; for example, be sure to find out if they are not tenured or if they are nearing retirement age.

While this might seem like obvious advice, you should only apply to schools that you want to go to; don’t waste your money applying to places that you are sure you’d turn down.  If you’re unsure, it might be helpful to speak with graduate students already enrolled in the program.

Letters of reference:
Letters of reference are a quite important part of your application package.  Ask faculty who know you and your work well so that they can write a genuine letter.  You’ll need to give these professors a lot of time (about 6 weeks before the deadline) and make it easy for them to write the letter; for example, you might provide them with a statement of purpose and writing samples, as well as all of the necessary online information for submission (or, if mailing, provide stamped and addressed envelopes).  Be polite, by thanking the professor and reminding them of deadlines gently.

Finally, you should always waive your right to see your letters of recommendation; otherwise, the admissions committee and faculty reading them will discount the value of the letters.

The admissions process:
Typically there is an admissions committee made up of faculty who read the applications, although at certain institutions all faculty members read some or all of the letters.  They will consider whether you have the appropriate background (i.e., the languages and coursework), and evaluate your application package.

The statement of purpose is probably the MOST important document:

  • It needs to be strong and reflect that you are thinking about how to be a scholar–not merely citing scholarship, but thinking critically about it.
  • You don’t necessarily need to have a research topic yet, but you should be thinking about research questions and scholarly methodologies that you want to explore with your research.
  • Make sure that there are no typos or poor grammar (which can get you eliminated very quickly).

Your writing sample is also important, so choose a strong piece and revise it, making sure that there are absolutely no typos.  Your GREs are typically are not as important in the scheme of things, but it might help to find out the range of acceptable scores if you can for each school (especially for students who are considered for PhD funding).

Once you’re in:
Once you are admitted into a program, there are a few more considerations to make before accepting.  You can start by speaking with current graduate students to learn more about what program life is like.  Do these students generally seem like the program?  Do they study together, or is the program more cut-throat?

You should also find out where the program place students.  Do graduates tend to find jobs at research universities, liberal arts college, or large state universities?

Consider also where you will be living and the cost of living.  Ideally you should be fully funded (with a tuition waiver, a stipend, and health care).  Considering the average length of time to complete a PhD in the United States, taking on considerable amounts of debt–especially with no guaranteed jobs once you’re finished–is probably not a good decision.

Even PhD students who are set upon pursuing an academic career should have a Plan B.  Groups like the Adjunct Project are working hard to change conditions, but the reality is that about 70% of university teachers are now adjuncts or are off the tenure track.

The following resources might be helpful as you think about other options:

  • The Graduate Center subscribes to the Versatile PhD, a terrific website for doctoral students considering careers outside of the traditional tenure-track path. The site includes an email discussion list where you can post your questions about working outside academe. In the premium content section, you will find profiles of PhDs who have put their skills to use in a wide range of sectors, discussion content about specific careers, job listings, and sample cover letters and resumes (as well as the CVs they were converted from) from PhDs who have found non-academic positions.
  • Vault Career Insider Guides. Graduate Center students now have access to the Vault Career Insider Guides. These guides are great for getting up to speed in an industry that you don’t know a lot about (for example, the Vault Career Launcher: Advertising and Public Relations includes a chapter-length glossary of industry terms) or getting an in-depth perspective on employers in a given industry (see the 532 page guide to the top 50 banking employers or the 1387 page guide on the top 50 management and strategy consulting firms).   You can also use them to find out more about jobs search skills such as networking and interviewing.  Once you’ve logged in and created a profile, you can down load these guide in pdf form for free.  The Vault site will make your efforts at researching employers, industries, and career subjects infinitely easier and more efficient.
  • Focuses on opportunities for graduates in history and the social sciences, but contains useful general advice for other fields as well.
  • Offers practical advice on the process of leaving academia and tips on searching for jobs.
  • Katina Roger’s website career focuses on alternative career paths (particularly for humanities scholars), including alt-ac and digital humanities opportunities.

Books that can help you manage graduate school and learn more about the job search process:


365 Fifth Avenue | New York, NY 10016 | Room 3300.08 | 212-817-7425 | | @careerplangc
Make an Appointment | Join our Email Lists | Career Planning Guide | Interfolio | Versatile PhD

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar