1 . Complete an undergraduate degree in a broad field
To qualify for a PhD program, you will need a solid record of undergraduate coursework from a reputable university. This degree should demonstrate your potential for both advanced coursework and independent research. In general, you need to maintain a high GPA and develop a good working relationship with your instructors.
Generally, its recommended that students interested in pursuing advanced degrees should develop a wide skillbase during their undergrad. In other words, while you may ultimately be interested in studying Zoology, an undergrad degree in basic Biology might provide you with a diverse base that youll be able to narrow in your future studies.
Many universities offer majors designed to funnel you into an advanced degree. Prelaw majors and Premed majors are two notable examples of this. Talk to your academic advisor about your interest in pursuing a PhD after you graduate, if youve yet to select a major.
2 . Develop a close relationship with at least one faculty member
Finding one or more faculty members who will mentor you, guide your development, and assist you in finding the right program for you can be the difference between finding your way into a good Ph.D program, and struggling. Youll also need several letters of recommendation to apply to graduate programs, making these contacts essential.
A good way to develop a relationship with a professor is to take multiple classes with her and join her lab, or research team. Go to office hours, introduce yourself, and express your interest in advanced degree work. Most professors are more than happy to work with a talented student who shows a sincere interest in their work.
Its also a good idea to forge relationships with graduate students at your school. Speak to graduate students and faculty about their experiences at the school, even if you plan on going elsewhere for your advanced degree. Many will be happy to let you know about the advantages and disadvantages of studying for and obtaining a Ph.D. It can be a great way to get insider information and get ahead of the game.
3 . Obtain experience in the field with a research internship
In many fields, hard science in particular, securing a summer internship as an undergrad can do a lot to make you stand out on your applications. If you can get experience assisting in the biology lab, or doing field work with the other geologists, or even assisting a professor grade surveycourse tests, youll be one step ahead in the academic field.
Workstudy programs in your field of interest can also be extremely attractive of graduate applications. If youre studying English, try to secure employment in the Writing Lab, rather than the cafeteria to give yourself an edge and valuable experience.
4 . Make contacts in your field
Become involved in your academic departments club or honor society if one exists. If not, speak with your advisor or department chair about starting one.
National and regional conferences, such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), allow dedicated undergrads the opportunity to rub elbows with experts and contribute to the discussion.
5 . Start researching graduate programs in your junior year
Graduate school applications will be due sometime during the winter or spring of the academic year, for admittance the following fall semester. In other words, the autumn semester of your senior year is most likely too late to start looking at programs, compiling your application materials, and getting them in on time. Start early and dont miss out.
Look for programs with a good reputation, but give more weight to the faculty and the research interests of the other graduate students at prospective schools. What youre looking for in an advanced degree program is camaraderie and common ground, not an arbitrary ranking on some prestigious list.
The applications are expensivesometimes $50 or $80 dollars eachso you wont be able to apply to all programs. Try to select a range of programs to apply to: choose a few big dream schools with great facilities and prestigious faculty and lots of competition to see if you cant get in. Apply to smaller programs that youd also be happy attending. Apply to as many as you can afford to give yourself the best chance.
For some fields, a masters degree will be a more appropriate subsidiary or even terminal degree. At worst, a masters degree can be an excellent primer for the graduate school life, especially if teaching assistantships or fellowships are available.
6 . Take the Graduate Record Examinations General or subject test
Many programs require scores from the GRE to admit you to the graduate school, while others (many liberal arts degrees) will waive this requirement.
While most Masters programs only require the general test, which is like an advanced version of the SAT, some Ph.D programs will require that you take the subject test, which is given in several sections, including biology, literature, and other fields. Its a much more difficult test than the generalthe reading list for the Subject test in lit is several hundred authors from a variety of periods. Make sure you take the correct test for the program to which youre applying.
Schedule your test early in the application season, to give yourself enough time to retake it, if necessary. The test can be somewhat expensive, more than $100, so start studying now with a goodquality commercial study guide.
When you arrive for the test, you can arrange to have your scores sent directly to the graduate programs youll be applying to. This has the advantage of cutting out an extra step in your application process, but also ensures that the school will see your scores, good or bad. If youre worried about your score, arrange to have them sent to you instead.
7 . Secure letters of recommendation from people familiar with your work
The best recommenders will be distinguished former professors, contacts who can attest to your commitment, work ethic, and who also know the field youre applying to intimately. Often, your undergraduate and graduate professors and advisers will have a better handle on the specific information the admissions committee wants than would a supervisor from outside the academic world.
Its important to ask for these letters as early as possible, preferably at least 3 months before you need to submit your applications. Professors will be inundated with letterwriting requests at the last minute, increasing the possibility of them writing a poor evaluation. Dont be one of those students.
8 . Write a statement of purpose
This should describe what you have already done in your field and what you hope to accomplish with your doctoral research. Good letters will describe who you hope to work with as your research supervisor and the reasons you want to work with that person. Your research program should be in an area that has not been previously researched, or has been underrepresented in the literature.
If youre planning on applying to lots of schools, it can be a timesaver to write a form version of your letter, allowing space to customize the letter for more specific programs. Its very important to tailor each statement of purpose to the particular program to which youre applying. This demonstrates your seriousness and interest in the school. Each letter should read as if youre only interested in studying at that school.
9 . Assemble your application packets and submit them by the deadline
The graduate school will list the basic requirements for admission, and each program will likely list supplementary documents, including writing samples, portfolios, or other materials that you should submit to the program by a particular deadline. Look for this information on the graduate studies website for the particular university. Most application packets require the following materials:a completed application form Undergraduate and graduate transcripts A curriculum vitae (CV) or resume Recent GRE scores Statement of Purpose TOEFL or IELTS scores (for international students) 23 Letters of Recommendation
10 . Apply for teaching or research assistantships
A general rule of thumb is that advanced degrees should always be free. When youre doing your research, apply to programs that offer full funding, or at least offer opportunities to secure funding in exchange for teaching responsibilities. Most Ph.D programs offer some kind of assistantship to pay your way through the years of your doctoral program, with the added option of research assistantships directly tied to your own research.
Applying for financial aid will often involve supplementary application materials, like a teaching statement, research statement, or other short writing prompts. Research the specific requirements at each university for specific instructions when applying for financial aid.
If full funding isnt an option, consider applying for needbased scholarships. Often, these are available to minority applicants or students in financial straits. Likewise, the application fee can often be waived. Contact individual departments when youre applying to check about needbased application waivers.