Advice for Ph.D. Applicants, Part III: How do I apply?


In this series, I am sharing what I have come to know about selective doctoral applications and experiences – or everything I wished I had known.  The first part was about deciding whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. at all, and the second part was about how to locate a program of interest.  This post is intended to provide you with some feedback on how to tackle the application itself.

About Admission Processes

As we hinted in Part II, let’s accept that faculty are essentially looking for exciting new proteges who will contribute to their own research, challenge them to move in new directions, and become a rich intellectual partner.  Let’s also assume that the faculty advisor will be in your life for many years, even after your studies are complete.  Again, faculty are looking to train a future colleague.  In this light, consider each aspect of the application as helping a faculty member figure out if you are that person.

At this point, the assumption is that you’ve clarified your own potential research interests, explored different faculty profiles in different academic programs, read some of their work, considered funding pictures, and maybe had a conversation with potential advisors (if not see, Parts I and II). And so you are definitely interested in applying to a few places.  What’s next? A few major considerations in another long post.

The Usual Caveat: The following is only my advice based upon my personal and professional experience, but there are always unique features to particular institutions, academic disciplines, programs, faculty, and circumstances.  Use this as a starting point, not as an exhaustive “rule book.”  In fact, if you have experiences and different views that can inform this conversation, I encourage you to share below!

Deadlines and Components

For most selective, doctoral programs, deadlines are strictly enforced.  But what does that even mean?

Think of the process as including multiple stages and components utilizing online applications systems. The Office of Admissions will assemble applications: scores, letters, transcripts, statements, and so on. At the doctoral level, individual faculty or faculty committees will read, review and evaluate those applications that are complete.  Therefore, use the online system as a workspace – faculty will not see what you are doing there.  You don’t have to have every component perfect or done to start working on that application – just make sure that it is all polished when you are ready to hit “SUBMIT.” Before you hit “submit” it is basically a draft.

Some components, YOU are in control of.  YOU write and upload a statement, upload a resume, and hit that submit button.  Other components are controlled by OTHERS.  Colleges send transcripts, letter-writers submit their own recommendation letters, and ETS sends out scores.  These timelines are not in your control, so be very careful about when those things are requested!  If you did everything on time but there are no GRE scores in the Office of Admissions on the day of the deadline, then your application was not submitted on time. In order for an application to be considered complete, the Office of Admission must have everything in place by the deadline. Even hitting submit, therefore, does NOT mean that your application is complete. Plan ahead.

Hopefully the online system allows you to see which components are in place, and which are missing.  That way you can call up your undergraduate institution to inquire if you see the transcript has still not been received after five weeks. Also, some online systems are great, and some are terrible.  Therefore, do not hesitate to call the Office of Admissions if you have questions.  Remember, (in general) faculty or academic program administrators may not be familiar with the details of the system, so nuts and bolts questions should generally be directed to the Office of Admissions.

And now some advice on particular components.

The Statement of Purpose

Personally, I think the Statement of Purpose is the most important component of the doctoral application (yes, more important than standardized scores). Every other part of the application is basically a bunch of little bits of info – but the Statement is the only place where you can bring all of those parts of you together into a coherent narrative. It is the only space for you (the future protege) to directly speak to the faculty you want to work with (the future mentors). And because there are usually word limits on these statements, every word counts. I recommend working on numerous drafts and sharing with trusted friends and contacts who will give you honest feedback.

What should you achieve with the statement?

Be interesting.  Stand out. Faculty are reading lots of these, and good writing is good writing.  Hook the reader early with a powerful image or anecdote.  Carefully craft your statements and be thoughtful. This is really just about good writing – avoid gimmicks or sensationalism which can really backfire.

Communicate your research agenda and intellectual commitments. Faculty are looking to help their students become professional researchers; you therefore have to be able to communicate what that might look like for you. Let your genuine, intellectual passion for this subject shine through. This is both the most difficult and the most important thing in your statement. Keep a balance. You do not need to show a dissertation title, a sample, a research site, a faculty committee worked out or such. Do show that you already have some grounding in this area – you are not starting from scratch. Do highlight the parts of your interest that most closely align with the faculty in this program. Again, faculty are asking – is this someone who can contribute to my own work? Is this someone that we can guide toward the expertise and goals they are laying out? Fit (although not duplication) is extremely important.  For more on identifying interests, see Part II of this series.  For more on how those interests might be interpreted, see Part IV (coming soon).

Demonstrate your preparation for this kind of work. Show how your previous studies, professional experiences and life experiences have prepared you for this next step.

Tell them about who you are. Put a human face on all these little bits of information.  Share a little bit about you; let your humanity peak through.  However, don’t focus exclusively on your life-path.  Sometimes applicants spend so much time talking about their (interesting) life story that they never get to their research interests or goals.  I’ve heard comments like this many times in the past: “This one was fascinating, and has an amazing life story.  Clearly she’s smart. But I don’t know what kind of research she wants to even work on, so I can’t really evaluate if I am the person to guide her.”

Communicate who you want to work with. In Part II, you worked to find faculty who you might work with, figured out where they were, and then applied to their program.  Of course, the other faculty they work probably have similar interests, and so there may actually be many interesting people for you to work with in the program.  And even though I recommend that you think about the advisement question, the other faculty in the program will certainly shape your emerging scholarship in ways you cannot imagine.  But should you mention all of these faculty by name? Just the initial one?

If you mention one person’s name, they will read your application more closely – however, the others that you did not mention might end up just skimming the application. Should you mention every affiliated faculty member?  No.  It comes across as pandering and disingenuous to mention ten different people in a 700 word statement.  Personally, I think the best way is to specifically declare your interest for the faculty member of greatest interest (presumably, but not always, the one that led to this program in the first place) and then briefly mention 2-3 of their affiliated colleagues who seem like they have interesting intersections with your interests.

A word on faculty affiliations. I’m sitting in a room with five faculty colleagues and we are reviewing applications.  An applicant comes up who seems smart and interesting, and mentions wanting to work with professors X, Y and Z.  X, Y and Z are not in the room, do not teach out courses, and are only loosely affiliated.  Next.

Faculty appointments and affiliations are VERY confusing and complicated.  Faculty often have multiple and overlapping affiliations, and different universities use different language to describe those kinds of affiliations. Some faculty who are primarily housed in that program may not be able to advise doctoral students at all (for example, if they are non-tenure track). Figure this out early on!  If it is really confusing, call the academic program and ask “Does Professor Z advise doctoral students in this program?”

Research Proposal

Although I have not seen it much myself, some doctoral programs may actually require a draft research proposal for the dissertation. This would take a bit more work than I can cover here; I would recommend either drawing on guidance from your previous faculty and doing all the work of figuring out what a proposal looks like in your particular field or discipline.  Formats and expectations vary wildly, so it is hard to give concrete advice here.

Recommendation Letters

Obviously, you do not have control over the content of recommendation letters, and so there is only so much advice that can be given. When I am asked for such letters, I request the following information – and so others might like something similar. I like a simple, single e-mail/table with the following:

  • The names of 4-5 programs you are applying to;
  • The names of faculty that seem interesting to you there;
  • Links to the program websites;
  • Deadlines; and
  • Some loose idea of the kind of research you want to work on (maybe one paragraph).

Who do you ask?  There are many competing priorities here, so it takes a bit of your own discretion.  First, these are academic programs, so make sure you have at least a few letters from academic references.  These also preferably line up in some way – if you are applying to a history program, it would be good to have a history professor, etc. Second, select people you think will write a glowing letter for you.  In my experience, people try to be nice and don’t like saying no.  If someone seems really hesitant to write a letter, don’t push it – they would likely write a letter that is not so enthusiastic and that can hurt your application (Americans, for example, tend to write effusive recommendation letters, so even a luke-warm letter can come off as negative.  European letter writers tend to be less effusive, and faculty committees know this). Finally, select people who are responsive and reliable – as a missing letter can throw off your whole application.

Standardized Scores and Transcripts

Just a quick word or two here because applicants have little control over these components, and then more in Part IV (coming soon).  In my experience, applicants put too much emphasis on standardized scores.  If you have perfect scores and your statement lays out a research agenda that no faculty work on, then those perfect scores won’t count for much. They are important of course, but not in the ways that most applicants think.

At this point, just keep in mind that faculty are using transcripts and scores to fill in certain parts of the picture of you.  Will it be reviewed and have an impact on your application? Yes. Will it decide the outcome? Not necessarily.

Try to “think” like the faculty you are interested in.  If you are applying to work with a historian who does no quantitative research, will a standardized quantitative score help predict your success in that field? Probably not, but the writing score may get some closer scrutiny.  If you are applying to a program in micro-economics, will the faculty give a lot of weight to that one “B” in 19th century British poetry? Maybe not, but they will certainly look at how you did in economics classes.

And finally, (un-)fortunately, faculty are unique people who weigh things differently.  Some may have some rigid notion of a minimum score they would like to see – others may be less interested.  Its also true that increasingly, doctoral programs are mostly considering applicants who already have a master’s degrees – although this varies widely from discipline to discipline and program to program.  You should ask.  Since this is not something you can really predict (or change at this point in the process) you should not give it too much thought.

Writing Sample

Some applications require writing samples.  The easiest thing to do is to take an existing academic paper for which you received high praise in a graduate or undergraduate class.  A thesis or capstone would be fine here.  Preferably, the paper lines up topically with the program you are applying to – if you are applying to an anthropology program, that “A” paper from your anthropology class would be a natural fit!

My suspicion is that, given the numbers of applications received, writing samples are mostly being read for finalists – when committees are ready to make finer distinctions.  Don’t worry – they will likely understand that it is an old paper, and not some statement on your whole being.  That said, be sure to get rid of any silly typos or obvious errors.


A faculty committee may be looking for a few things in a resume, but it can be difficult to tell how influential it will be. Some applicants ask if they should have publications in scholarly journals – in my experience, this is a nice gold star, but not necessary.  Most doctoral programs I have seen would like you to have one publication by the time you graduate, but do not require it of applicants.

Some faculty are not interested in the resume at all – some just want to see the richness of your ideas and academic performance.  Others, want to see how your intellectual interests have played out in your life.  This may be particularly true for Ph.D. program in “professional” fields like education, social work, or nursing – in fact, these programs may require a certain set of experiences.  Check in with the program.

And that’s it for this installment.  Hope you find it helpful. Whenever I get to the next post (Part IV), I will also dig into the process from the other side of the table – and think about programs that have intermediary committees and those that do not.

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