Choosing a Doctoral Program


Getting accepted to graduate school is exhilarating. Applying to graduate school is not; it’s time-consuming and expensive. How can you make the most of your time and application expenses? Here are some tips for whittling a list of graduate programs to five or six smart choices.

1. Identify your potential mentors. At the doctoral level, it’s personal. You are deciding not only between programs, but also between specific faculty members. That’s because each graduate student is paired with a faculty member who serves as a personal advisor, guide, and critic. Therefore, you should apply to graduate programs that have one or more professors whose research interests are related to your own, and with whom you can envision working with for several years.
You should also take the faculty member’s power into account. Some faculty members are more influential than others within their departments and the wider academic community. Some secure grant money to consistently support graduate students, and some do not. A bit of internet sleuthing can shed light on a faculty member’s influence. The professor’s website – which will probably include a CV – is a great starting point.

2. Ask around. To get information that will not be published online or in a pamphlet, talk with current graduate students or alumni. If you can’t visit campus, don’t hesitate to phone the department and explain your request. When you do speak with students, be friendly but professional. Try to ascertain their satisfaction with the professors, the campus, and their opportunities for professional development.

3. Divide and conquer. Once you’ve identified your favorite programs, divide your list of universities into three categories that reflect your chances for admission.

  • Choose two schools that you’re almost certain will accept you.
  • Select two schools that are “definite maybes.”
  • Apply to one “dream school.”

If time and your finances permit, then consider adding more schools to the list.

4. What are your chances for admission to a given school? To make an educated guess, consider admissions data and your personal fit with the program:

  • Check out graduate program websites to find out how many students typically apply to a program and how many are accepted. Schools may also publish the average GPAs or GRE scores of applicants.
  • If your background experience and goals overlap strongly with the research emphases of a given department, then you may have an advantage over other applicants.

By following the above steps, you should be able to narrow your list of doctoral programs to your best matches.

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