Choose the Right PhD Program

Applying to doctoral programs can seem like a daunting task. But doing your research and staying organized can help you earn an acceptance letter from a quality school.

Before you start any applications, you need to establish your career objectives or research interests. Earning a PhD will take a minimum of four years, so you must choose a program that matches your goals, will hold your interest, and will put you on the right path for the career you want.

First, learn as much as possible about the field you want to pursue, as well as the leading professionals in that field, by reading journal articles and searching online. Stephanie Culler, Sr. Research Scientist II at Genomatica, suggests starting this process early. “I started looking into graduate programs around my second year of college,” she says.

Reach out to individuals in the field you are considering and conduct informational interviews. This will help you get a feel for your desired field, and will give you a better idea whether you really want to put the effort into earning a PhD.

Follow your research interests

Before you start submit- ting applications, begin with a broad search of programs in your field. Look for programs that excite or inspire you. Start a pros and cons list for each school and update it continually.

“I applied to seven different graduate schools — some reaches, some safety schools, and others in between — a lot like applying to colleges for your undergraduate degree,” says Chris Lowe, a graduate research fellow in the Dept.
of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers Univ. “I chose those schools based on the research that was going on, and targeted exciting projects that would be able to keep me energized and enthusiastic about my work for the next four to six years.”

“Definitely go to the interviews or welcome weekends if invited by the school, and focus on meeting with as many faculty members as you can,” suggests Culler. “Honing in on finding a lab or a school with similar interests is critical to your success in graduate school,” she says.

Consider location

 “I spent a lot of time studying all research universities within a 10-hr region of where I wanted to live,” says Laina Lockett, a PhD student at Rutgers. “I created a spreadsheet with pros, cons, and potential research mentors. This allowed me to narrow down my top choices.”

Because Lowe wanted a school that would help him enter the biotech or pharmaceutical industries, location also played a key role in his decision. “Rutgers is located in close proximity to a wealth of both big-name pharmaceutical companies and small startups,” he says, “which has given me the opportunity to visit facilities and interact with industrial professionals throughout my tenure here in my PhD program.”

One of the reasons Culler chose Caltech for her PhD was its proximity to home and its small student body. “The professors at Caltech are leading experts in their fields, and given the small size of the campus, it seemed to me that the professors were always quite accessible,” she says.

Find the right advisor 

Search departmental websites at candidate universities and scan through the faculty web pages to find a reasonable match for your research interests.

Culler found an excellent graduate advisor, Christina Smolke, at Caltech. “Christina was just starting her lab at Caltech and her proposed research was exactly in the field that I was interested in pursuing for my PhD,” she says.

Stay organized

Once you have decided which schools you would like to apply to, create a timeline — know what to do and when to do it. Put the application deadline of each school on the timeline, as well as other important dates — such as when to ask for letters of recommendation, when to make campus visits, and when to apply for financial aid.

Give yourself plenty of time to prep for any standardized tests you may need to take, such as the GRE. Keep in contact with your undergraduate professors, because they will serve as valuable sources for letters of recommendation.

Focus on funding

During the application process, look into fellowships and other sources of graduate financial aid, such as teaching assistant positions. Some schools offer a stipend to cover your living expenses, and, in return, you can work for the university while earning your degree.

“Look for an advisor who has had success in getting funding for students and is conducting research that you are highly interested in because you’ll be doing a related project for several years,” says Lockett. “Reach out to them early
— ideally at least the summer before the application is due. Talk to them before you apply to make sure that you will be a good fit with them as well as any other potential lab mates,” she recommends. “I’d suggest doing this in person even if the program doesn’t have an official interview process.”

Compare offers

Schools typically send out their first wave of acceptance letters in late February and early March. If you receive multiple acceptance letters, you may have a difficult decision to make. This is where some of the work you put in earlier in the process can be helpful.

When deciding between schools, consult the pros and cons list you made for each school earlier in the process. Ask yourself what is most important to you in a PhD program. “When it came down to making my final decision, ultimately I wanted to put myself in a program that would set me up best to achieve my career goals,” says Lowe.

A friendly student body and great funding options are two reasons that Lockett chose Rutgers. “Grad school is a stressful time, but it also can be fun and rewarding when you are working with the right group of people,” she says.

This article appears in the January 2017 issue of CEP. You can find the current issue, as well as an extensive online archive of back issues, at


Jed Bellen's picture

This is a very helpful article. Thanks for sharing.

Jed Bellen's picture

Just to add, I read in the book of Dr. Robert L. Peters entitled "Getting What You Came For" that Ph.D.'s in Chemical Engineering have good employment prospects.