How to Become a Ph.D. Student

Posted date: June 07, 2017

If you want to become a researcher, one thing that may be extremely helpful to move forward the chosen path is a Ph.D. degree. Doctorate programs are designed for those who are ready to focus on one academic subject and devote years of their lives to research. If you are one of such people, you should definitely apply for a Ph.D. program. This short guide will explain what it takes to become a Ph.D. research student, how to withstand the application and research processes as well as provide useful advice on finding funds for tuition fee and living expenses.

Before Applying

It is always better to start preparing for getting a Ph.D. degree even before you enroll in your graduate school. At that point, you should mind that you would be required to show that you have undertaken complex academic research before. Surely, the fact that you have attended a well-known university might be an advantage, but the main qualities admission committees are looking for are academic excellence and ability to conduct research on your own. That is why while a good GPA is important, research experience and analytical skills, which were applied in practice, is what indeed matters.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your chosen graduate degree program is important to the topic of Ph.D. research. The best thing to do in this case is to apply for a graduate program that is quite broad in order to be able to choose a narrow research subject later. In such a way, for instance, you may do a Ph.D. research in the sphere of criminal justice since you have a graduate degree in law. Understanding that it is quite difficult to make a life-changing decision regarding a research topic before the acquaintance with the specifics of a subject, many universities offer rather extensive studying programs. Thus, choose the program wisely in order to be able to figure out what suits you best in the future.

In addition, focus on establishing good rapports with the members of the faculty since one of them might become your academic supervisors in the future. This person will be able to help you choose a right topic. Even if you plan to change a school, your current professors might assist in finding the best Ph.D. program relying on own experience and your research interests. Finally, each Ph.D. program requires one or several recommendation letters. Hence, if you demonstrate that you are a hard-working student capable of doing complex academic research, your application form is likely to be supported with a number of convincing letters from your professors.

Remember that you will have to show that you are better than other candidates are. Therefore, start gaining a competitive advantage before the application. One of the most helpful approaches in this case is to undertake a research internship. Students who have just graduated but already may boast of the work experience in the sphere are preferred over those who do not have it. Therefore, while you are still studying, look for internship opportunities with a focus on academic research. Practical skills are as important as good grades and give you a significant advantage over other candidates in the selection process. You may work in a lab, do some fieldwork or assist an instructor with the assignments, etc. All these experiences will be invaluable for your future research and the degree.

Consider that the paid-for work experience you have may also influence the way you are perceived by the admission committee. Choosing a place to work, think about the skills you may acquire, not only the remuneration. For example, if your major is law, try to find the employment with the department of legal studies rather than at a restaurant. Also, as you are moving through your academic program, try to make more acquaintances and, thus, develop networking skills. You may join a debate club or societies that interest you. If there are no such activities available, you may start them by yourself and invite others to join. Both working experience and communication in the related extracurricular activities will enable you to sharpen networking and professional skills and grow the base of contacts, which may be helpful in the future.

Start looking for a school for gaining a Ph.D. degree at as early as possible. Typically, universities offering these programs close the application process in winter or spring for those applying to start studying during the next academic year. Hence, do not postpone the work on your application package until autumn. To compile a competitive application, you should start at least six months before the deadline. In fact, if you want to have an errorless and complete package, you may want to work on it for a year, at least. However, do not rely only on rankings, which are available online when choosing a post-graduate school. Instead, check the school’s professors, research focus of its students, and the resource base of the institution to get a comprehensive understanding of what this Ph.D. program may offer to you.

Finally, keep in mind that you will not be able to apply to the dozens of schools at the same time. Usually, there is an application fee, which can be as high as $80-100. Create a priority list of the programs you wish to attend and adjust application packages to each of them. On the top of the list, there should be the universities with the most prominent instructors and a possibility for you to benefit from the resources of the establishment. At the bottom, there will be those programs that are more accessible but still have a good reputation and experienced staff. The number of the graduate programs on this list should depend on your financial condition. However, remember that the more schools you apply to, the higher your chances to be accepted are. 

Application Package

Unless you plan to study arts, your desired university is likely to require submitting the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test score. To be able to provide it, you should start preparing for the test once you have decided what and where you would like to study. Find out what type of the test you should take, general or the subject-based one. For most graduate degree programs, a general test would suffice, but for many Ph.D. programs, the subject test should be passed. Make sure to book the test date early enough to have time for the preparation and, of course, a possibility to retake it in the case of a failure.

A subject specific GRE test is a lot harder to complete that the general one since it is focused on particular areas only, for example, literature or law. Moreover, the list of sources that should be covered before taking this version of the test includes many more items from different periods of history, meaning that you need to know the subject inside out. Mind that the GRE testing is not free of charge and may cost you as much as $100 per an attempt. So, make sure you are well prepared for the first test but do not ask to send a certificate with the scores directly to the university. In such a way, you will be able to retake the test with the establishment not knowing that you have failed the test previously.

Ensure having recommendation letters that are suitable for the application and program. An effective recommendation letter comes from an instructor who knows you from the previous studying program and can comment on your ability to conduct research. Obviously, he/she should have the substantial background in the area you are applying for, so do not ask for such a favor a professor who teaches your favorite elective course. This person will not manage to tell exactly what an admission officer wants to know about you. Besides, do not contact those who you are not sure about and have doubts whether they can outline proper features of yours. Likewise, do not send your request for a recommendation letter one day before the application deadline. A professor should have at least a couple of months to give a persuasive recommendation.

Another important step in the application process is drafting your motivation statement. It should include the information about your previous research as well as the reasons why you have chosen this scientific area, university program, and research topic. What is even more important, motivation statement should describe what you want to achieve with your research and what motivates you to undertake it and devote your time to it. Remember that you are supposed to offer a unique perspective on the topic and, thus, should choose the field that has not been researched by other scholars fully yet. Importantly, when you are applying to more than one program, personalize your statements. Mind that you cannot just reuse the same version of the personal statement for all schools because it will not reflect your commitment and desire to join this particular program. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea to prepare a part of the text that is rather general and add specific details about universities whenever you submit a new application.

Finally, combine your documents, make one package, and send it to the university before the deadline. Requirements regarding applications are listed on the university’s website. Usually, they barely differ from a school to school but be attentive to every detail that is mentioned there since sometimes, some additional documents might be required, for instance, a portfolio or a sample of your writing. The list of compulsory documents is as follows:

  • a filled-in online application form;
  • full transcripts from your previous academic programs;
  • a CV describing your academic background and qualifications;
  • a GRE subject test score;
  • a motivation statement;
  • for oversees students, IELTS or TOEFL certificate;
  • up to three recommendation letters from professors.

Quite often, Ph.D. students do not pay tuitions fees. Thus, you should always look for and consider the programs offering to study free of charge first. If they are not on your list or did not accept your application, search for the opportunities of part-time teaching. Most departments offer such positions and cover your fees instead. Moreover, you will receive the opportunity to earn money in the course of the program and concentrate on doing your research rather than looking for the means of living. In case your program envisages a burdensome tuition fee and no fellowships are available, consider applying for a scholarship. Typically, universities have a variety of financial aid programs, but you will have to prepare a separate application package for them. To apply for a scholarship, you might need to submit documents like a research proposal or statement of purpose. In addition, there are scholarship opportunities for students from low-income families or minority groups. Such financial aid may not only help you to cover the tuition fee but also waive the costs of the submission of the application.

Working on a Dissertation

Congratulations! You are admitted to the Ph.D. program of your dream. Now, it is the high time to start working on your dissertation. The very first thing you need to do is to find an academic advisor who will guide your work on the paper. Preferably, it is supposed to be a professor who you knew even before the admittance, mentioned him/her in the motivation statement, and explained what in that person’s background can be beneficial to your research. It is the most reliable way to ensure having a prominent supervisor. In case you were unable to choose professor beforehand, you still have the time to do it. Mind that tenured professors usually are busier while non-tenure ones are available to help new researchers, so not all instructors may be ready to assist you in your endeavor.

Further, the relevant department should approve your steps with regard to research. Therefore, you are required to compile a comprehensive plan of studies. This requirement should be met during your first year of the Ph.D. program. You can receive the necessary forms from the department itself. The following information needs to be included:

  • signatures of yours, your professor, the academic committee, and the chair of the study program;
  • a brief description of the goals of the thesis that, in essence, is a short version of the thesis statement;
  • information about the mandatory courses you will attend in order to complete the research (up to 12 hours) including their name, number, professor, and the semester when they will take place;
  • information about the optional courses that you have chosen to be a part of the Ph.D. program (up to 30 hours);
  • the number of hours that will be devoted to the independent work on the research project after the courses and the examination is completed.

A Ph.D. program envisages that a lot of time will be devoted to the completion of the coursework. Some universities may oblige you to spend up to 30 hours doing it, but this figure may differ from one program to another. Normally, your studies will consist of up to 9 hours of work in the classroom and about 20 hours of research on your own. Three courses will take place every week, namely two mandatory and one optional. The latter is for you to choose, but the course should be related to your research. If your thesis is on cancer treatment, you should not take courses in business Law. To pass courses successfully, you should receive at least B for each. Otherwise, a course will be considered as a failed one.

Once you are done with the coursework, you will have to pass the examination. The exams will be designed by an academic committee and take place during the second year of your program. Such tests, also referred to as “prelim,” usually are adaptable to the area you are studying as well as your research interests. Your major instructor will draft the exam and submit it to the head of the department. After passing the prelim, you will become post-prelim, i.e., a Ph.D. student who is ready to begin the work on his/her thesis.

The way the post-prelim period of your program will pass depends on your specialization. If you are involved in liberal arts, for instance, most of this time will be devoted to an independent research and working on the doctoral dissertation. While doing these activities, you will be required to submit information regarding the status of the research as well as articles you have published. If your doctoral dissertation concerns natural sciences, you will have to spend a lot of your time in a lab doing various tests and experiments. The findings of such work will have to be published in scientific periodicals.

The main purpose of a Ph.D. program is to give you a chance to become a part of a scholarly discussion in the chosen field. When you start working on the thesis and gather preliminary data, you become an explorer of the unknown. Even if there is published research related to your topic, you can always study new aspects of the issue and offer your own vision of the problem. That is why your research topic should be unique and concern something that you are passionate about. Ph.D. research is great opportunity to show what you have to say about the academic topic and propose practical solutions to the existing problems.

Begin your work on the thesis or dissertation with drafting a research question. The answer to it is the goal of your paper, so be extremely careful when formulating it. It should be not only broad enough for you to discuss it in the research but also have serious ramifications for other areas. For instance, a research question may be “What is the influence of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the dissolution of the Soviet Union?” or “How being in open space can help people with chronic mental diseases?” When this part is done, start looking for a peer-reviewed material that can be used to answer the research question. Read and analyze what other scholars discovered about the issue you are going to write about or the relevant ones.

Remember that a Ph.D. thesis or dissertation requires more research than writing. Such a rule means that you have to find sources that can be referred to and only then do your own experiments. If you have thoroughly studied the literature and no author offered a viable solution to your research question, you should make suggestions, which is the crucial part of the research and the entire program, in general. The suggestion is the reason why you have decided to undertake Ph.D. research at all. Even if your experiments lead to the conclusion that some of your previous assumptions are wrong, this is acceptable for someone working on the independent research.

When the analysis is completed, start writing your thesis. A doctoral dissertation should conclude your efforts to explore a new area and answer the research question you have outlined. Such papers are lengthy, but you will have multiple semesters to work on their completion. The last step towards receiving a Ph.D. degree is an oral defense of your dissertation. When you finish working on the thesis, you are expected to submit it to the supervisor and academic committee who will be your opponents at the defense stage. The committee members will ask you questions about what your research goals are or why you have chosen particular research methods. Be ready that they will challenge the results of the experiments. You should not worry about this phase too much because you will most likely know the questions they are going to ask you and have a sufficient time to prepare for answering them.

Peculiarities of the Studying Process

The scheme of financing your Ph.D. program will depend on its type. A lot of universities waive all tuition fees for Ph.D. researchers if they conduct classes and do other department-related work. Moreover, you are likely to be paid for the job of an instructor up to $30,000, but remuneration may vary from one university to another. Other schools provide financial aid depending on the needs of a potential student and his/her financial abilities. Finally, there are post-graduate schools that require students to cover the fees by themselves, so make sure that you have enough money to fund your research for several years of such program if you apply for this kind of program. One of the possible ways to pay by yourself is to submit an application for the external funding. If your research questions are interesting to an organization or a fund, they may provide you with a scholarship.

If the previous suggestions are not helpful for you or you did not receive the scholarship you have applied to, there are other ways to fund your Ph.D. studies. First, it is common for modern Ph.D. students to start crowd funding projects. If you research has a potential to make a revolution in space exploration, cancer treatment, or reducing the effect of the climate change, do not hesitate and start a campaign to collect money at a crowd funding platform. All you need to do is to make a good description of your research project and a short video explaining why and how you are going to do it. Second, if you manage your finances effectively, you will not suffer from the lack of money until the end of a Ph.D. program. At first, the sum of tuition fees and the costs of living may be unsettling for you, but you will be able to work during the program. Virtually all Ph.D. students are employed part-time at a university or elsewhere, so if you secure a good job for this period, you will not have to worry about money and can concentrate on the research.

When struggling to get scholarships, finding a fellowship position or part-time employment, and working on a thesis, remember that rivalry is not the best way to achieve your goals. Frequently, doctorate students try to cope with a great number of issues and do not cooperate with each other. Do not make this mistake. Regardless of how good you are in your chosen area, you will always need a hand. Do not be rude to others and try to do all by yourself. Instead, focus on the needs of other students as well and work together on the department’s problems or personal hardships. Moreover, if you are not an experienced instructor, you are likely to face significant time management problems in the process of teaching students and doing research at the same time. Ask for advice from a more experienced colleague. If you do not learn how to cooperate and manage your time effectively, you may not only miss deadlines but also fail the research.

Another crucial thing to keep in mind during the entire study process is that you should not rush into anything. Professors know how hard it is to do in-depth research and write a dissertation, so they do not expect you to do it during the first year. Sometimes, these tasks may take more than five years, so do not make avoidable mistakes because of being in a hurry. Still, keep in mind that it is good for Ph.D. students to have occasional slips and take time to correct them. You may lose a scholarship, miss a deadline for paper submission, or even accidentally damage the lab. However, consider these challenges as a chance to improve your skills and realize your potential to the fullest extent. Therefore, whatever it takes, be organized and concentrated on research. Do not lose time on arguing with professors or bothering over unnecessary regrets. After all, you have joined a Ph.D. program to prove that you have something to say, so do it the best way you can.