Getting into your dream PhD Program

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In recent years, applications to Graduate school in America and Canada (especially among international applicants) have increased while the funding opportunities have reduced especially to applicants outside the core sciences. PhD positions are becoming hard to come by especially among top research universities.

The truth is that many Universities do not derive pleasure in rejecting applicants. They are limited by funding and availability of faculty. Good PhD programs are funded and the funds are tied to faculty members. The hustle for PhD spots is real. They do not come easy. You have to get things right. You may not be able to improve your GPA or even your test scores but certain things can tip the scale in your favour.

I have followed graduate admissions for a while and though I do not know everything, I can share with you some tips that will make your application competitive and make you stand out among the pool of applicants.


  1. Reach out to people who know well enough about the school you are applying to.

Many Professors may not answer you but you do not have to give up. Many current and past graduate students know about the application process and how their professors recruit students in their labs or groups. If you can get a professor to advice you, lucky you! I must admit it is rare except they do that without going into the specifics. Occasionally, you see Professors talk about this on Quora.

Do not fret if you cannot get such an advice. Current graduate students can equally advice you better as they are probably on the same level as you are and they have witnessed it first hand as they have gone through the same process themselves. Current graduate students will tell you what is expected from students today. Many know what projects are going on and the lapses or gaps that will be filled by an incoming graduate student. They also likely to know about funding, vacancies, current student need of the lab, early decisions etc.

You can use LinkedIn to contact potential students. Also, check the department’s page or the Professor’s webpage to see the list of graduate students. More often than not, their email addresses are usually displayed. Please keep you inquiries short, sweet and simple. Graduate students are equally busy and do not have time as a luxury. Please do not ask information that can be found in on the graduate website or in the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section.


Whether we admit it or not, we all overestimate our chances when we decide to apply to any school. (It may not be the case if we receive some push to apply or even get an application fee waiver!).

The best of applicants are not always accepted into top programs. That is the stark reality. For universities that release their graduate application statistics, you will agree with me that PhD positions are usually few especially if funding is attached to it. You get luckier when you increase the number of schools you apply to. I also agree that fewer quality applications are a lot better than spam numbers of applications. Apply to more schools as a precautionary measure. I usually advice applicants to apply to at least three to four safe schools while hoping to get into their dream school. Also, note that applications are unique in a way that it may be enough to get into graduate school in a particular year but it will fall short in other years. It all depends on the application pool.

Applying to graduate school does not come cheap. Aside the money spent on transcripts and Test scores, application fees gulps money. You are expected to pay fees from $30 – $120 for every single application, irrespective of the outcome. There has to be a healthy compromise between quality and quantity. While you should not opt for schools based on the school’s reputation or name, you should take into cognizance the program’s ranking, your potential supervisor’s research and their job prospects on the market.

  1. Do not leave it late!

Many people do not work well under pressure. Dotting the ‘i’s and Crossing the‘t’s when an application is due may not be a great idea. Most schools open their application portal in September with deadlines either in December or January (Most PhDs are accepted in the Fall except those who offer admission in the Spring or have rolling admission). Endeavour to prepare your applications early enough. If you are required to take tests, take them early peradventure you need to retake them.

Check the graduate school requirements. Make sure you fit in nicely. Check the admission statistics of your target schools. Convert your GPA if you need to (International students need their GPA to be in the USA format).Contact your recommenders and discuss your plans to apply for Graduate School. Remember, meeting the minimum admission requirement is not a guarantee that you will be offered a place.

If you need to contact faculty members/Professors, do that early enough. The probability that they will answer you when admissions decisions are being made is almost zero. For Fall admission, I will advise you contact potential supervisors from May or June. Then, you can get the true position of things. Some may not even be taking PhD students for that year. Now, imagine stating in your application that you want to work with them! Your guess is as good as mine!

I admit that some will not even reply but it is always good to give it a try. Make sure you also find out from the department if you need to contact a potential supervisor before you apply. That is a reason why many Professors don’t respond. When they have received your application, it becomes more productive for them to discuss with you.

When contacting a Professor, be brief and go straight to the point. The luxury of reading loads of emails is not there so Professors are quite selective. Your research interest and the reason for contacting him or her should be bold stated in the email.

  1. Spam applications will do you no good! One application does not fit all!

Every department is unique in its own right, so is every faculty member’s research interest. Sending the same Statement of Purpose to different universities will not yield a good result. You have got to tailor your application to the department and your specific interest. There is something unique about every department or faculty member’s research. It is your job to find it out.

In your application, you have to be specific. The reasons why you are choosing the department and what to work with a specific faculty member should be outstanding.

Reading a faculty member’s recent research work (A significant portion of it) is the ideal way to get an understanding of his research interest. Usually on his or her webpage on the department website, you will find a list of his or her papers there. Also take note of the other authors. If anyone is a PhD student, you can check his recent research work and also his profile on LinkedIn. You should get a lot of information there.

When you go through research literature, you understand the problems the Professor’s research is tackling and you also get acquainted with terminologies you should be using to garnish your statement of purpose.(Garnish with care!)

Tailor your Curriculum vitae to show that your experiences in the past are sufficient to enable succeed in Graduate school. The relevant courses that you have taken, your research experiences and any other thing that can support your application can be included here. Make sure your Curriculum vitae support your statement of purpose.

  1. Be outstanding!

Submitting applications is not about answering the right questions but also asking smart questions. Research is more than identifying gaps in the literature. Asking the right questions and showing a precise way of investigating it is more like it.

There are no guarantees about admissions. Even the best applications are often overlooked by universities. The tips offered here are just to make sure you submit the best possible application and have the edge above those who do not prepare well. The luck element is also there. It cannot be overlooked. If the application pool is large and there are so many top candidates, the graduate committee will have to find a way of picking that ideal candidate! Nevertheless, the best prepared applicants get luckier!

 The author can be reached via twitter @samoalfred


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