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Published April 13, 2024

Editorial: How to submit a winning Ph.D. application?

Best practices from a successful Ph.D. applicant.‎
Image by Sarah Mai

First question: Could you finish a Ph.D. program? Answer: Absolutely yes. 

I believe that ‎anyone could finish a Ph.D. program. The arcane culture of academia should not dissuade ‎anyone from attaining the highest academic degree. There is nothing inherently difficult about ‎the Ph.D. Anyone who puts in time, energy and effort could easily attain a Ph.D.‎

Second question: Should you pursue a Ph.D. program? Answer: It depends on your mission. 

‎A Ph.D.  is a research degree that prepares researchers, teachers and professors. The Ph.D. is different than the M.D. and J.D., both ‎of which are professional, practitioner degrees. The M.D. prepares doctors to treat patients, and the ‎J.D. prepares lawyers to help clients. However, the Ph.D. prepares researchers to produce original ‎research.‎

What are some of the best practices for submitting a Ph.D. application? ‎Because the competition is so fierce in most Ph.D. programs, it is essential to prepare and ‎submit the best application dossier, to ensure the highest chances of getting admitted.‎

‎1. Apply for the professor, not the university

Unlike bachelor’s and master’s programs, the Ph.D. is an apprenticeship between the student ‎and their respective advisor. Sure, the Ph.D. entails taking classes, but most of the dissertation ‎work is done between the student and the advisor. 

The Ph.D. student must produce an original ‎piece of work that ought to pass the highest scrutiny of the dissertation committee. Therefore, ‎successful applicants always look to find professors with whom they have similar research ‎interests. In the statement of purpose, successful Ph.D. applicants demonstrate a ‎goodness of fit between their research interests and the research expertise of the faculty with ‎whom they hope to work.‎

‎2. Get stellar letters of recommendation

The reputation of the Ph.D. applicant is so important to the admission committee, who want to ‎ensure that the student made favorable impressions on previous professors. It is important to ask ‎for letters of recommendation from professors who believe in the project of the Ph.D. ‎applicant. Generic letters of recommendation, however common they might be, are absolutely ‎useless. 

Successful Ph.D. applicants get personalized letters from professors who believe in their ‎mission — professors who passionately want the Ph.D. applicant to get admitted. It is ‎better to get a letter of recommendation from a less-known professor who believes in the Ph.D. ‎applicant project rather than a generic one from a well-known professor. ‎

‎3. Have excellent academic performance

The Ph.D. applicant is applying to attain the highest academic degree there is in the ‎world of academia. Therefore, an aptitude for thinking and writing is essential. This is not to say that the GPA ought to be 4.0. Rather, students must demonstrate serious ability to ‎understand abstract thoughts and to have a wide capacity for theorization. Grades are a ‎numerical indication of such abilities. 

If the GPA of the Ph.D. applicant is low, then that ought ‎to be explained in the statement of purpose, because grades are not the only metric for academic ‎aptitude.‎

‎4. Submit a strongly written writing sample

Because the competition for Ph.D. admission is so fierce, Ph.D. applicants are hereby advised ‎to submit flawless prose. Even typos are not permitted. Successful Ph.D. applicants showcase their writing abilities in the writing sample, communicating to the admission committee that they possess the writing aptitude required to produce a lengthy Ph.D. dissertation. If the Ph.D. ‎applicant has published in academic journals, then they are advised to submit that as a writing ‎sample. but if they have not been published yet, a well-written thesis often suffices such requirements.‎

‎5. Get feedback from specialists in the field

Because the Ph.D. application is so critical, it behooves all Ph.D. applicants to solicit editorial ‎feedback from readers who have substantive expertise in the field. It is essential to measure the ‎impact of the application on professors, who often read and make decisions on such ‎statements. 

Admission committees are looking for specific components when they read an ‎application; such components are often communicated in the requirements of the Ph.D. ‎program. But to ensure that every single requirement is met, the Ph.D. applicant is well-suited ‎to get reviews from professors.‎

My story as a Ph.D. applicant

When I first arrived in the United States as an ‎immigrant at age 19, I applied to the ‎University ‎of Miami to pursue my ‎undergraduate education. Although I ‎submitted my application dossier ‎after the ‎deadline, the University of Miami accepted ‎my candidacy, largely because I had a ‎‎generous donor behind me who agreed to fund my ‎education in its entirety. 

From the ‎perspective of the administration, we international students represent money. While at the ‎University of Miami, I met many rich students with generous funders. ‎Administrations ‎were eager to accept us immediately. We ‎are good for business. ‎

When I graduated from the University of Miami with my B.A., I applied for ‎many ‎M.A. programs in Ivy League ‎schools. My application was accepted in ‎virtually every ‎program to which I ‎applied, again largely due to the money I brought and the diversity I ‎represent. 

Although I was accepted by Columbia University and many other prestigious ‎schools, ‎I eventually chose the University of ‎Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.‎

When I graduated from Penn with an M.A. in education, I contemplated ‎Ph.D. ‎programs. From my perspective, since I had a ‎B.A. from Miami and an M.A. from Penn, I expected ‎my application dossier would be competitive. I chose the best Ph.D. education ‎schools in the ‎country. 

I was an international student, had two prestigious degrees under my belt, and always ‎‎maintained excellent academic performance. I was optimistic about my prospects of securing a fully funded Ph.D. program. However, I was rejected ‎from virtually every Ph.D. ‎program to which I ‎applied.‎

In the second application cycle, I rectified my mistake of only applying to Ivy League schools ‎and applied to schools in which my chances of admission were high. I was finally accepted at ‎the University of ‎Minnesota, with both a scholarship and a fellowship. The learned lesson from ‎my story is to apply as many times as possible to get admission. When the application is ‎rejected, get feedback from successful applicants on how to rectify the application dossier, then ‎revise and resubmit. 

Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and a contributing author for Psychology Today.

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  • PhDstudent
    Jan 29, 2024 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for sharing these insights! As a fellow PhD student at the U, it is so helpful for those considering the process to hear from those who have gone through it – thank you for taking the time! The reason I am commenting is to share that for many (if not most) PhD students, there is nothing easy about going through a PhD. It is difficult for a reason, and very hard for many students to complete. Nationally, there is up to a 51% attrition rate (Young et al., 2019), with half of the students who get accepted (often around 10% of applicants) not finishing. In my program, several have dropped out and/or are taking a leave of absence, and several have failed their comprehensive exams. Even for those who excelled in undergrad and/or grad school, the PhD is mentally grueling and requires a huge amount of commitment and personal sacrifice. Can it be done? Yes. But at a cost – and for many, it won’t be worth it. I encourage anyone reading the article to connect with PhD students in the program(s) they are considering (their information is often on school websites) to get a good sense of whether the 4-8 year commitment will be the best fit for your life and goals. For those who decide “yes,” I wish you the very best of luck! Find a solid support system, know exactly why you are doing it, and you will make it through 🙂