Sorry about the hidden curriculum. :(
When I applied to PhD programs the first time around, I was rejected from every single one of them. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this, and in the end though it was a long road it’s worked out fine for me; I tried again years later, got a PhD, and now I have tenure. But in retrospect I realize that my application also probably wasn’t very good!
When I started my faculty job in a new department and we accepted PhD applications for the first time, I immediately volunteered to lead the charge. That’s been my role for seven years now, and over that time I’ve read a LOT of applications, fielded a lot of questions, and given a lot of advice. And every year, I read a large number of applications where I think: Oh no, no one told you how to do this.
PhD admissions provide an example of hidden curriculum, unspoken rules of academia where people have an advantage if they are taught things explicitly, or have mentoring. For example, something as simple as “you should refer to specific faculty members in your statement of purpose” (particularly in STEM disciplines) is not obvious to everyone — unless someone tells you. And a lot of prospective students might not even know to ask — something that disproportionately impacts first generation students, and students from groups underrepresented in their fields. I think that demystifying these things can go a long way towards making admissions more equitable and graduate programs more diverse.
During the summer of 2020 I was bored and missed talking to people, so I decided to start a YouTube channel. One of my good friends has a popular writing advice channel and she once told me that she just likes “telling people what to do — not in a bossy way, but in a helpful way.” And I thought, that’s kind of how I feel about helping graduate students!
Over the past two years I’ve made dozens of YouTube videos, many of them focused on PhD applications/admissions advice, from deciding whether you should get a PhD in the first place to writing a statement or purpose to what to expect in an admissions interview to choosing where to go if you have multiple offers.
The rest of this post is mostly links to those YouTube videos, with some of the advice distilled into very small chunks. I may write some of these out in prose someday, but in the meantime, I hope you find this helpful!
Disclaimer: PhD programs and admissions varies a lot by discipline, and by country. My number one piece of advice is to get advice from someone in your field if you can. I also try to mention in my videos when I think that something may be discipline-specific — but in general you should know that I am in a department of information science, in a subfield that is structured very similarly to computer science, at an R1 institution in the United States. I think that this advice is most applicable to STEM, social science, and other lab-based disciplines in the U.S., but much of it is more broadly applicable as well. Also every professor or department would not give you this same advice — so please do not take it as gospel, just advice that you might find nuggets of usefulness in.
Step 1: Decide if you really want a PhD.
In this video I lay out what I think are four bad reasons and four good reasons for deciding to pursue a PhD — and the advice part is both helping you think about whether this is a good path for you, but also, maybe don’t use the bad reasons in an application. (Note you don’t have to have all of the good reasons, but at least some!
Bad Reasons: #1 You’re good at school. #2 You don’t know what else to do. #3 You want to make money. #4 You want prestige.
Good Reasons: #1 You want to be a professor. #2 You love academic writing. #3 You want to add new knowledge to the world. #4 You want a research career.
If you’ve decided that you’re interested in a PhD then you might be thinking of how to improve your chance of getting into the program of your dreams — so if you’re still at this point, you should think about what you can do as an undergrad if you want a PhD. You also might be thinking about how pursuing a PhD will affect your finances, so you should make sure you understand PhD funding models in your discipline. (For example, typically for sciences and often in other fields as well, you do not pay tuition for a PhD and receive a stipend.)
Step 2: Apply to PhD programs.
Putting together a PhD application can be a lot of work, and it has a lot of moving pieces! I made the video above first with my general advice, and after receiving tons of questions about nuances and details, I made more on specific topics. So here is my very high level advice, with links to some other videos with more details.
- Do your research. This includes deciding where to apply, finding out about the research areas and faculty in that department/program, maybe contacting potential faculty advisors/supervisors before you apply, and making sure you understand the application requirements. For example, you may or may not need test scores, writing samples, etc., and in general you should just always make sure you’re following all the requirements for each application. Also don’t miss deadlines!
- Choose appropriate letter of recommendation writers. The best letter writers can speak to your potential as a graduate student or researcher. There’s a lot of nuance here, and I also have some recommendations in the video for how to ask, what kind of information to give them, and how to help keep everything organized.
- Write a strong statement of purpose. This video highlights five things that a good SOP should do: Convince them you want a PhD, describe research experience & motivations, show passion for a topic, explain why that program (including faculty/research match), and communicate well. In terms of other things you might need to prepare, you may or may not need an academic CV.
- Don’t stress about single metrics. Applicants constantly send me questions like “here are my test scores / GPA / research experience” and ask if they have a chance of being admitted into a PhD program. My answer is always “yes.” Strengths always make up for weaknesses. (Also I’m so glad that so many programs are doing away with GRE requirements!)
- Know that sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. There is a huge amount of randomness in the PhD application process (similar to the academic job market), and sometimes it’s honestly just bad timing. Particularly in programs where admitted students have to be matched to advisors, not being admitted might mean nothing other than that the only advisor match for you is out of funding or at capacity with PhD advisees. So sometimes there are reasons you might be rejected from a PhD program that have nothing to do with how great you are! This is why I always suggest applying to multiple programs — and also that if you try one year and aren’t successful, you might have much better luck if you try again! There’s also a bunch of other things that I think don’t matter as much as people think they do, and I cover some of those in this FAQ video.
And then of course, once you apply… all you can do is wait.
Step 3: (Maybe) Interview/Visit.
Interviews or pre-admissions campus visits are not standard to every program. But the above video gives you a sense for the kinds of questions you might be asked in a formal interview or even an informal discussion with a prospective advisor, and how you might want to think about answers: 1. Why do you want to get a PhD? 2. What drew you to this program? 3. What kind of research do you want to do? 4. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a researcher? 5. Tell me a little about yourself…
You might also have an interview combined with a campus visit, or an open house prior to admissions, in which case you should know what to expect and how to make the most of it!
Step 4: Make a choice.
The best position you can be in is to have multiple offers of PhD admission so that you can decide on the absolute best fit for you! It’s important to know that this is a very personal decision, people have very different priorities, and whatever is important to you should be what you most take into account. But here are some things you might consider: Who will your advisor be? (This one is so important it gets its own video!) What do you think of the faculty overall? What are the structure/requirements of the program? How is the culture/community? How much do you care about prestige (and should you)? Does location matter to you? How is the funding package?
And… that’s it. A million easy steps to starting a PhD program.
It’s also very possible that, like me the first time around, you aren’t successful, and do not receive any offers of admission. This might be some time for soul searching, but as I said before, it honestly could just be bad timing. I do have some suggestions as well for what to do next if you’re rejected.
You can find my entire PhD admissions playlist here, and also — once you’re in a PhD program I have videos about graduate school and academia in general as well, including advice for new PhD students! And I do livestreams on YouTube occasionally, answering questions; you’ll find them announced on my channel (at the time of this writing my next one is scheduled for 11/13/22).
Also if you prefer short-form content, music, and memes, I have a playlist of PhD application advice videos on my TikTok, @ professorcasey.
I hope that you find all this helpful! Though I can’t provide individual advice on application materials (and you’d be better off asking someone in your specific field anyway!), I’m really glad that these videos can continue to help people every year. So if you’re somewhere in the PhD admissions process: Good luck to you! See you on the other side. :)