My Unsolicited Advice for Applying to PhD Programs

Applying to PhD programs can be a stressful process. Doubt and insecurity abounds.  Every application requires something a little bit different. There are so many pieces of the puzzle to get right.

If you're applying to PhD programs this year, you're going to receive a lot of advice. Some will be good, though some will be bad. The worst advice goes something like this: "Getting accepted really just depends on the year, the admissions committee, and a number of other factors outside of your control."

Here's why I hate this advice: it creates the illusion that there is no science to being a successful PhD applicant. Instead, it makes the prospect of success seem "luck of the draw." This is simply not true. There are best practices for being a successful PhD applicant, and I will share some of them with you in this blog. My intention is not to provide a exhaustive list, but to add to the other great lists out there.

To qualify myself for writing this piece, I will share my results applying to PhD programs in 2015-2016.

  • Applied to a top-tier New England program in theology (non-sectarian) - accepted with top funding

  • Applied to a high-tier Canadian program in theology (non-sectarian) - accepted with top funding

  • Applied to a high-tier North Carolina program in higher education - accepted with top funding

  • Applied to a mid-tier Texas program in higher education - accepted with standardized funding

These were the only programs that I applied to. I wasn't denied by any programs. For the most part, I owe it to the first best practice:

1. Instead of applying to a program, apply to a person.

This is the best advice out there, yet it is the most ignored. Practically speaking, this means (a) reaching out to a faculty member that you really want to work with, (b) introducing yourself and your research interests, (c) asking if it would be possible to connect sometime during the application process, and (d) engaging in a meaningful dialogue that helps you gauge whether you would be a competitive applicant. What you are ultimately hoping for is a personal invitation from them to apply, and some insurance that they will be on the lookout for your application. I should stress that you should do all of this with tact; don't seem opportunistic or desperate.

The best part is, this practice helps ensure that you are applying to the right programs, and not just any program that catches your eye. If you think about it, this is not unlike the practice of knowing someone who can recommend you for an open job position rather than applying for the position blindly and hoping for the best. If you do not establish report with the faculty member you want to work with, you'll likely be behind the pack of people who did.

Some are afraid to do this, giving the excuse that they don't want to seem pushy or presumptuous by reaching out to a faculty member before/while applying. My experience is exactly the opposite: faculty are happy to hear from prospective students, while some even expect to hear from you. For some readers, you will need to overcome your fear of standing out from the pack or communicating with someone you barely know. Give it a shot: you won't regret it.

2. Don't be fluid or ambiguous about your research interests and reasons for applying; drive them home.

Practically speaking, this means presenting an intriguing case for your admission -- a well-reasoned argument for why you and your research interests shouldn't be ignored right now. Though humility is certainly a mark of a good student/scholar, you will need to exude more confidence in your PhD applications to get the committee's attention. Leave no room for doubt that you are a serious student committed to your research interests. Yes, the committee anticipates (if not expects) that your interests might change during the program. This shouldn't deter you from a confident presentation, however.

Some are afraid to do this, falling into the trap that the sole trait that committees are looking for is teachability. While this may have been true of your master's program, doctoral committees are generally looking for students they can add value to rather than someone they will have to raise from infancy. In fact, you should tell them exactly how you think they will add value to your committed endeavor rather than a cliche statement that you're "interested in x, but open to all sorts of research possibilities and ideas."

3. You are not student robot from outer space. Be a human and tell a good story.

Imagine that you are on a committee that is tasked with reviewing 25-50 PhD applications. In fact, imagine that you are anyone tasked with reviewing 25-50 things that have many similarities. You're probably getting the idea: it gets tiring. Everything starts to blend together. This phenomenon happens to me at conferences of any purpose. There comes a point when good stories, breaking from the mold of blah blah blah, are the only thing that can capture my attention anymore. When they come, it's like a sip of fresh water in the middle of a mundane desert.

In each of my applications, I incorporated at least one short story to enliven what I was saying in some way. Or, I used a story as the basis for what I was about to say. As a general rule, stories make great hooks at the beginning of an argument to gain the reader's attention. Whatever the case, it goes without saying that your stories should be intriguing, relevant, and appropriate to your style and logical flow. If you're unsure, run your story by a mentor or friend.

4. Connect with a current student in the programs you're applying to and solicit their advice.

This is a growing practice that can provide several benefits. First, you can find out why they think their application was successful; what did they do that might have given them an edge? Second, their experiences might actually sway you if you're still on the fence about the program. Perhaps you'll find out that the faculty member you want to work with doesn't offer much time or direction to their students, which can be a nightmare. Finally, you can gain "insider" tips. To be sure, experiences in doctoral programs can vary depending on a number of factors. Nevertheless, you might ask whether the student has noticed a trend in who the department admits each year, and whether they have any advice for putting together the best application possible.

Along with #1, you're probably noticing a theme here: when it comes to applying for PhD programs, don't be a stranger. Make yourself visible. Even if you have good ideas, your first and last name are just words on a page. By having conversations with faculty and current students before and during the application process, you're leaving the world of abstraction (text on a page) and entering the world of relationship. A general rule of life is that it's harder to turn people away after a relationship has started. Granted, the relationship should be authentic and well-meaning. As I said before, don't seem opportunistic or desperate; this will only hurt you in the long run.

I realize that there are some important practices and issues that I haven't covered here. Some will argue that even if the best practices are followed, there are social and political realities that are beyond applicants' control. While this is certainly true, I'm not sure that I'm the most qualified to speak to those things. I do have a few friends that navigated some of these issues; I would be happy to connect you with them.

If you have additional questions about the PhD application process, I would be happy to chat with you about my experiences. I would love to be an encouragement to you in your journey, even if you're simply considering a PhD right now. You can email me at, and I will get back to you in 24 hours. I'm looking forward to it!

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