How Do I Get Into a PhD Program? A Guide for Aspiring PhDs

A student reading an acceptance letter and celebrating

Beginning the journey towards a PhD is not a quick process. Often, you’re driven to pursue a PhD because you’re engulfed in a particular field, wishing to contribute to the existing body of knowledge, and further explore your interests. These feelings can come after completing an undergraduate or Master’s thesis, or even while completing a more professional program or being in the workforce. Whichever your reason, getting into a PhD program requires research, patience, and a reasonable amount of effort!

We’re here to help walk you through all the major steps in the process – and to hopefully make it a bit less stressful!

What is a PhD?

Short for Doctor of Philosophy, the PhD is a doctoral research degree in most fields, including those in the natural sciences and humanities. There are some exceptions, such as medicine (Doctor of Medicine or MD), theology (sometimes called a ThD or Doctor of Theology), and education (sometimes called a EdD or Doctor of Education.) Besides medicine, theology, and education, the remainder of disciplines will typically fall under the umbrella of a PhD, which includes history, economics, computer science, and the vast majority of topics that are available at any institution. Fun fact – philosophy is commonly offered as a PhD program and, in that case, you’d be a Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy!

As the most common type of doctorate degree, the PhD symbolizes that you have mastered your chosen topic and field of study. Most PhD programs require that you write an extensive dissertation – typically research that helps to grow and expand your field of study – and defend your dissertation in front of a committee in the form of an oral defense. Completing any PhD program requires extensive research, problem-solving, creativity, and innovation – and typically takes between four and seven years to complete. Since completion of a PhD program results in your recognition as an expert in the field, those who have earned PhDs are eligible for professorships at institutions of higher education.

Do I need a Master’s degree before I apply?

No, a Master’s degree is not required for applying for a PhD program. However, a master’s degree is typically part of the route to a PhD, coming after the completion of a Bachelor degree. The Master’s degree is also very helpful for those who need a little more preparation before pursuing a doctorate, or who are returning to academia after spending a significant time in the workforce. This is because most Master’s programs have similar, although more brief requirements, than PhDs. Additionally – the requirement of writing a Master’s thesis can also give you a headstart towards your PhD dissertation. Master’s programs are definitely a valuable learning experience that will contribute to your success and readiness for a PhD program, but it’s often not technically required for your PhD application.

What are the steps required to apply?

Applying to a PhD program depends on the policies of the university you are interested in – so building a list of potential programs is an important first step of an application. Researching programs, determining which ones are right for you, and understanding more about why you want to apply to a particular PhD program ensures that you will develop compelling and convincing writing materials, including the Personal Statement (or Statement of Purpose) that is required at most schools.

Once you’ve identified the right programs to apply to, make a checklist or spreadsheet of their admission requirements to ensure that you’re not missing any important documents – since skipping anything in the applications will reduce your chances of acceptances. In addition to a Personal Statement, most schools will also require transcripts from your undergraduate program and other grades you’ve received after high school, a curriculum vitae (CV) or resume, standardized test scores usually from the GMAT or GRE, letters of recommendation, and usually answering a few questions in the form of short essays. We recommend double-checking the requirements for every university, and checking them off on your spreadsheet to keep track of everything!

What if I have a low GPA?

Grades are only one part of the application – and admissions committees typically take a holistic view of your profile, also considering your background, your essays, your test scores, and your recommendations. While a low GPA can impact your profile, there are numerous steps you can take to strengthen the content of your application, such as reaching out to those who would write strong letters of recommendation, getting a strong test score, having compelling admissions essays, and demonstrating interest in the schools you’re applying to by signing up for newsletters, attending webinars, and creating dialogue with professors and other faculty.

You can also take additional courses at another university or community college. Earning higher grades, especially in courses that are higher-level and relevant to your chosen major, can have a significant impact on displaying your readiness for grad school. Recency bias is a real phenomenon, and your more recent performance is more indicative of your ability to do well in a program than a lower grade you earned years prior!

Do I need relevant work or research experience?

Both work and research experience can significantly increase the strength of a PhD application, but needing either depends on the requirements of the program you’re applying to.

For education and business, work experience is often helpful and something admissions committees like to see at both the Master’s and PhD level. However, work experience is rarely required.

Similarly, some sort of research experience in your field can be helpful when pursuing a PhD, because in writing a Personal Statement you’ll need to showcase your interest in the topic you’d like to study – and how much you’ve already done. One important note – research does not necessarily mean you need to have been published in an academic journal.

By following these steps, you will be able to increase your chances of admission into any PhD program of your choosing. Remember that there are lots of different potential PhD programs out there and lots of potential ways to reach your career goals. Good luck – we’re rooting for you!


  • Chris Kado

    For over a decade, Chris has supported students across the globe in fulfilling their college aspirations. Chris started out as a college admissions consultant, where he helped community college students reduce their loan obligations by constructing comprehensive transfer strategies, maximizing the use of CLEP and AP credits, and scoring scholarships. ‍ During his graduate studies at Harvard, Chris held numerous roles in education, including working as a research assistant and advising students on the college admissions process. Chris holds extensive experience in essay development and preparation for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. His guidance has enabled students to gain admission into diverse programs at institutions including UC Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, Fashion Institute of Technology, Embry-Riddle, Notre Dame, and Duke. ‍ Chris holds an Master's in History from Harvard University and is currently working towards a Master's in Education at UIUC. He also received a College Advising Program Certificate from Columbia University, completed the Independent Educational Consultant Certificate from University of California Irvine, and earned the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) from Cambridge. Nowadays, Chris continues to serve a full-time role as a College Counselor for WeAdmit, write insightful articles for Magoosh, and teach at Education First summer camps!

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