Pursuing Your PhD in the USA

I have spoken about pursuing doctoral studies, popularly called PhD, in the US in the past. US universities offer excellent infrastructure and facilities, brilliant faculty and an unparalleled exposure. A PhD from the US is highly rated and the primary reason why thousands of international students choose a US doctoral education is its high career value.

PhD Gowns

Photo by Uri Rosenheck


What are the admission requirements for a PhD?

The focal requirement of admission to a PhD program is indentifying your area of interest. A formal research proposal is not required but a prospective student must choose a suitable research area and convey that interest to the school while applying. Test scores, LORs, SOP and transcripts are necessary to complete your application. I have shared more details in the posts titled Applying to Graduate Schools in the USA and Deconstructing Application Packages.

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Structure of a PhD Program

In the US, a PhD usually takes about 4-6 years to complete, though some students may take longer. Enrolled students don’t dive into research right away after joining. PhD is divided in two phases. The first one or two years are spent in your coursework. The coursework depends on the number of credits you have to earn — somebody with a prior master’s degree has less credits to earn than someone joining the program right after an undergrad. Amidst all of this, you might have lab rotations (if you don’t have a permanent advisor yet) or you might have to start some research on the sidelines with your guide. This is phase one.

For phase two, once your coursework is almost over, the student is expected to design a proposal for his/her doctoral research. It is this proposal that needs to be defended to a dissertation committee. Additionally you are expected to pass the “Qualifying exam” before defending your proposal. Once you have qualified and defended the proposal, you enter into the candidacy phase where intensive research begins which counts towards your doctoral degree.

During PhD, a candidate is expected to publish a certain number of papers in journals only after which they can submit their final dissertation and defend it. The policy of publications is handled differently by each school.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. All schools have a PhD handbook (available on their webpage) which lists down requirements, procedures and deadlines.

A Word on PhD Funding

Tuition fees for PhD vary considerably between state schools and private ones. It can be between $10,000 for a state university and $40,000 private university, annually. PhD students are usually covered by some sort of a fellowship or scholarship, and a tuition waiver, against which you may have a TA or RA position.

As a TA, you will be expected to teach undergrads, grade papers and assignments and conduct lab classes. An RA usually assists a professor or senior researcher to conduct research.

Bear in mind, it’s important for you have some sort of funding for most of your PhD. Coupled with living costs, tuition, health insurance and other expenses, your total expenses can run really high. It will be difficult supporting all that for 5-6 years without some funding. Talk to admissions officers or departmental assistants about their funding policies when you’re applying. External scholarships are available as well, information regarding which is available on the internet.

A doctoral degree from the US is a great career move and I advice everyone (whoever is considering a PhD) to go ahead and apply. You won’t repent it. Best of luck with your applications! 😀


  • Omanjana

    Omanjana is the Magoosh TOEFL Student Blogger. She is a graduate student from India moving to the US in the fall to pursue her doctoral studies in Environmental Science at Rutgers. Each week, she writes posts about her experience with the TOEFL and US admissions!

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