Planning for Ph.D. Programs

Thinking of pursuing a doctoral degree?  Here are some important considerations to keep in mind, both in the early days and as you start to apply.

Reflection and Exploration

Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

Before applying, consider your goals and what you hope to get out of a Ph.D. program. These days, many Ph.D. programs require five or more years of study, and being fully funded for your entire time in the program isn't guaranteed. Furthermore, tenure-track jobs as professors are highly competitive and difficult to attain even with a Ph.D. from an elite institution. So simply being good at school and wanting to stay a student for a while longer may not be the best reason to pursue a doctoral degree. Ask yourself, are you passionate about research? Are you committed to becoming a professor despite the challenges? Or can you envision how you might use your specialized training in a non-academic career?

Consider Your Finances

Unlike Master's programs, most Ph.D. programs at elite institutions will offer to fund you while you pursue your doctoral degree. This funding may take the form of a stipend, or teaching opportunities, or a combination of both. If the school you are considering does not offer any funding to its Ph.D. students, you may want to look elsewhere for a school that does. But just because a school offers you funding doesn't mean that your finances will be all set. Be aware that you may face challenges down the line, such as balancing your teaching work load and time spent on your dissertation, or supporting yourself if your funded years are finished and your dissertation takes longer than expected.

Check in With Your Faculty Mentors

Not sure if you need a Ph.D. for your dream career? Unsure if your GPA is good enough? Wondering what schools you should apply to? Your faculty mentors can be an invaluable source of advice on the Ph.D. planning process. Talking to them early on can give you a good sense of whether you need a Ph.D. to achieve your career goals. If you do decide to apply, your professors are experts in their fields and have a good sense of which schools you might want to look at. In addition, faculty members regularly sit on the admissions committees for their own department's Ph.D. programs, and can tell you what makes for a strong candidate in general.

Get Involved in Research

The centerpiece of most Ph.D. programs is a dissertation that showcases your own original research. Doing your own independent research project during your undergraduate years can help you figure out whether you enjoy the research process or not. Such projects also mark you as a strong candidate to Ph.D. programs because they demonstrate your readiness and ability to take on a dissertation someday. You may want to think about applying for an Undergraduate Research grant, or doing a senior capstone project or honors thesis.

Applying to Ph.D. Programs

You Don't Need a Master's Degree to Apply

Many students think they have to do a coterm program or get a Master's degree elsewhere before they apply to Ph.D. programs. This is untrue! You can be a strong candidate for a Ph.D. program even without a Master's degree. In fact, it's common for students to be accepted into a Ph.D. program and earn a Master's degree along the way without any additional cost, usually after taking a certain number of classes or passing certain exams.

Know the Admissions Process

Generally speaking, the Ph.D. admissions process isn't centralized the way your Stanford admissions experience was. Instead of applying to a university, you apply to a particular department's Ph.D. program within the university. The admissions committee isn't made up of professional admissions officers, but faculty members within that department. And different departments will have different application requirements and deadlines: be sure to double check what your desired program is asking of you. It's common for Ph.D. applications to ask for a personal statement, GRE scores, a transcript, and letters of recommendation. It's possible you may also be asked for a writing sample or an example of your past work, as well as other components.

Think About Applying Elsewhere

Just because you loved your Stanford undergraduate experience doesn't mean you should pursue a Ph.D. program at Stanford. Many professors will tell you they valued the chance to do their Ph.D. program at a different institution from their undergraduate college. There's a lot to be said for exposing yourself to the difference in perspective, knowledge, and skills that a new set of faculty at a new school can bring. Talk to your faculty mentors and dig around on department websites at different schools. Try to get a sense of the strengths of the particular department you're applying to, and whether they might be a good a fit for you.

Ask for Rec Letters Early On

Be sure to give your faculty mentors enough time to write you a thoughtful letter of recommendation. To be courteous, you should ask for letters at least a month in advance of when you'll need them, and two months in advance is even better! Even if you don't plan on going to graduate school immediately, it's a good practice to ask your professors to write you letters of recommendation during or shortly after your time at Stanford, while their knowledge of you is still fresh in their mind. You can use a dossier service like Interfolio to store your rec letters and then send them out at a later date.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

Most Ph.D. programs have application deadlines in the fall, and a strong application usually can't be completed in just a couple days. You'll want to give yourself enough time to write a strong personal statement, request copies of your transcript, ask your faculty mentors for their rec letters, and take the GRE exam if it's required. The entire application process can be time-consuming and sometimes stressful. Don't make it harder than it needs to be by rushing it!