Keystone logo
5 Tips for Fool-Proofing Your PhD Program Choice

5 Tips for Fool-Proofing Your PhD Program Choice

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesJan 30, 2017

No one picks a PhD program hoping for the worst. In fact, the vast majority of doctoral students go in with high hopes and expectations. However, a recent article in The Guardian highlighted the story of one anonymous student whose PhD experience was not only a massive letdown, but actually achieved “nightmare” status. Wondering how to avoid ending up in the same woeful situation? Read on for five tips aimed at helping you end up living the dream not rueing the day.

Hipster Man Casually Filing In The Application Form On His Wooden Desk

1. Start early.

Okay, so applying for PhD programs isn’t exactly a party. In fact, it can be a bit of a slog. But procrastinating won’t just add stress in the short-term, it can also result in long-term frustration. Why? Because putting the application process on standby often leads to what the Princeton Review dubbed “the blitz method,” meaning a desperate rush to apply to every program in as short a time as possible.

Waiting until the last minute not only ends up costing you time and money spent applying to schools you wouldn’t otherwise consider, but you also miss out on the opportunity to whittle down all of your options into a shortlist of programs which really makes sense for you. Applying to a well-cultivated list of programs not only increases your odds of getting in, but also the likelihood that you’ll be happy with the program you choose.

serious senior businessman explaining something and pointing at laptop, smiley young woman listening and looking at laptop in office

2. Find a good advisor.

The anonymous student in The Guardian piece was wooed by big promises -- all of the usual funding perks, plus “international work experience within an exciting research team and the opportunity to develop valuable skills in my field, using cutting-edge techniques.” However, she skipped one major step: researching the supervisors she’d be working under. This oversight ended up costing her.

Not only did her advisors lack knowledge in her field, but they’d never even had a PhD student under them before. Even worse? Neither the equipment nor the international collaborations she’d been promised ever materialized. When she tried to address these issues, her concerns were shut down by her advisors. Ultimately, she was told she had only one choice: stay and deal with the situation or walk away. (After receiving equally inadequate “help” from her funding body, the student ended up withdrawing, which the school then attributed to “personal and health issues.”)

Says Next Scientist, “In most [graduate] programs, an individual faculty member guides and supervises each student’s work...The current interests of your graduate supervisor will play the most significant role in determining what you end up studying in graduate school — maybe not the courses you take, but definitely the nature of your thesis and other research.” Their recommendation? Begin the process by finding the best advisors in your research area, and then apply to programs based on your findings.

Also, don’t forget that not only will you be interacting with your PhD advisor consistently over the next five years or so, but he/she will also have a huge influence on the trajectory of your research. The takeaway? From personality to management style, fit matters.

Working Laboratory Scientists

3. Check the research options.

While you may have an idea of your research area into your research area, it may change along the way. Choosing a PhD program with multiple research groups in fields related to your own is a proactive way to ensure that if you do decide to go in another direction, you’ll still be able to find an advisor.

However, reading about research groups and labs gives you a very limited picture of what life is really like as a member of the team. If you do end up switching fields, touring labs, talking to other students and observing group meetings are just a few of the ways to determine which group will work best for you.

Full length shot of a young woman in the street with a bicycle.

4. Don’t get caught up in name recognition.

It’s easy to be seduced by the allure of big-name schools. However, several other factors are equally if not more germane to your choice. We’ve already established that choosing research about which you’re passionate matters, along with finding a research group which can support your interests.

Another worthy consideration? Location. After all, you’ll be spending the next half-decade there and at least some of that time will be spent outside the lab, so choosing a university in an appealing part of the country or world can vastly enrich your quality of life.

Lastly, keep in mind that the reputation of specific research groups and individual departments trump name recognition at the graduate level so placing too much weight on attending a prestigious school can lead to diminished returns.

Das Ziel anvisieren

5. Have an endgame.

Given that the point of doctoral studies is amassing expertise in your domain, selecting a PhD program in a specific area of interest is critical. However, it’s also crucial to factor in something else: your overall career goals. Why? Because graduate programs vary widely in terms of the kinds of training they offer and how that training prepares graduates for careers.

Having these goals in mind from the outset can also help you gain admittance to the right schools. Says Next Scientist, “The match between what an individual is looking for and what the program has to offer is an important consideration of most admissions committees. Recruiters reject applicants who fail to show that the match is right, no matter how strong their academic credentials, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation.”

The good news? Most graduate students have very different experiences than the one featured in The Guardian. By learning from her example and applying the five tips shared here, you can position yourself for a much happier ending to your own graduate school story. Have a tip of your own for fool-proofing your choice of grad school? Please share in the comments.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.