Keystone logo

The Ultimate Guide to Getting a PhD in the US for International Students (2023)

In this guide, we will explore the steps and most important information you'll need to know in order to earn a PhD in the US.

Apr 9, 2023
  • Student Tips
  • Study Abroad
Prospective PhD students in front of their university

Would you like to gain advanced knowledge and skills in your field, while also setting yourself up for exciting career opportunities? Then a PhD in the US might be a perfect fit for you! If you would like to be one of the 50,000+ people proudly showing off your PhD this year, this guide will walk you through the process.

This guide will cover:

  • How long it takes to get a PhD in the US
  • Why you should get a PhD in the USA
  • Choosing the right program for you
  • The application process – things you should pay attention to
  • Funding options for PhD students in the US
  • Getting a job after your degree

Students on campus

How long does getting a PhD in the US take?

You can expect to spend around 4 to 7 years studying for a PhD program.

That said, some students may take more or less time depending on the field of study, research requirements, and individual progress. The important thing to keep in mind is that getting a PhD is not a sprint, but a marathon, and the focus should be on developing your skills and knowledge, as well as setting yourself up for success by networking with fellow academics.

Why should you get a PhD in the US?

Be in the epicenter of research and innovation

According to the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, United States spent $667 billion on Research and Development in 2019 and $717 billion in 2020. US spending on R&D has been rising steadily since the 1950s. Industries like pharmaceutics, medicine, electronics, transportation equipment manufacturing, and a few others, have seen a significant increase in research in the last decade.

All these numbers show that US has a growing demand for high-quality research that will help move these industries forward and provide value to the world.

Career opportunities

Many employers in the US value advanced degrees like PhDs. In fact, some companies require a PhD for certain positions, particularly in fields like engineering, science, and technology. By earning a PhD in the US, you will be demonstrating to potential employers that you have the skills, knowledge, and dedication to succeed in a highly specialized field.

Moreover, pursuing a PhD in the US can also give you access to a wide range of networking opportunities. You will have the chance to attend conferences, collaborate with other researchers, and build relationships with industry professionals.

Access to cutting-edge research facilities and better funding opportunities

US universities are known for their world-class research facilities. In addition to state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, many universities offer access to specialized libraries, data sets, and other resources that can support your research.

A chance to move abroad

If you are looking to move to the US and pursue a career in academia or research, applying to a PhD program can be a great option. One of the benefits of applying to a PhD in the US is that it can provide a pathway for obtaining a student visa.

You can read more about the visa requirements and the application process for PhD students in this detailed United States country guide.

Students looking at a computer

How to choose the right program for PhD in the US

Here are a few things you should consider you when you’re choosing your PhD in the US:

Identify your research interests and goals

What are you passionate about? What topics excite you? What are you curious about? For example, if you are interested in public health, you might choose to focus on studying the epidemiology of infectious diseases.

Similarly, consider your long-term career goals. Do you want to become a professor or work in a specific industry? Will your research area help you gain the skills and experience you need to succeed in your chosen career path?

Research programs and faculty

First and foremost, make sure the program you are interested in has a strong reputation in your field of study. Look through different universities that offer programs for PhD in the US and narrow down your search to the ones that fit your criteria.

Once you have a shortlist of universities, it is time to look at the faculty members in your research area. Check their research interests, publications, and awards to see if they align with your own research interests.

Look into funding, available resources and student support

Check out the program's funding options, including scholarships, grants, and assistantships, to make sure they align with your financial needs. You will also want to look into the program's support resources, such as advising and mentoring, to make sure you will have the support you need to succeed.

Having adequate funding for your research is important to ensure that you have the resources necessary to conduct your studies effectively. This may include funding for materials, equipment, and travel to conferences or research sites. Without sufficient funding, your ability to carry out your research goals may be limited, which can ultimately impact the success of your program.

Check out our list of scholarships for PhD in the US here.

Consider your location

Think about what kind of environment you want to live in. If you choose a university located in a rural area, you may need a car to get around and access resources such as grocery stores or medical facilities.

What’s more, different university campuses can have distinct atmospheres and cultures, so it's important to research the location and surrounding community to ensure it fits your lifestyle and needs.

Look into the institution’s reputation and rankings

A highly ranked and reputable university can open doors to prestigious job positions, research opportunities, and collaborations with other leading institutions in your field.

The reputation of the university can also affect the perception of your work and publications, which can impact future funding opportunities and collaborations.

Furthermore, higher ranked universities usually have access to more resources and funding, which can provide better research opportunities and access to top-notch facilities and equipment.

PhD looking at a laptop

Tips for successfully applying to PhD programs in the US

Applying to a PhD in the US can be a competitive process, so it is important to be thorough, strategic, and prepared. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re actively submitting your applications.

  1. Niche down: Determine what has already been studied in your field and identify the gaps in research that you’d be interested in filling.
  2. Connect with potential advisors: Reach out to faculty members whose research interests align with yours and ask about potential research opportunities. This will help you stand out from the crowd and will show that you are passionate and serious about your research area.
  3. Prepare strong application materials: Your application materials should highlight your academic achievements, research experience, and passion for your chosen field. Consider seeking feedback from mentors or peers to ensure your materials are polished and compelling.
  4. Adhere to application instructions and deadlines: Stick to the motivation letter word count and submit the requested number of recommendation letters. Keep track of application deadlines and make sure to submit your materials on time.

Funding options for PhD students in the US

As a PhD student, you should be looking for a university that offers full (or near full) funding of your research. You will be spending years researching your subject of interest at this university - while directly giving up an opportunity to work in the industry.

That's why it is crucial to research funding options and eligibility requirements thoroughly, as well as to start the application process early to increase the chances of securing funding.

There are different types of funding options for students aiming to get a PhD in the US.


Many universities and research institutions offer fellowships to PhD students. These can provide funding for tuition, fees, and living expenses, and may also include additional benefits such as travel grants and health insurance. Institutions and organizations that offer fellowships for PhD in the US include but are not limited to:

  1. The National Science Foundation
  2. American Association of University Women (AAUW)
  3. The Ford Foundation


Graduate assistantships are positions within a university or research institution that provide funding and often involve working as a research or teaching assistant. These positions can provide a stipend, tuition remission, and other benefits.


Scholarships are financial awards that do not need to be repaid and are often awarded based on academic merit or other criteria. Some universities and private organizations offer scholarships for PhD students.

You can see a full list of scholarships for students pursuing a PhD in the US here.


Grants are funds awarded to support specific research projects or initiatives. PhD students may be able to apply for grants from government agencies, private foundations, and other organizations to support their research.

Job interview committee

Career opportunities after completing a PhD in the US

Getting a PhD in the US can open up many career opportunities in various positions. What jobs you end up taking will largely depend on the sector you’d like to work in. Here are some examples of the roles you’d be able to take after getting a PhD:

  1. Academia: you can work as a professor - research, publish papers, and teach at the university level
  2. Research: conduct research on a wide range of topics
  3. Industry jobs: research and development manager or a senior scientist, writer, or any role related to your area of research
  4. Governmental roles: policy analyst or researcher, consultant
  5. Non-profit organizations: director of research or program manager

Find your perfect program

Use our search to find and compare programs from universities all over the world!


Find a program in these categories