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The Ultimate Guide to Getting a PhD in the USA

In this guide, we will explore everything you need to know about getting a PhD in the USA, from costs and application tips to PhD careers.

Apr 9, 2024
  • Student Tips
  • Study Abroad
PhD students with a US flag

PhD in the USA: key info

💰 The cost of studying

The tuition fees for PhD students range from $9,000 to over $65,000, averaging at around $20,500 per year. Living expenses can vary significantly depending on the destination of your studies.

Read the full cost breakdown ▼

📋 Scholarships for international students

  • Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarships
  • NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

See more scholarships ▼

✈️ Visa requirements

You'll most likely have to apply for F-1 or M-1 student visas.

The required documents for a US student visa application may include a DS-160 form, a photo, and payment confirmation of the $185 application fee.

More on student visas ▼

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 USA 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.

Haven't decided on your ideal PhD program yet?

Use our search to find and compare programs worldwide!

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What's a PhD in the USA?

📌 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The USA has a growing demand for high-quality research
  • US universities are known for their world-class research facilities
  • PhD in the USA takes 4-7 years to complete (6 on average)

How long does a PhD take in the USA?

You can expect to spend around 4 to 7 years studying for a PhD program in the US, averaging at around the 6 year mark.

That said, some students may take more or less time depending on the field of study, research requirements, and individual progress.

Remember, 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 get a PhD in the USA?

Be in the epicenter of research and innovation

According to the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, the United States spent $789 billion on Research and Development in 2021 and $885 billion in 2022. 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 the USA 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 USA, you will be demonstrating to potential employers that you have the skills, knowledge, and dedication to succeed in a highly specialized field.

What's more, graduates who have completed a Master's or a PhD degree tend to earn significantly more. According to the 2022 Education pays data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers aged 25 and over is:

  • $853 for high school graduates;
  • $1,432 for Bachelor's degree graduates;
  • $1,661 for Master's degree graduates;
  • $2,083 for Doctoral degree graduates.

A PhD in the USA 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 United States 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 USA is that it can provide a pathway for obtaining a student, and then workers', visa.

According to the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, this is how many people had a temporary visa by earning a PhD in the USA, broken down by country and major:

CountryTotalScience and Engineering programsNon-science and engineering programs
China63375730607
India22562116140
South Korea1054756298
Iran96289567
Saudi Arabia615472143

Note: This is the data for the top 5 countries in terms of international student numbers in 2020. It's not a complete list of students from all origin countries.

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 a PhD in the USA?

📌 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Identify your interests and long-term career goals
  • Research reputable programs in your field and check their funding options

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

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 USA 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.

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 USA

Applying for a PhD in the USA 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.

  • Niche down: Determine what has already been studied in your field and identify the gaps in research that you’d be interested in filling.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

US student visa requirements

📌 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • F-1 and M-1 are the most common international student visas.
  • To apply for a student visa, you'll need to complete the DS-160 form, submit a photo, Form I-20, and pay the $185 application fee.
  • There are a lot of restrictions for international PhD students who want to work during their studies.

Once you receive the admission letter from your desired university, you'll have to apply for a US Student Visa. The first step is to know what visa you should apply for.

Student visa types

  • F-1 visas are for full-time international students pursuing an academic degree.
  • M-1 visas are for students engaging in vocational studies.
  • J-1 visa is for students taking part in work-and-study-based exchange programs.

If you need help regarding the visa type and application process, reach out to your local U.S. embassy.

F-1 and M-1 visa requirements:

Look at the full list of requirements for M-1 and F-1 visas.

Things to keep in mind:

  • If you want to work during your studies, you should note that there are many limitations on where and how long you can work.
    • F-1 students can't work off-campus in the first year, and can only work on campus under certain circumstances. In the second year, you can mostly work in jobs related to your academic studies.
    • M-1 students can do practical training after their studies.
  • Although you can submit your application up to one year before your program starts, you won't be able to enter the United States on your student visa more than 30 days before the program start date.
    • To enter the country ahead of time, you must apply for a Visitor (B) Visa.

J-1 visa

J-1 visa has a different set of requirements compared to the other two visas.

Things to note:

  • If you want to work outside of your program of study, you will have to gain prior authorization from your responsible officer.
  • You won't be able to enter the United States on your student visa more than 30 days before the program start date.
    • To enter the country ahead of time, you must apply for a Visitor (B) Visa.

The cost of a PhD in the USA

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate tuition and required fees amount to $20,513 annually in the 2021/22 academic year.

Here's the breakdown of the average costs of tuition for a PhD in the USA, based on the type of university.

Keep in mind that domestic in-state students are likely to pay a fee closer to the lower end of the spectrum, while out-state and international students pay higher fees.

Ivy League$45,000 to $65,000 per year *
Public Universities$9,000 to $15,000 per year, averaging at around $12,500
Private Universities$14,000 to $45,000 per year, averaging at around $28,000

Source: 2022 Digest of Education Statistics, US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

* Cornell University is an exception to this: their PhD programs are significantly cheaper at $20,000-$25,000 per year, depending on the field of study.

The cost of living in the USA

The United States is an expensive country to live in, especially for international students.

The specific living costs vary between cities and states, so you should research the exact amount you'll need for your study destination. This generally includes:

  • Accommodation costs
  • Transit costs
  • Health insurance
  • Food
  • General life expenses

Scholarships for PhD in the USA

Governmental and privately funded scholarships

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a federal grant for outstanding STEM graduate students in the USA that offers a fully-funded PhD.

University scholarships

Many universities in the USA are eager to fully fund excelling PhD students. Here are some notable graduate schools:

  • The Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provides full financial support to incoming PhD students. This support includes tuition grants, stipends, traineeships, teaching fellowships, research assistantships, and other academic appointments.
  • All PhD students at Yale GSAS are fully funded. On average, doctoral students at Yale receive more than $500,000 in tuition fellowships, stipends, and health care benefits throughout their studies.
  • Princeton also fully funds every PhD student, with tailored support across all years of regular program enrollment.

Other funding options for students pursuing a PhD in the USA

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 USA.

Fellowships

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

Assistantships

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.

During the academic year, students are restricted to working a maximum of 20 hours per week. However, they are allowed to work full-time during the annual summer vacation. If the school is funding a student, the research or teaching assistantship will be counted as part of the 20 hours per week. In the first year, most assistantships are considered 20 hours per week, and 15 hours per week after.

Job interview committee

Career opportunities after completing a PhD in the USA

Getting a PhD in the USA 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 and research: you can pursue a tenure and a non-tenure track as a professor, or you can choose to delve deeper into research.
  2. Industry jobs: research and development manager or a senior scientist, writer, or any role related to your area of research
  3. Governmental roles: policy analyst or researcher, consultant
  4. Non-profit organizations: director of research or program manager

Here are some examples of jobs that require a PhD, and how much they get paid in the United States:

Clinical Psychologist$82,145
Pediatrician$118,710
Associate Professor$93,505
Mechanical Engineer$105,377
Pharmacist$113,319
Biochemist$64,340
Economist$112,762
High School Teacher$52,147
User Experience Designer$78,894
Statistician$101,205

Source: Payscale, 2024

Sara Evans

Author

Sara is the Content Designer at Keystone Academic Solutions, in charge of creating and curating content for students across the globe. Due to her background in UX and teaching, she's always in pursuit of new ways of presenting information more clearly.

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