A Month-by-Month PhD Application Timeline

Toying with the idea of applying to a PhD program? Planning to apply, but not sure how to mount your attack? There are a lot of moving parts to a PhD application, and keeping everything in motion requires thoughtful planning.

In this post, we lay out a 10-month timeline that will get you from square one to scholarships. Regardless of whether you plan to study nuclear physics or medieval Russian literature, start here.

February – April

What Do You Want to Study?

Some PhD applicants have the next decade of their scholarly careers completely mapped out. Others come to the process with real interest but fuzzier plans. If you are in the second category, that’s totally fine. Your first step will be to think about what field of study you might want to pursue, and why. We can suggest lots of brainstorming prompts, but since you are considering devoting several years of your life to this project, here’s the simplest one:

What academic or intellectual question(s) call you, bother you, puzzle you, intrigue you, and won’t let you go? Which scholarly or research problems(s) are going to follow you around forever until you turn and engage with them?

If you have an answer to this question, you have a potential PhD topic.

Find Programs That Suit You

Once you have a sense that a PhD is right for you, start looking for programs and departments that might fit you. As you do, consider a few things :

● Faculty: You want a program with professors whose own research or approach to scholarship interests you. You will find smart people at every university, but you are looking for more than just smarts – you are aiming to find people who are driven by the same kinds of questions you are. Start by looking into scholars you already admire, and then do some deep Googling to broaden your horizons. Consider writing to professors to share your interests or ask questions about their work. (But be sure you have a real reason for writing: profs can smell the “Let me in! Let me in!” email a mile away.)

● Support: Studying under well-known professors is nice, but you will also need guidance, mentorship, and support. Ideally, your professors will care deeply about both your field of study and about YOU.

● Culture: You also want a program whose culture suits you – where you can get along with folks and feel at home. Remember: you’re going to be doing this for years.

March – May

Begin GRE Prep

We know: the GRE is just a slightly harder version of the SAT – a little math, a little reading, and a little writing. But it’s also a standardized test, and like all standardized tests, it’s full of traps and surprises. Doing well on the GRE doesn’t just mean knowing the material – it means knowing the test. Start your romance now.

Consider Whether You’ll Need to Take the TOEFL / IELTS

This applies to some international students from non-English speaking countries, and even several English-speaking countries!

Get Your Transcripts Translated

If they’re not in English, they’ll need to be. Check out your schools’ requirements.

May – June

Reach Out to Potential Recommenders

Ideally, one or more of your recommenders should be a professor in the discipline you’re applying to. Another could be an employer or academic administrator, someone who can speak to some of your non-scholarly qualities.

At this stage, just make a list of potential recommenders and reach out, letting them know your PhD plans and asking whether they might be willing to support you. You’re not committing yourself to anything at this point – you’re just gauging who might be in your corner.

Take Your First GRE

You’ve been studying for several months, so this may be a good time to take your first crack at the GRE. And remember: if things don’t turn out as you hoped, that’s okay: there’s still time to revisit your preparation strategy and re-take the test.

June – August

Review Potential Writing Samples

Depending on your discipline, you may be asked to submit a writing sample. Ideally, this will be a piece of writing from the same field (or a closely related discipline). Take a look through your papers from college or your master’s program and zero in on your very best writing – then clean, cook, and serve.

Review Your Resume

If you’re a lifelong student, you may not have a professional-looking resume on hand. Time to create one! The resume (or CV, depending on your schools’ requirements) is a quick way for programs to get to know you, so make sure that your resume tells a clean, clear story in a professional format.

August – September

If Necessary, Take Your Second GRE

Scores can take a while to arrive; to keep your stress levels low, aim to take your last GRE by October.

August – October

Statement of Purpose

This is the centerpiece of your PhD application, and it deserves your undivided attention. A good statement of purpose:

● Offers a bit about your personal background
● Demonstrates your familiarity with your field
● Dives into your key research interests
● Describes your research experiences in these areas to-date
● Indicates the question(s) you would like to investigate
● Lays out a tentative research plan
● Describes the impact your work could have in your field

As you think through these questions, remember: no fluff. Be firm with yourself here; if you ever feel yourself drifting into loose claims or empty rhetorical gestures, it’s time to slow down and think more deeply. Remember, you’re talking to experts in your field. This is your opportunity to show them that you have the intellectual discipline and writerly precision to join their ranks and make a contribution to the field you love.


Submit Your Applications and Celebrate!

Regardless of your field, applying for a PhD is hard work – and we can help. Talk to us today about working with a graduate admissions counselor.