Is a PhD really worth it?
Every other article in this resource aims to help you succeed in your PhD life. But first, it is important to consider whether a PhD is actually worth it. The answer is less obvious than one might think on the outside looking in…
The purpose here is not to advocate that a PhD is better or worse for your career, but to help you consider the options. After you carefully think and decide, remember this: The best decision for you is the one that you just made. You have the power to make either decision worth it.
So, why do you think that a PhD is a good idea?
• Maybe the job market in your field is too tight at the moment. Perhaps a higher degree will give you better employment opportunities with higher salaries.
• Maybe a PhD is the “natural” next step for you. You were highly competitive during your previous degree and are ready to take things to the next level. You feel that going to grad school was the plan all along.
• Maybe this opportunity seemed almost unthinkable not so long ago, but was kind of just presented to you. Your undergraduate professor might have recommended you to a program, or you may have been encouraged by a colleague or family member. It turns out, getting into a PhD program is easier than you once thought.
• Maybe joining a PhD program will provide the platform (or excuse!) to travel to a new place, explore a different culture, and learn new stuff, or simply to move to a new country with a higher standard of living.
• Maybe your preferred career path didn’t work out like you expected. For example, you didn’t get into med school, or your double major didn’t open the opportunities you were hoping for, or whatever. Time for a new challenge.
All of these sound like plausible reasons for applying. So why isn’t it the easiest decision ever? You might have asked around and done a little bit of research. As it turns out, things are not that rosy and straightforward. Here are a few reasons that may be holding you back:
• The job market for a higher degree is also tight, and many PhD graduates are notoriously unemployed or underemployed; maybe you think that it is better to invest your time and energy elsewhere. (Note: We will discuss in future sections to what extent this notion is true, and how you can find and land the job you want).
• It takes too darn long! A PhD can range between three years (for some engineer programs in the USA or some science programs in Europe) to six years (for life sciences majors). A reasonable estimate is around 5–5.5 years for a science PhD in the USA. Five years is a long time. Point taken.
• Maybe you think that the quality of life as a PhD student is too low, or lower than you want for the next several years. You might have heard so much about how the stipend is too low, the working hours are too long, and the location might not be the most exciting.
• More homework? No way!
It is important to understand these factors before you enroll in a PhD program. You do not want to paint an unrealistic picture. For example, you might find that a PhD is not necessarily what you have always wanted, and that jumping into the job market and getting a business degree in a couple of years is a better option. On the other hand, a deeper look might show you that the living expenses in a college town are not too high, and your passion and determination will get you through it…
So, is the PhD really worth it?
Here’s the PhDeal. If you are seriously considering to apply, go for it! Give yourself that option. You can always decide later whether to accept an offer or not. In any case, you will not get an immediate response, and there will be lots of time to think this through. Mind you, applying with any serious intent can be time consuming.
Luckily, our website (and the internet and rest of the world) is here to help (kind of)!
What you need for your PhD application
Do not apply halfheartedly. This is a very consequential step in your life, so take some time to read the instructions in great detail. In general, graduate programs in science in the USA will request the following items:
- Bachelor’s degree in Science. Yes. For some program, not even a Master’s degree. Of course, a Master’s degree can improve your chances of getting into a better program. It shows that you have performed research, taken advanced courses, and maybe had some teaching experience. But there are tons of American and international students who get accepted into top-quality PhD programs directly from undergrad. To get a first estimate of your options, compare your academic standing and experience to other students at your institution. Especially more senior students who went on to PhD programs.
- Online application. Create an account using the program’s application portal and input your personal information. There will be a checklist of the documents you need and your progress so far.
- Application fee. Typically between $50 and $120 depending on the program. You can usually pay online. Make sure you pay the fee a couple of days prior to the deadline, to ensure that it is processed in time with no problems.
- GRE standard exam. If you are going for a science PhD, you should target a good grade in the math section. We will discuss what a good grade is in the next post. By the way, it is not that much of a complicated super-hard math exam, rather an exercise in critical thinking. You want to practice well and pretty much nail it. The English part of the exam is notoriously difficult. Study hard, but do not obsess with it, as many often do. It will not be used as the main indicator of your English language proficiency. Note that some of the highly rated PhD programs also require a GRE subject exam in your chosen specialty.
- TOEFL standard exam (for foreign nationals). While you get some leeway with the GRE English section, you should definitely do well in the TOEFL exam. It is a more practical exam, and an overall better reflection of your English writing, speaking, and reading skills. Both your GRE and TOEFL results should be sent officially to your prospective school. This requires that you know a specific code for your target school (check the exam websites for instructions regarding this process).
- Recommendation letters. Usually three to four letters from professors who taught/supervised you. Make sure the letters are submitted by the deadline. Give your recommenders enough time to write the letters, and do not be shy to send them a gentle reminder email if the deadline is fast approaching. Oh yes, choose people who think highly of you. Ideally professors, not graduate students who have supervised your lab work. Previous employers in science, tech, or manufacturing industries are definitely a plus.
- Transcripts of your previous degrees. Double check if they require an original transcript or a copy, or possibly a copy for now and the official version when you eventually join the program.
- Personal statement. This is an area where you have total control. You cannot change how your recommender thinks of you or reverse how well you did in four years of undergraduate courses. But you can always write a good personal statement. Check out our post in this series on how to write a winning statement.
- Your CV. Not all programs require your CV, but you should have a good one ready. There are lots of websites that give advice on how to tailor your CV for a PhD position. Do it right. A poorly prepared CV can kill your application. Use a good template as a starting point. The main goal is to highlight your research skills, teaching experience, multitasking and time-management, and somehow show your passion for science.
- Maybe some other stuff!? Read the application instructions very carefully!
- You do not want to double-check your documents. You want to quintuple-check them.
- Be super-strict and stringent. No typos. No grammatical mistakes. Perfect formatting. No missing commas or inconsistent fonts or misspelling the name of the institution you are applying to.
About the deadline
- Meet the deadline. Comfortably. Create a mental state that the deadline is actually a few days earlier.
- That being said, the deadline might not be very rigid. Primary consideration will be given to applications submitted within the deadline, but you might still squeeze in afterwards. Contact the graduate student coordinator for specific information.
- The informal GRE and TOEFL scores must be sent prior to the deadline, but the official score can usually wait till afterwards. But double check this information too.
Here’s the PhDeal. Once you start the application, the process is easier than you think. In fact, throughout your PhD and beyond, the first step in every process is always the hardest. Take that first step and start the journey!
Preparing five or seven or ten applications is not that much more work than preparing just one. Next, we will discuss a strategy to send out as many good applications as possible…
Which PhD programs should you apply to? Disclaimer: there are hundreds of them
Obviously, you want to apply in a way that maximizes your chances of getting accepted into the best program possible:
- Gauge your credentials. Many programs specify a minimum expected GPA or GRE score. This will help you select your target programs in a realistic way. Note that even if you meet all the requirements, you might still not get accepted. This will depend on how you compete with the pool of applicants at that time.
- Check the rankings. A good resource to start with is the US News and Ranking list. It is not a sacred list – and arguably more influential than it should be – but still serves as a decent first guide. Note: very little separates the quality of a large chunk of programs on that list. If you were to visit a school ranked 35 and a school ranked 36 (or even 86), you will probably not notice a difference. But familiarize yourself with this list. Regardless of where you end up, you want to recognize the top schools and how well your institution competes.
- Rankings aren’t everything. In the US, there are maybe 10 to 25 top top schools; the ivy league and a few others. Then there are tens of research-based universities with comparable academic levels. Some are better than others. But ranking is not the only metric. For example, you might join a lower ranked university, but work with a highly renowned professor in a specific research field. So there is more to things than a list…
- Check the specific program ranking. Not just the school ranking. A school might be ranked 80 overall, but 50 in physical chemistry. Remember that this is just a guideline list, and that very little separates between good quality research programs. Did I say that already?
- Personal preferences beyond the academics. You might have a relative who lives in a certain area or a personal bias towards a certain city. Consider these factors when choosing your target schools, but also keep an open mind to other places.
Here’s the PhDeal. Based on the information you gather, you will realize that there are somewhat three types of programs you can apply to:
- Long-shot dream programs whose credentials you barely (or don’t) meet.
- Competitive programs where you have a good shot at getting accepted.
- Decent programs whose credentials you comfortably meet.
Consider targeting around seven to ten well-prepared applications: 2-3 long shots, 3-4 competitive ones, 2-3 safety nets. Programs are getting more and more competitive every year, and admission is not guaranteed. So you should send as many well-prepared applications as possible. Not just one or two that you prepare for months and months. But certainly not tens of lazy applications that you randomly fill.
One last note. Apply to your undergraduate school if it has a PhD program. It is usually easier to get accepted there. So you would hopefully have at least one option. While it is not ideal to stay in the same school from undergrad to PhD, it is not necessarily too bad. In fact, staying in the same institute for the entirety of your life as a student is quite common in Europe, and has some obvious advantages.
Applying is kind of boring, but also kind of easy. It is one of those things that become exponentially more straightforward once you start doing them and gain momentum. Do not do the bare minimum, take an extra step to give yourself a better chance. Next, we will discuss one of those extra steps…
During your application to grad school, you should do this
Connect with people at the institution you are applying to. There are three kinds of emails in this context:
- Emails with genuine questions about the program. Ask about unclear or confusing information related to the program. Make sure that you are comfortable with and in complete charge of your application. Remember that programs that accept you are not doing you an honorable favor: You are a potential asset to them. So do not be shy in asking. But also do not be lazy and ask about something trivial that can be found on their website in 12 seconds. Questions about the application, deadline, required documents, possible visitation, and when to hear back can be sent to the graduate student administrator. Find their email on the program website. Also ask them which professor is the graduate adviser/coordinator (see below). The email can be very simple, do not overthink it:
“Dear ____ , I am in the process of applying to the graduate program in _______ . I was wondering if _____ … . Many thanks, ____ .”
- Emails to get your name out there. Send these emails to the graduate advisor/coordinator who guides new grad students in the initial stages when they join the program. Show intent. Tell them that you are planning to submit an application to the program. Then notify them that you have done so. They might or might not respond to this email; they get hundreds of emails each week. But it’s fine, you’ve done your part.
“Dear Prof. ____ , I have just submitted my application for a PhD degree in _______ at _______ . I am truly excited about the possibility of joining this prestigious program and look forward to the results in the coming weeks. Many thanks, _____.”
Email to your target professor. This is the most important email to send. The purpose here is not to ask administrative or general questions. Rather to get in touch with a professor who you might work with, and who might push for your admission. More on that on the next page.
Here’s the PhDeal. Not everything is in your hands. But you can do your best and let things play out. If it comes down to you and another competitive applicant, they might remember the person who showed some interest and excitement with a nice email message. Also, this is not just about politics. You are excited to join the program. That’s why you applied. You will not hurt your prospects by sending a respectful email; you can only do some good.
Okay, now for that key email to your target professor.
Sending the all-important email to a target professor
You should establish contact with a professor whose work you are interested in. Send a courteous email to let them know that you are applying and would be interested in joining their group. Attach your CV and let them know about any research you have previously done. If you have any published peer-reviewed papers, send those as well. Show that you know bit about their work and that you are ready to contribute. This is one example:
“Dear Prof. ____ , I am in the process of applying to the PhD program in ______ at ______ . I am be strongly interested in joining your research group and learning about ______ (name their specific research field). I have read some of your recent papers in _____ and _____ (name the journals), and would be truly honored to contribute to this exciting research at the frontier of _____ (name broad science field). During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to conduct some research on ______ . While the results are still pending publication, this experience has provided me with decent exposure to a lab environment and taught me the good practices of performing experiments. I have attached my CV and will keep you updated on the progress of my application. Many thanks, ______.”
So what should you expect from this email?
- Do not have sky-high expectations. No one would reply saying “Oh wow, thanks to this email I am now totally convinced that you should be part of our program and I will do everything in my power to make it happen. Will you be my friend?”. But you have politely showed your intent, and that you are not just randomly applying anywhere without a clear plan.
- Getting a generic response is normal. The standard reply is some version of “Thank you for your interest in my research group. Please let me know if you are accepted into our program”. Do not be discouraged by this answer. The professor does not have the authority to simply accept you in the program because of that one email. But you have now established first contact.
- Getting no response is not unusual. If you do not get a response in a couple of weeks, consider sending another polite email or corresponding with another professor. Remember that you have nothing to lose by being professional and polite.
- This email is not a binding contract. For starters, you have not been accepted yet. But even if you are, you are not obliged to join that professor’s group because of your correspondence. Likewise, they might not have a spot for you in their group anyway. That being said, you should definitely consider their group and give very special thought to the possibility of joining them once you are accepted. 1) That’s the fair thing to do, and 2) You do care about their work; that’s why you chose to contact them.
Here’s the PhDeal. How is this email helpful? Well, the professor might push for your admission in meetings with the recruitment committee. Or they might put in a good word on your behalf when the selection is made. Or they might recommend you for a student fellowship to lure you into the program. Or maybe none of these things will ever happen, but you would have at least done your part with no regrets.
Next, we discuss how to write a winning personal statement…
How to write a winning personal statement
There are things about your character that cannot be explained by a GPA or a CV. This is your chance to make a statement:
- Make it a personal statement. Not a generic, bland, all-purpose statement. Express your passions, experiences, and career goals. But do not force the personal touch. Do not create fantastical over-exaggerated claims. No one really believes that you have been dreaming about a PhD in materials science and engineering specifically at the University of Delaware ever since you played with plastic toys in kindergarten for the first time!
- Be very clear and brief. Express your thoughts in simple, coherent writing. Each sentence should be meaningful and contribute some information. Do not be too wordy. Also, do not be too mysterious and over-creative or use over-complicated words (yup, GRE words are not that practical after all!). By the way, this writing approach will be crucial in your graduate studies as well. Scientific writing should be effective, brief, and substantial, with every word carrying its own weight. Check out our article series on that topic.
- Tailor to that specific program. Show that you have done your research about that institution. For example, mention that a major drawing point in selecting this program was their strength in polymer chemistry, or their collaboration with a national lab, or a recent news article about some of their research. You can hunt for information on their webpage and on social media and beyond.
- Mention a professor or two in that department. Talk about how exciting it would be to join their group. Do so by mentioning their current research in some level of technical detail. But do not simply look at their research website for a few seconds, pick up two sentences, and cramp them into the personal statement. By the way, get in touch with that professor as well (see previous article).
- Create a document that passes the “eye test”. Make your statement easy to look at and read. Split the text into small paragraphs, about four to six lines each. And clean it up from grammar mistakes. If they did not specify the length, make it about two full pages. Use justify for a neat line alignment. Also, no quirky fonts! Unless you are applying for a graduate degree in quirky font-making, and you just made the most awesome award-winning quirky font ever.
- No red flags! Make sure you spell the name of the institution and professors correctly. Proofread, then proofread again. It’s a deal-breaker to talk about how great it would be to join Florida State University while applying to the University of Florida. Sorry. Two different things…
Here’s the PhDeal. The selection committee want to know if you are serious enough about this application. Was this letter sent on a lazy afternoon or did you show passion and intent? Did you express yourself in broad generic statements or did you take a specific look at the research being conducted in their department? The personal statement might not be the first thing they look at, but it can be the deciding factor between two competitive applicants.
When will you know if your PhD application was accepted?
I dunno. How would I know? Why would you think I know? But we all know the feeling. Waiting is hard. Why won’t they just tell us already?
- The timeline. The decision date is usually not rigid. If you are applying for Fall admission, there is a general–but not binding–timeline. Most schools receive applications in December and January, then wade through them in January-February. They sometimes send out early admission letters to the highest rated candidates in February. But do not panic! Sometimes they don’t, and that is not the end of the world anyway. By March, they would have prepared a list of candidates and would start sending the offer letters based on the available openings. If you have not heard back by the end of March, get in touch with the program.
- How do they choose? The main factors are definitely your application credentials, but that’s not the whole story. For public universities, in-state students are cheaper to sponsor than out-of-state or foreign students. So they obviously want a solid core of the top talent within the state. They will also have plenty of spots available for others as well. In some years, the program might admit more (or less) students than expected. But they generally want to maintain a steady state number of resident students over several years. Sometimes there is a spike in funding or the program is expanding or there are more teaching assistantships available, so they take in more students. Other times they have to take less. But it’s even more complicated. If they want 30 students, they might send out 60 offer letters in different batches. That’s because some students will reject the offer, and the openings will then be transferred to the next candidate on the list. So if your friends have heard back and you have not, do not lose all hope yet.
- Asking the graduate student coordinator. If you were given a date for the decision, you should probably not ask prior to then. As soon as that date passes, you can send a nice email and ask why they have not replied yet. Here is one possible email:
“Dear ____ , I had submitted my application for the _______ (program name) and wanted to courteously ask when I should expect to hear back with the decision. Best regards, __________”
If you have already heard from other schools, you can say:
“Dear ____ , I had submitted my application for the _______ (program name) and am currently in the process of making a decision on my options for graduate school. I wanted to courteously ask when we should expect to hear back from _______ (university name) as I have received other offers, but have a strong preference for your program. Best regards, __________”
- When should you respond to the offer? Most programs send out the offers around the same time. So when you hear back from one of them, expect the others to come rolling in anytime; hopefully with good news. Do not commit to a program before you’ve heard back from the rest, especially if your dream programs have not responded yet. Do not feel pressured to sign the offer letter immediately. If they had specified a deadline for you to respond, and you are still waiting from one more program before you make your final decision, you can send this kind of email:
“Dear ____ , I had received an offer letter to join the _______ (program name). I am truly excited about this opportunity, but would like to courteously ask if it is possible to extend the final decision date by one week. Many thanks, __________”
Make sure you and your prospective program are on the same page. You do not want to have your offer rescinded because you did not respond in time.
Here’s the PhDeal. Good luck!
Should you go to visitation weekend?
If you live in the US and are accepted into a graduate program, you might be invited to visit the department before you decide to join their program. Do it!
- Can you feel the vibe? Sometimes, you visit a place, and fall in love with it. For no specific reason. It is not necessarily better than your other options. But you just have a good feeling about it. Sometimes it’s the other way round. The place simply does not meet your expectations. That’s why visitation weekend is very useful. Get to know your next home.
- Learn as much as possible even if you do not intend to join. Ask questions. It’s not like the other graduate programs are completely different. The chances are that you will have have similar teaching duties, research facilities, and PhD requirements. In addition to learning about this program, learn about PhD life in general.
- Do not be overwhelmed. It will be a lot of information. But no worries. If you join, you will have 5 years to process everything! Try to take good notes and get your main questions answered.
- Approach your visit as a peer. You do not want to be too over-confident. But at the same time, you are there to be inquisitive and ask questions. Do not feel that you have something to prove. You have already proven yourself by getting accepted into the program. Be polite, but not too-over-politey-shy-polite.
- Enjoy it while it lasts. Be advised that everyone at the department will be at their best behavior to ensure a fun recruitment weekend (which is great!). They also usually pay for your expenses. But things will be slightly different when you return as a student. The drinks, pizzas, and fancy lunches will very rarely be free or fancy again. Hopefully, the friendliness and passion for science remain.
Here’s the PhDeal. If nothing else, enjoy your visit. You will see a new place and meet new people who might be your future colleagues. Try to be inquisitive and keep an open mind. Be professional, but also fun. Being treated to a nice, enjoyable visitation weekend will not tell the whole story of how your PhD will play out. But it shows that the program is working hard to acquire top talent. These are the first memories from a place you will cherish for many years.
Congratulations on signing that PhD offer letter! Now what?
- Well, of course, celebrate. Enjoy the moment. Getting accepted in itself is an achievement. You have strived for this goal and succeeded. Give yourself a well-deserved break. Things will get much more intense soon.
- Wrap up your current academic commitments. If you really really have to, you can carry some work from your earlier academic career into your PhD. But that is not at all advisable. For example, if you are still writing a paper as part of your Master’s thesis, try as much as possible to finish it before moving. For one thing, you want to be on excellent terms with your Master’s adviser (and pretty much everyone you work with). Moreover, you will have so much to do from day one of your PhD, and it will all feel disconnected from your previous life. It seems hard to focus on it now, but it will only get harder. By the way, you really need that paper. And remember how not so long ago it was the most important thing in your life?
- More nice and professional emails. Get in touch with the graduate program coordinator, the graduate student advisor, and the professor whom you have been corresponding with. Let them know that you are excited about joining the program and finally meeting everyone. You can even ask the coordinator if there is any reading material that they recommend so you learn more details about the program. If you have been assigned to a teaching assistantship, send a nice email to your prospective teaching supervisor.
You should try your best to familiarize yourself with the program, the university, and the area you will be living in. Even browsing online for a few minutes every day will help you arrive informed and ready from day one.
- The program. Visit the department website regularly. Get a general feeling of who does what, and all the different science happening there. Check out the research group websites and their presence on social media. If there is a Facebook group for graduate students in your program, join it! Find out what kind of instruments and facilities are housed in the department. The point is not to memorize this information, but to get acquainted with it. Get familiar with the timeline of your PhD: choosing an advisor, choosing committee members, taking courses, taking the candidacy exam, all the way to your dissertation defense. The details of these steps are probably provided in the student academic manual.
- The university. Start getting familiar with the campus: the location of your department, library, gym, swimming pool, student lounge, and activities areas. Unfortunately, you will spend all of your time in the department, but it is good to know where the other stuff are, just in case you stumble upon them. Nah, kidding. It’s gonna be fun! Also, there is usually an orientation session as soon as you arrive so you get to know all the campus stuff.
- The area. Start searching for housing. There are five factors to consider: 1) monthly rent, 2) proximity to your department, 3) proximity to the grocery store, 4) quality, and 5) whether you want to be with roommates or alone. If you have an acquaintance who lives in that town, get in touch with them for feedback and tips. You can ask the other grad students on that Facebook group as well. As soon as you arrive, you will have to take care of things like turning on the utilities and getting internet connection. In addition to the housing, get familiar with the main streets, cool coffee shops, and local stores that you might enjoy.
Here’s the PhDeal. Time to sail to new shores. Congratulations again.