Best PhD Programs: How to Find the Best PhD Program for You

Considering advanced graduate study? A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree is the highest academic degree awarded in most fields of study. Read on to learn how to determine which Ph.D. program may be the best fit for you.

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How Do I Find the Best Doctoral Program For Me?

Pursuing a Ph.D. is a major commitment. Most programs take five to seven years to complete and include several years of coursework, a master's thesis, two or more years of teaching and a doctoral dissertation. All of this work is typically in one subject area, with your topic of focus becoming more and more narrow as you approach your dissertation research.

It is therefore important that you have direction before you embark on studying for a Ph.D. Unlike an undergraduate program, which you can begin without a clear idea of what you'll ultimately major in, you need to know exactly what you want to study before you even apply to a doctoral program. Which brings us to step one.

1. Determine Your Area of Study

Many people pursue a Ph.D. in an area closely related to their bachelor's or master's studies. However, it's not necessary to stick to the exact same subject matter - what's more important is that you're committed enough to your field to follow through the whole process and pursue a career in it when you're finished.

If you've developed another strong academic interest since you were an undergraduate, look into Ph.D. programs in that area. If you can meet minimum requirements, such as a certain number of courses or research experience in the field, then that may be the right subject for you. If you don't quite meet the minimum requirements to apply, contact an advisor in the department. He or she may be able to tell you what you need to do to apply in another year or two.

2. Find the Right Schools

After you've settled on the type of Ph.D. that you'd like to earn, you need to identify which schools will be the best fit. Remember that two doctoral programs in the same area may be radically different at different schools, so it's important to research the following factors:

Areas of Specialty

Most academic fields are comprised of an almost infinite number of subfields, and not all of them will be represented at each school. For example: If you're seeking a Ph.D. in English and your specialty is medieval British literature, you need to look for a department that has at least one faculty member who performs research in the same area.

Faculty

You will have a much closer relationship with your advisor as a graduate student then you did as an undergraduate. This person will be your academic mentor, helping to guide your research and, ultimately, dissertation process. It's therefore important to ensure there are faculty members in the department with whom you'd like work. You should be able to find faculty profiles, including educational background, research areas and courses, on most department websites.

Intellectual Atmosphere

This is one of the hardest factors to determine, but it's also important to the nature of your experience as a doctoral student. Do you consider yourself a liberal or conservative intellectual - not in terms of your politics, but in terms of your research interests? Are you interested in an environment that encourages cross-disciplinary study or traditional fieldwork? Read some of the recent publications by faculty members and compare them to the tone of your favorite theorists in your field. Some variety is important, but if they differ dramatically, you may not be a good intellectual fit in that department.

Department Reputation

The world of academia is a small one, and the reputation of your doctoral program supervisor may have a significant effect on your career prospects. In addition, the reputation of the school is a small part of this factor, but what matters more is how well the specific department and your supervisor are known. Even the Ivy League universities aren't the top choice in every field.

If you earned your bachelor's degree in the same area, chances are you'll already be familiar with the top schools in your field. If you're unsure, try speaking to a couple of the professors in the subject at your alma mater. You can also consult resources like the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which rely partially on reputation.

Funding

Because of the time commitment, a Ph.D. can be an expensive degree to earn. Most departments offer partial or full funding to a certain percentage of admitted students, and some departments even include a stipend. You won't know for sure if you'll get funding until after you are admitted, but it's important to find out what types of funding packages are typically offered to accepted students.

School Size & Location

Because of the involved nature of Ph.D. study, the above factors should trump school size and location. However, these factors do affect your quality of life and are worth considering.

Large universities may have more campus-based resources and course variety, but can also tend to feel more like faceless bureaucracies. Smaller institutions tend to have smaller libraries and fewer courses, but will offer a more intimate peer community and closer relationship with your department. Because you're a doctoral student, you won't encounter many large classes at either type of institution.

It's also worth considering where your prospective schools are located. You'll be spending a large chunk of the next decade at your graduate institution and you don't want to do this in a place that makes you miserable. When you do your campus visits, be sure to spend some time off-campus checking out the local city or town to make sure it's a place you would enjoy living.

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  • School locations:
    • California (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Stanford University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
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  • School locations:
    • Massachusetts (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Harvard University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Architecture
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
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  • School locations:
    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Pennsylvania include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Architecture
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
    • Business
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  • School locations:
    • North Carolina (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Duke University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
    • Business
    • Communications and Journalism
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    • Medical and Health Professions
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