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

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree is the highest academic degree awarded in most fields of study. 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.

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Choosing the right doctoral program is a very important decision that should factor in a variety of criteria. Students should consider their area of study and available specialties, faculty and department reputation, and cost and stipends.

How Do I Find the Best Doctoral Program For Me?

Pursuing a Ph.D. is a major commitment as it takes about 3-7 years to complete, on average. A typical Ph.D. program includes the following requirements:

  • Several years of coursework
  • Master's thesis
  • Two or more years of teaching
  • Doctoral dissertation

All of this work is typically in one subject area, with your topic of focus becoming narrower as you approach your dissertation research. It is therefore important that you have direction before you embark on studying for a Ph.D. When narrowing down your options, you may want to consider the both the fields of study available and features of the school.

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.

Find the Right School

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 mentioned below.

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.


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 to 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.


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, since you'll be spending a large chunk of the next decade at your graduate institution. 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 in which you would enjoy living.

Choosing the right doctoral program may take some time - but its important to get it right. Areas of study, academic reputation, and funding opportunities are some of the considerations that potential Ph.D. students should consider when looking at various programs.

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