Your Guide to a Strong Ph.D. Application

 November 12, 2020

The Graduate School at Duke University

Rarely is there discussion of how to prepare for doctoral programs in professional master’s programs. So when I came across a workshop on preparing Ph.D. applications by Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Development J. Alan Kendrick, I jumped right into it even though it was scheduled to be around midnight in my time zone. (Yes, graduate school remotely from Pakistan is tough and disorienting, but that is a topic for a different blog post.) Here was someone who, in addition earning a Ph.D. himself, has years of experience in selecting Ph.D. applicants, so there could not have been a better opportunity to get introduced to the process! In this piece I’ll touch upon some major points highlighted by Dr. Kendrick to explain what it means to aim for a Ph.D. program and build a solid Ph.D. application.

THe Master's Versus the Ph.D.

Starting off, it is crucial to know the difference between a master’s program and a Ph.D. program. Whereas a master’s degree will generally be more specific than an undergraduate degree and usually span one to three years, a Ph.D. program usually entails a more focused set of question(s) within a discipline and usually spans five or more years. In a Ph.D., the cost of attending is often covered through a combination of fellowships and stipends. Schools are more likely to look for applicants who secured funding from external sources, but this it is not always necessary.  So, a good yardstick to measure your readiness and commitment for a Ph.D. program is your willingness and ability to work consistently for years on the academic inquiry you wish to pursue to push the frontiers of existing human knowledge. Scholars in STEM fields such as microbiology or solid-state physics usually spend most of their time in labs, so it is essential to get to know the work environment, culture, and expectations in your prospective labs.

A Strong Application

After getting clarity on what a Ph.D. program demands, let’s get into some major elements of a strong Ph.D. application. Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. application consists of previous academic grades, competitive examination scores, work experiences, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. For a Ph.D. program, all previous academic grades are weighted and assessed including undergraduate transcripts, while standard examination scores (i.e., the GRE) are now becoming optional at many institutions. And while top-tier grades are a great foundation, they are not decisive as each application is looked at holistically with all its elements to give a better picture. Letters of recommendation from previous academic supervisors are weighted heavily along with your personal statement.

One thing Dr. Kendrick emphasized was to not just get recommendations as mere “character profiles” but rather what he called “strong recommendations.” Before you ask for faculty recommendations, share your résumé with them, sit down with them over a Zoom call (at least during the pandemic) and share your aspirations and objectives, and then ask for strong recommendations. Additionally, you should waive your right to review recommendation letters in your applications as doing this will indicate that the referee has been candid in your assessment for the admissions committee.

Mastering the Personal Statement

Finally, I come to the part where the ball is really in your court: the personal statement! I say this because while other elements of your application—grades and transcripts, previous work experiences, etc. are no longer alterable—the personal essay is your space to unapologetically express your true self and how you have evolved to be the person you are today. You can explain how your intellectual life has brought you to your specific academic area and where you see yourself going forward. Your statement should make it clear why you are interested in the field, the institution and program you are applying for as well as your research and career goals. Your essay should be tailored to the institution and/or program. Red flag here: if you end up with an essay where you can just replace institution names, then you haven’t met your goal. Additionally, your statement should include details about your background that can help the faculty better understand your motivation for pursuing their program. This can be anything—people, events, challenges, and achievements that have aided your growth and add to your fitness for the program. Additionally, you should address any noticeable discrepancies or gaps in your profile or transcripts that are worth mentioning.

While the personal statement is crucial to your application and speaks on your behalf in a room full of faculty who are judging your application, it is important to understand that there is no standard format or template that you should follow. This space is supposed to be personal, and it is supposed to be yours. It is also equally important to understand that the faculty judging applications are humans like us and often have diverging opinions about different profiles. Also remember that funding and positions for Ph.D.s are often limited and hence a rejected profile does not necessarily make it an incompetent or ineligible one.

In a nutshell, for a strong Ph.D. application, you need academic questions that keep you up at night and the discipline to follow the guidelines Dr. Kendrick shared, so that you can demonstrate your willingness and ability to work under supervision to answer those academic questions. This session with Dr. Kendrick brought me much-needed clarity to tackle my Ph.D. applications, and I hope this post does the same for you!


Editors’ note: You can find additional resources on preparing a strong application on The Graduate School’s website.


Soman Ul Haq
Soman ul Haq

Master's candidate, Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment

Soman is a Fulbright Scholar from Pakistan and a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment concentrating in Energy and Environment. He is currently focused on energy access in developing countries, sustainable development, energy transition, and behavioral changes with energy transition and access. Prior to joining Duke, Soman worked with the German International Development Cooperation (GIZ) as a technical advisor for energy access in off-grid areas and energy transition in industrial sector in Pakistan. As a mechanical engineer, he has experience consulting commercial and industrial sectors in developing energy efficient practices to achieve their sustainability goals. He tweets at @somaanulhaq