Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting a PhD and Then Some 
Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting a PhD and Then Some 

Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting a PhD, and Then Some 

From test taking to writing statements of purpose, here’s what you can expect from the PhD application process.
July 2, 2016
9 mins read

We live in some pretty uncertain times. Millennials in particular are having a harder time entering the job market and attaining some semblance of financial security. As a result, a lot of students ask themselves: Why not pursue a master’s or even a PhD in order to get closer to the all-so-important status of “employable”? Well, it might be time to really take a look at what that means.

Master’s courses (dependent on the university and subject, of course) are increasingly seen as an essential component of a young person’s resume. The statistics agree, pointing to greater success in the job market and higher salaries if you have an extra diploma. So, as long as you can make the financial aspect of it make sense, the quest for higher education amongst our generation isn’t a futile one.

PhDs are another ball game entirely.

Compared to the difference between people with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, the difference in salary between someone holding a doctorate and someone with a master’s is pretty nominal. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your field and subject, but that seems to be the general trend. In reality, if you get a PhD, you’re probably going to be entering academia or some sort of federal government/think-tank related position. These are all noble pursuits, of course, but all of those job markets are pretty niche.

Another consideration is the volatile nature of the academic market these days. It used to be the case that PhD students were a pretty rare commodity, and as such it was relatively easy to get a decent position as a tenure-track academic. However, in recent years with the bloated population of PhD candidates and graduates, there simply aren’t enough positions to go around. As such, the vast majority of PhD students wind up taking up what are called “adjunct” positions. Translation: Poorly paid, part-time work that barely helps people break even.

Bear all these conditions in mind as you ruminate over whether or not to go into a PhD.


Why do you want to pursue a PhD? Is it because you want to become an academic or devote your life to research? Well, in that case, you’re in luck—the job market is difficult, but you’re still going to get more satisfaction from a research position than a marketing gig.

If you really are passionate about your subject and certain that you’d love academia or research, then yes, applying to a PhD program is probably a very good choice indeed.


How do you get on track for a PhD? Well, applying to a PhD program isn’t exactly a particularly short or easy process. First things first—get the standardized testing out of the way.

The Graduate Records Examination, or GRE, is the thorn in the side of many aspiring PhD students—at the end of the day, we all go into wildly different topics, from chemistry to history, and yet are all still forced to take a ridiculously irrelevant test based on reading comprehension, essay writing and math. It is a bit of a farce, but the scores you get will often give you an indication as to what sort of school you can expect to get into. So take it seriously.

A couple of programs like Engineering or Physics require GRE subject tests as well, which, thankfully are much more relevant. Either way, you definitely want to get the testing out of the way well in advance of the typical September-December application period, as experts suggest taking the tests at least twice to get the best possible result. Now you’ve gotten the GREs all out of the way. You’re not done with the process though, not by a long shot.


How exactly do you decide where to apply? PhD applications are pretty expensive, so you should probably limit yourself to about five or so schools that you are interested in. Bear in mind that where you do your PhD is incredibly important as to your employability, so you should probably stick to the most well-known or acclaimed programs in the country.

Next, you have to email potential supervisors to confirm that the program you are interested in is accepting applicants or that they are taking on advisees. Your choice on where to apply should thus be based on the reputation of the program in question, the personnel and academics involved with it, the funding available and the location of the school. Once you’ve chosen your favorite schools, you can continue with the application process. Most universities have a pretty similar rigmarole that you have to go through in order to apply. The application form itself is generally uncomplicated—it just goes through your educational background, your academic progress and the skills you’ve picked up.

The hardest part, though, is what is called the “statement of purpose.” This really makes or breaks your application. Schools use your GRE score and your GPA and academic progress as a baseline, but your statement of purpose is what separates you from the rest of the applicants. So what is it?

The statement of purpose is a document that outlines the purpose of your research and the reason why you are applying to that school and that program in particular. It can’t just be another generic personal statement about how you were the quarterback on your high school football team or how you once gave a presentation in class; the statement of purpose has to show that not only are your life and life story intimately related to your field and research, but that said research is interesting and important and worthy of funding.

You have to essentially tie together your life accomplishments, academic interests and employability into a single, two-page document. And it has to be perfect in order for you to even have a chance at getting into any program of merit. Once all that is done and you’ve sent in your application and requisite documents (for which the deadline is generally in December), you can expect to hear back in about two or three months, throughout which you’ll probably have more than a few sleepless nights and plenty of nail biting. But if you get in, you’ll get the chance to study what you love and get paid for it at the same time.

And that’s about it. It’s a long, arduous process that costs a lot of time and a lot of money. But, hey, six more years of school might be worth it, right?

Yasser Ali Nasser, Oxford College

Chinese Studies
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