Kshitij Tiwari Ph.D.

15 tips to selecting the right PhD program

8 min read

So, you have made up your mind to pursue a PhD and have identified a research area that excites you. You fire up your laptop, open a browser and start searching for PhD programs only to find a plethora of them and are left scratching your head. If this is you, read this article carefully as it will help you in choosing the right PhD program.

Choosing the right PhD program is an important decision. Not only is it a major commitment, but it sets the stage for your academic and professional future. With so much at stake and so many different schools, programs, and options to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. To help you make an informed choice about your educational path, here’s a 15-step guide to choosing the right PhD program.

What does the right PhD program mean for you?

Selecting the right PhD program is a critical decision that profoundly impacts your academic and professional journey. To define the “right” program, prioritize genuine interest in research, personal and professional growth, and good alignment with potential advisors. Taking the time to assess these factors will lead you to a program that aligns with your aspirations, setting the stage for a fulfilling and impactful research career. And now, if you are wondering how you would go about doing this, here are 15 tips to help you out.


1. Set your goals

The first step in choosing the right PhD program is to decide what you want to get out of it. What are your goals? What kind of research do you want to do? Which area of study are you most interested in? Knowing your goals will help narrow down your PhD program options and ensure that you select the best program for your needs. PhD should be a step in the right direction- the next step in your career.


2. Set your must haves

Once you’ve identified your goals, it’s time to set your must haves. Start by drawing a list of non-negotiables that absolutely want to have with a PhD program of your choice. Begin compiling a list of potential PhD programs that meet your goals, interests, and needs.

3. Pre-screen the shortlisted programs

Once you’ve identified those PhD programs that you’re interested in, start pre-screen and ranking them. Reach out to faculty members, alumni, and current students, and ask them about their experience with the program. Ask them what they like and dislike about it, what resources they have access to, and any other questions you may have. This is a great way to get a sense of how you might fit into the program.

4. Look into the admissions process

The admissions process can be long and complex. Make sure to thoroughly read through the admissions materials and understand what the requirements are. Ask the admissions office or faculty member any questions you may have so that you can make sure you have all the information to apply. Make a detailed list of all application documents needed such as a Statement of Purpose, Transcripts, previous Degree certificates, Letter of recommendations, etc.

5. Research the faculty

When comparing schools, take the time to research the faculty members of each program. Look into their research expertise and interests, as this will determine what kind of guidance and mentorship you’ll be able to get from them.

6. Consider the program's reputation

A program’s reputation is a major factor in your decision. Look into the program’s academic rankings, accreditation, and the success of its alumni. This will provide a good indication of the quality of the program and the opportunities you’ll have after graduation.

7. Consider the location

Location is an important part of the equation. Think about the type of lifestyle you want to have, as well as the career opportunities in the area. You should also look into any relevant cultural and social resources that are available. There might be schools thousands of miles away from your home. If you opt for those, you will be far away from friends and family so be sure to factor that in.

8. Think about the costs

Cost is a major factor when choosing the right school, so make sure to look into the tuition cost, fees, living expenses, and any other costs that are associated with the program. Also inquire about potential funding opportunities that the school may offer.

9. Look into potential support services

A PhD program is an intense endeavor, so be sure to look into the support services available. Many schools offer student counseling, workshops and seminars, career counseling, and other resources that can help you succeed.

10. Take a campus visit

Take the time to visit campus and get a feel for the school, if possible. Talk to faculty and students, attend classes, and explore the university and surrounding area. This will give you a better idea of what it would be like to be a student. If owing to location constraints you are unable to visit in person, think about ways you can do a virtual tour- get creative.

11. Evaluate the publication record

Look into the research output of the faculty, i.e. their publication record. Also, look at the impact of the research, i.e. how often their research is cited by others. This will give you an idea of the quality of the research being done in the program and the opportunities you’ll have to collaborate with faculty. A good place to start could be a research database like Google Scholar and if you are unsure about the top tier publications in your area, look up publication rankings for your niche. E.g., in robotics, the typical venues like ICRA, IROS, TRO, IJRR etc., are ranking based on impact in the Scholar database.

Aside from looking at the quality of research output, also try understanding how active the group is in the area of research. One way to do this is to see how frequently does the group publish in the community. To grow academically, you would need a fast paced environment.

12. Look into the research infrastructure

When evaluating a potential program, make sure to look into the research infrastructure. Things to consider include library access and databases, computer lab access, and research facilities– any hardware and software needs that you might have for your area of research. In case of robotics, this would typically be software licenses, robot platforms and dedicated experimental arenas.

13. Assess the future job prospects

Many people pursue a PhD in order to get a better job or further their career. Research the job market for your field in the area and find out if the school has any resources or programs that can help you get a job. Ask other alumni and faculty members about their experience with finding a job.

14. Explore the extracurriculars

In your quest to finding the right PhD program for you, don’t forget to look into the extracurriculars that the school offers. Do they have any clubs or organizations that you’re interested in? What kinds of social and cultural events are available? They might end up being a great source of inspiration and support when you need to unwind.

15. Follow your gut

Last, but not least, trust your gut. After taking all of the above into consideration, if you still can’t decide, go with the program that feels right. Pay attention to your emotional response and figure out why it resonates with you.

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