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How to Get a PhD:

A Guide to Choosing and Applying to Ph.D. Programs


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Here at SMU, we know that the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in any field can be difficult — it’s a significant investment of your time and resources, with several unknowns along the way. When students are just starting their search, here are some common questions we have received: 

  • How do you prepare a strong application? 
  • How do you select a program that fits your area of interest? 
  • Will you get in? 
  • What are the years in a Ph.D. program actually like?

In this resource, we offer you the insider information you need to choose a program, apply successfully, and thrive during your years of graduate study. You’ll get answers to common questions, tips for putting together your application, and testimonies from students who made it through the application process and are now pursuing a Ph.D.

Common Reasons for Getting a Ph.D.

Do you find yourself wondering, what would motivate someone to earn a Ph.D.? Only about two percent of adults over 25 hold a doctoral degree, according to a 2018 study by the U.S. Census Bureau. But what drives this group of elite learners?

A 2019 survey of more than 6,000 Ph.D. students asked a wide array of questions on topics ranging from life in a Ph.D. program to students’ satisfaction with their program. Here’s what Ph.D. students liked the most about their doctoral program:

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Additionally, although earning a Ph.D. is a large commitment of time and energy, 75% of respondents reported being happy with their decision to pursue a Ph.D. saying they were somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with their decision.

75% are happy with their decision to earn a PhD

When you start exploring earning a Ph.D., you may encounter some setbacks and deterrence. However, if you have a genuine love for the subject and wish to become a thought leader in your area of expertise, don’t let this discourage you.

Perhaps you’re thinking that a Ph.D. in a STEM field makes sense, but don’t see how to justify your degree in Anthropology or History? In the STEM academic track, the return on investment (ROI) of a graduate degree may seem more clear than in the humanities.

Never fear. Love of the subject, not monetary gain, is what truly motivates students to journey through graduate school. A Ph.D. in any field is a feat in research, critical thought, and dedication, and these skills are extremely valuable even in disciplines with less obvious market value.

Download our Guide to Choosing and Applying to a Ph.D. Program

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How to Pick the Right Ph.D. Program

So, you know what you want to study, but now you’re faced with the task of finding the right school. It can be easy to become overwhelmed by all of the options. The process of selecting which Ph.D. program is the right fit doesn’t have to be difficult or stressful, you just need an organized plan to help you sort through the factors you need to be looking for.

Not sure what you should be looking for? We can help you with that! In this short video, we walk you through each step of selecting the right Ph.D. program — making it simple and straightforward.

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You’ve Decided to Go for It! Take the First Steps to Getting A Ph.D.

Ready to take the leap and begin your Ph.D. career? We’re here to help you take the first steps. To determine what program could be right for you, it’s best to begin your research early, and to consider the following things when analyzing and comparing Ph.D. programs: 

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Is there a professor at the school with your same interests?

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What sort of funding do  they offer? 

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Do the school’s graduates have careers that you would like to have?

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Do you have geographic restraints?

Before we dive into application requirements, most graduate programs require the GRE for students and the TOEFL or IELTS for international students. Getting a good score on these tests does not ensure your entrance into a program, but it does help. If you struggle with standardized tests, consider signing up for a tutoring service in order to feel better equipped and more prepared.

Ph.D. FAQs: Choosing a Doctoral Program That’s Right for You

Do you need a master’s
to get a Ph.D.?

Not always, it depends on your program. Some programs will allow you to move straight from an undergraduate degree into a doctoral program that includes graduate coursework. Other programs will require a master’s degree before beginning a Ph.D.

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Read more: Here are 4 ways to get a head start on graduate school while pursuing your bachelor’s!

How many years does it
take to get a Ph.D.?

It generally takes five to seven years to complete a Ph.D. program, but make sure to contact your program to learn about the specifics. For more information and an overview of the Ph.D. timeline, check out our article: The Ph.D. Timeline – What Can You Expect From Your Program? 

How many doctoral programs
should I apply to?

While it is tempting to apply to several Ph.D. programs to enhance your chances of being accepted, this is one example where “quality over quantity” holds particularly true. Ph.D. programs generally accept students based on how closely their research interests align with the work of their professors. 

Rather than applying to a dozen programs, pick 4-6 that are truly great matches for your interests and spend the time necessary to make your application stand out as one of the best.

How to pick a Ph.D. program?

We wrote a resource that covers this exact question!

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Read — Comparing Admission Offers and Selecting Your School — to learn how to pick the Ph.D. program that is right for you! 

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  • Research proposal often determined in conjunction with departmental research
  • Typically higher stipends
  • Conducting experiments and then analyzing the resulting data


  • Research proposal is self-directed
  • Often lower stipends, but more likely to obtain a job in academia 
  • Analysis of texts and concepts to expound upon in your dissertation

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Applying to Ph.D. Programs:
What Do Ph.D. Programs Look For?

When starting the application process, you should review the program’s application requirements and contact the school to ask any of your remaining questions. Starting with this step will help you stay focused as you gather the assets you need and will keep you from wasting time on things that are not required.

Applicant questions usually fall into one of two categories: questions about the substance of the program (e.g. Is there an opportunity to do research as a first-year?), and questions about the logistics of the application (e.g. What is the school code for sending you my GRE scores?). 

Don’t hesitate to contact faculty directly to ask questions pertaining to the substance of the program. They love talking with prospective students about what they do, and they will be able to provide much more detail than the admissions office. On the other hand, admissions or graduate office staff should be able to give you prompt guidance on logistical questions pertaining to your application (faculty are not as familiar with these topics). 

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Personal Statement

A student with a clear research direction can write a very compelling personal statement. You don’t need to have your exact dissertation topic worked out yet, but it’s important to have a good sense of the following:

  • Your general area of interest;
  • The faculty in the department you’d want to work with;
  • The resources at the university that would help with your work.

Hitting these points in your personal statements tells the faculty not only that you are prepared for the work, but that this particular university is a good home for you. An applicant can be impressive, but if the faculty don’t see you as a good fit for the school’s program, they won’t be inclined to admit you.

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When you order copies of your undergraduate and graduate school transcripts, as well as any test scores you may need, leave plenty of time to meet the deadline so that these documents do not hold up your application. Frequently, schools will accept unofficial transcripts for the initial application, but a final, official transcript will be necessary if you are accepted and decide to attend.

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Letters of Recommendation

The hallmark of a Ph.D. program is that it is research-based. Success at the undergraduate level is an important factor, but a better indication of success is research experience. The strongest letter of recommendation is from a professor who knows you not just as a student in their classroom, but as a researcher. Choose someone who can speak to your work in the lab or the archive, making a contribution to the discipline rather than simply absorbing content from a lecture.



Pro Tip text graphicHere are some tips from our admissions professionals on securing the best letters of recommendation.

Advancing the Field: Stories and Resources for Graduate Students

Advancing the Field is a weekly blog that offers prospective graduate students insight and advice as they consider the challenges and exciting possibilities that come with getting a graduate degree.

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How to Apply for a Ph.D. Program:
The Ph.D. Application Checklist

In addition to the items in the section above, make sure to check off this list (or edit it to include your specific requirements).

Be sure to check your department's website for additional requirements, such as minimum test score requirements and writing sample prompts. Not all departments will ask for additional items, but for those that do, make sure you're prepared in advance.

After all these elements of your application are submitted and reviewed by the department, they may request an interview with the candidates who are moving forward. To help you with your grad school interview, we’ve created a resource with advice from admissions professionals to help you prepare. 

Applications for Ph.D. programs are often reviewed on a rolling basis, but some do have hard deadlines. It’s hard to say exactly when you will hear back, as it depends on the individual department, but generally, you should not expect a response before February of your expected enrollment year. 

As your offers of admission begin to roll in, we’ve compiled some advice for helping you select the best one! Read — Comparing Admission Offers and Selecting Your School.

Pro Tip text graphicIf you are applying to a Ph.D. program as an international student, we’ve developed a full resource to help you!

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Apply To Graduate School with Confidence

SMU's Graduate School is proud to offer doctoral and master’s degrees in a wide variety of fields. This resource is designed to give you an overview of the admissions requirements and processes for our Master’s and Doctoral programs.

View the Full Resource

Understanding How to Finance Your Ph.D. Program

Here’s some sage advice: when it comes to funding your Ph.D. program, it should be funded by the university as a tuition scholarship and a stipend. If you are not offered any funding, it may be an indication that you are not a good fit for that program.

Your stipend offer depends on the university, but the general range for a Ph.D. stipend is $15,000-$35,000.

SMU currently has 55 Moody School funded Ph.D. students and offers a wide range of fellowships, stipends, grants, and health insurance to financially support students in our doctoral programs. SMU offers the following fellowships: 

Blocks with the titles and amounts of SMU graduate fellowships and scholarships.

In some cases, the stipend is contingent upon the student holding a research or teaching assistantship.


Typically research assistantships are funded through faculty members’ research grants from outside organizations. Faculty members determine who and how many research assistants they need in order to get their critical research done.


Typically teaching assistantships are arranged through the university. This arrangement helps graduate students get experience in the classroom and helps institutions balance out the cost of graduate student stipends.

Fellowships beyond your university are also good opportunities for additional financial support during your years of graduate work. Check out fellowship listings like this one dedicated for women across disciplines or this list of STEM-related fellowships.

How a Ph.D. Will Benefit Your Finances?

Although the price tag of a Ph.D. can look steep, the reality is that the vast majority of doctoral students receive full, or significant, funding for their program. This means that you’ll spend 5-7 years earning your degree, but will likely graduate without additional tuition debt, ready to step into your career field as a trained expert. 

But what do the numbers say? Here’s the real story on the financial impact of pursuing a Ph.D. according to research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The truth is, people who have earned a doctoral degree are looking at a significant increase in overall lifetime earnings.

Bar graph of salaries based on degree-level earned.


Competitive Funding and the Student Experience

Tune in for a panel discussion with current Ph.D. Fellows about the competitive graduate fellowships and funding opportunities available and the graduate student experience at SMU.

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View the Recorded Webinar

Advice from Current Ph.D. Students


Amila Nanayakkara

I am Amila Nanayakkara from Sri Lanka. I did my undergrad in University of Colombo. After that I [worked] as a research assistant for 2 years at the Industrial Technology Institute in Sri Lanka.

Now I am in my 5th year pf my Ph.D. program, studying biology. To be specific, we study multi-drug resistant cancers and how to reverse the drug resistance.

Yes, [I did encounter some doubts during my decision process] especially about the future, or what should I do after the Ph.D. It takes 5-6 years [to complete] which is like the best part of your life. I had my doubts [about] investing this much time on the Ph.D.

But I [realized] that there are other options rather than being an academic after [getting] a Ph.D. Also, I was pretty sure that I wanted to do research, wanted to do new things always. I hated routine work. I had a short time job in a bank and I realized that I do not like office work at all [so the Ph.D. became very appealing].

I liked the research [happening at] SMU. I liked to work in cancer biology specifically, and I knew Dr. Vogel and Dr. Wise’s lab [would be] a place I would like to work. Also I think the PI (Principal Investigator, the lead researcher for a grant project) plays a huge part in your lab [experience]. So I wanted to join a lab where you are given freedom and not micromanaged. When I talked to Pia Vogel and Wise I realized this is the best place for me. The whole Biology department seemed like a very friendly place too. Also, I really liked the environment of SMU as a whole as well.

Ph.D. is like a marriage. You have to think a lot before you make the decision and you can not get out just because you do not like it in the middle.

I think you have to select a program, a lab you really love. You have to love what you do. Because this path to Ph.D. can be very difficult. I remember that I did not get any results [in the lab] during first 2 years. But I still loved what I did , so it kept me motivated.

You have to read a lot, I mean a lot! Also you have to come up with your own ideas as well. Do not always only rely on the path your supervisor shows.

You have to make several mini projects while focusing on one big project. So if you hit a road block, you still have [to keep moving on] other [parts of the project]. It can be a tough journey, but you can make it happen.

  • Communication, teaching and presentation skills.
  • How to interact with people/students.
  • Mentorship skills.
  • Problem solving ability.


April Simpson

I am originally from Chattanooga, Tenn. In 2009, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (with minors in Math and World Languages) at Gardner-Webb University. I also completed two master’s degrees at Gardner-Webb between 2010 and 2014: Master of Arts in Religious Studies (concentration in Biblical Studies) and Master of Divinity. From the start of my master’s program, I knew I planned to pursue a Ph.D.

I am now in my third year at SMU. I am a student in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies (Dedman College), and my field of study is New Testament. I have completed all my coursework as well as my comprehensive field exams, and I am in the process of writing my dissertation proposal this fall; I expect to be admitted into candidacy sometime in the next few months.

There were three major factors that could have inhibited my pursuit of the Ph.D.: highly selective admissions processes, cost, and rigor of the Ph.D..

I knew long before I applied that elite programs are highly selective due to funding limitations and high standards. At times I wondered whether I would be able to stand out enough to be selected. My response was to do my part—to work as hard as I could reasonably work—to make myself a desirable candidate for admission. I maintained an excellent GPA, prepared intensely for the GRE, gained teaching experience, involved myself in the Society of Biblical Literature (an important professional organization in my field), and sought out references who could speak to my academic and professional abilities and work ethic. I decided that, while the application and selection process was not totally within my control (you cannot make them pick you), I would foster my own drive to work hard and excel in an attempt to accomplish what was in my own control.

Another factor was cost. I knew that, without tuition funding and stipendiary support, I would not be able to afford pursuit of the Ph.D., nor is it advised in my field to take out loans at this level. Fortunately, most elite programs are fully funded, including a stipend that helps cover living expenses (and unfortunately, this means those programs have even more competitive admission, as I already noted). I decided to apply only to fully funded, widely respected programs so that, if admitted, I would be able to afford a Ph.D. program. And, again, I worked hard to make myself the best applicant I could be.

Finally, I knew that the Ph.D. is a rigorous degree. At times I worried that I would not be cut out for this level of work. Interestingly, these worries tend to manifest themselves not only among aspiring students but also among current Ph.D. students, something we refer to as “imposter syndrome.” At any rate, I listened to and trusted faculty mentors who told me I was, indeed, able to complete a Ph.D.; I listened to my own inner voice that told me to keep at it and to give it my best. And, again, I worked hard.

I did a great deal of selection before ever applying to Ph.D. programs, so that I only applied to programs I was fairly confident I would be willing to attend. Despite some overlap in the application process, each program application is different in some way, and it takes time and resources to apply to schools. As I prepared to apply, I looked for well-respected/highly rated schools that had the following qualities (this list is not ranked): (1) full funding, (2) faculty and program structure that would support my research/career interests and goals, (3) generally, an environment of collaboration rather than of antagonistic competition, (4) high academic standards, (5) a professional atmosphere, (6) a clear commitment to the success of students enrolled in the program, and (7) an interest in professional development not only in terms of research and general professionalism but also—and importantly—in terms of teaching.

When I visited SMU, I was very impressed with the faculty (both their achievements and their willingness to work with me and support my work), the Graduate Program in Religious Studies students (including other newly admitted students), the facilities (including SMU’s beautiful campus and especially Bridwell Library), and the funding. I could envision myself as part of the community here. It became even clearer to me that enrolling in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies (Ph.D.) at SMU was such a great opportunity, one that I could not pass up. Although this meant that my husband and I would be moving far away from family and friends and that we would be adjusting to life in a new city, we embraced this opportunity.

One piece of counsel I received early on was to maintain a realistic attitude about the admissions process, specifically how competitive it is. This means taking seriously the task of being a competitive applicant. Just as importantly, it means not being overly critical of oneself when rejection inevitably comes (from one school or another). This process requires the development of thick skin and reflective self-confidence.

Another key piece of advice I received was to be genuine about my interests and preparation. There is always a degree to which school and applicant alike try to determine best fit, and of course as applicants we want to be competitive and appealing to multiple schools; however, misrepresenting one’s interests does not benefit the applicant or the student in the long run.

I would encourage prospective students to seek out their strongest faculty supporters and cheerleaders as references; to consider each aspect of the application process to be an opportunity to highlight a strength or compliment an area that may not stand out as much; to ask questions about the culture and collegiality of the schools in which they are interested; to be professional but also to be themselves; and to be aware that, while having a sense of one’s research direction and career path is valuable even during the application process, there is also value in remaining open to how one’s interests or specific career aspirations might change in the course of a program.

I have had several opportunities to develop my teaching skills, not only through opportunities to teach courses, to teach individual class sessions, and to lead workshops, but also through various seminars and trainings that are aimed at developing pedagogical skills in both a face-to-face and online format.

Other skills I have developed include general professional development, understanding and engaging religious studies and theology colleagues across disciplinary lines, reading and writing against deadlines, identifying and dissecting arguments more clearly, identifying and engaging various methodologies employed across the humanities, book editing, and website editing.

Through my service on the GPRS Graduate Student Organization and the GPRS Faculty Steering Committee (as a student member), I have developed an increased understanding of the administrative matters that relate to university programs in general and the GPRS in particular. Serving in such an administrative fashion as a member on a committee or otherwise is a transferable skill that I anticipate being valuable to me throughout my professional academic career.

I’ll put it this way. If I could go back and give my pre-Ph.D. self a pep talk about what was coming, I’d say the following: (1) You are more prepared than you know. (2) You will learn so much so fast, so there is no need to worry about feeling out of practice or as if you don’t know how to be a Ph.D. student (and this is only natural—you’ve never been a Ph.D. student before!). (3) It is perfectly fine that you still have questions about how you’ll focus your research; these things take time (and it turns out you are on the right track with your ideas anyhow). (4) You’re going to grow and change a lot during this process, and you’ll have good and bad days. It is worth it. (5) Self-care and relationship-care matter.  

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How Many Years to Get a Ph.D.?
Our Advice for Thriving Every Step of the Way

You’ve applied, been accepted, and decided to attend your Ph.D. program. In the flurry of excitement around your decision, the reality of what the next 5-7 years will look like may have eluded you. What does life as a Ph.D. student really look like? And how long does it take to get a Ph.D.? 

Your time in your Ph.D. program is both exciting and challenging and, depending on your school and program, the next 5-7 years will look a little different for everyone. Here’s what you can generally expect in your Ph.D. program:

Flag with Year 1 written on it.

In the first year, your department should offer you guidance about what classes to take and requirements to fulfill. It’s tempting to jump right into research, but make sure you pace yourself and take advantage of networking opportunities, such as program and college events, graduate associations, and additional lectures. Each of these will expose you to the field and help you to make meaningful connections that will serve you throughout your doctoral program. 

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Read more: 4 Tactics to Help You Build a Professional Network While Getting Your Ph.D.


Flag with Year 2 written on it.

Much the same as year one, your focus will be attending seminars and honing in your dissertation topic. Continue to network and get to know your professors. Usually, sometime in the second or third year you will take your qualifying exams and be admitted to candidacy, formally moving into the dissertation research and writing phase.

In the beginning of Year 2, (if you have not already done so) you’ll want to begin reaching out to faculty mentors and building relationships with them. As you progress through your Ph.D. your faculty mentor, or dissertation advisor, will become one of your most important connections. 

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Read more: 3 Tips for Graduate Students to Consider When Choosing a Faculty Mentor



Flag with Year 3 written on itThis year may be used to complete any remaining seminars, language requirements, qualifying exams, or to focus on perfecting your experiments and solidifying research. If you have not already been admitted to candidacy you will do so here.





Flag with Year 4 written on itAt this point in your doctoral program, teaching and writing is your primary aim. You’ll work closely with your dissertation advisor, and establish a good rhythm of going back and forth regarding your progress. This stage of your Ph.D. will take incredible dedication and patience. 

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Read more: 5 Common Myths About Ph.D. Programs — Setting the Record Straight



Year 5 FlagAnd Beyond — In your final year, you’ve hopefully completed a full draft of your dissertation and will prepare for your defense. If all goes well, you’ll graduate with flying colors! 

Typically, course requirements for your Ph.D. will be completed after the first two years, but this can vary depending on the discipline and program. Keep in mind that some programs have average durations far longer than five years. For example, anthropologists usually do fieldwork for their Ph.D. degrees, which extends the program by several years compared to STEM programs.

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Read More: The Ph.D. Timeline – What Can You Expect From Your Program?

The Final Step: Writing Your Dissertation

The most general statement that can be made about writing your dissertation would describe the process as: do research, propose a prospectus, and then write about it! Writing is a skill perfected by regular practice, so be sure you are consciously honing this skill during your years of coursework and seeking out feedback about how you could improve.

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Read more: Get a sense of what it takes to complete your Ph.D. Here are 5 tips for writing your Ph.D. dissertation 


However, the particulars vary a lot by discipline. In some cases, you will research and write as you go (more often in the humanities); whereas in the sciences, you’ll generally perform research over many years and compile your findings in a dissertation over one to two semesters. In some cases, you are publishing articles throughout your 5 years, and those articles can provide the basis or rough outline for a dissertation. 

As you think about your dissertation, it might seem overwhelming to imagine finding something new or interesting enough to write about it and be deemed an expert. Often your first years in a Ph.D. program, taking coursework and working more directly under faculty, will help you find your research niche that will then become your dissertation. A good Ph.D. program will help you grow and develop as you prepare to work independently as a scholar. 

In almost all cases, dissertation research and writing are self-driven. After you are admitted to candidacy, it is up to YOU to decide what you need to do, when you are going to do it, and what your final product will be. This is where a good advisor, who can provide guidance and help you implement a system to stay on track, is crucial. In addition to having good research, one of the biggest keys to success in writing your dissertation is to be organized. 




Ph.D. Programs at SMU:
A Look at Your Options Across the Disciplines

SMU is a distinguished center for global research with a liberal arts tradition, and our graduate programs are known for their rigor and commitment to research. Here at the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, we are proud to offer 32 Ph.D. programs that are the backbone of the high caliber research taking place at the University.

Check out a full list of all 32 doctoral programs flag

Learn more about some of the Ph.D. programs offered at SMU

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If your interest is piqued and you’d like to learn more about choosing, applying for, and thriving in a Ph.D. program, you can explore the following resources below. You can also reach out to the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies — we would be happy to assist you.

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