For the past several years, the United States has been the go-to destination for competitive, graduate degree-seeking international students. Especially in the STEM fields, large numbers of international students are choosing U.S. universities and colleges for their Ph.D. programs and research opportunities.
More people in the United States are earning their doctoral degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of doctoral degrees conferred increased 15% between 2009–10 and 2019–20 at private nonprofit institutions. There are many reasons people choose to pursue a doctoral degree, including:
Whatever your reason for considering international study for your Ph.D., you probably have some questions and maybe even a few concerns. In this resource, you will find information about choosing and applying to a Ph.D. program; financing your degree; navigating housing and living in the U.S.; and finding resources at SMU that can help you to do all these things successfully.
You will also learn from current and past international students at SMU, as they share their experiences and tips for success.
So you have decided that you want to earn your Ph.D. abroad. With so many reputable graduate programs available in the United States, how do you choose which one is right for you?
The best way to narrow down your list is through a little advanced research that compares what you want in a program with what a program has to offer:
Aside from research focus and program specifics, you should also consider degree funding. If you are looking for someone to help you pay for your doctorate through a grant, scholarship, fellowship, trust, or gift of some other kind, where and how much funding you are offered can play a big role in which program you choose.
Another way to narrow down your choices is to consider the following question: do the program/school’s graduates have careers that I would like to have?
Often, programs will disclose the jobs that their graduates accepted shortly after graduation as well as the careers they hold currently. This can be a good indicator of how well their degree and training prepared them to enter the field.
Your application is a presentation of yourself on paper — your accomplishments, interests, research, and work experience. A strong Ph.D. applicant will meet all of the requirements for admission, and will demonstrate a unique determination to advance their chosen field of study.
Generally, international applications must submit an online application and application fee, transcripts, english proficiency test scores, GRE test scores and letters of recommendation.
It is important to note the application deadlines so that all your materials are submitted in a timely manner.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) evaluate students’ proficiency in four areas of English language skills — reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
A TOEFL/IELTS score is required of all international applicants from countries where English is not the native language. Your test scores must be within the past two years of the application deadline; otherwise, you must retake the test. For more information on the guidelines surrounding testing, including minimum score requirements for admission at SMU, please visit the international applicant page of the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies SMU.
English proficiency tests are important because they demonstrate your ability to function and learn within the English language, a necessary skill for all Ph.D. students in the U.S. IELTS and TOEFL are both widely used and trusted to be accurate. Due to the strict nature of both tests, you can be sure your score is an accurate representation of your understanding of English.
If you score well enough, it might also help you secure a teaching assistantship — and the funding that goes along with it. To serve as a teaching assistant while you earn your Ph.D., your school needs to know that you can accurately communicate the lessons and grade papers and assignments appropriately.
Beyond your academic goals, a good IELTS/TOEFL score can also help you secure a job. Whether you want to work for a multinational company, a government agency or in education, your score will help demonstrate to employers that you have a strong understanding of English.
Here are six helpful tips for the IELTS/TOEFL
Many graduate programs in the United States require students to submit official scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is a test that measures a student’s proficiency and skills in several areas, necessary for graduate education. The test focuses on three areas of competency: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. To succeed in taking the GRE, students should study the structure and scoring methodology of the test.
Students have the option to take the test on paper or online, and should choose the arrangement that works best for them. The test is offered in more than 160 countries, and is administered at 700 test centers around the world. Results can be sent electronically to the program of your choice (SMU’s code is 6660). Most graduate programs require applicants to take the GRE within five years of application.
However, check whether or not your program still requires the GRE. Some programs have opted to be test optional, but English language proficiency test scores are still required by all programs.
A video essay is required for certain Dedman College Ph.D. applicants. You are required to submit a video essay if:
If you receive a higher score than those listed above, the video essay is optional.
Students should not be nervous about the video essay portion of the application. This is an opportunity for you to speak directly to your admissions committee via a recorded response about your passions and strengths. The best thing students can do to prepare for the video essay is to practice a lot, and to think about it like a job interview.
Students will be asked to record their answer to just one question. Students can practice as many times as they want, but they are only allowed two chances to record their final answers. Students will be asked one randomized question from one of the following three categories:
Unofficial transcripts are accepted during the application phase for applicants applying to Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences or the Lyle School of Engineering. Upon admission to SMU, you will need to send official transcripts, certified and translated if from a foreign institution, directly from each school of higher education you attended. Applicants applying to the Meadows School of the Arts or Simmons School of Education and Human Development must provide official transcripts at the time of application.
Applicants must also provide a copy of their diploma in the original language and in English. The translation of these documents should effectively and accurately explain the title of the course from its native language, so the faculty can understand what it is.
Meadows School of the Arts and Simmons School of Education and Human Development also require transcript evaluations for international applicants. All foreign transcripts must be accompanied by a professional evaluation and an official transcript, including an English translation if it is not in English, and course descriptions or syllabi. Dedman College applicants must provide an official transcript evaluation if they hold a 3-year Bachelor’s degree in order to demonstrate equivalency of a 4-year U.S. Bachelor’s degree.
It is the student's responsibility to procure this evaluation and to assume financial responsibility for it. Because of the importance of this information, SMU only accepts evaluations from the following agencies of proven reliability:
The above services' evaluations should include an explanation that the institution is recognized by the ministry of education in the home country and is generally considered to offer at least the equivalent of U.S. higher education credit. In addition, it should include an explanation of the credits, the grading system and course levels, as well as a course-by-course evaluation.
The expertise and reliability of a professional evaluation report is recognized worldwide and is likely to be accepted by other academic institutions, employers and state licensing boards. However, the report is not binding to SMU and it will be considered a recommendation for SMU's independent decision of the credit to be given. Information and applications from the agencies are available online.
As part of your application, you will need to submit three letters of recommendation. When choosing the three individuals who will write your letters of recommendation, you should choose people who know you well and can speak specifically to your accomplishments. Unless you have specific and extensive work experience in your chosen field, the best recommendations for Ph.D. applicants are from academic references.
Be sure to provide them with all the materials they need to craft your letter, and plenty of time to submit it before the deadline.
Depending on the school or college to which you apply, you may be asked to submit additional documents to support your application, such as a resume, personal statement, audition video or portfolio.
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Once admitted, international students must provide a Certification of Finance Form or Letter of Financial Backing as evidence of financial support. A Letter of Financial Backing may be signed by a parent or sponsor, but must be certified by a bank. These documents must be notarized and on file with the university to begin the process to obtain an I-20, as well as a visa and passport.
The cost to obtain a Ph.D. in the U.S. will vary depending on your school, program and whether or not you qualify for funding, like scholarships, grants and fellowships.
There are several different options for funding your Ph.D. degree as an international student in the U.S., the most common of which include:
This section will briefly describe the differences between each, which funding sources are available for international students at SMU, and resources to help you find and apply for each type of funding.
Fellowships are gifts of money, offered by either the university or external benefactors, that are commonly given to students as a merit-based award. Fellowship funding can last anywhere from one year, to the whole duration of a student’s Ph.D. program. Fellowships are frequently used to sponsor a student and fund proposed research that will advance their specific area of study.
At SMU, tuition fellowships are available from the university, and are awarded on a competitive basis for both merit and need. If a program offers departmental funding, students are considered at time of application and do not need to fill out an additional fellowship application. Sometimes additional documentation is required, in which case the department will contact the student directly.
Teaching and research assistantships are available from the departments.
Teaching assistantships are positions in which students support department faculty members in their various courses. Some of these positions will involve work helping the professor prepare materials for the class, and in some cases graduate assistants you may be asked to teach the class yourself.
Research assistantships are similar, in that you will support a department faculty member in their lab and research while receiving compensation, but you will not be involved in classroom interactions.
Similarly to fellowships, they are awarded on a competitive basis for both merit and need, and students are considered for these opportunities at the time of their application. Assistantships cover a student’s tuition and fees and can, in addition, pay stipends for designated work in the departments.
Grants and scholarships are both gifts of free money from both private and public institutions that will not need to be paid back after you finish your Ph.D. These types of funds are usually earmarked for students from specific ethnicities, countries, or with particular skills or other qualifications. The best way to take advantage of grants and scholarships is to begin your research early and apply for as many as possible.
International students are not eligible for U.S. Government grants, but there are plenty of opportunities from private institutions — some even offer fully-funded scholarships or grants for international graduate students. You can find grants and scholarships specifically for international students on websites such as GreatCollegeDeals and CollegeScholarships.org.
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Private loans are offered to international students through a variety of different institutions. Students can borrow up to the total amount of the cost of their education and education related expenses, after financial aid is applied, to be paid back to the institution with interest upon completion of your degree.
You will need to apply for these loans, which will include providing the lender with some financial information. International students applying for loans will often be required to have a creditworthy cosigner on the loan who is a U.S. citizen or a non-citizen permanent resident.
Every international student is required to file a tax return if they were in the US during the previous calendar year. These need to be submitted by April 15th of each year. You must file a tax return (or in some circumstances Form 8843) to comply with a F-1 visa, even if you didn’t earn any money in the U.S..
For more information and resources regarding filing taxes, purchasing access codes, and obtaining the correct paperwork, current students should contact the Office of International Student and Scholar Services.
International students will need to acquire several documents to legally study in the United States. At SMU, our Office of International Student and Scholar Services works with students directly to process their visa paperwork. The office will contact students directly through email, to help get paperwork in order and remind students if anything is still missing.
After being accepted by SMU, a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certified school, international students will begin the process of filling out your paperwork to study in the U.S.. Follow this easy step-by-step list will help ensure international students complete each necessary component.
After one full year of study, international students are eligible to take an annual vacation. Students who wish to find part time employment must speak with their DSO first to ensure that they meet all the necessary requirements.
F-1 students should speak with their DSO if they are planning to do any of the following:
Are you still curious about what the next step towards grad school should be? Want to learn more about SMU's graduate programs?
Southern Methodist University offers several resources to international graduate students, designed to make their time here safer, more comfortable and more enjoyable. We understand that being thousands of miles away from home can be difficult, and we want to make your experience at SMU as fulfilling as possible. From a place to live, to a place to go when you get sick — you will find the resources you need to make Dallas feel like a home to you while you earn your Ph.D.
SMU provides funding to cover the cost of premiums for the Student Health Insurance plan for all full-time enrolled Ph.D. students who meet the eligibility requirements.
Coverage is provided for up to five years, with the goal of improving the quality of life for students and removing a significant financial burden so students can focus on their doctoral studies.
Students who elect to accept the university’s health insurance plan have access to the Dr. Bob Smith Health Center, located on SMU’s campus. Your insurance covers all services offered, including comprehensive quality medical services, dental services, counseling services, and health promotion.
Annual health maintenance such as flu shots are free to students, and the Health Center hosts a pharmacy for students to easily access medications and prescriptions.
At SMU, there are both on- and off-campus housing options for graduate students.
On-campus housing options can be found through the SMU Residence Life and Student Housing website:
Whether you are an international student looking to live off-campus in a larger space that is more accommodating to your family, or you just want the privacy of living on your own, there are several options for graduate students. Check out this list of nearby apartment complexes, or search websites like Very Apt, Zillow, Trulia, or Redfin to find homes or apartments for rent near campus:
SMU is centrally located in the heart of Dallas Texas, just miles from the city center. Dallas is a cosmopolitan city, and home to large groups of individuals from several different nationalities and backgrounds. In our experience, international students have no problem feeling right at home in this cultured city, with grocery stores, restaurants, and cultural centers that offer a little taste of their home country. Once you get to Dallas, be sure to take some time to explore the area, find places where you can buy your favorite food or experience familiar music and art.
Dallas is a large, popular, and easily accessed city, which makes it easy to get to and from SMU.
The SMU Express and Museum Express shuttles are free to all students and do not require a DART Transit Pass to ride.
Read More International Student Experiences:
There are several offices at SMU that are designed to meet the academic, professional, and personal needs of international students while they pursue their Ph.D.. Check out these helpful resources, and don’t hesitate to contact these offices if you have any questions before or during your graduate education.
SMU has seven libraries — six on-campus and one off-campus — that offer students a wealth of opportunity for study, research, and scholarly pursuit. The library system at SMU also offers an online scholarly database with peer-reviewed articles and research that is accessible to all SMU students.
One particularly useful resource for graduate students, is the graduate student lounge located in Fondren Library Red Room 320.
Earning your Ph.D. in the United States is a life-changing experience, which can open up numerous doors to cutting edge research opportunities, and connect you with the leading academic experts in your field.
We hope this guide has provided you with the information you need as you pursue a Ph.D. in the United States as well as specific information about the application process for international applicants at SMU and the resources SMU offers to international students.