Applying PhD for dummies

Applying for a PhD degree can be troublesome. There are agencies out there helping people deal with the process. Is it really necessary to pay lots of money for it? My answer is simply negative. All you need is a right set of tool to track the progress. I will share my experience of applying both the PhD and F-1 VISA (this part only applies to students in Taiwan, as your experience may vary). I started working on my application very late and it resulted in a rush application process. Hope by sharing my experience, you can apply for PhD programs more easily. :)

What do you need?

Before you begin, there are some prerequisites you need to take care of. Here is a short list:

  • The TOEFL examination
  • The GRE examination
  • Résumé
  • Statement of Purpose (and/or Personal Statement)
  • Financial support document
  • Transcripts for your BS and MS degree

Please note that this may not be a complete list of everything you will need for every school. Some schools may ask for additional documents, for example, some schools may requires you to take the Subject GRE examination as well. If you want to apply for the Fall semester, the deadline is usually in December of previous year. For example, you want to apply for Fall 2012. The application deadline would be around December 2011 to January 2012. I would suggest you to take care all of the examinations before November and leave a whole month for getting your application ready as you will need to wait for the deliveries of every documents and letters of recommendation(LoR).

TOEFL/GRE

You usually need to have your examinations scores delivered to the school by the end of the application deadline. Some schools may have one to two weeks extension for test scores. Since the ETS can sometimes be very unproductive, I would suggest you to finish the test before November. Oh, please take a note of the TOEFL/GRE institution code of your target schools. You can request a few free copies on the spot after taking the tests to save money. :P

I don’t really have tips for preparing, as I wan’t very well prepared. However, there is some insights I can share. If you go to PTT, Taiwan’s largest electronic bulletin board system, popular among the university students, and read those test-taking experience shared in TOEFL/GRE board. You will see that many people are complaining about the noise during the oral part of tests. Here is one thing I can tell you, do your tests quickly. If you’re quick enough, you can be the first one to answer the speaking questions before everyone else, so you can relax and do your tests at the best you can.

If you have friends who lives in the States, you can talk to him/her in for practice, you will have no problem on TOEFL test. However, GRE is a lot different. Though the verbal part of GRE may be a pain in the ass, the quantitative part is usually easy for Taiwanese students. We all have that miserable experience preparing for college entrance exam, right? You will definitely need some time to memorize some advanced vocabulary for GRE. Another thing that you may want to practice is AWA. AWA is like writing a small thesis on a given topic. There is no right or wrong. However, you will need to express your opinion systematically and defense your prospective with solid reasons. My tips? Write, write, and read. Find some time to write things down in English, preferably a long blog post or diaries. Read some articles from some well-known journals or magazines. Once you get used to the way of Americans thinking, you should not have problem on AWA.

Last thing to do before taking tests: Spend a day to read some example test questions. It is not your objective to memorize all the questions. What you need to do is to get used to different kind of questions and know how to rush to an answer in no time.

Résumé

I think that you should have your résumé prepared all the time. Trust me. You will not want to write down your whole life in a day. It will be an erroneous and boring process. I would suggest you to write in Markdown syntax (or any plain text formatting syntax you prefer). Writing things down in plain text format can help you to organize things more quickly. If you use Markdown, you can easily convert it into a web page and put it online for display. I will suggest that you do a separate print version using LaTeX, as the template based on LaTeX gives a professional look. It is so easy to maintain compared to those made using Word, Pages or even InDesign.

You can find my résumé here. Make sure you include those sections: basic personal information, education histories, work experiences, publications, some projects that you involved in before. You may want to put as much as possible to show your strength, but do not make it more than 2 pages. Professors and your future employers simply do not have time to read a long résumé. Keep it clean and simple. Highlights the most important things in your life! (Update: If you’re preparing resume for job application, make it in one page.)

SoP and PS

SoP (Statement of Purpose) and PS (Personal Statement) aws quite confusing for me. The purpose of the two documents is actually the same. It presents your background and personality. I distinguish those two by applying more personal touch to the personal statement. You may want to use one or two paragraph to state a personal experience that leads you to your current study, while focus your SoP solely on the what you want to do in the future. I think it should be able to fit in a page or two. I doubt professors would have much time to read, so make it simple and clear.

Financial Document

Hmm, this should be the easiest part. I’m not going to waste much time here. You just deposit money into an account, and apply for the “Certificate of Deposit”, or 存款證明 in Chinese. For the amount, please ask your school for the details. However, an average number would be USD$20000~30000. Some school may not request for it until they’re applying I-20 for you. If that is the case, and you have a scholarship or assistantship offering, you may ask your department or graduate office for the correct amount you will need to prepare.

Some Tips

During the process, I would suggest you to use some spreadsheets software for managing application process of all the different schools. Google Docs would be a good choice. Make sure you print (as PDF, to save papers) and archive everything. Track every letter of recommendations, TOEFL/GRE scores and results. If you do this, you will always have a dashboard for all those different applications. Likewise, since you will need to log into many systems during the application. I would suggest you to use some password manager like 1Password, KeePass to track every used password, because every system will have its own requirement on password. It will help a lot.

Conclusions

You should have everything you need to know by now. For the things I didn’t mentioned above, look for your desired school. You might find some help on the internet as well. Try StudyAbroad on PTT BBS if you’re a Taiwanese student. I hope this experience can be of help. I also hope that you will be admitted by your favorite school. ;)