How do I Prepare an Outstanding Ph.D. Application?

Application Strategy

How do I Prepare an Outstanding Ph.D. Application?


It is difficult to put specific recommendations onto a timeline, as there are a multitude of potential routes to a complete application. This is a catch-all introduction post, and we will follow up with more detail. You will need some good coursework, good research, good letters of recommendation, and a story to tie them altogether.


All of these can be goals in their own right, but here is another opinion: find what gives you meaning, and be it. People with meaning stand out, because they overcome difficulties easier, think harder and more creatively, and say original and mature things. Professors like to mentor and endorse passionate students. How do you find meaning? By noticing who you are. How do you do that? Through observing yourself in your thoughts and actions.


Pick hard problems - they are interesting and worth solving. Challenge yourself until you have enough. Express the qualities that you would like to be known for. For a good result, show the qualities mentioned in this note and in the first comment to it by Trevor. Commit to a goal you care about - this is actually the same as if you were starting a company. See good if humorous advice on passion here. Be sincere. Have an open mind.


In a research field, read a lot. Reading in a technical field is the same as market research in a business: it is crucial. Get a good outlook - try to understand the important underpinnings of the field. This takes time, so start during or after your freshman year. It is difficult to turn down a passionate student who wants to attend group meetings and read background literature to make him/herself useful. For example, I knew that I wanted to do research on solar energy technology, so I was in a group meeting faster than I was in my first-term class. After 16 weeks of work in that research lab and countless group meetings, I first asked the question "what if ...?" It just happened - I had my first cogent independent research idea. It was tiny, but it was mine. It does not have to take this long. You can have ideas if you let yourself think.


One day, you will come up with your own research ideas. They will make you stand out. Reading and classes lead to research, research leads to recommendation letters. You will have more than all the components of a successful application - those will come as a useful byproduct. Good luck!