9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD

The ideal research program you envision is not what it appears to be

By Andy Greenspon, PhD - April 3, 2013 - Updated June 23, 2021  15 mins

Editor's Note: When Andy Greenspon wrote this article, he was a first-year student in Applied Physics at Harvard. Now he has completed his PhD. — Alison Bert, June 23, 2021

If you are planning to apply for a PhD program, you're probably getting advice from dozens of students, professors, administrators your parents and the Internet. Sometimes it's hard to know which advice to focus on and what will make the biggest difference in the long-run. So before you go back to daydreaming about the day you accept that Nobel Prize, here are nine things you should give serious thought to. One or more of these tips may save you from anguish and help you make better decisions as you embark on that path to a PhD.

1. Actively seek out information about PhD programs.

Depending on your undergraduate institution, there may be more or less support to guide you in selecting a PhD program – but there is generally much less than when you applied to college.

On the website of my physics department, I found a page written by one of my professors, which listed graduate school options in physics and engineering along with resources to consult. As far as I know, my career center did not send out much information about PhD programs. Only after applying to programs did I find out that my undergraduate website had a link providing general information applicable to most PhD programs. This is the kind of information that is available all over the Internet.

So don't wait for your career center or department to lay out a plan for you. Actively seek it out from your career center counselors, your professors, the Internet — and especially from alumni from your department who are in or graduated from your desired PhD program. First-hand experiences will almost always trump the knowledge you get second-hand.

2. A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.

Many students don't internalize this idea until they have jumped head-first into a PhD program. The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master's degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.

At the end of your PhD program, you will be judged on your research, not on how well you did in your courses. Grades are not critical as long as you maintain the minimum GPA requirement, and you should not spend too much time on courses at the expense of research projects. Graduate courses tend to be designed to allow you to take away what you will find useful to your research more than to drill a rigid set of facts and techniques into your brain.

3. Take a break between your undergraduate education and a PhD program.

You are beginning your senior year of college, and your classmates are asking you if you are applying to graduate school. You think to yourself, "Well, I like studying this topic and the associated research, and I am going to need a PhD if I want to be a professor or do independent research, so I might as well get it done as soon as possible." But are you certain about the type of research you want to do? Do you know where you want to live for the next five years? Are you prepared to stay in an academic environment for nine years straight?

Many people burn out or end up trudging through their PhD program without a thought about what lies outside of or beyond it. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective. If all you know is an academic environment, how can you compare it to anything else? Many people take a job for five or more years before going back to get their PhD.

It is true though that the longer you stay out of school, the harder it is to go back to an academic environment with lower pay and a lack of set work hours. A one-year break will give you six months or so after graduation before PhD applications are due. A two-year gap might be ideal to provide time to identify your priorities in life and explore different areas of research without having school work or a thesis competing for your attention.

Getting research experience outside of a degree program can help focus your interests and give you a leg up on the competition when you finally decide to apply. It can also help you determine whether you will enjoy full-time research or if you might prefer an alternative career path that still incorporates science, for example, in policy, consulting or business — or a hybrid research job that combines scientific and non-scientific skills.

I will be forever grateful that I chose to do research in a non-academic environment for a year between my undergraduate and PhD programs. It gave me the chance to get a feel for doing nothing but research for a full year. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the Space Division, I was the manager of an optics lab, performing spectroscopic experiments on rocks and minerals placed in a vacuum chamber. While my boss determined the overall experimental design, I was able to make my own suggestions for experiments and use my own discretion in how to perform them. I presented this research at two national conferences as well — a first for me. I was also able to learn about other research being performed there, determine which projects excited me the most, and thus narrow down my criteria for a PhD program.

4. Your current area of study does not dictate what you have to study in graduate school.

You might be studying the function and regulation of membrane proteins or doing a computational analysis of the conductivity of different battery designs, but that doesn't mean your PhD project must revolve around similar projects. The transition between college or another research job to a PhD program is one of the main transitions in your life when it is perfectly acceptable to completely change research areas.

If you are doing computation, you may want to switch to lab-based work or vice versa. If you are working in biology but have always had an interest in photonics research, now is the time to try it out. You may find that you love the alternative research and devote your PhD to it, you might hate it and fall back on your previous area of study — or you may even discover a unique topic that incorporates both subjects.

One of the best aspects of the PhD program is that you can make the research your own. Remember, the answer to the question "Why are you doing this research?" should not be "Well, because it's what I've been working on for the past few years already."While my undergraduate research was in atomic physics, I easily transitioned into applied physics and materials science for my PhD program and was able to apply much of what I learned as an undergraduate to my current research. If you are moving from the sciences to a non-STEM field such as social sciences or humanities, this advice can still apply, though the transition is a bit more difficult and more of a permanent commitment.

5. Make sure the PhD program has a variety of research options, and learn about as many research groups as possible in your first year.

Even if you believe you are committed to one research area, you may find that five years of such work is not quite what you expected. As such, you should find a PhD program where the professors are not all working in the same narrowly focused research area. Make sure there are at least three professors working on an array of topics you could imagine yourself working on.

In many graduate programs, you are supposed to pick a research advisor before even starting. But such arrangements often do not work out, and you may be seeking a new advisor before you know it. That's why many programs give students one or two semesters to explore different research areas before choosing a permanent research advisor.

In your first year, you should explore the research of a diverse set of groups. After touring their labs, talking to the students, or sitting in on group meetings, you may find that this group is the right one for you.

In addition, consider the importance of who your research advisor will be. This will be the person you interact with regularly for five straight years and who will have a crucial influence on your research. Do you like their advising style? Does their personality mesh with yours? Can you get along? Of course, the research your advisor works on is critical, but if you have large disagreements at every meeting or do not get helpful advice on how to proceed with your research, you may not be able to succeed. At the very least, you must be able to handle your advisor's management of the lab and advising style if you are going to be productive in your work.

The Harvard program I enrolled in has professors working on research spanning from nanophotonics to energy materials and biophysics, covering my wide range of interests. By spending time in labs and offices informally chatting with graduate students, I found an advisor whose personality and research interests meshed very well with me. Their genuine enthusiasm for this advisor and their excitement when talking about their research was the best input I could have received.

6. Location is more important than you think — but name recognition is not.

At the Asgard Irish Pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Andy Greenspon talks with fellow graduate students from Harvard and MIT at an Ask for Evidence workshop organized by Sense About Science. He grew up near Boston and chose to go to graduate school there. (Photo by Alison Bert)

The first consideration in choosing a PhD program should be, "Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?" After all, you will have to study this topic in detail for four or more years. But when considering the location of a university, your first thought should not be, "I'm going to be in the lab all the time, so what does it matter if I'm by the beach, in a city, or in the middle of nowhere."

Contrary to popular belief, you will have a life outside of the lab, and you will have to be able to live with it for four or more years. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, your social and extracurricular life will revolve less around the university community, so the environment of the surrounding area is important. Do you need a city atmosphere to be productive? Or is your ideal location surrounded by forests and mountains or by a beach? Is being close to your family important? Imagine what it will be like living in the area during the times you are not doing research; consider what activities will you do and how often will you want to visit family.

While many of the PhD programs that accepted me had research that truly excited me, the only place I could envision living for five or more years was Boston, as the city I grew up near and whose environment and culture I love, and to be close to my family.

While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not. In graduate school, the reputation of the individual department you are joining — and sometimes even the specific research group you work in — are more important. There, you will develop research collaborations and professional connections that will be crucial during your program and beyond. When searching for a job after graduation, other scientists will look at your specific department, the people you have worked with and the research you have done.

7. Those time management skills you developed in college? Develop them further.

After surviving college, you may think you have mastered the ability to squeeze in your coursework, extracurricular activities and even some sleep. In a PhD program, time management reaches a whole new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and homework to do. You will have to make time for your research, which will include spending extended periods of time in the lab, analyzing data, and scheduling time with other students to collaborate on research.

Also, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters, and you will want to attend any seminar that may be related to your research or that just peaks your interest. To top it all off, you will still want to do many of those extracurricular activities you did as an undergraduate. While in the abstract, it may seem simple enough to put this all into your calendar and stay organized, you will find quickly enough that the one hour you scheduled for a task might take two or three hours, putting you behind on everything else for the rest of the day or forcing you to cut other planned events. Be prepared for schedules to go awry, and be willing to sacrifice certain activities. For some, this might be sleep; for others, it might be an extracurricular activity or a few seminars they were hoping to attend. In short, don't panic when things don't go according to plan; anticipate possible delays and be ready to adapt.

8. Expect to learn research skills on the fly – or take advantage of the training your department or career center offers.

This may be the first time you will have to write fellowship or grant proposals, write scientific papers, attend conferences, present your research to others, or even peer-review scientific manuscripts. From my experience, very few college students or even PhD students receive formal training on how to perform any of these tasks. Usually people follow by example. But this is not always easy and can be quite aggravating sometimes. So seek out talks or interactive programs offered by your department or career center. The effort will be well worth it when you realize you've become quite adept at quickly and clearly explaining your research to others and at outlining scientific papers and grant proposals.

Alternatively, ask a more experienced graduate student or your advisor for advice on these topics. In addition, be prepared for a learning curve when learning all the procedures and processes of the group you end up working in. There may be many new protocols to master, whether they involve synthesizing chemicals, growing bacterial cells, or aligning mirrors on an optical table. In addition, the group may use programming languages or data analysis software you are unfamiliar with.

Don't get discouraged but plan to spend extra effort getting used to these procedures and systems. After working with them regularly, they will soon become second nature. When I first started my job at Johns Hopkins, I felt overwhelmed by all the intricacies of the experiment and definitely made a few mistakes, including breaking a number of optical elements. But by the end of my year there, I had written an updated protocol manual for the modifications I had made to the experimental procedures and was the "master" passing on my knowledge to the next person taking the job.

9. There are no real breaks.

In a stereotypical "9-to-5" job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes "whenever you find time to get your work done." You might be in the lab during regular work hours or you might be working until 10 p.m. or later to finish an experiment. And the only time you might have available to analyze data might be at 1 a.m. Expect to work during part of the weekend, too. Graduate students do go on vacations but might still have to do some data analysis or a literature search while away.

As a PhD student, it might be hard to stop thinking about the next step in an experiment or that data sitting on your computer or that paper you were meaning to start. While I imagine some students can bifurcate their mind between graduate school life and everything else, that's quite hard for many of us to do. No matter what, my research lies somewhere in the back of my head. In short, your schedule is much more flexible as a PhD student, but as a result, you never truly take a break from your work.

While this may seem like a downer, remember that you should have passion for the research you work on (most of the time), so you should be excited to think up new experiments or different ways to consider that data you have collected. Even when I'm lying in bed about to fall asleep, I am sometimes ruminating about aspects of my experiment I could modify or what information I could do a literature search on to gain new insights. A PhD program is quite the commitment and rarely lives up to expectations – but it is well worth the time and effort you will spend for something that truly excites you.


Andy Greenspon
Written by

Andy Greenspon

Written by

Andy Greenspon

Andy Greenspon is a first-year PhD student in Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prior to that, he worked in the Space Research and Exploration group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for a year. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and received a BA in physics from Amherst College.

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46 Archived Comments

Elvis A. F. Martis April 3, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Thanks Andy, this was really useful and have really given a direction to my thoughts.


Elvis A. F. Martis

Andy Greenspon April 5, 2013 at 1:26 am

Hi Elvis,

Thank you for your reply. I'm glad you found it useful. I'm hoping that it will help those who are in the position I was in just a year or two ago. Mostly, as you said, I hope that it will give people's thoughts about a possible PhD some direction, and that they will be able to take some of this to heart.


-Andy Greenspon

karin rheeder April 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Thank you for these practical advice.

Andy Greenspon April 12, 2013 at 3:04 am

Hi Karin,

Glad to have helped!

Andy Greenspon

g satya June 16, 2013 at 11:00 pm

<p>Dear Andy,</p>


These may really serve as starter but I feel knowledge of much more things are needed, not about research but fulfilling formalities of a PhD program. Research is still a different issue. I think more I read more experienced I would become.</p>


How can one assess one's research aptitude? By being able to read and understand difficult texts, being able to solve difficult problems differently, by working on new ideas to conclusively arrive at results?</p>


What do the research grants aim to fund? What aspects do they cater?



Also, many ask letter of recommendation. As you say many take a break of few years between their UG and Graduate Program. Then whom to ask that? Most of our previous lectures or professors in UG would have forgotten us. </p>


Finally, are you able to spend your quality time to entertain family &amp; friends?</p>

Andy Greenspon June 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm

<p>Hi g satya,</p>

<p>First of all, I can only comment on PhD programs in the United States - I do not know how things may vary in Europe or other parts of the world. From looking into different U.S. PhD programs, I've found that the formalities of the program are not nearly as important as the research aspect. Your courses will be secondary to your research - they may compliment it, but you will want to finish them so that you are able to focus primarily on your research. Comprehensive exams might be something to consider as well as teaching assistantship requirements and availability of funding. I would say you should only join a PhD program where there is an understand that you will have funding as long as you are there, though it may come from many different sources. Some universities provide more of a guarantee than others. You should consider these factors but your research interests should be primary - if you aren't happy with what you do (at least a lot of the time), then it won't matter how you are funded.</p>

<p>As I have only been doing research now for a couple years, I cannot truly comment on how to asses one's research aptitude. I would say a crucial component is being able to think independently and in a group about a scientific problem and possible solutions to it. This will involve synthesizing the ideas in a variety of journal articles with your own research and understanding of your topic of choice. If you are able to read and understand difficult texts, but you cannot (by the end of your PhD program) come up with scientific problems to address and possible solutions, then research will be extremely difficult. The former would be the primary work of a masters program whereas the latter is the focus of the PhD. I am not even close to mastering these research skills, and I think the point of the PhD program is to develop these skills (how else will you learn them?). You may find that near the end of your PhD that you are not the best at research. But if you get that PhD, then you will have many opportunities to do non-research jobs or jobs that involve a bit of research but primarily other skills you may find you are better at. Alternatively, you can work for a while before embarking on a PhD, but your ability to get a position that allows you to think independently and practice these research skills in a scientific context may be limited without a PhD - it might come down to chance what opportunities are presented to you.</p>

<p>In terms of research grants, I do not know much about this process. I have found that you apply to PhD programs with a general research area in mind and then talk to as many professors as possible about the details of their research and whether they have funding available for you. Finding and applying for research grants is primarily the professor or principle investigators job and at least early on in your PhD, you will hopefully not have to worry about doing these things yourself. Again, there are exceptions if you accidentally find yourself in a program that lacks funds for you.</p>

<p>In terms of letters of recommendation, for many it might be too late for some advice like taking time to speak with your professors or advisors in office hours, etc. Regardless of such communication as an undergraduate, keep in touch with the professors you are close to and would want to write you letters of recommendation. If you have done research with these professors in the past, then they should remember you for at least a few years. One recommendation should come from your most recent scientific employer if you get a job after undergraduate. I had one letter from the researcher I worked for in my gap year, one from my undergraduate thesis advisor, and one from a professor who I know regarded me highly based on conversations with her. I was also fortunate that I applied for a few fellowships in my final year of undergraduate before I chose to take the gap year, so my professors had already written me letters of recommendation from which to use as a reference to modify recommendation letters in the future for anything else I might apply for.</p>

<p>Since I am doing a PhD in the region I am from, I do find I have ample time to spend with family and friends. During the school year, it was a bit more difficult because I had to balance coursework, research, and free time. Now that it is summer, I only have research to worry about. The amount of time to spend with family and friends really depends on how much time you want to devote to your lab work. It's very independent. You could spend 40 hours a week in the lab or 80 hours a week if you really want. This will depend on how quickly you want to graduate, whether there are any pressing deadlines involving your research, and where your priorities lie between school and social activities. It's very personal and may also depend on what your advisor expects of you. Which is again, all the more reason to have a long talk with any potential advisor before committing.</p>

<p>Hope that helps. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.</p>



g satya June 22, 2013 at 6:10 am

<p>Sticking to the topic of 'research aptitude.' Yes, one lecturer told "I dont know how he would doing in exams but I will say he will be doing well in research." Still I was far away from systematic research. I too believed that I can too do research.</p>

<p>How would you define research skills? Wont anyone need command in that field? You said thinking, but its direction should be a valid one in order to prove it. Yes papers of others can be churned that may give an insight or say help us form hypothesis research is beyond that, I feel. How is a research topic allocated or accepted? Does the committee or supervisor contemplate the validity of that topic?</p>

<p>Also, I had told about working on new ideas to conclusively arrive at results. Does it not involve research?</p>

<p>Is survey and review of literature done as part of the program. If so, when? Presumably, after that training part, after the quals?</p>

<p>What is duration of UnderGrad in the US?</p>

<p>Lastly, Newton didnt take any formal training on research but still regarded an icon.</p>

Andy Greenspon July 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

<p>Hi again,</p>

<p>Research skills: This is somewhat broad and vague and hard to identify.</p>

<p>As I mentioned previously, you need to be able to think independently and in a group about a scientific problem and possible solutions to it. Being able to read a textbook and journal article and figure out the key points even if you have limited knowledge of the topic will be important. Also, being able to communicate effectively with others who may know more about the topic and just being able to communicate your ideas with others. These are the upper level, more difficult skills to achieve, which take time and experience.</p>

<p>The more concrete skills you need are understanding how to operate your scientific apparatus and being able to do a variety of different procedures to get your experiment to work. Much of scientific research is troubleshooting problems you will inevitably have – why your first and future results don’t look as you expected – to determine whether you’ve made a new discovery or if there’s some systematic problem with the equipment you used. Understanding how your experimental apparatus works is critical.</p>

<p>In order to gain these skills, I would say experience is really what is necessary. Observing others operate your experimental equipment and then just practicing a lot on your own will let you master it quickly – sometimes you will have to fumble around with something for hours before operating it becomes second nature. Being exposed to new ways of looking at scientific problems and also how day-to-day scientific research operates. Regular feedback on your research and anything you write is also critical for improvement.</p>

<p>How a research topic is chosen definitely depends on the research group. In some groups, you may be given a very specific topic and task to do as a beginner project, and are expected to be able to branch out from that. In other groups, if you have your own idea, you may just be asked to do some background research about it and try some experiments. Eventually, you are expected to come up with your own ideas and talk to other researchers in your group and your primary investigator/advisor about them to see if they have merit. Sometimes, you just have to try different thinks out to see if they have potential. Any work you do eventually must be approved by a committee, and you will have to justify the research. But if you are getting preliminary results that look promising, your advisor will probably let you continue to work on it.</p>

<p>You survey and review literature on a topic you have interest in if you want to work on it. There’s no specific time period to get this done. If you want to research a topic before applying, that might help you write a more targeted application essay or give you a more specific idea of what topic you want to work on before you start. But it is not necessarily necessary as long as you have a general idea of the research area you want to work in and why. Literature review occurs throughout your graduate school career whenever you need more information on a topic.</p>

<p>Undergraduate (to get a BA) in the US is generally 4 years though it can be done in a shorter period – one year longer than in Europe I think, generally.</p>

<p>Famous scientists from hundreds of years ago sometimes had much less formal training, but many of the scientific questions to address required much less complex experimental apparatus than they do now. Though if you are a pure theorist or doing computer science or computer engineering, people often do studies on their own before getting a PhD – e.g. the rise of the start-up sector.</p>



Abdenago Trejo June 30, 2013 at 7:47 am

Estoy estudiando un doctorado en Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas y pienso que este articulo debí leerlo antes de tomar la decision. Me parece pertinente y apropiado para que los candidatos lo lean y refleccionen. Aún asi, creo que puedo sacarle provecho.

Andy Greenspon July 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Gracias por tu comentario. Me alegro de que pueda ayudarte.

remo July 12, 2013 at 8:57 am

Hi Andy,

I have 7 years of work experience but somehow i feel am not putting my efforts in the right direction. Presently am looking for Phd options in US but at the same time i am not sure about the payback period . I have decent salary but job satisfaction is not there.

Are Phd’s paid well in US? Scholorships and Funding – are they sufficent for surviving ? I have a family (2 year old kid) , so need to evaluate all the points before taking the admission.

Andy Greenspon July 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm

<p>Hi Remo,</p>

<p>In general for a science Phd, you should not join a program unless they pay essentially all tuition and fees, and you get a stipend for living expenses. The stipend may be paid through combined work as a research and teaching assistant – you should check the requirements of any given program. This stipend will be based on the cost of living in the area where the university is. You should compare these as a smaller stipend in a cheaper location might actually end up being the better deal than a larger stipend in a much more expensive location. Since you have a family, I imagine you may be more limited in your ability to relocate. The stipend is plenty to live on if it is by yourself. If you have a spouse and a kid, I think it would be extremely difficult to get by on only that stipend. If your spouse is also making an income, it would depend on what that income is. I am unmarried and without kids, so I suggest you ask someone who is getting or did their PhD work while raising a kid at the same time.</p>

<p>In terms of pay once you get a PhD, there are many websites which will show different incomes for PhDs in different industries. I also suggest you ask people with PhDs in the field you want to study. After initially getting a PhD, I know of two main tracks – you could do a post-doc, where you do more research in another lab in preparation to apply for jobs as a professor or you could go straight into the private sector. Post-docs pay a bit better than PhDs but still not that much – if you get a research position at a national lab, you will definitely make more. If you go straight into the private sector, you can definitely make a very good salary from what I have researched and been told.</p>

<p>You’d have to ask people who have PhDs, but I imagine the payback is worth it in the long run definitely, even 5 years after receiving your PhD, if you choose the private sector or national lab tracks – it all depends on what you want to do with your career. The intellectual reward is definitely worth it in my opinion.</p>

CHITRA RAJAGOPAL July 31, 2013 at 11:59 am

Thank you so much for your valuable tips which again lightened the lamp in me to get in to the field of research,my passion.

Andy Greenspon September 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Hi Chitra,

I’m glad I could help get you excited about your research! Best, Andy

Gopal August 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm

<p>Hey Andy, You have given a good perspective.</p>

<p>How did you come to know that this project was funded in Harvard? Is it that you applied for PhD admission at Harvard & you got selected and thereafter the University directed you to specific Professor? Or is it that you simultaneously contacted the professor in addition to formal application? More specifically how to know if a specific research project is funded OR if a specific professor has PhD positions open in a university? The research areas shown in the University website may be both current and past work in the area. How will an applicant staying outside the US get these info? Thanks in advance. Gopal</p>

Andy Greenspon September 3, 2013 at 5:26 pm

<p>Hi Gopal,</p>

<p>Your questions are very good and important things to consider. I essentially just looked at the websites for different research groups. These days, most of them are up to date and tell you what is current research and past research.</p>

<p>During my search, I found that most Professors do not want to hear from prospective students until after they are admitted. You can try sending them emails but oftentimes, they will just refer you to their website or make reference to the application for the program. It really depends on the school and the program. On the Harvard application for my program, for instance, you listed the top three Professors who you would want to work with. In some programs, you might be more locked into a research advisor than others if admitted. I suggest trying to contact Professors if you are very very interested in their research and have some knowledge of it. In your application essay, make sure you list 2 or 3 Professors whose research you would like to work on and make sure you have given some sort of explanation as to why you want to do that research.</p>

<p>In terms of funding of projects, I think that is very dependent on each professor and their funding situation. In general, if you are admitted into a program, you will get funding to do research – but you may have to teach a good amount and have some limitations to your research project. This you should determine once you are admitted – talk to each professor you’d consider working with – ask what they have funding for – details are very important when actually deciding on a school.</p>

<p>Many websites now say whether a professor is taking on students in the upcoming year. Even if you do not get much information from a professor, feel free to email them to ask if they will be accepting students in the upcoming year when you write to ask about their research. You can also ask what research is current, only if the website is not clear on this – if not, it will seem like you did not read the group website first. In general, they will reply to you – ask them at least a few weeks or more ahead of the application deadline though, so you know what to add or remove from your application essay. Make sure you also email their administrative assistant or else they might not notice the email or think it is spam – these professors are very busy.</p>

<p>Also, remember as I stated in the article, what you think you will do research on in graduate school often is very different from what you actually do. Based on availability of funding and how research projects evolve, it is most likely you won’t be working on exactly what you plan to before starting your program – unless you have a specific research project you’ve been working on and expect to continue working on. In such a case, it might be more important to email a professor working on the same specific research. I’ve found many people who apply only have broad ideas about what they plan to work on.</p>

<p>Hope that helps.</p>



Smartbrainz August 13, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Aweome article Andy,nice advice

Andy Greenspon September 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Thanks. I’m glad I could help.

O'malley August 19, 2013 at 11:59 am

Great Post. Andy

Andy Greenspon September 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Thank you!

Anup August 21, 2013 at 8:55 am

Awesome article and Great advice. I’m really REALLY interested in computer science. I’m thinking of pursuing a PhD in computer science.

Andy Greenspon September 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Hi Anup,

That sounds really great. Make sure you know what a PhD in computer science will entail – I know very little in-depth about such research, but I think it is very different from just doing coding and programming for a company. Make sure you have done some sort of work previously that is at least of the same style to make sure you are ready for it.



akosh February 21, 2014 at 7:53 am

CS PhDs do not pay well anymore. It is better to just learn to program.

Dr. Rodney E. Rohde August 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

<p>Andy’s advice is excellent. And, I would echo all of his comments. More advice: (1) Immerse yourself in “writing” and how to successfully navigate funding proposals, of ALL types (federal, state, foundations, private/corporate, military) while working on your PhD; (2) I would also STRESS how important it is to find a strong MENTOR (Dissertation chair? Great…but someone that can give you critical feedback on projects and encouragement); (3) Grow a thick skin and take critical feedback for what it is…it’s OK to sulk a bit (we all do when we find out we are Nobel prize winners in our first years of grad school), but get over it ASAP and “learn” from these comments. Most profs/advisors have much to share when it comes to the ins and outs of research design, writing for publication, or finding grants; (4) Find the RIGHT dissertation Chair for you…I always tell new PhD students that the Chair of the Program may not be the right choice….or, a brand new Tenure Track professor, or, the 30+ year Professor in the department….do your research! Do they “graduate” students in a timely manner, or they decently well-known in their research field? or they collegial? And, it’s OK if they are tough….if they teach you something and get you through the process, that’s what matters. It’s like parenting….they shouldn’t be your “friend” when they need to be your parent!; (5)Direct your course research projects towards your dissertation. If you can conduct literature researchers or pilot research projects in your prep courses towards what you want to do your dissertation on, DO IT! the sooner the better…; (6) Keep your dissertation topic NARROW as possible. You may want to save the world, but do you want to spend 10 years on your PhD?? You have a research life after the PhD is done to save the world. Certainly, if you want to do win the Nobel while working on your dissertation, then go for it…but be prepared for a long commitment; (7) There’s a reason 50% of PhD candidates stay ABD….perseverance and finishing the job, in my humble opinion, are the two most important traits/qualities one needs after coursework is complete. SET AN AGENDA/SCHEDULE with your Dissertation Chair and be ACCOUNTABLE to it and keep your Chair accountable!! I met with my Chair every 3 weeks during my dissertation and finished in 1.5 years! It CAN BE DONE! (8)Focus only on the next step/hurdle as you work….Proposal / research design – check, IRB/consent – check, gather data – check, analysis – check, WRITE WRITE WRITE with a purpose and schedule – CHECK, DEFEND – check, FINISH!!! YES!!! (9)Find a strong quantitative (or qualitative) research colleague that will assist you with a strong design!! it’s very important and will make your dissertation “matter” and not end up on the shelf; (10) Promote your work and talk to others, not only on your campus but go to grad research forums, professional organizations for graduate research presentation, etc…. GO DO IT!! Success is about hard work and persistence….it’s what separates the “almost finished” from Job well done!</p>

<p>Good Luck,</p>

<p>Dr. Rohde</p>

Andy Greenspon September 3, 2013 at 3:22 am

<p>Thank you for your advice Dr. Rohde. Echoing that a little bit:</p>

<p>1) Find places to practice your “writing” whenever you can, all different types – you won’t realize how little you have written while you’ve been doing experiments and writing models until you are trying to put together a paper out of the research you’ve done for a year. Practice writing science for the public and scientists unfamiliar with your field – it will help you gain a better understanding of your own research and improve your ability to promote it. Of course, you need to perfect your scientific skills but without communication skills, your research will mean nothing.</p>

<p>2) Make sure your research advisor/mentor is someone who you connect with for the long term and will provide you what you think you need in your studies, not who you think will give you the most fame or who will go easy on you, as you will be working with them for 3+ years most likely.</p>

<p>3) Excellent advice Dr. Rohde about how to utilize courses. During my first year, I did not have a research direction, so it was hard to tie final course projects to my research interests, but for my upcoming year, I plan to do exactly that!</p>

<p>4) Once you are done with course work, set up a schedule that is determined but feasible. This is easier for me to do because the equipment I use sometimes needs to be booked at least a week ahead, so this forces me to plan my experiments into the future and to lock in a time when I know I will do a procedure – if I booked it, I have to use it. Do not schedule so much that it is not possible to do it all – you will just get in the habit of ignoring your schedule, and then you are left with no way to direct yourself. Or you will not sleep enough (definitely do not sacrifice sleep unless it’s a very important deadline!), and your work will suffer.</p>

<p>5) Work steadily and consistently – focus on each next step – if you try to consider the next 4 years of your experiments and your life at once, you will definitely get overwhelmed.</p>

<p>Good luck!</p>



Chris September 3, 2013 at 10:53 am

<p>Hi Andy, this was a great article! You gave me some nice ideas for forming my plan for applying to PhD programs. I actually just finished my master’s at JHU, taking classes at APL. I am keenly interested in getting my PhD in Physics, though from my research of American colleges and international ones, too, it seems like one needs at least a moderate amount of lab experience. Unfortunately for me, my undergrad school did not do much regarding labs other than what I volunteered for on the side doing a little bit of optics research (6 years ago). The master’s program offered zero lab experience, and did not require a thesis, either, so I feel like I am severely behind the curve regarding getting in anywhere.</p>

<p>Do you or anyone reading this have any advice on how to compensate for this? Basically, I have a bunch of book learning, but not much hands-on learning, and experimental physics is where I am leaning.</p>

<p>Thanks for your help!</p>


Andy Greenspon September 4, 2013 at 11:27 am

<p>Hi Chris,</p>

<p>I’m glad I could provide some guidance. I didn’t know that there were actual classes at APL – sounds awesome.</p>

<p>First of all, a lack of lab experience won’t prevent you from getting into a PhD program, but it could be a hinderance depending how you spin it. I think more than anything else, professors want to know that you have done some lab work, 1) so you have a bit of background before you start, but more importantly, 2) that you are committed to long term lab research. If you have not really done it before, it might be hard to know if you won’t get bored after a year or two and drop the program.</p>

<p>Considering the amount of book learning you have, I might advise you to try to find a year or two year lab research position to get some experience before applying. I know my year break definitely helped me. Do you know anyone at APL as a result of your master’s program that you could talk to about getting a short term lab job? Networking is critical. Also, it is very useful to have a recommendation letter from someone who you have worked with in a lab environment. Even if the research isn’t directly related to what you want to study in the future, a lot of lab experience is very similar even if the details are different. e.g. using chemicals, working with lab equipment, doing spectroscopic characterization, preparing samples, and of course, troubleshooting problems. The research area I worked in at APL is very different from what I am doing now but there was a lot of skill overlap – e.g. optical characterization techniques, working with optical equipment, troubleshooting problems on my own, and discussing issues with colleagues.</p>

<p>In short, lab work is very different from the classroom, so I would try and get some experience, if not for others to know, then simply for yourself to make sure this is the path you want to go down.</p>

<p>Hope that helps.</p>



Chris September 15, 2013 at 9:52 pm

<p>Hi Andy,</p>

<p>That was some great info you provided in your response. Thank you for that. Yeah, the classes are part of JHU’s Engineering for Professionals program, and most classes are held either at the Gibson Library or Kossiakoff Center.</p>

<p>You definitely hit it regarding lab work. Like I mentioned before, I did do some when I was in undergrad, but that was more than 6 years ago. So, I certainly ‘think’ I would like to do lab work, but my experience has certainly been limited. I applied to several research jobs, including at APL, but have been unsuccessful so far, despite a couple of my professors helping with networking. So, part of my reason for wanting to go the PhD route is to get into research and development, since my master’s hasn’t really worked out in terms of getting a science job.</p>

<p>Anyway, I will keep applying to places out here. Maybe one of them will work out, and I will test the waters in terms of labwork. In the meantime, I will keep looking into PhD programs.</p>

<p>Thanks again.</p>


Andy Greenspon November 22, 2013 at 7:15 am

Hi again Chris,

Don’t give up on applying for research jobs. Continue networking - it will undoubtably pay off in the future if not at the moment. Doing one of those for a year would definitely help your odds for a PhD program. But the Masters you have will also help a lot in your application for a PhD program. The best thing you can do is determine where your research interests lie. Then do some checking on the PhD programs that focus on your areas of interest and have professors whose research intersects with your interests. Make sure you explain in your personal statement how your past experiences have led to your current interests and give at least a little bit of detail on what you might want to work on and how it aligns with the research in the department you are applying to. Recommendations are pretty important, so if you have anyone who can attest to your research skills, you should seek them out.

Good luck!


Peya Nazmun Nahar September 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thank you so much for all the informatinos! Surely it will help me to make a wise decision.

Best wishes.


Andy Greenspon October 10, 2013 at 8:47 pm

You are most welcome. Good luck with your decisions!

Premchand September 20, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Dear Andy, the information is of great use for me. Thank you & Best wishes

Andy Greenspon September 24, 2013 at 3:35 am

I'm glad I could help. Good luck!

Nick October 14, 2013 at 8:22 am

This is good. Resonates with some things I wrote in 'Look before you leap' blog post https://wp.me/pLpEp-7x

Will October 18, 2013 at 6:08 pm


Thank you for a great article. I am at the opposite end of the spectrum, aka new student/Freshman. I am older than my peers, but, I have found my passion in the Living Sciences. My focus is going to be Biochemistry, and I want to work in a lab environment.

My question to you; while I will obtain my Bachelor's, is it plausible to go for my PhD (I will be in my 50's by the time I get it )?

I am not concerned with the various things that have been mentioned, such as location, etc. I am unattached, so I can focus where I need to.

Again, just asking for general feedback. Thank you.


Nish October 21, 2013 at 9:23 am

I've enrolled as part time, self -funded international . And spent first year but still have not find a topic ? still no sense :(

Andy Greenspon October 28, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Hi Nish,

I'm sorry to hear that. Do you mean that you do not have a research advisor/group yet also? If you are part of a research group, it does not mean you will already have your precise PhD topic. Your specific area of research very likely will change over 3-4 years. As long as you are working in your field of interest, then you should end up okay. Take all my advice in the article about choosing an advisor - that will be one of the most important factors in shaping your research and how quickly your research progresses.

But as you have enrolled part time and self-funded, it is a very different and may be a difficult position. I do not think I know of very many part time PhD students - you really must be able to devote a large chunk of your time to your research if you want to make steady progress. Please let me know more details of your situation if you have any specific questions.



David Magintan October 25, 2013 at 3:30 am

Thanks Andy for this very valuable and great article. In a week time, I will register for my PhD at my former university (first degree). I felt very excited to embark on and learn new things. My field would be a little bit different from my first degree but it is still very related. I like most of your points especially the 3rd one. I finished my first degree in 1997, master degree 2000, has joined current department 2004 and now I already 9 years in the same department... I know the environment of my works, with a little bit of experience, I have decided to take on PhD. All those experience in my current work hopefully can help me to finish and get better knowledge and ideas.

Andy Greenspon October 27, 2013 at 12:58 am

Hi David,

Thanks for sharing your experience. I bet your years of experience after your masters degree will help make your PhD a smooth experience. I don't know what you do in your current position, but the initial transition may be a bit of a shock if you aren't used to doing any coursework (I don't know if you will have to do any coursework if you already have a masters). And also simply because of the change of your status to a &quot;student&quot; again, but after a month or two, I think it will become second nature.



Andy Greenspon October 31, 2013 at 1:44 am

Dear Will,

I do not have any experience in this area, but I can probably point you in the direction of people who can help. I think it might be difficult to go for your Bachelor’s and PhD at the same time because PhD programs generally require a Bachelor’s in some form, if only due to the existence of the current entrenched system. That being said, many schools are very helpful when it comes to “non-traditional” students. As such, you could probably do an accelerated Bachelor’s program while at the same time doing some research to get yourself started towards your PhD. Every school would be different, and I encourage you to talk to both professors and especially the administration for any given department to see what they would permit. Also, your previous experience would be a factor. Do you already have some research experience in the life sciences in whatever form it may be?

Let me know if you have any more questions.



Temba Munsaka October 31, 2013 at 8:23 am

I am currently doing a PHD program in project management, its a distance learning prohram and I realise that doing thing on my own terms feels really good to design my own study times and attend classes once in a while helps. I am due to start my research in 2014! Thanks for the fantastic advice Andy! (Zimbabwe)

Andrew Greenspon November 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Hi Temba,

I'm glad such a program is working out for you. It definitely takes self-motivation to do a program where you are independently setting up your own schedule. Such organization and independence are invaluable skills in research though! (Along with effective communication with co-workers.)



Jute November 5, 2013 at 3:06 pm

'While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not'. So it may seem, my friend, from the ivory tower of Harvard ...

Andrew Greenspon November 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Hi Jute,

I chose Harvard more for the location than the prestige. I'm from the Boston area and wanted to be near close family and friends. If I had been from Chicago, for example, I would have probably tried to go to Northwestern if I were accepted. I did not say reputation isn't important - simply that the reputation of the graduate program and researchers trumps the overall reputation of the university. For example, UMass Amherst, while as a state school not having the same name-recognition as Harvard, has one of the top Polymer Science programs in the nation. Had location not been one of a number of critical factors for me, I could have ended up in that program.



Adithya November 12, 2013 at 6:40 am

A very interesting read and question-answers followed. I am going to read this frequently.

Thank you Andy, you have been so patient in responding to all the queries in detail following your article.

Andy Greenspon November 14, 2013 at 5:20 am

Hi Adithya,

I'm glad to be able to help - it is no trouble at all. It is true what they say - write about what you know.



Dr. Jaded November 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm

#1 should have been: &quot;Don't Fucking do it&quot;

There is one person and one person only who benefits from you getting a PhD and its your adviser. Do the math, the opportunity cost that you lose in the 6-8 years that it takes for you to do a PhD/postdoc will not add up to the benefits of having it. No company wants a PhD +0 years experience...go look on indeed.com.

#2 Your skill set will be so specialized (read: limited) that you will qualify for 6-10% of the qualifications asked for on a job posting.

#3. enroll in the PhD program that guarantees you funding for a TA, work hard, write a Masters thesis, quit while you are ahead, and take the free degree and run. Run to the plethora of BS/MS level jobs that will pay you more than ANY postdoc.

#4 NOBODY outside of the 4 to 5 labs that study whatever nonsense you study gives a flying fuck about your research.

#5 the authors assertion of &quot;take advantage of your career center&quot; or &quot;think about scientific solutions to a problem&quot; are some of the most hoidy-toidy Ivy league garbage I have ever heard. You will do the research project that your adviser wants you to do. There is leeway to insert a direction or an idea for your work, but don't get ahead of yourself captain PhD student, you are just a vessel for your advisers ideas.


#6. If you love science you should especially not do it. If you love to beg the government for money on a repeated basis and love rejection as a weird sado-masochistic fetish GO FOR IT! The success rate of grants will show you are probably better off begging people at a traffic light for spare change....your success rate will surely rise.

#7 there wont be a academic job for you unless you have funding; please see #6 above, and even then the rate of PhD production to tenured professors that croak is like 25000:1. Oh and if you are lucky enough to land a postd(slave labor situation)oc, if you dont have funding within a year....your'e fired. Please see #6 above.

#8 PhD's are generally assholes. Entitled assholes at that...This is why if you get out of your PhD and try to go work in industry, good luck even being considered because there is likely going to be another asshole PhD running the project, or the lab, or whatever; who thinks his/her shit don't stink and he doesn't want what he/she perceives as a second asshole PhD challenge the illusion of his/her intellectual superiority.

#9 dont fucking do it. get a job, and thank me in 6 years when you have dental and a nice 401K and your newly minted asshole PhD buddy takes a low paying postdoc that isn't eligible for benefits, and gets fired after a year and a half of grant rejections. You are not special, having a PhD doesn't make you special, it just makes you a dick with no funding that the other asshole PhD's can look down on.

Joe December 11, 2013 at 3:14 am

I guess i will no longer apply.

Taylor February 27, 2014 at 5:28 am

Thankfully, people like Dr. J can't get jobs. We need less people like this in academia and more people who can think creatively. If you think like Dr. J, then yes, that is exactly what is going to happen to you. Do your homework. Find an advisor that you can work with - this is a two way interview. If you go into it blindly, then yes, you will end up as slave labor for someone else. Not everyone is that way. Just like finding a job, you interview them as much as they interview you. It is a two-way street and you do have the option to say no thank you and look elsewhere.

Andy's advice about working between undergrad and graduate school is spot on. Get some real life experience, develop skills and then decide if you want to do graduate school. Going from high school to undergrad to graduate school likely won't get you the high paying job and it will likely get you seriously in debt. So be smart and plan your route. Don't be Dr. J.

I got my undergrad and then went and worked in industry and academia. I paid off the undergrad loans and developed a skill set in a variety of areas related to science. I knew that at some point I would go to graduate school and that I would not take loans to do it. I worked in research labs, traveled around and got publications along the way. Eventually, I went to grad school. I paid my own way through, no loans and no debt. My masters and PhD were in very different fields and at different schools. I planned it that way and did a fellowship between the MS and PhD.

Because of my varied background and skill set, I got a tenure-track position before I had defended my PhD. So, it can be done if you plan it correctly and you know what you want to do. I am not doing this for the money, I am doing this because I truly like what I am doing. Doesn't mean I don't encounter the lemons like Dr. J. They are everywhere in the world, even in jobs where PhD's don't exist.

Moral: if this is something you really want, you will find a way to succeed. If all you do is complain and look for the negatives like Dr. J., then that too is all you will find.

Samra November 27, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Hi Andy,

Thank you for your useful article. I'm a student in the Masters in Economics program in Toronto. I was 26 when I started university (after a bad marriage and 2 children), completed my undergrad with many awards, scholarships and distinctions and even on the top student in Economics award at graduation at the University of Toronto - all the while raising 2 young children as a single mother. I'm now pursuing my Masters, again at U of T. I got into the PhD stream (taking PhD courses during Masters), hence received a good funding package.

I have been advised by many of my professors to pursue a PhD. I enjoy teaching and like research, based on the limited exposure I've received. My dilemma is whether I should apply to US schools or not.

The most major factor is finances. Since 'm a sole-support parent I don't know how much funding I will be able to receive as a Phd student in USA and whether it will be enough to raise 2 children.

The point you made about taking a break also struck me. I really don't have anything to compare academic life to. I have been in school for 6 straight years (I'm 31 now). I want to work and try new things but I'm afraid of letting go of the opportunity I have now.

I hope you may be able to offer me some advice.

Andy Greenspon December 24, 2013 at 6:21 am

Hi Samra,

Your situation is very complex, and I suggest you ask advice from someone who is in a similar situation as I have no experience on this. US funding is plenty to get by by yourself, but with 2 kids, I imagine that would be difficult if that’s your only source of income. Funding depends a lot on cost of living in the region of the university, but different programs offer better deals relative to the cost of living. I know nothing really about the Canadian system and whether they will provide a better package to help you support your children. This is a case where you would want to talk to each department individually and each possible advisor to make sure they understand your unique situation and are willing to work with it. If you already have good connections and networks to help you get into a PhD program, then you may want to apply now. I waited a year given my limited research experience. You should make sure you understand what the life of a PhD student is really like before committing at least 4 years. It may pay to take up a research job for a year or two to make some money and see if you enjoy that before deciding whether you really want to continue on to get the PhD. In the end, it’s a very personal decision that only you can make.

I wish you the best of luck.


Yudi Prabudi December 28, 2013 at 11:51 am

Wow, thanks andy for your wonderful article!. I hope your advices above could be the way to realize my dream to be a doctor in applied physics. Maybe i will continue my level of study (now i'm still first year on undergraduate level) in Harvard. Thanks once again :)


Yudi Prabudi

Lina January 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Amazing ! I have saved the article, i guess i should read it over every night before sleeping !!

Gloria Chepko January 11, 2014 at 1:18 am

Andrew, your mom sent me this link and I have read your article with interest. I'd like to say that I wish my mentors had been more attentive to their students. This is a great guide and I wish I had had access to something like when I began my career in 1975. Back then, however, they were still telling girls to &quot;go have babies&quot;.

Sudheer January 14, 2014 at 11:34 pm

hi andy,

i am planning to do a P.hd in finance. i am 32 now and plan to take it up around 37-38 as i have some commitments right now. Do you think the admission process eliminates me based on my age. By the way i am from india planning to study in US. Please reply.

Srinivas January 23, 2014 at 5:43 am

thank you for the insights into the life of pursuing a Phd :)

Karen Blue January 26, 2014 at 5:59 am

Thanks so much for sharing these valuable tips! I am a prospective business PhD student, and wanted to get some more insight on preparation. I particularly enjoyed your sub-topics on location and breaks. As someone with a husband and children, location will be particularly important to me, as I consider the cost of living, school systems for my children, and the job market for my husband. And in regards to not getting any real breaks --- I actually look forward to that, in a way. It will be the first time that my tendency to &quot;obsess&quot; over personal projects can actually be considered virtue!

Andy Greenspon February 6, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Hi Karen,

I’m glad I could help. The flexibility in schedule is nice though it can be balanced by the necessity to work at all odd hours sometimes to get things done. I imagine a business PhD will be rather different from science, especially insofar as you will not be bound by laboratory time schedules.

Good luck!


Erik Hogeberg January 28, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Thanks a lot for the information, As a Junior in college (also studying physics) Thinking about applying for graduate school, its helpful to me to see what going to grad school is really going to be like and what I should expect before getting involved. I do have one question though, is it extremely vital that I know what I want to do my research in for my PhD or is that something that I will discover while working with the universities?

Andy Greenspon January 31, 2014 at 4:47 am

Hi Erik,

So, that depends on where you choose to go to graduate school and what field you are in. You will have to ask the professors and administration at each school. Oftentimes, they will provide this information on the website.

For example, at Harvard, I did not have to choose a research group until the end of my first year. But my courses were shaped by my broader research interests, so if I decided to significantly change fields, I probably would have needed additional courses for background. But I know some universities where you join a group by the end of the first semester of first trimester, so there is not much time to explore once you get there.

It is better if you have a general idea of your research area of interest at the broadest - the farther out you want to change your field, the harder it will be once you have started. Though I know people who have done it, that could mean restarting your research from square one.

Hope that helps.



s January 29, 2014 at 11:32 am

can i select base paper from science direct for doing phd in annamalai university

Alison Bert, Editor-in-Chief January 29, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Hi S,

I'm not sure what you mean. Can you be more specific?

Radha Krishan January 29, 2014 at 6:17 pm

hello, thanks for the valuable post, can you please tell me, what are prospects of doing online PhD. does it have significance ?

daniel January 30, 2014 at 3:36 am

HI Elvis I am DANIEL from INDIA, I have completed my Under graduate in BE And have done my Masters in (ME) now i am planning to do my Phd in some good reputed universities and i am really confused and i really need some help because i dont know what to specialise and i need some help

Srilalitha January 31, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Thanks Andy, it gave me an idea of what to do. I was ambiguous about many things, now that ur article has given me a spark as to how to start with things. Keep posting more of your experiences, we shall learn thru' it..

Adamu Garba Zango February 2, 2014 at 8:15 pm

These are fruitful tips to some of us undertaking PhD research. Kudos to the authors for this very important information.

Steven February 3, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Hi Alan,

Thanks for the information you have given, it was good to have a perspective from someone that is currently undertaking a PhD that I can relate to.

I am 21 years old currently studying my 4th year of Forensic and Analytical chemistry at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and I am hoping to specialize more into the analytical side of my degree.

Part of my degree allows students to go on placement to industry and partially experience what it is like in the work place giving me and my class lots of hand on experience in the lab and in the general office. As a result I have ended up in Paris even though I initially didn't speak or understand the language.

From my time being in a completely different country I’ve been look more in the possibility of a PhD and in particular a PhD in America.

I have wanted to travel and live in America for a long time and I thought studying a PhD in America might be a good way for me to get around to doing that.

I know quite a few Americans but none have done a PhD nor any in any aspect of Science. But they are quick to let me know of their horror stories of funding. But do you know if this would just be as bleak for a British student hoping to study in America? Or is the pay / the possibility of sponsorship good?

Another question is would you recommend America as a place to do your PhD? I know the average time for a PhD depending on the field you are studying could be from 7 - 10 years where as in other countries like the UK is around 3-4.

Do you feel like a 7-10 year PhD is better or would you recommend a shorter PhD?

Lastly, my university has quite a well-known chemistry department, do you think a PhD should be done here instead of trying to find a PhD in America no matter my desire to expand on my culture?



Marie February 4, 2014 at 12:43 pm


I'm considering a PhD in Public Affairs. Even though your field is totally different from mine, your advice was perfect. Thanks so much for taking time to write this.

Josh February 5, 2014 at 6:05 am

Hi. I'm Josh. Well honestly I'm only a first year college and taking up tourism management and I'm planning to take a masteral degree in Business Administration. My question is can i take master's in Business administration even I will graduate from Tourism Management? And a PhD degree different from tourism management? Thank you

Jatin February 8, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Hi Andy,

Thank you very much for these points. I am looking for PhD opportunity.

I am an Indian student doing master in Bioinformatics from Paris. My grades are average, about 14/20. In addition to my coursework, I did an internship in the last summer. My contribution will marked in the publication that will be out soon. Further, I have been doing another research project with a professor from Japan and I hope that my contribution will be marked in his paper as well.

so overall, grade average 14/20 + 2 papers.

Further, my question is:

I am afraid that as I don't have excellent grades like others do have, 16/20~17/20, thus could it be a kind of kick-out criteria during PhD selection. Do the grades matter more than these research experiences?

Thank you very much once again.

abhisarika February 23, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Hello Andy! this is abhisarika from India, i have finished masters in organic chemistry from pune university and want to do phd in us university. i need information regarding what is required to do phd fron us and masters form india is valid or do i have to do ms again??

Andy Greenspon February 25, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Hello. You should email the contact people for individual PhD programs at each university and ask them. Contact info should be available on every program website. You shouldn't need to do an MS again if you have the same required courses the PhD program would require though you may still have to take a few courses. Some programs don't allow transfer of too many courses for credit. It's a case by case issue.

Hope that helps.



Julie Anderson March 3, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Very nice article! I wish that it had been posted when I was an undergraduate, but as a graduate student I am going to refer my undergraduate students to this article.

Chetan March 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Dear Friend,

I want to apply for Physics PhD in Europe. You will be very well aware that it is different from applying in US.

I have a 3.35 GPA out of 6 which is a C Grade according to My University standard. I have been suffereing from Ankylosing Spondylitis and it has been a major issue. Apart from that I have always had First Class in previous degrees.

I took a break and in a year finished work on Theoretical Physics independently from home. I am very sure it is publishable work and currently it is in process. I have uploaded on open access journal viXra, due to endorsement issues with arXiv. It is a single author work and having enough impact on the field I have been working on.

I have problem with application to Europe with a C grade, but can you let Me know how much impact does an individual publication have for Me to get into a PhD program ? I hope it doesnt have negative impact

Ivy March 29, 2014 at 4:59 pm

I graduated in 2013 with a BA in economics. Since I was young I am interested in physics but for some reasons I didn't major in it. I am debating if I should go for a master and then a PhD. I am now working in a different field than economics. If I want to pursue anything in physics academically, does it mean that I have to start all over from the beginning, getting a bachelor's first? I also have to support my grandmother. Finance would be a tough problem for me. It would be a heavy burden if I decide to quit my job and study full-time for several years. I want to study more and do research on the questions I want to answer. I am torn between my dream and the reality. Also it also bothers me that I have no firm confidence of why I would study more in a very different area than my previous degree, other than I know and feel that I love it, and studying physics and astronomy brings me happiness. I am not sure if that only is a good enough reason. Pursuing a degree is a long-term commitment, and I dislike the idea of running into something before I have strong belief and reasons that I can complete the programme. Should I work for a longer time before I make my decision? My current job has nothing to do with physics or lab.

Cynthia April 6, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Really thanks for sharing this article.. really helpful..