Choosing a program

Although there are many paths towards higher education, it is always a good idea to take a while and think about what you would like to get out of your studies and what you would like to do afterward. If you have a specific career in mind, that can help narrow your choices based on which program will best prepare you. If you were highly engaged with a certain subject during your undergraduate or Master’s studies, it would be recommendable to continue in that discipline and gain expertise.

Take time to browse through the many programs offered across numerous fields, and make note of what jumps out at you. Write down a list of your top three areas of focus, your top locations, and top career goals. Use this list to narrow your search and help you guide your decision-making process.

Graduate entry exams

Depending on the type of program you’re seeking and the country in which you’d like to study, there is a fair chance you will have to take at least one test in order to enroll as a PhD candidate. The two most common types of test are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and various language examinations. Information on both of these can be found below:


The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a test required for entry into most Master’s programs in North America, Australia and in certain other countries. The GRE includes verbal, quantitative and analytical sections and adapts in difficulty to the test-takers responses after each section. This test is owned and operated by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which also runs the TOEFL English test and many others. The GRE is usually taken on a computer and is offered in locations around the world.

Language tests

If you are planning to study in a foreign country or would like to enroll in a program taught in English in your own country, you will most likely have to first pass a language assessment exam. The most well recognized tests for the English language are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). These tests are each widely accepted and are viewed as offering a fair assessment of English language skills. Tests for other languages, such as Spanish, French or German, can usually be taken at language institutes or through home universities.

The application process

Whether you are switching disciplines or countries, or if you just feel nervous about embarking on such a big life stage, we have a few tips to help you through the application process.

The Letter of Motivation

  • Be clear and concise, and don’t be afraid to talk yourself up – make a strong case for why you would be a valuable asset to the school and specific program
  • Offer specific examples in order to set your application apart from everyone else’s – avoid vague statements and phrases like “very passionate” – everyone who is applying to a PhD program is very passionate
  • Take the time to get to know the school you’re applying to – show you’re sure you want to study there and why
  • Double or triple check to make sure you didn’t make any silly copy and paste or spelling errors that will get your application tossed out in the first round

The Research Proposal

  • If you are applying to schools outside of the U.S., your application will most likely include a research proposal. This is generally a 5-10 page introduction to your proposed dissertation research
  • Create a careful layout, using sections, bullet points, italics, etc.
  • Be clear and quick about your research question and why your work will be important to the field

The Interview

  • As with any interview, you should be prepared to talk about your own interests and aspirations but also make sure to have specific questions ready about your program and the school in general
  • Don’t be flustered if you’re not prepared to answer a question that’s asked. Often interviewers want to see if you can think on your feet – so stay calm and show that you can!

The Waiting Period

  • Once you have submitted your application and are waiting to hear back, resist the temptation to call the school to check on your application’s progress, as this will only annoy the admissions team and lesson your chances of admission
  • If you receive notice from some schools before others, feel free to use scholarship packages as bargaining chips, but only once you’ve received notice of admission
Study resources

Test resources

Whether you’re preparing for the TOEFL or the GRE (or both!), there are loads of resources out there to help make sure you ace the test.

ETS offers official study materials for both the TOEFL and the GRE, which give specific insight into the structures of the test and offer valuable tips in addition to drills, games, quizzes, etc.

The Test Study Guides website also offers information on the TOEFL, GRE, GMAT and numerous other exams. They have online tools as well as numerous recommendations for books and courses.

Resources for current graduate students

Life as a graduate student can be far more demanding than for someone earning a Bachelor’s degree, and while you may think you’re prepared it can still be tough getting use to the lifestyle.

First off, graduate programs demand a higher level of independence than undergraduate programs. In order to keep up with this demand, a clear schedule is highly recommended. While it can be tempting to leave papers until the last minute, your academic performance will inevitably suffer. For this reason, creating clear (self-imposed) deadlines to help fend of procrastination is very important.

Make use of the resources provided to you. As a graduate student, you will be expected to delve into subjects in an in-depth manner. Make sure you understand how to access all media available to you through your university library, including books, journal articles, films, etc. Sometimes understanding the research pathways is half the battle, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if something is unclear. Do not rely on Wikipedia for research – become familiar with academic research portals and a whole world of literature will be opened up to you.

Don’t be afraid to take initiative. If there is a project you are interested in or a topic you’d like to research, now is the time to make it happen. As a graduate student you are well qualified to publish your work and it’s often down to you to make that happen. Be tenacious with your ideas and be proud of the output!