A Five-Minute Guide to Ph.D. Program Applications

If you spend five minutes reading this article, you'll learn how to make your Ph.D. program application the strongest possible. Why five minutes? Because it's probably the longest that anyone will spend reading your application.

I've now served on Ph.D. admissions committees for the past three four years as a professor at two different universities (and in two different kinds of departments: computer science and cognitive science). So far, I've evaluated around 600 Ph.D. program applications across both kinds of departments, which means reading 600 statements of purpose and 2,000 recommendation letters (3–4 per application).

This article should take you five minutes to read, which is probably the longest that anyone will spend reading your application. When I serve on admissions committees, I read around 150 applications, so I'll spend 3 to 5 minutes per app and place each into one of three piles: {good, ok, bad}. Then I may tell faculty in the relevant research sub-field to take a closer look at some of them.

Final admissions decisions are made in very different ways depending on department norms and constraints, but that's all out of your control. No matter what, though, you want to end up in the 'good' pile!

What is a Ph.D. program application?

The first step toward getting into the 'good' pile is to understand what your application really is before writing it:

A Ph.D. program application is a request for someone to invest around $500,000 and five years of mentorship time so that you can produce new knowledge via research publications. The exact economic details vary by department and institution, but the general idea remains.

When evaluating applications, I ask myself: Do I feel good about letting myself or one of my colleagues invest in this person – both in money and in time? The role of your application is to convince me to enthusiastically answer YES!!!

Concretely, this means your application needs to show me that you have either already produced research publications in your chosen sub-field, or that you have the potential to do so in the near future. Everything else is secondary.

The most important criteria: Research Density

In my experience, the property that best separates good from bad applications is research density. As the name implies, a research-dense application is one that is densely-packed with research-related content. The strongest applications are usually the most research-dense.

What this means is that the majority of your statement of purpose should be about research – not your childhood inspirations, not your personal intellectual journey, not your classes, and not your extracurricular activities. A common kind of weak statement is one that spends too much time describing the applicant's childhood; in general, avoid mentioning anything before college.

I often read weak statements that are way way way too long and not research-dense enough. Strive to write the shortest and more research-dense statement that you can.

This idea of research density also means that you need to find people who can write research-dense recommendation letters for you. For example, a letter about you doing well in a class is not compelling, since it has zero research density. A letter from a non-research-related job also has zero research density. All else equal, applicants with more research-dense letters will win.

How do I review Ph.D. applications?

The people who review Ph.D. program applications are professors like me, not professional admissions counselors. Here's how I spend my 3 to 5 minutes evaluating each part of the app, roughly in this order:

  1. C.V. / resume (30 seconds max.)
    • Is it research-dense?
    • Is it not too long? I'd say 3 pages max.
  2. Statement of purpose (1 minute max.)
    • Is it research-dense?
    • Is it not too long? My ideal is 1 to 2 pages.
    • How well do you understand what a Ph.D. application is? Re-read the prior section for details.
  3. Scores (30 seconds max.)
    • GPA: warning sign if too low, but usually don't care. It's rare that someone with strong research credentials has a dangerously low GPA, and even if that were the case, I wouldn't care much. A high GPA from a highly-selective university is a slight positive signal, though.
    • GRE: bad if really low, but otherwise don't care.
    • TOEFL: bad if below 100, but otherwise don't care.
  4. I'll reject here if the C.V. and statement aren't strong enough. Otherwise I'll move onto reading the letters ...
  5. Letters of recommendation (1 minute max. per letter)
    • Is it research-dense?
    • If a letter isn't about research, I'll skip it.
    • How long is it? Two-page letters are stronger than one-pagers. You can't control this, but you can control whether you pick someone who will write you a strong letter.
    • How much effort did they put into differentiating you from the hundreds of other applicants this year?

Final thoughts

If you create a research-dense application, that's the first step toward getting into the 'good' pile. You'll now be competing with tons of other applicants who also have research-dense applications, but at least you're still in the game.

The next most important thing to work on is making your writing clear for professors who are not in your sub-field. Of the hundreds of apps I've seen, I'm not an expert in most of their research. Thus, it's crucial for you to show me why your research projects are important, what specific role you played in each one, what the main challenges were, and what the impact was – ideally a publication or steps toward one.

Random tip: Don't use tiny fonts. The faculty reading your app are probably a decade or a few decades older than you, and our eyesights get worse with age. What's the deal with tiny fonts?!?

Finally, it's OK to cold-email professors whose research genuinely interest you – after you submit a research-dense application. Make sure to write a good email customized for them. We usually review applications in the month or two after the due date, so that's the best time to cold-email. At best, you get someone to notice you; and at worst, they'll just delete your email.

OK, five minutes are up; good luck!

Created: 2016-12-09
Last modified: 2017-12-13