Deborah Hanus

How to get into a top PhD program

Unlike in professional programs (i.e. JD, MD, MBA, etc.), when you apply to a PhD program, you usually apply to work with one professor, who will be your primary advisor. That professor needs to publish research papers and go to conferences, so when she reads your application, she wants to know "Can this person do research? Will she publish papers and go to conferences? Will she finish the research program? Is she someone I want to work with for 4+ years?"


If someone you respect tells you that someone is great, you will believe them. If someone you’ve never heard of tells you that someone is great you may or may not believe them, etc. It is highly beneficial to do research in the field in which you want to do your PhD and/or with a professor that the professors you want to work with are likely to know and respect.


If you’ve co-authored a paper, that is one strong form of proof that you can do research. If it is a paper in the field you want to do research in that is even better, but not totally necessary.

Research Experience

Do you know what you are getting yourself into? By starting a PhD, you are signing up to do 4+ years of research, so professors will want to know if you have done research (or things related to research) before. Have you ever worked in a lab? If so, did you run experiments? Analyze data? Did you ever write anything about your procedures for a paper?

It is difficult to get into a top PhD program without some kind of research experience, so if this is your goal, you should find time to do this. If you go to a small school with few research opportunities, you can apply to summer programs & research internships at national labs, such as Lincoln Labs, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Institute of Health. If you have already graduated, you can apply for a job as a lab manager or lab technician.


For most PhD programs in the sciences, when a professor accepts a student, he agrees to provide the student with funding (tuition + stipend) throughout their PhD program via whatever grants he has available. If you apply with funding from another source (e.g. Hertz, NSF, NDSEG Fellowships), the professor no longer has to fund you from his own grants, making it easier for him to accept you.

Note: The deadlines for these fellowships are usually in September or October, months before your actual PhD application is due, so if you want to apply for these, you need to plan ahead.


Keep it professional. If you do tell a personal anecdote to make your essay stand out, keep the bulk of your essay related to your research interests. This is an opportunity to explain to the school in your words why you are going to be a fantastic graduate student.

Personalize it for each school. Devote a few lines to explaining how your research might fit into the research agendas of 1-3 professors at each school.

GRE Scores

Generic standardized test scores have absolutely nothing to do with your ability to do research. You should try to get scores high enough to make people think that you read, write, and do math. You do not need to ace the GRE to get into a top graduate program.

To some extent, applying to top PhD programs is like playing the lottery, so I recommend not taking it too seriously. Any individual professor might only have space for 1-2 students each year, and some years, they might not take any students. So you might put together a brilliant application and still be rejected. My solution to this was to make sure that I had multiple options. Try to find a job that you enjoy while you are applying to take some of the pressure off. Good luck!