Applying to Ph.D. Programs

“Not That Kind of Doctor”:
A Quick Guide to Ph.D. Admissions

Lauren Berliner,

This document is based on what I’ve learned from sitting on Ph.D. admissions committees and having applied to Ph.D. programs myself. It reflects my experience and opinions and is not meant to be taken as a definitive recipe book for Ph.D. admissions. I encourage you to seek out other opinions and insight too!

General information and advice

  1. Apply to multiple schools—don’t put all your eggs in one tiny basket.
  2. Provide recommenders with a calendar of your letter needs, support materials, and frequent updates on deadlines.
  3. Reach out to current students at the universities you’re applying to; visit if you can.
    • Reach out to UW Bothell staff and faculty to find out who has connections at various programs you’re applying to.
  4. Find out as much as you can about the programs, the locations, and the schools you’re applying to. Reflect this knowledge in your statement, but most importantly, your choices of where to apply!
  5. Don’t expect your M.A. to count towards Ph.D. coursework—it rarely will. In other words, don’t rule out a program that won’t count your M.A. as time towards the Ph.D.

Questions to ask yourself when preparing

  1. What are your favorite parts of grad school? Can you do that kind of work in the programs you’ve chosen?
  2. What are your core skills and interests and can you develop them in the programs you are looking at?
  3. What are the skills and interests of the students and faculty?
  4. What funding is available? Is it guaranteed? If so, for how long?
  5. Speak to first year and ABD grad students at the institutions you’re interested in
  6. Connect with faculty who you identify with. Let them know you’re interested in their work and working with them. *If this freaks you out, don’t worry, it’s definitely not a must, and not every faculty member loves hearing from students who haven’t been accepted yet.
  7. Make yourself known to the staff person on admissions. They can direct you and advocate for you!

Recommendation Letters

  1. Recognize that your letter-writers have dozens of letters to write this season.
  2. Provide background: Send your recommenders your personal statement, info about the schools, your CV, and most importantly, a sense of why you’re applying to the schools you have chosen.
  3. Give your letter-writers AT LEAST three-week’s notice before the deadline. If it’s less than that, they may not have time.
  4. Help your letter writers by letting them know what you hope they will emphasize in their letters. In some cases, they may not have had in you in class or even spoken to you in a long time, and it’s helpful to know what is driving you and what you would like help foregrounding in your application.
  5. Send each recommender a schedule of the letters you need, when they are due, and instructions on how to submit them. Frequent reminders are necessary and appreciated.

Funding is limited for grad programs,
particularly in the Humanities

  1. Private schools typically have more funding; many public institutions will have you teach in exchange for tuition
    • Investigate how much GUARANTEED funding you will be given—you don’t want to wind up stressing out trying to find work on campus to cover your fees.
  2. Some programs at public institutions will favor students who are already in-state (it’s cheaper for them). If you’re not one of them, it may impact your chances of acceptance.
  3. Individual grants may be available for students who fit certain criteria which may not be made available at the time of application but applied during the selection process. For example, there may be fellowships based on merit, identity categories, life experiences (such as military service), or topics of study.
  4. All of this is to say, if you don’t get in somewhere, it may have more to do about how they can fund you than how strong your application is.

Personal Statement

Illustrate that you are a fit for the program through both your statement of interests and proposed project(s). It is critical that you demonstrate that you understand what the program is about and are highly motivated to do the hard work once you’re there. Try to avoid writing a brief memoir or a literature review—make the statement really about why this Ph.D. is a fit for you, and vice versa. What has prepared you for this course of study? What will you bring to the field? Why is this specific program the place to do it? What challenges have you faced and overcome along the way?

You may mention faculty you’re interested in working with, but it’s not a must. If you do, list more than one. Sometimes that one faculty member you are interested in happens to be out the door, or may have too many students already.


GREs count more for some programs than others. State institutions generally have to report median scores back and admissions committees may have more pressure to have higher median scores for the pool. Most faculty and staff on committees know this is an equity issue so will try to work around GRE scores. That said, it doesn’t hurt to study. : ) If your scores aren’t great, you may wish to address this in your essay.

The selection committee

The selection committee is generally comprised of a couple of faculty, a staff member (generally the grad advisor), and possibly a grad student or two.

Finally, expect to get rejected to places.

These programs are SMALL. But you may get in somewhere, and it just takes one “yes”! Remember, you are smart and talented. Acceptance and rejection in these programs has nothing to do with that. It’s about fit, funding, and programmatic politics.

Good luck!!!