Pursuing a PhD as an International Student

Why get a PhD?

  • Love for a subject
  • Feat of research, critical thought, and dedication
  • Make a difference through research
  • Become an expert in the field and obtain increased recognition
  • Widen career opportunities–set you apart from other candidates with Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees
  • Increased salary
  • Teaching at university level
  • Read more here on choosing the right PhD program

Where do I start?

1.     Understand the timeline

  • Begin preparing materials 6-9 months before application submission deadline
    • Most applications for graduate programs due in December
    • Some are rolling admissions (particularly law school)–the sooner you can submit, the better!
    • Medical school application timelines tend to vary


2.     Research universities and specific programs you are interested in

  • Find Faculty
    • Find professors doing research that interests you
        • Go to faculty directory on the university website and visit homepages of professors doing research in your interest area
        • Read their papers to have a better understanding of what they focus on
        • Send an email to professors telling them you are interested in their research and would like to work with them as a PhD student
          • Discuss how your own experiences and interests align with the professor's
          • Provide CV
          • Email multiple professors as likely many won’t respond
            • Send follow-up emails if necessary
              • Shows you are very interested in what they research
            • If they say they don’t have funding, you can offer to search for outside funding (see #4)
  • Consider Master’s programs 
    • Stepping stone to PhD
    • A good way to meet and work with professors 
    • Ensures program research is best fit for your interests
    • Shorter time commitment (1-2 years) 


3.     Sign up for standardized tests 

  • If English is your second language:
    •  TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
      • Determines international applicants English language skills
      • Read here for tips on how to ace these exams
  • Graduate Record Examinations (GREs)
    1. Required by many graduate programs, but not all
      1. Research program you are interested in to see if it is required before signing up
    2. Cost: $200 USD
    3. Tests math, reading, and writing skills


4.     Ask for letters of recommendation

  • Typically programs ask for three
  • Show relevant work experience
    • Previous employers 
      • Shows work ethic and teamwork skills
  • Show your strength as a researcher
    • Undergraduate professor who can attest to this 
  • What information should you provide your recommenders?
    • List of schools and admission deadlines
    • CV and resume
    • Copies of admissions essays
    • Relevant research and work experience 
  • Make sure to follow up with recommenders periodically
  • Read here for more tips on acquiring recommendation letters


5.     Request transcripts from previous institutions

  • Unofficial transcripts (images of official transcripts, web portal transcripts, unofficial advising transcripts) often accepted for initial application but official ones required after acceptance
    • Must include: full legal name, name of college/university, list of all coursework taken with grades, any degree already earned, overall GPA
    • For transcripts not in English: 
      • Upload original documents and official translations
        • Official translations include: 1) Translation by university that issued transcript 2) WES, IERF,  or ECE evaluation 3) Government certified translator 
  • Proof of degree
    • Diploma and/or degree certificate


6.    Write Statement of Purpose and Personal Statement

  • Directions on how to write these statements varies with institutions
  • General format:
    • Personal Statement
      • What is your background?
      • How has your personal story influenced what you want to study?
      • What do you bring to the program?
      • How will the faculty/program assist you in pursuing this?
      • How will the program/school’s resources assist you?
    • Statement of Purpose
      • What is your academic background? 
      • What are your research goals?
      • What do you hope to accomplish in the program?
      • How will your past experiences contribute to your role as a PhD candidate?
      • Identify faculty whose research aligns with your interests
        • Find their pages on university website and read their published research
      • Read here for more tips on writing a statement of purpose
  • Send statements to friends, family members, old professors, professional editors to edit
    • Helpful to have edited by someone who has already applied and was accepted into U.S. graduate program
    • Send to recommenders to help with their letters


7.    Gather all materials and submit application! 

  • Usually there is an application fee but sometimes it can be waived
    • Usually about $50 USD


8.    Prepare for Interview

  • Depends on program, some don’t require one
  • Tips on how to prepare for the interview if it is required


I've been admitted. What now?

1.     Obtain student visa 

  • Options: F-1 student visa or J-1 exchange visitor visa
    • What’s the difference between these?
      • F-1 student visa given to students qualified to pursue full course of study at American academic institution
      • J-1 exchange visitor visa granted to student supported financially by sources other than family/personal funds (ex. U.S. government or home government)
  • Take passport and Certificate of Eligibility (Form I-20 or DS-2019) to your consulate or embassy
    • Must show evidence of sufficient financial resources to fund your studies and living expenses

    • Request form I-20 (for F-1 visa) or DS-2019 (for J-1 visa) from your institution and the designated school official (DSO) will send it to you

    • Pay SEVIS I-901 fee

  • Visa rules
    • Must carry minimum of 12 units 
    • Non-immigrant students cannot work outside the university without work authorization from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (UCIS) for the first academic year, unless considered a special situation
    • After the first year, international students are allowed three types of of off-campus employment:
      • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
      • Optional Practical Training (OPT)
      • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Optional Practical Training Extension
    • More info on the student visas and employment here
  • For more general info on student visas, read here
  • Look at page 15 of this step-by-step guide for more info on obtaining a student visa  


2.    Look for funding

  • Fellowships
    • Usually merit-based
    • Can last from one year to whole duration of student’s study
    • Used to sponsor student and their proposed research
    • If provided through the department, applicants usually don’t have to fill out extra application
    • If extra documentation required, department will contact applicant
  • Research and teaching assistantships
    • Can cover tuition, fees, and in some cases provide stipend
      • Depends on number of hours worked per week
    • Usually merit-based and must be applied for
      • Teaching assistantships
        • Support faculty in their various courses
        • Grading, preparing course material, and in some cases teaching portions of the course
      • Research assistantships
        • Support faculty in their labs with their research
  • Grants and scholarships
  • Highlighted opportunities:
  • Loans
    • Can borrow up to the full cost of education and related expenses
    • Often requires credit-worthy cosigner who is US citizen or non-citizen permanent resident
    • Find out more about obtaining a loan at IEFA and International Student Loan


3.     Look for housing

  • Visit university website to find housing resources
  • Consider whether you want to live on or off-campus
    • graduate student housing may be available through the university
  • Join Facebook housing groups
    • advertise you are looking for a place 
    • find roommates
    • specific groups exist for graduate students/professionals
    • housing openings often posted on Facebook marketplace
  • Research websites such as apartments.com or apartmentlist.com for rental openings in your prospective location
  • Consider your budget
    • Include utilities (electricity, water, wifi) as part of your monthly rent bill
  • Be careful of scammers!
    • Target international students
    • Post ads on reputable rental sites
    • Will ask for advance payment of security deposit before you can visit the premises
    • Will use a real address but fake pictures of inside of home
    • More info on common scams to look out for and how to avoid them


4.     Get all required immunizations

  • Look up requirements for your university on the student health services page
  • If you are not able to obtain all required vaccinations in your home country, you may be able to get them with student health services when you arrive
  • Don't neglect this!
    • holds may be placed on your registration until you have fulfilled all immunization requirements   

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