Am I a competitive PhD candidate?

Feb 21, 2023
Everyone is checking out everyone else’s resume, profile, online socials just to understand if they are really competitive enough to be admitted to prestigious PhD programs. Frankly, comparing yourself to others never ends well, and I know people who go down the rabbit hole on GradCafe freaking themselves out. There is no one perfect applicant, but here are some general guidelines to see if you’re a competitive PhD candidate.

What Are The Requirements To Apply To A PhD?


Your Undergrad Should Loosely Align With Your PhD Field 

You must have your undergraduate degree in a related field, or a masters in your field of interest. You would think this would be obvious, but many many people change their interests after undergrad and no longer want to work in that field. 
Unfortunately, you can’t just apply to any field for a PhD and be successful. For example, if my undergrad is in electrical engineering I could probably apply successfully to computer science or mechanical engineering, but it would be pretty hard for me to be a competitive candidate in psychology. This isn’t always true. If you have lots of work experience in your new field, and have taken some classes you might be a good fit.

You Should Have Some Experience In Your Field

You need some work and/or research experience. You don’t need years, but you need to have done some internships or have worked in a research group for a few months to show them you know what you’re getting into. Many people go to the PhD straight from undergrad, so having years of work experience isn’t required.
Research experience isn’t required, but it is surely one of the biggest things admissions committees are looking for. After all, you’re essentially applying to a research job posting and it is only natural they look for people with some experience in this area. You can market research and/or problem solving from your professional career if you don’t have actual “research” experience. Be sure to look over your resume and see where you can spin projects as more research than project execution.

Everything Else Is A Nice To Have

Everything we’ll talk about below is nice to have. If you have your academic background in this field (or maybe a Master’s if your Bachelor’s is in a different field) and some work and/or research experience you can apply successfully.

What About My GPA Or Test Scores?

Having a high GPA or GRE score is nice, but doesn’t hold as much water as what you’ve done. The PhD is all about experimentation, trying and failing, and being creative. These skills are not always captured in GPA. In fact, a professor at MIT once told me he doesn’t even look at test scores on PhD applications until the very end if he’s torn between two candidates.
Yep. Test scores and GPA are nice to haves. Creating a holistic application and showcasing all of your skills and experiences are far more valuable.

Do I Need Publications?

Having publications, or first author journal articles, are not required. These are very nice to have as it shows you have mastered a critical PhD skill: writing. However, it’s a pretty high bar that few pass. Consider it a gold star if you have a publication, but in no way necessary.

So What Do I Need To Be A Competitive PhD Applicant?

In a nutshell, you need to be a real human with real passion who has done some cool shit to back it up. Writing an amazing essay about your deep passion for psychology only goes so far if you’ve never worked in the field and don’t have any research experience. 
If you have a less than stellar GPA, you can counteract it by doing things! Yes, in the real world go out there and get involved. Ask research labs if they need assistants, join volunteer organizations. Better yet, start something that shows you’re comfortable trying things out and leading. All in all, PhD programs are looking for interesting people that are committed to doing the work and succeeding.

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