How to Shortlist PhD Programs

phd application Jul 27, 2022
You’ve decided it’s time to apply to PhD programs.  This is a big step, and you’re in the right place.  While the application process can be overwhelming, we’ll help you take it one step at a time.  One of the first steps is creating your short list of schools.  

The Short List: What Does This Mean?

Your short list includes only programs you are positive you would be happy applying to and attending.  

Why Do You Need a Short List Of PhD Programs?

You need a short list because you don’t have the time, money or brain capacity to apply to 20 schools. By creating a narrower list of schools, around 4 to 8, you improve your chances of getting accepted with full funding.
Let’s break down some of the most important factors in schools that should end up on your short list:


1. Cost

Let’s face it- grad school can be expensive.  Here at the FG Program, we only want you to apply to fully funded programs, so you can get your degree and experiences without incurring massive amounts of debt along the way.  Most PhD programs are fully funded, meaning they offer free tuition and pay you a living stipend. Most living stipends are around $30,000 per year, but some programs offer higher rates. 
Online and part-time PhD programs are usually self-funded, and even some full-time programs don’t offer full funding. This is an important factor to take into consideration when making your short list; if a university you really like can’t give you full funding, do you want to go there badly enough to take out loans? 

2. Return On Investment

It’s incredibly important to consider your return on investment (ROI) when considering schools. So what does this mean exactly?  If you are spending money or time on something, what is the payoff? What can you expect once you graduate from the program? Do they have impressive job placement rates?  Will your salary increase? Check out this video where we break down the ROI calculation.

3. Research Focus

You may not yet know exactly what research questions you want to answer, but you probably have a sense of what you’re interested in learning more about.  You want to make sure the PhD program aligns with your interests, and has people you want to work with. If they aren’t working on your research area, this school should get crossed off your short list.

4. Length Of Program

You can expect to spend anywhere from 3-5 years working on your PhD.  It’s important to ask how long the typical PhD student takes to complete their PhD. If you’re hearing 6 years or more, you may want to ask why it’s taking them so long. You may want to consider shortlisting programs where the students finish on time, so you don’t get stuck there till you’re 80 years old.
Some programs may agree to funding for specific periods of time, like 2 or 4 years. This is super important!  If you have two years of class work to complete, how long will you need to write your dissertation?  Make sure your schools have the time and money available to invest in you, so you can invest in your future.

5. Environment/Location

Some people have the flexibility to apply to schools all over the world.  If you are one of these people, you may want to consider some important factors: Where do you want to live? What do you like about the place? If you’re going to shortlist it, consider taking time to visit.  
Will you like living in Seattle if you don’t enjoy the rain?  Will you be okay with accepting an offer in Florida if you don’t enjoy the heat? Should you travel abroad, at the expense of missing your loved ones back at home? 
What kind of campus environment do you enjoy? Do you want to be a part of a large student body? Do you want to be in a metropolitan area, or do you prefer a campus that separates itself from large cities?  These factors should be decided as you begin to shortlist, so you can ensure you like the environments and locations of your potential schools.  

6. Experiences

Some people want internships.  Some want teaching assistantships or research assistantships.  Experiences are the heart of your program decision!
You need to choose a school that can help you meet your professional goals.  When you leave the program, what will your resume hold to impress those who may hire you?  What do you want to take away from your PhD? Take these experiences into serious consideration when shortlisting.  

Finalizing Your Short List

Now that you have the key factors to consider, you need to rank your potential schools. Decide which factors are non-negotiable to you (maybe you have to be in warm weather), and what factors you can live with (maybe taking an extra year to finish doesn’t bother you). 
Rank your schools and aim to have 4 to 8 schools on your short list. Many people think the more schools the better. However, a large list of schools means you need to spend more time and energy on applications, and you may not produce your best results. It’s better to be laser focused on schools that you’re a good fit with. This will dramatically improve your chances of getting accepted.
Join us in the Fearless Grad program where we help you get crystal clear on exactly what schools should be on and off your PhD short list.  

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