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How to Choose a Doctoral Program: A Step-by-Step Guide

Choosing the right school for your PhD is different from your undergraduate. This step-to-step guide will help you select a doctoral program that aligns with your research interests, lifestyle, and professional goals.

Written By

Blake Huggins, PhD

Meet the Expert

E. Scott England

Last updated

Jun 28, 2023

Earning a doctorate is a major accomplishment. In addition to solidifying your status as an expert in your field, it illustrates your determination and readies you for professional or academic success at the highest levels. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled since the year 2000. If you’re looking to stand out among this growing class of scholars and practitioners, you’ll need to clarify your intentions and make a series of key decisions. 

This process can be overwhelming, as there’s a lot to consider — academic factors, career goals, location, and finances (to name a few). This guide was created to help you navigate the doctoral process. It includes expert advice, tips on selecting the right doctoral path and program, and other helpful resources. 

PhD or Practical Doctorate: Which One is Right for You?

While the process of selecting a school or program for your PhD is similar to that of your graduate (and even undergraduate) studies, you should focus more on academics and career advancement than other amenities. At this stage, the most important step is clarifying your professional goals. If you’re interested in pursuing a purely academic career, then a PhD may be the best choice. If you plan to build on industry experience in applied fields like law or organizational leadership, then a practical doctorate may be a better option. 

Both avenues result in the highest levels of academic achievement; however, they prepare you for very different roles and career trajectories. For example, graduates with a PhD in economics, psychology, or computer science will be well-equipped to take on teaching and research roles as consultants or college professors. Meanwhile, those with a practical doctorate in fields like business, education, or nursing will be qualified for high-level leadership or administrative positions in organizations that align with their specialty.

Since the type of doctorate you select will chart your trajectory, it’s important to consider your options and make a decision that fits your professional aspirations. 

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10 Steps to Choosing a PhD Program

If you’ve decided to pursue a PhD, you can begin thinking about which programs fit your background and long-term goals. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help make the process more manageable.

Step 1: Prioritizing Your PhD Objectives

First, determine how a PhD will help you achieve your career objectives, which likely include landing an academic position following graduation. Once you’ve homed in on a position or field, determine your focus within that arena and let it guide your search efforts. 

Step 2: What Are Your Research Interests?

Clarifying your research interests will make you a more attractive applicant and help you identify the most relevant doctoral programs. Knowing what your research might focus on and your publication potential and considering the work you’ve produced so far will help you make a list of potential specializations. 

Step 3: Create a List of Targeted PhD Programs

Compiling a list of programs that match your goals will help you compare options. Conduct independent research, solicit advice from trusted advisers and mentors, and create a focused list of programs matching your potential specializations. Strive to identify several dream schools, along with a few safety options, as a backup plan. 

Step 4: Navigating the PhD Application Process

While most programs adhere to a similar application process, the timelines and deadlines can vary widely. To better navigate these nuances, create a spreadsheet outlining all the relevant information in one place. Pay close attention to things like application requirements, test score policies, and submission fees. 

Step 5: Visit the Campus or Do a Virtual Tour

Touring the program, either in person or remotely, will give you the opportunity to raise key questions about its focus and ability to support your research plan. You will also be able to gain information about pedagogical training and potential teaching responsibilities. 

Step 6: Finding the Right Professor or Adviser 

As your adviser will direct your research project and be your primary point of feedback, finding the fit is crucial. Research faculty in individual programs to get a sense of their publication record. Consider sending an email to introduce yourself and gain more information. 

Step 7: Interact with the Faculty and Department Staff

Interacting with department personnel — and observing how they interact with one another — will give you a good sense of your future work and study environment. As you network, keep culture fit top of your mind and assess how you might fit into existing dynamics.

Step 8: Pick the Brains of Current PhD Students

The best way to discover how a program works from a student’s POV is by chatting with current candidates or recent graduates. You could ask about research support, pedagogical training, or other topics. This will broaden your view of the program and give you an inside perspective.

Step 9: Will the Program Provide You with Proper Resources and Facilities?

Things like library and database access are crucial for PhD students tasked with conducting an original research project. Access to these resources will be especially important if you plan to study online. Knowing this, ask yourself how a program will help support your endeavors.

Step 10: Will You Get Assistantships or Need to Supplement with Financial Aid?

These specifics will vary widely depending on the school and program. Some may require a fellowship or assistantship, while others may offer a full financial aid package; many fall somewhere in between. Clarify your standing early on so you can explore supplemental aid if necessary.

10 Steps to Selecting a Practical Doctorate School

If you’re interested in a practical doctorate, you’ll follow a similar selection process but with a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on research initiatives and faculty publications, you’ll want to consider opportunities for career advancement in your field and area of concentration. Below are some steps you can take to find the right match.

Step 1: Align Your Career and Academic Goals

How will doctoral studies help you achieve your career goals? If you’re already clear on your field, then you can begin to consider how you will specialize within it. If you see multiple pathways focus on the options that best fit your background and circumstances. 

Step 2: How Do You Want to Grow Professionally?

Where do you see your career in five to 10 years? It will take around half that time for you to finish your doctoral program. Visualizing where you want to land upon completion will help you carve out a workable path. Then, you can work to identify programs that will help you close the gap. 

Step 3: Create a Target School List

Use good judgment as you compile your list by including an equal amount of dream and safety schools. A balanced list will allow you to prioritize the doctoral programs you’re most excited about while giving you options for every admissions outcome. 

Step 4: Determine What You Need for Applications

Application season for practical doctorate programs can be a hectic time. You can prepare in advance by familiarizing yourself with all the requirements, deadlines, and necessary materials. This will help you navigate the process and put you in a better position to submit a successful application. 

Step 5: Virtual vs. Campus Visit

Visiting gives you a good opportunity to ask questions. If you live near the school in question, you can always visit in person, but virtual visits are just as effective. Be sure to ask questions about professional development and career readiness in your field (law, business, nursing, etc.). 

Step 6: Choosing the Right Doctoral Adviser 

Your doctoral adviser fulfills a dual role as both your boss and your mentor, so it’s important to choose wisely. Consider your own aims and interests alongside available faculty. Is their professional profile attractive to you? Will they be able to help you establish a solid network? 

Step 7: The Importance of Seeing the Dynamics of the Department

Dynamics among and between faculty and students often impact the department’s goals, projects, and initiatives. They also set the tone for the professional culture you will be joining for several years. Observing those dynamics, or raising questions about them, can help you determine a good fit. 

Step 8: Pick the Brains of Current Doctoral Students

Current students can be a valuable resource. In some cases, they may even be in a better position to answer specific questions about the work environment and program culture than faculty. Asking if they’ve felt supported and whether they’ve been given the tools for success can provide valuable insight. 

Step 9: Will the Program Provide You with Proper Resources and Support?

Most programs provide support and resources; however, you want to consider whether they’re the right resources for you. Do available classes and coursework requirements reflect your study aims? Will library and accommodation resources help support your learning goals? 

Step 10: Will You be Fully Funded or Need to Supplement with Financial Aid?

Do not assume you will be fully funded. Many programs offer generous aid packages, but this is not universal. It is important to ask questions and determine whether you will need to seek outside aid to help offset costs (scholarships and loans, grants, fellowships, etc.).

Tips for Selecting the Right Doctoral Program

Once you’ve decided which type of doctorate you want to earn, you can move to phase two: selecting a program that meets your needs and beginning the process with your best foot forward. Here are some tips you can use to help streamline your decision-making. 

Admission Requirements

As requirements could take some time to fulfill, you should closely consider all the details and determine an appropriate course of action. For example, if your chosen schools require recent standardized test scores, you’ll need to plan accordingly. Be open to taking an extra year or looking into alternative programs if needed.

Reputation

For graduate and certainly undergraduate students, institutional reputation tends to hold sway over other factors; this isn’t necessarily the case for doctoral programs for. Prioritize faculty reputation and departmental influence during your search by selecting programs with strengths that will empower you for success, both as a student and an eventual job candidate. 

Part-time or Full-Time Options

Most programs expect full-time enrollment by default, but many extend part-time availability, as well. This could be a great option if you’re pursuing a practical doctorate and plan to maintain an industry position. Specifics depend on individual programs, so be sure to check with department heads for policy details. 

Length of Program

Earning a doctorate is a years-long commitment, so you’ll need to consider your desired pace and timeframe alongside other factors (family life, professional aims, etc.). Research-based PhD programs can take up to four to six years or more, while practical doctorates can usually be completed in just two to three years. 

Program Delivery

Consider your options for program delivery alongside your own learning style. The benefits of online study include flexibility in scheduling and pacing but without the hands-on components of in-person or cohort learning. If physical interaction with faculty and peers is a priority, hybrid or campus-based alternatives may be better. 

Research Opportunities

Virtually all doctoral programs involve some research. If you’re pursuing a PhD, research will play a significant role in your studies. Although practical doctorates don’t emphasize it as heavily, they will still require some short-term research projects. Consider the potential for further research opportunities as you evaluate your top schools. 

Cost and Financial Aid Options 

Prioritize funding and available financial aid and weigh those possibilities alongside overall program cost. Many programs recognize the burdens and demands of doctoral work and strive to offer competitive financial aid. But even if your dream program appears too expensive, additional opportunities can help defray the costs. 

Accreditation

All programs should be administered by schools with institutional accreditation. This credential is granted by individual agencies authorized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Some programs may have additional field-specific accreditation, as well. This is particularly true in business, healthcare, and education-related programs. 

Advantages of Getting Your Doctorate Online

Enrolling in an online doctoral program comes with distinct benefits regardless of your field, discipline, or long-term career aims. Features like increased accommodations, access to key resources, and the ability to tailor an individualized course of study are beneficial, especially if you’re looking to work while obtaining your degree. These perks also enable you to earn your doctorate more quickly, with fewer restrictions and greater mobility. Below are some of the advantages online doctoral programs offer. 

The Flexibility of Scheduling and Location 

The most prominent advantages include flexibility in delivery and location. Earning your doctorate online means you’ll be able to work from wherever you like with few on-campus requirements. In addition, online learning will give you greater control over pace and scheduling. 

Cost-effectiveness

Overall cost will always vary by school, but generally, online programs tend to be less expensive than other options. At Drexel University, for instance, students pursuing an online practical doctorate in education enjoy a 25% discount on tuition. Other programs may extend similar opportunities, like flat-rate tuition, to online students. 

Customization

While students at all levels benefit from customizable programs, it may be the most valuable for doctoral students. Online programming gives you greater control over your studies, allowing you to personalize the experience. This means you’ll be building deeper expertise in your field while receiving direct support from faculty and industry professionals. 

Access to Resources

Online doctoral programs extend a range of robust resources to help guide you through your studies and position you for success after graduation. These include career and professional development tools, student support services, and technology resources for those new to navigating a virtual learning environment. 

Access to Diverse Perspectives

Online doctoral programs attract students from across the globe. Working alongside colleagues and faculty with diverse perspectives will not only deepen your professional network; it will also broaden your sense of cultural awareness. Access to these perspectives will enhance your standing as a job candidate in the global marketplace. 

Improved Technology Skills

Although most students already possess basic technology skills, online doctoral programs will take those abilities to the next level. You’ll use technology constantly to communicate, submit key assignments, and interact with course content. This will deepen your facility with ubiquitous tools while also expediting your path to completion. 

Resources for Potential PhD Students

  • Achieving Excellence in Research: A Guide for New Graduate Students This resource from Wiley Online Libraries offers a mentoring guide for new doctoral students. It focuses on research norms, networking strategies, and best practices for scholarly publication. 
  • Conal Conference Alerts This site aggregates conference announcements and recent calls for papers relevant to doctoral students. It allows you to filter by region, topic, or discipline and create handy email alerts. 
  • Grad Resources The resources included on this site focus on the mental, emotional, and interpersonal side of the doctoral experience. They include a crisis hotline and a range of useful articles on community connection. 
  • ImaginePhD Geared toward doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences, this hub provides professional planning tools and career exploration resources. 
  • Inside Higher Ed A Times Higher Education publication, this site offers doctoral students the latest news, analysis, and developments in their field. It also includes an active job board. 
  • National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity For those planning to enter academia, this resource supports diversity and faculty development by providing on-demand access to mentoring and strategic planning services. 
  • PhD Subreddit This discussion forum provides a space for doctoral students to gather and support one another. It tends to focus on PhD students but includes and welcomes those pursuing practical doctorates, as well. 
  • ResearchGate Scholars, doctoral students, and faculty across disciplines use this site to share and discover relevant research. Its social features make it easy to follow topics and authors of interest. 
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education This publication maintains the largest U.S.-based newsroom focused on higher education. It includes a career center for jobseekers, late-breaking news, and data analysis. 
  • The PhD Project Established in 1994, this organization works to advance corporate diversity by increasing the diversity of business school faculty and graduates. It also hosts an annual conference and other regional events. 

Expert: How to Evaluate Programs

E. Scott England is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He also serves as the Director of the Education Leadership EdD program. He has previously served as a first and third grade teacher, an elementary principal, and a district superintendent.

What is the best way for applicants to assess levels of diversity and inclusivity in potential programs, particularly regarding race, gender, and other underrepresented groups?

Most universities offer a student profile somewhere on their website that can give prospective candidates an idea of the diversity of the institution as a whole. I recommended reaching out to the department head or program director to determine what diversity and inclusivity are for respective programs. These factors will, of course, be influenced by geographical location and institution type. Candidates should also look at the diversity of the program faculty — but keep in mind that if adjuncts are utilized for some courses, they often don’t have faculty pages.

What are the critical differences between practical doctoral programs (e.g., EdD) and a more research-driven course of study (e.g., PhD)?

The coursework looks significantly different in practical programs compared to PhD programs, which are going to revolve greatly around the theory. PhD programs are going to have more research-driven inquiry practices along with scholarly aspects. A PhD can also be offered across many disciplines, tailoring instruction specifically to the field of study. An EdD is designed to enhance practical knowledge in an area of education, typically leadership. Rather than a theoretical approach in research, practical programs most often have applied approaches (i.e., action research or program evaluation). The other major difference is the opportunities the two different degrees can offer. If the prospective candidate wants to work in higher education, a PhD could lead to more opportunities at research universities.

What can future applicants do now to help prepare for the rigors and demands of study at the doctoral level?

The best thing to do now is to establish good habits for studying, reading, and writing. Creating a dedicated time and space will be one of the easiest ways to lessen stress during the study. It’s impossible to give the best time because people have varying chronotypes. The best thing is for each person to understand their chronotype and create a dedicated time when they’re most productive.

How big of a factor is institutional versus departmental reputation for these programs?

I do not believe this is a big factor for most and was maybe more relevant in past decades. Of course, some institutions have a reputation based on name alone, but this doesn’t translate to quality programs. Prospective students would need to first determine the purpose of getting a doctoral degree before deciding if institutional or even faculty reputation is going to carry the most weight and lead to future opportunities.

Do you have any other advice you would like to offer to those interested in pursuing doctoral study?

The biggest hang-up for candidates finishing is the dissertation. It looms over them. Most students wait until finishing coursework before starting. They go from being around faculty to being essentially on their own to tackle such a large task. While some might disagree with me, I find what works well for students is to work on the dissertation simultaneously with coursework. I say this with the caveat that a lot will change with the dissertation as the student goes along. The idea is to create momentum and habits early so that when coursework is finished, the same dedication can be shifted to the dissertation. My other recommendation is to adhere to formatting and citation rules early in the program to again build the habit of doing things correctly. It is never fun to receive a draft back with copious amounts of edits, recommendations, and comments on things that could have been attended to early on in the process.