Our up to date ideas on getting your PhD with the least amount of stress possible

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PhD Application Timeline

March 26, 20246 min read

The timeline you need to 3X your chances of getting into top PhD programs


If you want to do your PhD, and get that fully funded position, you’re going to want to plan it out.  After all, this isn’t something you just wake up one morning and say “Hey, I think it would be really fun to go back to school for 4 more years, why not get a PhD?”.

So, if you didn’t come to the decision to pursue your PhD lightly, why would you leave your application up to chance? Successful PhDs follow a timeline and execute key tasks that make them 3X more successful than the 20% national average. If you’d like to be part of the 20% that succeed, follow this timeline below.


Applying to PhD programs requires a totally different timeline than undergrad.

Every single PhD hopeful has their undergrad degree (this is a requirement), and when they got their undergrad degree they applied successfully.  Now, when they decide to apply for a PhD the thinking goes that it will be like undergrad, and hey I did pretty good there, so I should be fine.  

But wait.

The biggest difference when applying for your PhD is that you’re not applying to a school (I mean you are, but hang with me), you’re applying to work with 1 or 2 people on a very specific topic. This means you can’t just compile a list of top “Biology” programs, but instead need to find the programs doing the work you care about. Like finding the handful of people working on migration patterns of moths, versus the hundreds of Biology programs at top Universities.


Finding the right fit will take more time than undergrad.


Finding the right people doing the work you care about takes time. And it sets those who succeed apart.

Imagine a hand written invitation to come to your next dinner party, with a detailed guest list, menu, and description of the music that will be played and how inviting the event will be. Now imagine a evite the spells your name wrong and says, “hope you can come to my part next Friday, it’ll be fun.” The personalized invitation makes it very easy for me to say Yes, and the generic evite makes it pretty easy for me to say No.

This is the same thing when you’re applying to PhD programs. You need to make it personalized and make sure there is a good fit before you ever apply. This process of finding the right programs usually takes ~6 months and should be completed ~6 months prior to your deadline.

If your PhD deadline is December 15 (typical deadlines are in December-January), you should have a pretty good list of programs you want to apply to by July.


Connecting with PhDs and professors can’t be rushed

Once you’ve found some programs you’re a good fit for, it’s time to reach out to actual humans and gather more info.  Consider this your fact finding mission to determine if you even want to spend time and energy applying there.

If you skip this step, you probably end up wasting time and energy applying to programs that aren’t a good fit. This is like asking out the wrong person. It’s not that you’re not a good catch, you’re just not a good fit. And you’ve wasted tons of time and energy doing your hair and picking out the outfit you think they’ll like all for them to reject you because there’s no chemistry.

Reaching out to current PhDs and professors is a great way to learn more about the program, what work they think is exciting, and if you’re a good fit.

The thing is, they have lives. You can’t email them a month before your deadline and expect to have a meaningful conversation.


You should reach out 3-12 months in advance of deadlines. 

If your PhD deadline is December 15th, you should be reaching out the year before all the way up through September.


Your writing needs polish

The amount of writing for PhD applications varies by field. Every application requires a personal statement and resume. Some require research proposals, writing samples, diversity statements, and other essays.

A big part of being a successful PhD is writing clearly and concisely. They are judging your application on how well you write, not just what you say.

 The funny thing about concise writing, is that it often takes more time and skill than writing a 10-page essay.

You’re going to want to write drafts and have outside eyes review your work. When you’re too close to something it becomes hard to spot the flaws. You should absolutely get other people (hopefully other PhD experts) to review your work and point out ways to improve.

Plan to spend ~3 months writing your PhD application. If your deadline is in December, this means you should start writing in September.


It Aint Over When Apps Are In

After your applications are submitted, the interview phase begins. Most schools conduct interviews from January to April. You should plan extra time for interviews and possible weekend trips. Many schools will pay to fly you out and interview you with other PhD hopefuls. 

 To prepare for this make sure other work and priorities are up to date so you’re not scrambling during interview season. Keep some dressy casual clothes at the ready so you don’t need to go out shopping. Remember to brush up on their work prior to your interview, so block a few hours in your schedule to make sure you’re ready for each call.


Plan To Succeed, Not Fail

The successful PhDs approach this process with the thought that they will absolutely be starting their PhD next fall. Therefore, it makes perfect logical sense to devote time and energy to these steps outlined above.

A lot of unsuccessful PhD hopefuls are afraid of failure, and instead procrastinate or avoid doing these things with enough time. This gives you an out. If you’re waiting till the last minute, you can always say you didn’t get in because you were rushed or didn’t have enough energy after work, etc. It’s normal to want this crutch, but it doesn’t serve you.

Instead, give yourself a whole year to get this application in tip top shape. This also gives you plenty of time for life events (hello unexpected move) to work through without feeling overwhelmed.

You’re probably thinking you don’t need this much time. There’s a well known phenomenon called the planning fallacy, where humans consistently overestimate their ability to complete complex tasks. This is especially true when we know the task is complex. We give ourselves a 20% cushion and still wind up needing more time. So instead of thinking you’ve got it covered, stick to a plan and surprise yourself with how good you feel through the process. Instead of stress and anxiety, you’ll be feeling confident and ready.


The TL;DR version of the ideal PhD application timeline

Most people spend 6 to 12 months on PhD applications. 

Ready to get started on your applications now?  Let’s chat about your profile over in the FearlessGrad Program.  


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