Study in USA

6 Golden Rules: University Selection for PhD

The university selection process for Ph.D. is much different from the Master’s program.

If you don’t have experience applying for Graduate Schools programs in the USA, then you are likely to struggle to apply for Ph.D.

But, worry, not!

There will be a learning curve you will face.

Once you get past that initial anxiety, you will be able to make progress.

Make sure to get started as early as possible for college and admission planning.

If you plan to attend the Fall semester of 2020, then you should start planning at least two years.

Question from a reader:

I’m applying for PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. I don’t have research experience and just completed Bachelors in Biotechnology. How do I approach the college selection? Can you help with university selection for PhD?

University Selection for PhD

Having someone elite schools for Ph.D. is wrong, and that’s not something we advocate here in Happy Schools.

Please don’t go to a consultant who gives you a list of universities for Ph.D.!

  • You have decided to study in the USA – Good
  • You want to do Masters – Great
  • You want to do Ph.D. – Awesome
  • You want someone else to select universities –  Meh!

Ph.D. comes with greater responsibility, which means you approach university selection should be different. Follow these simple principles (or rules) when it comes to college selection for Ph.D.!

HSB Ph.D. Rules

  1. Never ask anyone to select universities for PhD
  2. Don’t apply to university without getting confirmation from the professor.
  3. Don’t apply for Ph.D. because you can’t get a job
  4. Don’t apply for Ph.D. because you can get a higher salary
  5. Don’t apply for Ph.D. to get Green card Faster!
  6. Don’t apply for Ph.D. if you don’t know what Research work involves is!

If you cannot research universities, professors, or programs to select universities for Ph.D., how are you going to do your actual research work for Ph.D.?

Did you know about 50% of students drop out from Ph.D. Why?

Burn Out!

If you are applying for Ph.D. directly after your Bachelor’s degree, you better have a real passion and high energy to sustain your interest for the next 5 to 7 years.

Burn Out is a real problem.

I have seen my roommates and close friends drop out of Ph.D.

They did very well in Masters, but they were not mentally tough to handle the rigor of Ph.D.

If you have decided to Ph.D., then get to work.

Take baby steps.

Break down the Humanganous problem of finding the right university and professor from 1000’s of schools to solvable problem chunks.

  • Pick a broad research area
  • Find a few most recent research papers on that topic
  • Read them and see if you find it interesting.
  • If not, find a different topic.
  • Make a note of the authors and if professors are involved in the university.
  • Reach out to them about your interest in working under their guidance
  • If you have a productive conversation, then apply to that program.

The process of finding a research paper, reading and contacting the professors sounds challenging.

It will be challenging.

And that’s all part of your learning and study abroad experience.

Don’t chicken out at the university selection stage, then Ph.D. may not be the right choice for you.

  • Start  with the Master’s degree
  • Pick Thesis Track in Masters Degree
  • Figure out how research works
  • Pick a problem to solve for your Ph.D., if you got what it takes.


Next: 15 Questions Every Student Should Ask Before Doing PhD

Similar Posts


  1. i m basically computer science department in engineering…
    is it possible to select the guide in machanical department

  2. I have research experience on molecular plant breeding for two years and completed my MS in genetics and plant breeding with CGPA>3.75 (out of 4.0). I want to study at North American university.Would you suggest me the procedure for university selection and application?

    1. Pick a broad research area
      Find a few most recent research papers on that topic
      Read them and see if you find it interesting.
      If not, find a different topic.
      Make a note of the authors and if professors are involved in the university.
      Reach out to them about your interest in working under their guidance
      If you have a productive conversation, then apply to that program

  3. I will be writing my GMAT examination for my intended PhD degree program on the 26th of this month and wish to know five universities in USA whose admission deadlines are still on so that they will receive my GMAT score from the GMAC after the examination.

    Thanks and hoping to hear from you soonest.

    Alphonse D. Wirnkar,
    Dept of Accounting,
    Gombe State University, Gombe,

  4. I have a GRE score of 1270(Q:790, V:480) and Toefl Score of 115. My GPA is 3.7, I want to apply for a PHD in mathematics. I haven't written the subject GRE test. Please suggest a few universities in the US , where I can apply without Subject GRE Scores?

  5. hello

    i am ms student in shahid beheshti university of iran.i am going to go there for phd. please help me




  7. I want list of Universities to apply in PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. My GRE score is 1020–>V 310, Q710, Essay 2.5. yet I have to give TOEFL so can you help me to get Unviersities for Spring 2012.

  8. Hi HSB,

    First i need to thank u for the information that u provide… U have been a bible for all US aspirants, Please continue this forever. My name is Hari Hara Sudhan following your site for more than six months, I did my under graduation under Anna university, Concentrated in electronics and communication engg. I am planning 4 my Masters in network security, i read your post regrading PhD.. which states with bachelors degree we can directly apply for PhD.. My question is

    1) Is this course is called as "INTEGRATED PhD" ?

    2)Do we learn MS curriculum in our first two years of PhD?

    3)Now considering the worst case possibility, If i couldn't solve the problem even after working for 5 or 7 years.. Will i be awarded with a masters degree or after all these 5 years in PhD my qualification still remains as BE?

    4) I came to know that if we finish 37 credits in PhD then we will be awarded masters deg, Is that true?

    I searched for these information in many places, but still i am getting different opinions, I need a clear idea before entering into it and i need a reliable information. Kindly help me. Plzzzzzzzzzzzz

  9. hello sir ,, i am study in Msc intigrated in biotechnology in environmental biotechnology. my course is 5.5 year ad now i m in 4th year . i want to Phd in the environmental biotechnology in U.S.A but i dont knw how i conform professor for Phd topic. and how i select the collage for this.

    so sir i req to u that please give me information and guide me for this.

  10. thank you HSB…u r helping us a lot.

    can u help me in listing out the universities offering phd in microbiology for spring semester

  11. Well, I will be completing my masters in pharmacy in the branch of pharmaceutics.I have final exam on 2011 for M.pharm.I am looking for Phd in my field of study.Please guide me through the admission process for getting into Phd.I am in search for university scholarships for fulfilling my purposes.

  12. Hi,,, These are very important rules for taking admission decision to Phd.Moreover for Phd one student should know what is research.Also selection of universities is difficult in Phd admissions….

  13. @Sartaj:
    1) "n wht about the profeesor i haven’t talk with anyone "
    2) "what is the process to get scholarship……to study there….."
    3) "i don’t want to stand along with the crowd waiting for oppurtunity…."

    doesnt (3) looks a bit far-fetched after (1) and (2) ??
    (unless u r a potential Nobel Laureate of-course and have managed to prove the same to your future fateful guide)

  14. thanks for ur 6 golden rules for selecting universities for phd……….

    why can't we just study phd for the sake of higher salary i don't understand……

    iam very intensive to do phd in pharmacology , iam interested in that respect field, n iam also applying for it to get higher salary………….

    can u suggest me what should i do …. i think getting masters is not enough to earn good……..

    n wht about the profeesor i haven't talk with anyone … is it neccessary for us to apply for phd…….

    what is the process to get scholarship……to study there…..

    i don't want to stand along with the crowd waiting for oppurtunity….

  15. hi,I'm Rajesh from Bangalore,doing my masters in Automotive engineering.I have a plans of getting into research in the same automotive field.My question is doing research just after completing my masters is better or work in the same automotive field for couple of years and going for the research.Please send me ur valuable replys…

  16. Would you please suggest me good universities for Ph.D in Pharmacology & toxicology/ Biomedical pharmacology…?
    I dont find much info about pharmacy schools here

  17. some universities say that you don't have to talk to professors, I read it myself.
    I have toefl tomorrow, I haven't talk to any professor and I am going to apply for phd.
    I haven't even written my cv yet.
    because i am in second year of masters and have to do project.

  18. Sir, recently i gave GRE exam and scored 330 in verbal and 600 in quant…total 930. I actually want to opt for PhD biological sciences. Can you pls suggest me…what to do with such a less score? Is it possible to get admission? I m keeping positive hopes and need your guidance.

    1. I feel u must retake GRE…a score of 1000 would have some hopes provided ur CV is very strong. Moreover, I think u already have some preparation…why not brush it up and take it again. Once you get a good score, your prospects widen and your chances also. Cheers…!!!

  19. can somebody tell me what is a typical day schedule in a university for a research scholar i.e. the timing in a univ for a research scholar , at which time a person do which things. at what time does one attends classes,give lectures,does research work . can somebody tell me the full details??

  20. GRE should be above 1400, TOEFL should be above 110, and presented two articles in pubmed in MS study is OK for phD application in us

  21. Hello Happy School Bloggers,

    I agree with all the Rules except Rule No 2. Rule No 1 essentially means that it is a waste of time trying to find counselors who would guide you in your application process…

    You need to have a clear picture of what type of research you intend to do; even if later on it changes along the course; but you need to have some research outline to start with which you should be describe in your SOP.

    But I don't think that getting a reply or not is a deciding factor in your application process. One faculty from Syracruse University whom I met at a education fair told me quite frankly that faculty receive several emails every day and they don't usually reply to them.

    You should browse through the faculty research areas and publications and get check the current Ph.D. students research titles to get an idea of what research work is being done at that institute.

    Based on that you should decide whether to apply to the institute or not given whether you see a match between your research areas of interest and that of the faculty

    And at the end of the day, a Ph.D. requires tenacity and is driven by your own passion to become an authority in a particular area. Otherwise drop-outs are but inevitable…

    1. i am really interested in pursuing phd after my i have got quite a few publications and good projects. i have got a basic idea of the area in which i am willing to pursue research..
      does gre score matter much when u apply for direct phd. i am sure of getting min. of 1100.
      got 4 ieee papers and one funded project. and gpa is 8.4 out of 10

  22. @Arnab: I guess you are a bit mistaken. From my experience, I'll tell you…

    1) Proffs reply ONLY if you mail them twice, thrice, four times (or even more). They want to see that you REALLY have interest in their work….and not just some random guy dropping mails to every proff in US 🙂

    2) Proffs reply MOSTLY if your previous work matches with their research. If you have a paper in Image Processing, and apply to one, working on, say, solid-state physics, then they wont be that much interested. Else, they may want to know, why you want to change your line etc etc.

    As for me, I first planned to go for PhD (after B.E); but now, plan to do my MS first, and then, continue to PhD.

  23. whenever i send the mail, they only reply by saying is very competitive.are trying to discourage me from applying? that is what i always ask myself.

  24. I am from Iraq and I have scholarship are these rules applies to this type of students?
    I am applied without any professor

  25. hello. i have done in biotechnology. I have 1 year industrial exp in pharma. i have got 1180 gre score and i want to go for ph.d cell biology? is this score sufficient? what should i do? how should i proceed?

  26. what you suggest i right..but the professors hardly reply..n when they do they would just ask to apply…Is there any better way of approach??

  27. First let me give my background and a little context before my questions:
    I am applying for Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I am 38 yr old, with 10+ years experience in software industry. But I have got good amount of experience in related voluntary work , which I did during a 3 year break from job. I am yet to take my GRE on dec 7th, 2010. I have taken my TOEFL IBT and expect a score between 100-105. I have an aggregate of 69% in my B.E ( Electronics and Communication ). My main objective is to get into some of the universities which are doing research that I am very much interested in. I am targetting a GRE score of 1400.

    1. I mailed to a professor about what could be my chances for admission, despite my lack of relevant undergraduate background. He replied its not a rule that such a background is mandatory and they consider, SOP, GRE score, recommendation letters , research experience and resume.
    2. My SOP is strong. My recommendation letters are also expected to be quite good.
    3. I do not have research experience, but planning to do voluntary research work in Jan.
    4. My experience in software industry can be relevant for neuroscience because it is an interdisciplinary subject, especially computational neuroscience.
    5. Couple of univ professors did not reply back to my emails. They happenned to be professors having research areas of my interest, but they were "Associate Professors"

    Question 1: Just because I did not get a reply from the professors, does this mean I should not apply?

    Question 2: What according to you are my chances of admission?

    Question 3: Should I mail full fledged Professors to get a reply and perhaps Associate Profs do not reply?

    Thanks much,

    1. 1. Just because a Prof did not reply, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't apply. Many profs would gauge from the subject of the email what the mail is about and open it or delete it, so its unfair for the student. But when you apply to the university, the prof gets a chance to look at your entire profile and make a decision after spending some time thinking in what way you could contribute to his/her group.
      3. Prof or Associate prof should not matter as long as their research is excellent and are well known in their fields of interests.

  28. Hi, Thats an awesome suggestion. No one can decide for a prospective PhD student the likely GRE/TOEFEL score that can assure your acceptance. It is a whole package of your past research experiences, recos and scores. It is also important to consider the fact that what is your field of research and availability of PhD positions for that field. It is extremely important to get at least a confirmation from the Profs that they are ready for intakes.

    Arnab, Profs do reply specially US Profs, either they say a NO or YES in an ambiguous way. It is generally quite evident from their response it is just an encouragement or a real strong positive response. I am sorry I don't know about your field, but I have been receiving good responses. When your research interest perfectly fits into the Prof's field, they respond really good and you know on the other side, the Profs want people to work with them who are already having some sound research experience. So don't loose hope and keep mailing..!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *