Doctoral programs typically have only a few slots for PhD students in each cohort. This is because they may have limited funding for doctoral students, want to have a small cohort so each student can get more attention from faculty, or simply do not receive an overwhelming number of applications each year. Of course, admissions committees, generally composed of program faculty, keep their budgets and processes for accepting students basically a secret. These committees will review application essays, test scores, transcripts, and any other materials pertinent to a student’s application, then they decide who to admit to that year’s cohort of students.
This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.
Dave’s quick survey on PhD acceptance rates
Dave asked the R3ciprocity community in March 2020, “What is your best estimate of the average PhD / doctoral program acceptance rate at your institution?” He received 20 responses, and among those responses the estimated percent accepted was as follows:
1-5% of those who apply are accepted. 50%
6-10% of those who apply are accepted. 25%
11-20% of those who apply are accepted. 15%
21-40% of those who apply are accepted. 0%
41% of those who apply are accepted or more. 10%
Of course, this is just a small convenience sample and does not constitute a scientifically conducted survey, but it is interesting. The general consensus among the R3ciprocity crowd is that doctoral programs are quite competitive and a low percent of those who apply will be admitted. But we also must consider that respondents may come from a variety of academic disciplines, some of which are more competitive in their doctoral program acceptance rates (see more about this below).
In fact, we do know that doctoral programs are more selective than graduate programs. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, in 2018 “Overall, 23.5% of doctoral applicants and 50.9% of master’s/other applicants were accepted for admission.” Furthermore, the Council has found that, “Doctoral programs at private not-for-profit research universities with highest research activity were most selective, accepting 13.7% of applications received.”
Watch Dave’s vlog on PhD program acceptance rates:
Why are average PhD acceptance rates so low?
Generally, many programs want to keep their programs small to increase the quality of education students receive and ensure students are getting the personalized attention and mentoring they need to become successful academics. Faculty also want high quality students in their program. Faculty need students who will be skilled enough to successfully contribute to their institutes and research studies; they also want students who are going to work hard and be dedicated to the profession. Thus, PhD programs try to screen out people who do not appear to be fully dedicated to the profession.
What do doctoral programs look at when deciding which applicants to admit?
A doctoral program’s admissions committee, often composed of full-time faculty and the program director, will look at a number of credentials when deciding which applicants to admit to the program. Here are some of the things they look at:
Curriculum vitae – You do not want to include a traditional resume in your package of application materials, but rather a C.V. which is basically an academic style resume. The C.V. lists your education, work experience, publications, teaching experience, and skills. Find a C.V. template online and get to work putting together an eye catching C.V.! Watch this video if you need more tips:
Application essay – PhD programs generally require an application essay or statement. This may be a few pages long, or for more competitive programs, longer. It demonstrates your writing abilities, interests, and goals. Write a draft then have a friend or colleague who is a great writer give you some feedback. You need to check out this blog post on PhD Application essays if you have not done so – it is a lifesaver.
Scores – Standardized scores, such as on the GRE, help a committee measure how each applicant’s performance in a specific area (e.g. writing, math, etc.) rates relative to others. The institution may have a threshold below which it is more difficult to get accepted to a program. That’s not true in all programs and the threshold will vary depending on the program/institution. There has been some movement away from standardized admissions tests for undergraduate admissions, and some graduate/doctoral programs as well. Some doctoral programs do not require applicants to take any standardized tests. More likely than not, an admissions committee will be more interested in other components of your application and use standardized test scores to round out your profile. There is some evidence, however, that elite graduate/doctoral programs rely more on the GRE than they admit to. Check out this blog post on whether you should do the GMAT or GRE for a PhD.
Interests – Admissions committees look at students’ research interests and whether they match the research interests of faculty. If you’ve looked into the doctoral program and faculty and can talk about what they are doing, what they’ve published, and show a true interest in the research that faculty are doing, this can go a long way in getting you accepted. Reading about faculty interests and accomplishments is important before you apply to a program. Is there someone on faculty you could see yourself working with at an institute or on a study? Is there an institute that does research in your area of interest? Once you’re really excited about a doctoral program, your interest and passion will be evident to the program considering you.
Undergraduate/Graduate Education – The schools and programs the potential candidate previously attended is an important admission criterion. A history of attendance and success at a well known program/institution will help you get accepted to other well known PhD programs/institutions. You don’t have to have gone to an Ivy League graduate program to get accepted to many PhD programs, however. Rather, they want to see what you did with your graduate education and how well you did at your previous school, no matter which program you attended. Watch this video about undergrad GPAs:
References – Admissions committees look carefully at your letters of reference and recommendations. They will be happy to see a letter from people they know in the industry. It is better to get a letter from a former professor than a work supervisor. The committee wants to see that your academic work was noticed by previous professors. It’s important to get references from people that the committee recognizes or even know personally. If you are going into a field of practice, a letter from an internship or work supervisor will be fine as well.
Interviews – Most American doctoral programs do not require an interview as part of the admissions process, though they may welcome an informational interview. Some elite programs do however require an interview. To prepare for your interview, review the types of common questions asked. Be yourself when you interview. Don’t try to exaggerate your accomplishments. Appear confident but not cocky. Here is a detailed blog post about PhD interviews!
Writing samples – Choose your writing samples carefully. You make your best case to an admissions committee by showing, with your writing samples, that you have research experience and authored/co authored one or more peer reviewed journal articles. If you haven’t been published in a journal, have you written an article for a magazine or a general trade publication? You could also use a report you wrote for work, ideally related to the field you are pursuing. You might also use an exception paper from graduate school. There may be a page limit on your writing sample.
Portfolios – Some doctoral programs may want to see a portfolio of your work. The type of portfolio you put together will vary based on standards in each field. A portfolio could be a digital collection of your work, or a portfolio could be a collection of artwork or architectural plans, for example. Find out what the program is looking for and get professional advice on putting together a good portfolio. Many PhD programs in the social sciences, for example, will not require a portfolio.
Do acceptance rates vary across program in the same discipline, and across disciplines?
Yes, acceptance rates vary quite a bit among PhD programs, and you should pay attention to the acceptance rate as a measure of the quality of the program. Good PhD programs reject most people that apply to the program. Low acceptance rates indicate a selective program that expects candidates of the highest caliber, who have passion and fortitude and will succeed in their program. Higher acceptance rate programs allow a more diverse candidate pool in. Their threshold levels will be more tolerant as far as grades, standardized tests, and interests. They may also have a lower graduation rate, as they accepted more students who were not able to finish the program.
Yes, there is evidence that doctoral programs in certain fields are more difficult to gain entry to. According to the CSG, business is the most selective field in terms of doctoral program acceptance rates, followed closely by the social and behavioral sciences.
For those of you who have an MBA or are interested in teaching or researching business, you might be interested in what Dave has to say about getting a Doctorate (DBA / PhD of Business Administration) after getting an MBA.
Do acceptance rates vary from year to year?
Acceptance rates can vary from year to year. According to CSG, “Applications to graduate schools increased at the doctoral level (4.1%) between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018. There also was a 2.9% increase in first-time doctoral enrollment between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018.” Take the field of psychology for example, According to the American Psychological Association, data they have analyzed shows “it’s become harder to get accepted into a psychology doctoral program: Acceptance rates dropped between the 2003–04 and 2015–16 academic years in most psychology subfields. According to the APA, programs in cognitive psychology and clinical psychology have become increasingly competitive with average doctoral acceptance rate falling from to 13% in recent years.
The selectivity of doctoral programs may increase or decrease over time for a variety of reasons. The competitiveness of doctoral programs can vary with economic conditions for example. During economic downturns there may be more doctoral program applicants because people are unable to find jobs, lowering the acceptance rate. Program factors such as better marketing or a new fellowship program, might also impact the number of applications to doctoral programs from year to year.
Being rejected from your first choice program
It’s important to remember that not everyone will get into their program of choice because competition for a slot in a doctoral program with a low acceptance rate is fierce. If you are rejected by your first choice and get into a less competitive program, this does not mean your PhD journey will be any less fulfilling. Doctoral programs are diverse and sometimes the perfect fit of candidate and program comes from expanding your search to more than one program.
Worry less about getting into the very particular low acceptance rate programs and expand your search. In many cases being the top candidate at the next best program will afford you opportunities and benefits that you hadn’t considered. Institutions outside of the very top tier try harder to attract good candidates and may offer more to you than the top tier. Being one of many provides a resource-rich pool of academics pursuing their PhD together and provides an opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas you might not have been exposed to before.
The bottom line
The bottom line is: it is difficult to get into the most selective doctoral programs, but it is certainly worth trying to get into your first choice program. During an economic downturn it will become even more competitive as people lose their jobs and look to move their careers forward by getting a doctoral degree. There are less selective programs that are certainly worth looking into, but financial support and the rigor of the program may not be equal to the more competitive programs. Universities with less research activity may simply have fewer opportunities for doctoral students to work on large research projects or for research institutes, but these less selective programs may offer greater flexibility or other benefits not available at major research institutions.
Applying to a doctoral program is hard work, and it should be, because programs want to see that you are taking the time and effort to put together a good application; this demonstrates your interest in and commitment to the field. Look at the application requirements at several programs you are interested in and start preparing your materials well ahead of the submission deadline. Call the program and ask questions, or for an informational interview, if you think it will help. You might also contact a faculty member or current doctoral students to learn more about research opportunities and the program in general.
Getting a PhD is not an easy task, but many programs are implementing reforms to make it easier for students to complete their degree in less time and with more financial support. In considering programs, make sure you find out what the time limits are for earning a degree, whether the program requires exams, and what type of dissertation process they have. Some programs are moving away from the traditional dissertation process and more towards having students write a series of papers they can submit for publication. Also, find out if the program allows students to attend part-time or requires students to have a full-time courseload.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some other topics to check out on the r3ciprocity.com blog: