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US Phd

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US Advantages for phd programs

America’s rigorous approach to graduate study delivers a standard of training and professional development that often surpasses the minimum requirement for a more ‘traditional’ research-focused doctorate in other countries.


  • Accessibility – A US graduate programme takes longer than a UK PhD, but this can also help you find your feet as a PhD student. You’ll have more time to develop a more detailed understanding of your subject as the basis for your own research.

  • World-leading universities and research – Rankings aren’t everything, but the global league tables continue to be dominated by US institutions. Amongst other things, this reflects the country’s substantial investment in research output and expertise.

  • International community – American universities host huge numbers of students from across the world. Whatever and wherever you study you’ll be welcomed as part of a diverse academic community.

  • Innovation – The USA is more of a (post)graduate trendsetter than it’s sometimes given credit for being. America was the second country (after Germany) to adopt the modern PhD degree. Its own structured approach to doctoral training is also now influencing PhD study in the UK and Europe.

  • Breadth of opportunity - With 50 states, six time zones and thousands of higher education providers, the USA has something to offer everyone.


Public and Private universities

US universities can be divided into two broad groups, depending on how they receive their funding. This affects the fees they charge to students:

  • Public universities are administered as part of state university systems. Because they receive public funding from their state they charge less to local ‘in-state’ students. ‘Out-of-state’ students pay more, regardless of whether they are a citizen of a different US state or a country outside the USA. There isn’t a higher fee specifically for international students.

  • Private universities don’t receive any direct state funding (though they may benefit from federal research funds). This means more of their income is derived from student fees, making them higher than those at public universities. However, private universities don’t usually charge extra to international or out-of-state students.

Other than fees, there is no distinction between the kinds of graduate programmes offered by public and private universities. Public universities tend to be larger, with more students. But private universities are equally focussed on academic quality, often being run as non-profits. In fact, many of the most famous and highly regarded universities in the USA are private.


Graduate Schools

Graduate schools are specialised organisations set up by, and affiliated with, universities. Larger universities may have several graduate schools focussing on different subjects, such as Law, Management and so on. Smaller universities may have a single graduate school that administers all of their graduate programmes.



The federal structure of the USA means there is no government body responsible for accrediting all US universities. Instead a range of accreditors operate independently on a national or regional level. The US Government maintains a database of the universities and programmes they have accredited.

It doesn’t necessarily matter which specific bodies have recognised a given university. But, you should be wary of any institution that doesn’t have any verifiable accreditation.


The Ivy League

Probably the best-known and most renowned university group in America (if not the world) the Ivy League was formed as a sporting conference. Made up of eight universities, its membership is actually based on geography and athletics, not academic quality.

That said, the Ivy League does include eight of America’s oldest, wealthiest and highest-ranked universities. A PhD from any of these institutions American is a very prestigious qualification indeed.


PhD course structure

Doctoral students in other countries normally start researching right away, USA PhD courses begin with taught classes and assessments. It’s only after passing this stage that a student confirms their final dissertation topic and gets to work researching it.

In total the length of a PhD in the USA is usually 4-6 years (full time). Students spend 1-4 years on the coursework stage of their programme and 2-4 years working on their dissertation.


Assessment and examination

Students who have passed the coursework stage of their programme are ready to be confirmed as full PhD candidates. The final stage is producing the doctoral dissertation. 

American PhDs are much more like taught degrees than the research-focussed doctorates offered in other countries. You will need to pass regular assessments in order to progress with your programme and eventually defend your dissertation.

Requirements will depend on your graduate programme, but will usually include:


  • Coursework – Your classes will be assessed through essays, exams and presentations. You will need to pass these in order to earn enough credits to complete the coursework stage of your programme.

  • Examinations – Your competence will be broadly assessed before you can move on to the dissertation. These examinations may involve oral presentation and debate with members of your faculty. Or they could be a traditional ‘closed book’ exam paper to assess your general subject knowledge. Some programmes involve more than one set of exams.

  • Dissertation prospectus – Your proposed topic and plan will be orally examined by your dissertation committee before you can proceed to your research.

  • Dissertation defence – The final test for your PhD will be a presentation and oral examination of your doctoral dissertation. 


You may also need to demonstrate that you have satisfied other requirements for your programme. For instance, acquiring language skills, completing professional internships and submitting work for academic presentations or publication.


PhD types

Most universities in the USA simply award the standard PhD (or Ph.D.) as an academic doctorate. This qualification is equivalent to PhDs in other countries.

Some programmes award professional doctorates such as the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) and EdD (Doctor of Education). These usually include very specific practical projects and case studies in addition to academic classes and dissertation research.

Other types of ‘doctoral’ qualification are available to students seeking to qualify for regulated professions such as law or medicine. These JD (Doctor of Laws) and MD (Doctor of Medicine) degrees are organised very differently to academic doctorates and don’t normally qualify students for legal or medical practice in other countries. They are not recommended for international students unless you definitely intend to live and work in the USA.


Application Process

The application process will be holistic. Individual elements such as academic grades or entry test scores will all play a part. But, graduate programmes will be looking for well-rounded candidates with the right character and personal potential.

The ‘sticker price’ for a US PhD may seem high, but it’s probably not the price you’ll end up paying. Many institutions offer financial support through scholarships or paid assistantship positions.

US graduate programmes will have specific application deadlines. It’s common for application windows to open between August and December for admission to a PhD in the autumn (or ‘fall’) of the following year.


USA PhD Admissions tests

Most US universities use entry exams to assess suitability for graduate study. These test your skills in literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and different types of reasoning.

GRE- General GRE test measures your general reasoning and analytical abilities. Different programmes may look at specific aspects of your score.The GRE Subject test measures the breadth of your knowledge in a specific academic subject. Tests are available in Biology, Chemistry, English Literature, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology.

        GMAT – for DBA degrees and other programmes in Business and Management

        LSAT – for JD programmes

        MCAT – for MD programmes

        DAT – for dental programmes


Application materials

Universities and graduate schools will set their own admissions procedures. You should expect to be asked for most of the following:


  • Academic transcripts – As well as your final (or projected) grades, universities will want to see a more detailed record of the work you did during your Bachelors and / or Masters degree/s, including the individual modules you studied and the grades you were awarded for them.

  • Personal statement – This should make a case for your interest in the particular programme you are applying to and your suitability for it. Your personal statement should also describe extra-curricular interests and achievements. Universities will want to see evidence that you are a well-rounded individual and will consider your moral character as well as your academic record.

  • Letters of recommendation – These are slightly different to normal references for PhD applications. US universities will expect referees to actively and enthusiastically recommend you for graduate study.

  • Test scores – Graduate entry tests are a very common requirement in the USA. You will normally be expected to provide a score from at least one exam 

  • Research statement – This isn’t always required for PhD study in the USA. If it is, it will be much simpler than a full research proposal. You will only need to give a general sense of your research interests and possible directions you might like to pursue. The specific details for your project will be developed later in your programme and put forward as part of your research prospectus.

  • Writing samples – Programmes in some subjects may ask you to complete a specific application essay on a relevant topic. This could be discussed at your interview.

  • Resume – Your application should be supported by a suitably formatted resume, detailing your academic and professional history.


Universities will consider all elements of your application when evaluating you. Make sure you give yourself time to put together a good personal statement and source suitable letters of recommendation. Don’t assume that a glowing academic record will be enough to secure admission to a graduate programme by itself.

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