Many well-qualified international students want to come to the U.S. to complete their Ph.D. programs, but the process can feel rather daunting. Should students choose the best-ranked universities? Should they aim for brand names? How do they know which programs to apply to, and which offer funding?
Prospective undergraduate students may consider factors such as university size, location, and the variety of majors offered, but all of these factors should come secondary for prospective Ph.D. students. Instead, these students should focus on two factors: research and professors. Specifically, students should ask, “Which professors are doing research in my area of focus?”
An area of focus is much narrower than a general degree name. For example, a student may seek out a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but their area of focus is in photonics. Likewise, a student may seek out a Ph.D. in history, but their field of interest is in ancient Native American burial practices. Areas of focus are important.
But what makes them important? Most university funding for Ph.D. students, whether in the form of outside grants or university-sponsored fellowships, is tied to the research being done. Professors generally have enormous influence over which Ph.D. applicants are admitted and funded. For obvious reasons, professors seek out applicants whose research interests are closely aligned with their own.
Time and again, we see applications to Ph.D. programs without any indication of an area of focus, or without specific mention of research being done by our professors. These applications are sure to be overlooked for lack of details on the applicant’s research interest. But how do students know who is doing what research?
A regular review of current academic journals and conference proceedings enables prospective Ph.D. students to stay up-to-date on research being done in their fields. It is important that this review covers current research; research funding priorities change over time, and older research projects may no longer be active (and therefore have no funding).
A regular review of current academic journals and conference proceedings also gives students an insight into the major players in their field—a who’s who of professors. But it is important for students to recognize that professors often do research in groups. This is advantageous, as there may be more than one professor searching for students.
Through this process, students can begin making a list of the research, the professors, and their affiliated universities. This is the list that students should work off of when deciding where to apply.