How to Be a Competitive PhD Applicant Checklist — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
5 min readFeb 27, 2023

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and pursue a PhD — congrats! You’ve made an admirable decision, one that will open numerous doors for your future academic, research, and even career opportunities. Wondering how to be a competitive PhD applicant? If you’re looking to apply for a PhD program, the application process can seem daunting-there are countless details to attend to and so many options out there.

Don’t worry; today we’re here with some key tips on how to navigate this process like a pro so you can truly make yourself stand out as a competitive applicant who has chosen the right program. Read on if you want some insight into what awaits you during this ultimate educational journey of yours!

Your First Check Box: Sorting Out Your Goals

If you are looking to pursue a PhD, you must begin considering your goals. Your criteria for selecting target programs will depend entirely on what works specifically for you. Ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10: how committed are you to becoming a professor?

There are two categories of PhD Applicants: Which One Do You Belong To?

Are You All or Nothing When It Comes to Research?

If so, your utmost priority should be to find a program that provides you with specialized training. Before looking for programs, you should thoroughly investigate the literature in your field of expertise and find out where they are working. Once you have identified potential programs, look if your profile is in alignment with niche subfields that PhD students are currently exploring.

Are You Still Unsure About Academia?

If you are looking to pursue a career in an industry of your choice, you must find programs that support and promote the achievement of your ambitions. Ask yourself questions such as: What branch do I wish to work within? Does my university have close research ties with this particular field? Are there any potential internships or other professional development experiences on offer at the department?

With answers to these queries, you can make an informed decision about how best to reach for the stars! It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the industry or academia, it’s essential to know: What other resources does your university provide for graduate students? Are there any career development groups, professional networks, and alumni working in this field? Knowing all of these details can help guide the decisions that will define your future.

Here Is Your Competitive PhD Applicant Checklist

How’s Your Research Profile? Great, just OK, or inexistent?

As an undergraduate or graduate student, have you ever been involved in academic research? Maybe you’ve assisted a professor with writing a book, conducted lab work for another researcher; completed an individual study such as an honors thesis, or taken part in other types of research projects. If not, think about exploring research opportunities further to build your profile. Having a clear assessment of your research experience is an essential element of determining how to be a competitive PhD applicant.

Do you have the GPA of a Competitive PhD Applicant?

The unwritten rule about PhD programs about GPA is that applicants should have a minimum of 3.3. This requirement might go up for more competitive schools. GRE scores are less essential for many programs-particularly in the humanities; so make sure to check each school’s website for specific requirements.

Do you have the qualifications necessary for admission?

It may appear obvious, but lots of the advanced programs (of diverse disciplines) have eligibility criteria that exceed what you accomplished as an undergraduate. Do your due diligence and get educated on all aspects of each program to maximize your chances of success!

Are there any faculty members at your desired program who specialize in what you’re looking for and, more importantly, are they accepting students?

If you are looking for a professor to conduct research with, review the faculty page of your preferred department at each school. Take note of their interests, publications, and resumes so that you can find someone compatible with your project. We find that reaching out to faculty before applying is a hit or miss…In fact, mostly a miss. So make sure that more than one faculty member is working on your topic or in your subfield just in case one professor is unavailable.

Competitive PhD Applicants Are Not Blinded By Ivy League Schools

With the sheer number of applicants vying for PhD admission, it is essential to conduct a thorough and inquisitive search to maximize your chances. You should follow researchers to get to specific schools and not the other way around. Where you got your PhD will carry very little weight in your getting hired. Only the quality and relevance of your research will matter, so pick the perfect environment that will allow you to produce great research. It might not be at an ivy league.

By looking at all components of any potential school — such as research opportunities, faculty expertise, and access to resources — you can make an informed decision that meets your needs. Additionally, evaluating elements like financial assistance packages and career services after graduation will also help ensure that you’re making the best choice possible.


When considering where to spend your next few years in pursuit of a doctoral degree, ask yourself these important questions: Are you dreaming of a particular region to call home? Are you living in a specific area due to family constraints or career aspirations?


When you research admission information, it’s wise to explore funding options too. Will you need to submit any supplemental applications? What financial support is accessible to graduate students within your chosen department? Can the department guarantee you funding throughout your program? Are there any financial resources available during the summer?

Departmental culture

To ensure a successful experience, it’s essential to get an understanding of how the department treats its students. The best way to do this is by speaking with people who have experienced it firsthand. Before you make your final decision, be sure to reach out to current doctoral students and learn more about their experiences while enrolled — this includes interacting with professors, living in the area, etc. After all, selecting the right graduate program can significantly shape how your life will unfold over the next few years; so make sure that there’s an intimate connection between yourself and that particular school.Find out more about faculty you have in mind as potential advisors and talk to their current or former advisees. What type of experience have they had working with them? Are they hands-on types of advisors, or more hand-offs? Does their approach fit with how you envision working with an advisor?

In Conclusion

When it comes to PhD admissions success, knowing how to be a competitive PhD applicant is essential. We all have our own criteria when making decisions, but having an understanding of what you’re looking for and how to weigh the different factors between PhD programs is an even better bet. Clear goals and a healthy criteria list can put you ahead of the game in getting accepted and succeeding in a PhD program. The Admit Lab offers professional assistance to help make the goal-setting process easier. So if you need help, don’t forget to check out our PhD application services! After all, sometimes it takes expert help to get where you want to be.

Originally published at on February 27, 2023.



Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: