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The Ivy League – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse

The United States is the most popular study abroad destination in the world – and the Ivy League universities are amongst its top institutions.

If you’re considering PhD study in the USA, the Ivy League should definitely feature in your search! In this guide, we’ll cover what the Ivy League is and how you can maximise your chances of earning a place at one of these top institutions for your PhD.

What is the Ivy League?

The Ivy League is a group of eight prestigious, high-ranking American universities. Ivy League schools have a reputation for producing world-renowned research, as well as high-profile graduates from former US presidents to Nobel Prize winners.

The members of the Ivy League are:

  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • Princeton University
  • Columbia University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Brown University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Cornell University

Though its members have a reputation for academic excellence, the Ivy League isn’t technically an academic alliance at all – it’s an athletic conference. Officially formed in 1954, the primary purpose of the conference was originally to set shared ground-rules for intercollegiate football.

Over time, the Ivy League has gone on to acquire the academic reputation it enjoys today. This is partially because its members were already amongst the country’s best established universities (all but one pre-date the American Revolution).

It is also because intellectual merit is a founding principle of the league – one of the motivations behind its inception was to make sure sports didn’t take priority over academia. This meant all eight universities agreed not to offer athletic scholarships so that they only admitted the most academically qualified students – a rule that persists to this day.

In the near seven decades since it was founded, the Ivy League has become less known for its sporting success and more known for the quality of its research (and its alumni!). Eight of the nine current Supreme Court justices and every former US president in the last 40 years studied at an Ivy League university.

Why do your PhD at an Ivy League university?

Earning your PhD at an Ivy League institution is certainly a worthy ambition – you’ll have gained your doctorate at one of the oldest and most well-respected universities in the United States (if not the world). Six of the eight Ivy League schools rank in the top 20 universities worldwide according to the Times Higher Education 2023 World Rankings. The same number rank within the top 100 according to their research-specific score.

Ivy League Rankings 2024
University Overall ranking Research score
Harvard University 4 99.9
Princeton University 6 97.9
Yale University 10 94.9
University of Pennsylvania 16 89.7
Columbia University 17 89.7
Cornell University 20 88.7
Brown University =64 59.6
Dartmouth College =161 40.7
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Visit their website for more information.

Largely thanks to sizable donations from alumni and other benefactors, Ivy League schools are also able to offer some of the most well-funded PhD programmes across the globe. The eight members each have endowments ranging from approximately $5-30 billion. This means you’ll certainly benefit from excellent research facilities during your PhD!

Ivy League graduates also join an extensive alumni network. This will allow you to form lifelong connections that will be invaluable – whether or not you decide to pursue an academic career.

That said, it’s worth noting that none of these benefits are exclusive to the Ivy League. Of the top ten universities in the USA according to Times Higher Education, five are not members. Nobody would call into question that quality of education and research at non-Ivy institutions such as Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)!

When choosing where in the US to do your PhD, there are plenty more important factors to consider than whether a university belongs to a particular group. Are there faculty members in your department that share your research interests? What funding opportunities are available?

If an Ivy League university looks like it would be best suited to your personal research interests and aspirations, great! If not, there are plenty more fantastic options out there.

Learn more about PhD study in the USA

We cover everything you need to know about PhD study in the USA in our comprehensive guides, including universities, funding, visas and more.

PhD tuition fees at Ivy League universities

An Ivy League PhD guarantees a very high standard of education – but all that prestige comes at a price! You can expect to pay an average annual tuition fee of $48,405 for a PhD at an Ivy League university.

All eight members are all private universities – but their PhD tuition fees are still higher than the average private institution in the US (which charges around $26,621 per year).

Here’s an overview of the average PhD fees at each university:

Ivy League PhD Tuition Fees 2023
University Tuition fees
Harvard University $54,032 (reduced to $13,638 after two years)
Princeton University $59,710
Yale University $48,300
Columbia University $53,576
University of Pennsylvania $41,544
Cornell University $32,762
Brown University $65,656
Dartmouth College $63,684

In 1985, an admissions officer at Yale named Richard Moll listed eight public universities he considered to be of a comparable education standard to the Ivy League. He termed them the ‘Public Ivies’. They are:

The average annual fee for a PhD at a public university in the US is $12,394. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to an Ivy League doctorate, these universities are definitely worth considering!

PhD funding at Ivy League universities

Fees for PhD programmes at Ivy League universities may seem high – but the good news is that it’s rare for students to pay the full cost of their PhD. Ivy League schools provide generous funding packages for PhD students. In fact, many will even cover the full cost of your tuition, along with a stipend towards living costs. Some funding packages may include added benefits such as health insurance.

It’s actually very common for PhD students at Ivy League universities (and elsewhere in the US) to receive full coverage for their PhD costs. At Cornell University, for example, almost 97% of PhDs are fully funded through a combination of fellowships, assistantships and stipends.

We’ve produced a list of the funding opportunities available at each of the Ivy League universities below:

Ivy League PhD Funding in 2024
University Funding
Harvard University PhD Funding
Princeton University PhD Funding
Yale University PhD Funding
University of Pennsylvania PhD Funding
Columbia University PhD Funding
Cornell University PhD Funding
Brown University PhD Funding
Dartmouth College PhD Funding

You can find out more in our full guide to PhD fees and funding in the USA.

Applying for a PhD at an Ivy League university

It won’t come as any surprise that PhD programmes at Ivy League universities are very competitive. Acceptance rates for postgraduate programmes are generally under 10% and can be as low as 4%.

Applications are made directly to your chosen graduate programme. It’s worth noting that applying for a PhD in the US is very different to in the UK and many European countries. American PhDs are not pure research degrees and you’ll usually have to go through a taught coursework stage before you start writing your thesis. For this reason, you’ll often develop your research proposal during your programme.

To apply for a PhD at an Ivy League university, you’ll usually need a combination of the following:

  • Academic transcripts: The university will want to see a detailed breakdown of the grades you achieved during your previous degree(s). Because PhD programmes in the US effectively combine Masters and PhD study (some universities may even award a Masters part way through your PhD), it’s unlikely that a Masters will be required. However, it may be an advantage when applying to a competitive Ivy League school!
  • Academic CV/ Resume
  • Personal statement (sometimes referred to in the US as a ‘statement of purpose’)
  • Standardised test scores: Ivy League applicants are sometimes required to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Writing sample

Undergraduate and Masters programmes in the US are assessed using a system called Grade Point Average (GPA). Your university will usually calculate your GPA equivalent based on your academic transcript.

Ivy League universities generally do not set minimum GPA requirements; however, it is true that the average GPA for successful applicants is quite high. For example, the average GPA amongst successful PhD applicants at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering was 3.8 in 2021 (4.0 is the highest GPA you can achieve).

That said, your GPA won’t necessarily make or break your application. A PhD application has many elements – meaning there are plenty of opportunities to compensate for a lower GPA, whether through a stand-out personal statement or a glowing letter of recommendation.

Find out more about applying for a PhD in the USA.

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Last Updated: 08 January 2024